High Hopes and Sad Realities

What would Jack and Jackie make of the street scene outside the Oregon Historical Society in Portland, Ore. where there’s currently an exhibit devoted to the 35th president of the United States?

President Kennedy and the First Lady might be amused by the casual under-dressing in public, the exposed flesh and the tattoos.

They would probably accept a panhandler or two as part of city life. They might even tolerate the sight and sound of a wild-eyed man clawing at his face and keening.

Had they walked a few blocks west of the Oregon Historical Society, though, they might have reacted in surprise at the sight of two camping tents. Who camps out in the middle of a city?

That, Mr. President, is where you house the mentally ill when you can’t afford a Kennedy cottage with full-time staff.

In honor of what would have been the year of John F. Kennedy’s 100th birthday, the Oregon Historical Society is showing a special exhibit about his life and legacy called “High Hopes: The Journey of John F. Kennedy.”

The exhibit highlights his accomplishments, such as the Peace Corps, civil rights and space exploration. There is little mention of another legacy that lives on in the streets of America: In October 1963, Kennedy signed the Mental Retardation Facilities and Community Mental Health Centers Construction Act.

This legislation, in retrospect, delivered high hopes that the mentally ill and mentally retarded could lead full and independent lives with enough funding research, education, vocational-training, appropriate medical care and community support. It envisioned the mentally disabled leaving institutions and returning to their communities.

Kennedy might have never turned his attention to this cause were it not for what happened to his sister Rosemary.

She was the eldest daughter and third child of Rose and Joe Kennedy’s nine children. Because of a medical mistake (even the wealthy can receive poor health care), Rosemary was deprived of oxygen when she was born.

She was slow to take her first steps and learn to talk. In her teens, her reading and writing comprehension seemed stuck at age 10. In photographs Rosemary has the famous Kennedy smile, but she could not keep up with her outgoing, competitive siblings. Eventually, even her younger siblings took on the role as her babysitter.

When she reached her early 20’s, her father was grooming his two older sons, Joe, Jr. and Jack for promising political futures. He worried that his increasingly erratic daughter with the mind of a child, who had bouts of violent tantrums, would do something to embarrass the family.

“Rosemary’s striking beauty – lovely features, a broad, perfect smile, and a buxom figure – continued to attract men’s attention. … (I)t was Rosemary’s potential and physically obvious sexuality that her parents found dangerous,” writes Kate Clifford Larson in the well-researched and annotated “Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter.”

Joe Kennedy, Sr., had access to the best specialists of the day. Two of them, Drs. Walter Freeman and James Watts on the faculty at George Washington University Medical School, had been featured in the news for their use of prefrontal lobotomy as a potential solution for mentally ill patients. The procedure involved cutting connective tissue linking the frontal lobes to the rest of the brain.

Joe ordered the procedure for his 23-year-old daughter.

From Larson’s book: “Watts later recalled that with Rosemary he followed the procedure that he normally used with his other patients: ‘I made a surgical incision in the brain through the skull. It was near the front. It was on both sides. We just made a small incision, no more than an inch.’ Through the openings on the sides of Rosemary’s head, Watts inserted a specially made quarter-inch-wide flexible spatula into her cranium near the frontal lobes, turning and scraping as he moved deeper into her brain. Freeman asked Rosemary to sing a song, recite common verses, tell him stories about herself, count and repeat the months of the year. … Watts claimed Rosemary complied with their requests. … Encouraged, Watts boldly cut more of the nerve endings from her frontal lobes to the rest of her brain … she became incoherent.”

Rosemary was left almost completely disabled. She couldn’t walk or talk. The photos in Larson’s book show the transformation.  Once a beautiful young woman who could laugh, dance and enjoy life, albeit in a limited way compared to her illustrious brothers and sisters, Rosemary was reduced to a crumpled-up woman who couldn’t care for herself.

Larson describes how Rosemary now posed an even bigger PR disaster than her pre-lobotomy days. The Kennedy daughter disappeared from the family, living for a time at the Craig House, a private psychiatric facility north of New York City “where the wealthy hid away their disabled, addicted, and seriously mentally ill family members.”

But Craig House’s location near New York City raised the risk of discovery as Jack Kennedy’s political career was taking off in Congress. Rosemary was eventually moved to a Catholic facility, the Saint Coletta School in Wisconsin.

“Joe paid for a special one-story brick ranch-style cottage to be built for Rosemary, which also housed two specially trained nuns who could live with her full-time. Informally named the Kennedy Cottage. … It would become Rosemary’s home for nearly 60 years,” Larson writes.

The first time John Kennedy secretly visited Rosemary post-lobotomy was in 1958 while campaigning for a second term as U.S. senator from Massachusetts. He was shocked.

“Confronted with the first-hand knowledge of Rosemary’s condition, Jack experienced a transformed sense of responsibility toward disabilities legislation,” Larson writes.

During his presidential campaign, little was said about Rosemary. According to one report in the New York Times, she was in a nursing home in Wisconsin. The story did not give a reason.

An article in Time magazine put a much more positive spin on the situation: Rosemary was the victim of spinal meningitis. Her father was quoted as saying he thought it was best to bring it out in the open because “almost everyone I know has a relative or good friend who has the problem.”

Time Magazine declared that “Rosemary’s misfortune has resulted in the major Kennedy philanthropy, which is the good fortune of the mentally retarded… .”

Two years after he became president, Kennedy signed the Mental Retardation Facilities and Community Mental Health Centers Construction Act as part of his New Frontier. It was hailed as a new way to provide mental health services that would allow people who were institutionalized in large state hospitals to move back into their communities.

Did anybody consider whether these institutionalized patients were wanted back in their communities, or how they would be taken care of?

At the time, federal funds were going to be provided for community centers. The idea was that patients could be treated while living at home. Again, did their “homes” want them? Could their “homes” handle them?

Very few people have the resources of the Kennedys, who could simply hire help and build cottages.

At the same time that Kennedy was promoting his New Frontier in mental health, psychiatric professionals believed they were on the brink of pharmaceutical breakthroughs, that drugs were going to cure mental illness.

They were right that we were about to have a drug revolution, but not what they had in mind.

While Rosemary was born with a mental disability through no fault of her own, we now extend the term “mentally ill” to describe men and women who induce their own “mental illness” with drugs.

Last week, a radio report on the latest iteration to replace the Affordable Care Act, made a casual reference to $45 billion being designated “for the opioid epidemic,” as if it were a plague we have no control over. How much of that $45 billion could America spend on something else if people stopped introducing themselves to heroin and meth?

The failure of John F. Kennedy’s legislation on behalf of the mentally ill was blamed in part on his assassination. But he could have never anticipated the changes awaiting America. They would have arrived whether or not he had died in office.

Life is unfair, Kennedy once said. The comment came at a press conference as he was sending more American troops to Vietnam, including some Army reservists who didn’t want to go.

“There is always inequity in life,” Kennedy said. “Some men are killed in a war, and some men are wounded, and some men never leave the country, and some men are stationed in the Antarctic and some are stationed in San Francisco. It’s very hard in military or in personal life to assure complete equality. Life is unfair.”

Now here we are living at a time when every public agency it seems has an Office of Equity.

What do we owe the mentally ill? Compassion and some suitable options. Humane, smaller facilities for the non-dangerous who cannot care for themselves; out-patient help for those who can live on their own with medical guidance; prison-like but humane facilities for those who are dangerous and cannot be free.

In 1984 – more than three decades ago – The New York Times laid out in detail where America went wrong in its release of mental patients. I’ve linked to this story before, because it’s one of the best at explaining how a politician’s good intentions, like Kennedy’s, can be derailed by reality and incompetence. Revisiting history often shows how wrong the experts of the day can be.

The Oregon Historical Society exhibit on Kennedy runs through Nov. 12. Some reviews of the show have revealed their own high hopes that the former president might inspire a new generation of idealists.

What we need is a new generation of realists.

– Pamela Fitzsimmons

From the Archives:

Blue Hours and Alien Boys


  • I went to this exhibit and liked the fact there was nothing about “Camelot.” I know his widow wanted people to remember Kennedy a certain way. He didn’t need the Camelot myth. His quote about life being unfair, none of recent presidents had his eloquence. Obama couldn’t touch him. I liked the personal notes and letters in the exhibit. We froget our famous leaders are human. Kennedy’s father might’ve beeen the Trump of his day, a ruthless bastard.

  • Pamela wrote:

    The letters between Kennedy and members of his family are fascinating – especially when you compare them to what passes for communication these days, what with email, texting, social media, etc.

    The one piece of correspondence I remember from the exhibit was a letter that Kennedy wrote home when he was at boarding school (about junior high age, I believe). He was not doing very well in Latin.

    “I don’t want to flop,” he wrote.

    It has been a long time since I have seen the word “flop” used in that context. Today people seem more inclined to say, “I don’t want to fuck up.”

    Kennedy and his siblings were wealthy and had all the advantages. But their parents demanded a lot from them. They didn’t shirk the challenges of their times. Neither Kennedy nor his older brother (who died in WWII) used their name to avoid combat.

  • Retd. teacher wrote:

    We went to this exhibit and LOVED IT! I’m going back again and spend more time reading the correspondence. The exhibit’s free if you live in Portland.

    Like the other commenter said, the old letters and notes are the best. Somewhere there’s a future president whose youthful emails will be lost to history.

    I’ll have to give the “Rosemary” book a try. I always thought Rose Kennedy was more interesting than her famous daughter-in-law.

  • Pamela wrote:

    “Youthful emails” from a future president might be better off lost and forgotten. They can’t come back and bite a candidate later if some group is offended by the contents.

    When I was in a checkout line a few weeks ago, I leafed through a “People” magazine with John F. Kennedy Jr. and his wife on the cover. I guess it was the anniversary of their plane crash. I skimmed the contents and noticed a reference to John Jr. saying Princess Diana had “great legs.” Whoa. They’re both dead now so no need to apologize for objectification.

    In the book about Rosemary Kennedy, there’s an excerpt from a letter that Rose Kennedy often wrote to the parents of disabled children who contacted her with their own stories. Rose didn’t offer flowery reassurances:

    “None of us can understand the ways of Almighty God. … He has sent you a retarded (son or daughter), He took away my three stalwart sons — young men, well equipped and eager to devote their time and talents to His work on earth. And He left me my handicapped daughter, mentally and physically unable to help herself or anyone else.”

    Rose’s advice was to “resolve to be strong and not be a burden to our family and our friends. If we keep busy mentally and physically, we do not have time to dwell on what might have been… .”

    That’s the kind of honesty that could get a politician’s family in trouble today.

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