Thursday, May 31, 2018

The Other Kennedy

There are so many books about the Kennedys -- a handful each about Jack and Bobby, at least one about the ill-fated Kathleen, and even a tear-jerker about poor Rosemary. I'm sure that Ted Kennedy will soon have his share of biographies, but meanwhile you can find at least one book written about his rise and fall. However, the other Kennedy sisters have always lived in the shadow of their more famous siblings, and they always seem to get lumped together in people's minds, when they think of them at all.

That's why I was so excited to see Eunice: The Kennedy Who Changed the World (Eileen McNamara) on the new nonfiction shelf this month. Born at a time when nice Catholic girls did some service work and got married, Eunice carved out a mission for herself and may have done more for America than either of her brothers.

Tall, thin, sickly (like Jack, she also had Addison's Disease), Eunice didn't let anything stop her work and advocacy for the developmentally disabled. Referred to as the "mentally retarded" in those days, children born with any mental disabilities were often left in hospitals, relegated to institutions, or hidden away at home. It was not unusual for pediatricians to recommend that parents "put them elsewhere" and forget about them, for the good of the rest of the family. Those who remember the Geraldo expose of the infamous Willowbrook Institution will know that these facilities were mere holding pens; disease, filth, and abuse were common, and residents often died young from preventable illnesses and conditions.

Eunice's closest sibling, Rosemary, was the catalyst for her journey as an advocate and activist for the mentally disabled. It's still unclear as to what her level of impairment was, and what may have been the cause of her disability, but it's common knowledge that Rosemary was "different." Educated separately from the rest of her siblings for most of her childhood, her family tried to train her to function in society in such a way that it was not obvious that she was lacking. By the time she reached young adulthood, however, it was clear that the family's public profile would soon make it obvious that this particular family member was not quite like the others. Excitable behavior, tantrums, and outbursts became more frequent. Joe Kennedy, her father, made the decision to have her undergo a frontal lobotomy, intending that the surgery would regulate her behavior. A controversial procedure even at the time, it was not without risk -- and it went horribly wrong. Rosemary emerged from the surgery without most of her faculties, and was relegated to a care home for the rest of her father's life, only to emerge when Eunice brought her closer to home after Joe's death.

Through her close relationship with Rosemary as a child, and her exposure to the developmentally disabled, Eunice grew to realize that here was a whole population that was being shamefully neglected. The book documents her work as an advocate and activist for this population, but most importantly highlights her personal work with developmentally disabled children. She allowed these children into her life and into her home. Her day camp for DD children was actually run at her home; she got into the swimming pool to teach children to swim. The Special Olympics, her brainchild, still thrives today.

Anyone who reads this book will agree that if Eunice had lived in another time, she might have been president -- not her brother.

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