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JFK's Sister Rosemary Ended up with Mental Capacity of a Toddler at 23 & Needed Full-Time Care

Oyin Balogun
Sep 11, 2021
02:00 A.M.
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JFK's troubled sister, Rosemary, lost her ability to form coherent sentences after an operation prompted by her ambitious father went awry. She was 23 at the time, and she lost everything. JFK's dad later regretted his decision for the rest of his life.

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JFK's sister Rosemary Kennedy grew up with a desire to please her father, Joseph Kennedy, but in the end, he became the bane of her existence.

Joseph Kennedy made a grave mistake in handling his daughter Rosemary's life, but rather than acknowledge it, he kept it a secret, even from family members. It became his greatest regret.

A picture of Rosemary Kennedy before and after her lobotomy | Photo: twitter.com/DailyMail  Getty Images

A picture of Rosemary Kennedy before and after her lobotomy | Photo: twitter.com/DailyMail Getty Images

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Rosemary was a little dull, but she learned to communicate, had people who adored her, and even kept a diary that chronicled some of her adventures, including a trip to the White House to see the then President, Franklin D. Roosevelt.

She was a dutiful and loving daughter, but because of her mental problems, Joseph feared she would embarrass the family, so he took steps.

Those steps cost his daughter everything. To understand what drove Joseph's decision, let's dive into Rosemary's childhood, for that is where it all began.

Joseph P. Kennedy with his daughter Rosemary Kennedy in London. | Photo: Getty Images

Joseph P. Kennedy with his daughter Rosemary Kennedy in London. | Photo: Getty Images

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SHE WAS BORN DIFFERENT

Rosemary's birth differed from those of her siblings because something unprecedented happened in the delivery room. Rosemary was her mother, Rose's third child. When Rose went into labor with her, the available nurse was uncomfortable with delivering a child in the absence of a physician.

The nurse reportedly had the training necessary to undertake the task, but she was too reluctant, so when she saw that the doctor's arrival had been delayed, she tried to stall the birth.

Even though Rose's heart broke at the deterioration, she let her remain at the convent.

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Rose Kennedy with her daughters, Kathleen and Rosemary, leaving their London house. | Photo: Getty Images

Rose Kennedy with her daughters, Kathleen and Rosemary, leaving their London house. | Photo: Getty Images

First, she asked Rose to hold her legs together tightly, and when that didn't work, she took matters into her own hands by grabbing hold of the baby's head and forcing it back into the birth canal.

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She did it for two long hours, and it caused irreparable damage to Rosemary's brain; this was detected as she got older and Rose was among the first to make the observation.

Rosemary Kennedy with her sister Jean, and brother John, circa 1940. | Photo: Getty Images

Rosemary Kennedy with her sister Jean, and brother John, circa 1940. | Photo: Getty Images

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The family tried to keep Rosemary involved in their daily lives by taking her on outings and making sure she was asked to dance at different parties. However, as she got older, she started throwing tantrums that sometimes turned violent.

Within the walls of her home, she reportedly acted wild. She was comfortable screaming, cursing, and lashing out at anyone who tried to thwart her will.

At the same time, she was attracting male attention thanks to her attractive physique. This started to worry her father, so he decided to take action.

The Kennedy Family in London, circa 1937. | Photo: Getty Images

The Kennedy Family in London, circa 1937. | Photo: Getty Images

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AN ACTION HE CAME TO REGRET

Joseph started worrying about her because she was turning heads thanks to her lovely physique. Experts at the time had judged that the changes being observed in her were triggered by the sexual changes that marked her transformation into womanhood. That scared her father more.

Because of her mental state, he worried that men might easily take advantage of her, which could lead to her getting pregnant. In addition, an unwanted pregnancy in the family could damage his son John's political future.

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In November 1941, when his wife traveled, Joseph ordered Rosemary to undergo a lobotomy — an experimental procedure carried out on mentally ill patients to make them more docile.

The surgery did not go well, and Rosemary emerged with barely any cognitive function. Joseph had her housed in a psychiatric facility in New York for about seven years before moving her to Saint Coletta.

He kept knowledge of the operation from his wife and other kids. His wife was told that Rosemary had gotten out of control and needed to be put in an institution. Rose was also forbidden from visiting for her good and Rosemary's. Joseph never saw her again after that, and neither did Rose.

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A portrait of the Kennedy family in their living room, Bronxville, New York, 1938. | Photo: Getty Images

A portrait of the Kennedy family in their living room, Bronxville, New York, 1938. | Photo: Getty Images

THE BIG REVEAL

Joseph kept his wife in the dark for years: some believe it was to protect her, while others think it was a selfish move to avoid his wife's anger.

It was not until he suffered a stroke in 1961 that Rose took it upon herself to see her daughter. That was when she discovered her husband's long-kept secret.

Rosemary barely had the capacity to speak anymore, and even though Rose's heart broke at the deterioration, she let her remain at the convent, where she continued to live in obscurity.

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