The Kennedys and Disability Rights in America

New Book Illuminates a Remarkable Life

December 11, 2015 by Clare Stober

The book cover for Rosemary The Hidden Kennedy Daughter which gives insight into the disability rights movement in the USEvery now and then along comes a book that changes our understanding of history by shedding new light on familiar themes. For example, we think we know the story of the Kennedy family and its place in U.S. history. And we think we understand how our attitudes to disabilities have evolved over the years in our country. But take a moment and read the following statement carefully, spoken in 2007 by Eunice Kennedy Shriver about her sister Rosemary:

I believe Rosemary’s rejection had far more to do with the brilliance of [my brother’s] Presidency than anyone understands. Yes, he was our country’s greatest champion of what we used to call “mental retardation.” To this day, his legacy of innovation [on behalf of the disabled] remains unmatched in American history. But beyond the specific work he did for people with intellectual disabilities, I believe it was Rosemary’s influence that sensitized him. Remarkably, I think I can say that not one author among the thousands who have written about him has understood what it was really like to be a brother of a person with intellectual disability. And tonight, I want to say what I have never said before: more than any one single individual, Rosemary made the difference.

Or take this statement, spoken by Eunice’s son Anthony Shriver:

The interest Rosemary sparked in my family towards people with special needs will one day go down as the greatest accomplishment that any Kennedy has made on a global basis.

Remarkable statements, both. To understand them, you need to read Rosemary: the Hidden Kennedy Daughter. Rosemary was the third child of Joseph and Rose Kennedy, progenitors of one of America’s most glamorous and powerful families from the 1920s well into the 1990s.

Drawing on major new sources, the author Kate Clifford Larson illuminates a remarkable life, beginning with Rosemary’s difficult birth (the midwife made a disastrously ill-advised decision to try to delay the birth until the doctor arrived), her parents’ discovery that she was “mentally retarded,” and her father’s secret decision to have his daughter undergo a lobotomy in a tragic attempt to control her increasingly erratic and troublesome behavior.

By turns heartbreaking, poignant, and horrifying, Rosemary’s life had a profound impact on her siblings—and not only JFK but Robert, Ted, and Eunice; it’s safe to say that her intellectual disability influenced some of the greatest legislative advances in the area of disability rights in our country. Anyone who wants to understand how the U.S. evolved on this issue—and how change happens—should read this book.

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