by HEATHER MCROBIE
I once read that Nora Ephron knew the identity of Deep Throat from the start of the Watergate scandal, and would go round cheerfully telling people at D.C. dinner parties, but nobody listened because Nora was just the brownie-baking novelist wife of Carl Bernstein. So let it be a lesson to investigative journalists and modern historians alike: always listen to the clever, neglected wife.
Still perhaps the twentieth century is best understood not through neglected wives but through the damaged daughters of privilege. This is the coded manifesto of Jean Stein’s biography of Edie Sedgwick, Edie: American Girl. That there was something about Sedgwick’s power and powerlessness so closely bound together that refracted the contradictions of the period as a whole: to be both an heiress and be abused by your father.
And that Sedgwick’s artificial doll-ishness and supposed built-in self-destructiveness made it alright for Warhol and Dylan to variously use and abuse her and not feel bad about it afterwards, like they might’ve done if she had been a good ‘authentic’ woman, like Joan Baez. (Spoiler alert: a lot of good progressive men of the period didn’t feel too bad abusing the good ‘authentic’ women either, but there seemed – there seems – to be a particular delight in some quarters in ripping the spoiled gamine girl to pieces, as if in punishment for her unearned privilege). Patti Smith maybe understood this later, in her poem to Edie: I never got a chance with her/ though I really asked her/ down deep/ where you do/ really dream.
In cinemas Natalie Portman in all her Harvard-and-multilingual pedigree has been playing at Jackie Kennedy – iconic mourner, New England heiress, the Good Wife. This last decade television has turned to the emotional range – the masochism; the complicity – required of the wives of politicians. Maybe because it was the decade in which Michelle Obama’s poise and Hillary’s presidential campaigns together ripped at the seams the medieval absurdity of the institution of the First Lady. But all this daydreaming and reworking of the Kennedy-era Camelot in the 2010s ignores the fact that the most interesting Kennedy wasn’t even Jackie. It was Rosemary – the damaged daughter, the silent sister, who never got to perform the glossy, demeaning role of public wife.
Rosemary Kennedy was born in 1918, with two older brothers and a surname already heavy with association. From early childhood, her doctors and parents expressed concerns at her ‘developmental delays’, and at the age of 11 she was sent to a boarding school for ‘intellectually challenged’ students. Though observers in her teens found her charming, the Kennedy parents worried about her ‘unruly’ behaviour, particularly after the family returned to America in 1940, when Joe Kennedy’s ambassadorship to Great Britain came to an end.
It seems the parents feared that Rosemary’s ‘disability’ – acting out, occasional violent outbursts of frustration, seizures upon her return to America – would hold back the other siblings, as if mental illness was a contagion. (Even if it is, Google Wittgenstein’s family tree and tell me a genealogy of mental malaise stops a brilliant brain). So in 1941, at her father’s command, a doctor drilled two holes in her head. Rosemary was told to sing songs as the doctor drilled; he stopped when she fell silent. And she fell silent. For the rest of her life she walked with a limp, and never fully regained the use of one arm. The prefrontal lobotomy the doctor had performed on her – a contested surgery, even at the time – certainly stopped any ‘unruly’ behaviour from Rosemary, but with it her speech, and her ability to properly express herself.
You want to fight her corner, of course, say that all contemporary accounts of Rosemary’s behaviour really don’t make her sound crazy by any normal standards, but just a girl who climbed out of her window to kiss boys in an era that still pathologised female desire. The feminist reading of women and madness sometimes requires the Bovary versus Karenina test. The test goes – ask yourself honestly, was it the stifling forces acting upon her, or would she have been a bit fucked up anyway? Anna Karenina passes and Emma Bovary doesn’t, because that’s the spectrum of humanity and patriarchy as a power structure can coexist with people sometimes just still being people in all their unpleasantness, their disappointing-ness. You get the same ending either way, but one of them was avoidable and one of them would have been like that anyway.
The truth is I have no idea if Rosemary Kennedy would have been like that anyway. But the question chews at me. Kate Clifford Larson’s biography of Rosemary offers some clues: how her siblings were impatient when she struggled to keep up with them, how her parents’ fears that men might sexually prey upon her vulnerability seemed to come less from a genuine concern for Rosemary’s safety than worry that the resultant scandal would harm the sibling’s political prospects.
So more than outrage and sadness at the thought of a young woman brutalised, as they’ve so often been, for her human desires – you want to argue, God, it wasn’t Rosemary, it was the others. Look at the photos of Rosemary with her brothers. (If you want to pathologise anyone’s behaviour, run through the list of the public and private acts of the male Kennedys.) Rosemary had a non-freakish IQ and no desire to remake the free world in her vision; you want to say – hey, Rosemary was just fine, but maybe they should’ve lobotomised the rest of them. Except you can’t say that, given how everything turned out, with the rest of them.
Rosemary Kennedy never recovered from the surgery on her brain, and was sent to a series of permanent care facilities; her father stopped visiting her after several years, while Larson’s biography describes how, after the surgery, her mother ‘couldn’t face her.’ It was Eunice Kennedy Shriver – the other sister – who eventually took over her care, and, when her brother became president, she lobbied him (to speak of unnatural behaviour – to have to lobby a brother) to improve national services for the disabled. Rosemary died aged 86, the way that normal people do – no assassinations and no great fanfare.
Larson’s biography claims that the matriarch of the Kennedys – Rose – blamed her husband for what happened to her daughter, but nonetheless toed the family line and colluded in keeping Rosemary out of sight, purportedly both for the sake of her sons’ political careers and to protect her vulnerable daughter. Rosemary isn’t just more interesting than Jackie, she’s more haunting than Rosemary’s Baby. Because this is the horror story the twentieth century’s Rosemary tells you through her silence: that those who seek to lobotomize you will later say they did it out of love.
Heather McRobie is the senior contributor to This Recording. You can find her twitter here and her tumblr here. She is a writer living in Tel Aviv. She last wrote in these pages about Tahrir Square. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.