Rosemary Kennedy and St. Coletta School for Exceptional Children of Wisconsin
The Little Known And Sometimes Forgotten Kennedy...
Back when our boys were in college, from 2004 through 2008, one of our sons worked at a very special place. He worked at St. Coletta of Wisconsin in one of the homes located on this special campus for developmentally disabled people. St. Coletta was once known as St. Coletta School For Exceptional Children. Even earlier than that, it had been called "St. Coletta Institute For Backward Youth." My, how times changed, and how people's attitudes and perceptions of special needs people have also changed.
Not too long after he began to work there assisting clients (as they were called), he came home one weekend and told me that the most famous resident of St. Coletta had passed away... and that she was a member of the Kennedy family. This sparked my curiosity about Kennedy family history, and it made me wonder why I hadn't heard about this. I remember his stories about Rosemary Kennedy and about how some of the workers there had actually met members of the Kennedy family.
Since he started working there in the Fall of 2004, and Rosemary Kennedy passed away on January 7, 2005 at the age of 86, he never personally met her. He did know where she had lived on the campus though and had heard stories from other workers.
Some Background on Rosemary and the Kennedy Family
From doing some research, I found out that Rosemary Kennedy was born in Massachusetts on September 13, 1918. She was the third child and she was also the first daughter to join the family for Rose Elizabeth Kennedy and Joseph Patrick Kennedy. She was named Rose Marie, since that was also her mother's name, but was known for most of her life as Rosemary. To the Kennedy family, she was called "Rosie." She was born just a year after her very famous brother, the former President of the United States John F. Kennedy.
Rosemary didn't seem to catch on to things as quickly as others in the family. In a family of super high achievers, with IQ's of around 130, it was estimated that Rosemary's IQ hovered around 90. For an adult to truly be mentally challenged, usually the standard IQ measurement is 70 to 75. But in a super high achieving family such as this, she was considered to be slow. There was also a theory that her "slowness" was due to circumstances surrounding her birth. It was said that her birth was "delayed" by a nurse due to the doctor arriving late. It was also thought that she was deprived of oxygen for a period of time during her birth.
When Rosemary was 15 years old, she was sent to the Sacred Heart Convent in Rhode Island for education, where two nuns along with a special teacher worked with her in a separate classroom. She was able to read, write, do math problems including multiplication and division... she just wasn't quite up to the level of the other Kennedy's. She felt like she was a huge disappointment to her parents, whom she had always wanted so much to please. She put forth amazing effort and grew increasingly frustrated as she entered adolescence.
She was a blossoming young woman whose life up until the age of 22 was filled with special occasions such as tea dances, outings to the opera, fittings for dresses, and other social occasions. She was able to write about things happening to her in her life, in a diary that was later released in the 1980s. A biographer that wrote about Rosemary described her as "beautiful, with a gorgeous smile" and a very sweet personality that endeared her to just about everyone she met.
How did it go from that description of Rosemary Kennedy, to a life made terribly wrong which required her to be institutionalized for the rest of her natural life? As it turned out, she became increasingly frustrated in her late teenage years with her inability to achieve as much as the rest of the Kennedy's. She had outbursts that were thought later to be due to frustration, as well as possibly being exacerbated by hormonal changes in early adulthood. It seems that the "outbursts" were undesirable to the family and they felt that something needed to be done to stop them.
She was still being educated in the convent. Along with the sporadic outbursts, it seemed she would decide to leave the convent at night. The family feared that she might become pregnant or otherwise embarrass them. So in 1941, when she was only 23 years old and in the prime of her life, doctors told her father about a new surgical procedure that would drastically calm her outbursts and curb the family's embarrassment.
The Lobotomy Procedure and the Effects it Had on Rosemary's Life
Why in the world Joseph Kennedy ever agreed to this procedure has defied understanding for years. The procedure was experimental in nature, called a frontal lobotomy. When it was successful, the person would become meek and more calm. This was a neuro-surgical procedure and from what I've read in the doctor's detailed description of the procedure, it was performed on Rosemary with a piece of equipment resembling "a butter knife." At this time, few lobotomies had ever been performed on anyone.
And you think that's crazy, the procedure was further described as making a surgical incision near the front of her skull, then this "butter knife" was used by "swinging it up and down" to cut brain tissue. She was partially awake during the procedure. They would ask her to recite things that should have been easy for her to recite from memory and when she became incoherent, they stopped.
After the botched surgical procedure, Rosemary lived for a few years in a private psychiatric hospital in New York, then eventually was transferred to St. Coletta of Wisconsin in 1949. There she was placed into a home and had a car available to her (which of course, had to be driven by someone else) and she did have a dog as well. It was a private home, built just for Rosemary and she had two nurses to care for her around the clock. There was also a lady that would sometimes work with her to help her create ceramic pieces. She was incontinent and stared at walls for hours. This was a place for adults that would require lifelong care, which Rosemary now did require.
For the most part, she was detached from the rest of her family, although some members did make an effort to become closer to her later in life. Her Mother did visit her, as did her sister Eunice. From everything I've read, her mother was away when the botched lobotomy was done, and her father never did visit her during the time that she lived at St. Coletta. Her father did, however, send a letter to St. Coletta in 1958 saying that he was grateful to them for caring for Rosemary allowing the rest of the family to "go about their life's work."
A lot of speculation was done saying that probably the reason for the lobotomy was not that she was "slow" but that it was more likely that she had psychiatric problems, partly due to frustration over not being able to keep up with this high achieving family. In those days, any kind of psychiatric problem or "slowness" was considered to be shameful and would normally be hidden from the public.
I am very glad that things have changed quite a bit since those days. I feel terrible for Rosemary, however. To be imprisoned in that way, inside of a body that was rendered incapacitated by a terrible and archaic "surgical" procedure. I think this was a travesty. I'm so thankful that there is much more awareness in the present day of intellectual disabilities. I'm also grateful for wonderful organizations like the Special Olympics which was created in part by members of the Kennedy family (to their credit).
And I know my son enjoyed the time he spent working at St. Colletta with these very special people. They do wonderful things there in such an outstanding, caring and loving way... I used to tell my son I thought he had the patience of a saint sometimes. And I do remember the day he brought two of his clients over to our home to meet us. What a wonderful experience and one that I will remember always.
He always tried to get his clients out in public so he'd take them to stores to shop, to a swimming pool, and just away from their routines to give them experiences that he thought they would enjoy. And of course, I do remember the time he came home and said that Rosemary had passed away at a local hospital near St. Coletta in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin.
I guess we can only hope on the day she passed away that she "flew up to heaven" on the angel's wings, and is now free from the prison she was in for most of her life here on earth. And I do believe there is a special place in heaven for intellectually and physically challenged people and also for those that work closely with them to care for them, to help them to live better lives while they are here. It certainly is not a job that everyone could do!
About the Author
I have been a freelance writer since 2010 for websites like HubPages, Textbroker, Verblio and Constant Content. I was also a newspaper writer for a high school newspaper, and I wrote magazine articles for a country music magazine called Neon Rainbow from September 2001 through June of 2003.
© 2012 KathyH