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Rosemary Kennedy’s life, her challenges to her lobotomy and beyond.
Rosemary Kennedy’s life, her challenges to her lobotomy and beyond.David Carmack

Few 20th-century political dynasties have inspired such scrutiny and spilled ink as the Kennedys, and there are few fresh angles from which to view their prominence in American political and cultural life. However, one Kennedy family member, Rosemary, has remained mostly hidden, her life unexplored.

In her sturdy, no-frills biography of this forgotten Kennedy, Kate Clifford Larson — who has written biographies of abolitionist Harriet Tubman and Lincoln assassination coconspirator Mary Surratt — pulls Rosemary from the shadows. The author's pace is methodical, and her just-the-facts approach occasionally becomes tedious, but she succeeds in providing a well-rounded portrait of a woman who, until now, has never been viewed in full.

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Rosemary, her parents' third child, born in 1918 amid the global influenza epidemic, suffered early on from intellectual and developmental disabilities. Her inability to meet certain early milestones "made her mother slightly anxious," an assessment that the author demonstrates to be a gross understatement. As Joseph and Rose Kennedy climbed "to the pinnacle of Boston's newly established Irish social, political, and economic elite," Rosemary's disabilities became a source of embarrassment, and her parents did everything in their power to essentially hide their daughter from public view.

" 'Gossip and slander and denunciation and even vilification are part of the price one pays for being in public life,' Rose later wrote. For the Kennedys, this maxim would hold true for generations to come," writes Larson, who makes good use of Rosemary's letters and other primary sources. After her father made a fortune in the stock market and weathered the Great Depression better than nearly all of his peers, his burgeoning political career became the sole focus of the entire family.

Unfortunately, a mentally disabled child did not fit the plan. The intellectual and social development of the other siblings took precedence, and Rosemary was shuttled among a series of convents, group homes, and other places where she was warehoused with other "mental defectives."

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On the whole, Rosemary remains front and center in Larson's straightforward, chronological narrative, a testament to the author's desire to flesh out her subject's largely untold story. However, she does fade away for pages at a time as Larson chronicles the events in the lives of the other Kennedys, which is mostly understandable given the glamour and high-profile machinations of the rest of the family. What emerges throughout the book is the family's callous disregard for Rosemary's needs, an attitude that reached its peak in 1941, when Joseph made the decision to allow his daughter to undergo a lobotomy, a procedure that was still in its infancy and unproven in its effectiveness.

Though Rosemary had not caused any major embarrassment for the family, her parents were worried about not just her lack of intellectual ability, but also her burgeoning sexuality, an element that Larson only touches on but that caused her by-the-book parents no lack of anxiety.

"Rosemary would emerge from the lobotomy almost completely disabled," writes Larson. "She could no longer walk or talk. It would take months of physical therapy and constant care before she would be able to move around." At this point, Rosemary required 24-hour care, and the family sent her to the St. Coletta School for Exceptional Children, where she lived until her death. "As this wealthy, glamorous, and now politically powerful Kennedy generation's influence was growing," writes Larson, "Rosemary's whereabouts and activities posted a special challenge."

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Larson effectively shows how most of the Kennedys failed to meet that challenge, either ignoring Rosemary or pushing her out of the light in an effort to maintain the façade of a "normal" family. Ultimately, only Eunice Kennedy (eventually Shriver), who went on to found the Special Olympics, comes off as fully compassionate. The other Kennedys, it seems, were too preoccupied with the family's outward legacy to properly accommodate the needs of a daughter who was unable "to take full advantage of the opportunities afforded [her] by their rich and demanding parents."

Certainly, Kennedy compleatists will relish Larson's fleshed-out portrait of Rosemary, and readers interested in the changing attitudes toward the mentally disabled will find plenty to both inform and enrage.

ROSEMARY: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter

By Kate Clifford Larson

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 302 pp., illustrated, $27


Eric Liebetrau, the managing editor and nonfiction editor of Kirkus Reviews, can be reached at eliebetrau@kirkus.com.