The Story of John F. Kennedy’s Sister Rosemary Kennedy
A local author’s memoir explores her unusual friendship with John F. Kennedy’s mentally impaired sister.
As a child, Pleasant Hill author Elizabeth Koehler-Pentacoff forged an unlikely friendship with a member of the country’s most glamorous family, the Kennedys. Rosemary Kennedy, John F. Kennedy’s sister, had a history of learning difficulties and violent mood swings. When she was 23, her father decided she should undergo a lobotomy against the family’s wishes.
Severely impaired by the procedure, she was eventually sent to live in a home for the mentally disabled, where Koehler-Pentacoff’s aunt, a nun, became a caregiver. The home was just a few miles away from where Koehler-Pentacoff grew up, and from the age of four, she visited Rosemary frequently, forming a lifelong bond.
In The Missing Kennedy: Rosemary Kennedy and the Secret Bonds of Four Women, Koehler-Pentacoff sheds light on the dark history of Rosemary’s mental illness. The memoir is now a New York Times best-seller and has drawn international interest.
We talked to Koehler-Pentacoff about the discoveries she made while researching the Kennedys, having her book on the cover of People magazine, and why Rosemary’s story continues to have meaning today.
Q: How has the response been to the book?
A: It’s been phenomenal. I figured it would be a little book. It’s taken off beyond the publisher’s expectations. I’m hearing they’re speaking about the book in churches and schools. I want people to continue to talk about mental illness—and empathy.
Q: What was it like to have your book featured on the cover of People magazine?
A: I remember the People reporter said, “Well, your phone is going to ring off the hook.” She said, “You’re the only one to have this intimate relationship.” It was like building blocks: First, I was in People; then, I’m on Inside Edition; then, TV stations are calling; and then, the BBC is calling.
Rosemary’s situation is so unique, and people want to know what really happened. It’s scary to think that if some of our loved ones with mental illness had lived years ago, they, too, could have had a lobotomy. Lobotomies were given to bored housewives and unruly teenagers to calm them down.
Q: What do you make of reviews that say you don’t reveal enough about the Kennedys?
A: I have to be true to who I am and who my aunt was. She approached everything with gentle, loving kindness. I’m never going to be Kitty Kelley. I don’t need to dish.
Q: How did you make the decision to write this book, and what discoveries did you make through your research?
A: I felt that I had to do it, but I didn’t realize that it was going to be so emotional for me. I thought I would be able to research Rosie and keep it in perspective, as a historical event. I visited the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston to research her past. I also talked to Anthony Shriver, Rosemary’s nephew [son of Eunice Kennedy Shriver], and his brothers, who were all very helpful.
Then, I discovered that the Kennedys and I were not only bonded by my aunt but in another way: My family also dealt with mental illness. I had an aunt who was schizophrenic and an uncle who took his own life. I didn’t realize it was going to be a story about my own family’s troubles with mental illness, too.
Through this process, I’ve been able to see how far our culture has come and how far we have to go. Roughly one in three homeless people suffer from mental illness. Our mental institutions are now the streets.
Q: Tell me about Rosemary. What was she like?
A: Rosemary had intellectual disabilities and suffered from agitated depression in her teens, when it strikes a lot of people—and I suspect she was bipolar as well, after speaking with a few doctors. Then, add to that the pressure of being different in a very intelligent family.
Back then, mental illness was such a stigma, much worse than today. In Rosemary’s day, in the 1930s and ’40s, people were shoved into institutions, and doctors told everyone not to visit because they thought it was too fraught for the patient. Rosie had almost no family visitors for 20 years, but she wasn’t the only one. That’s probably the worst part of it: being abandoned by your family when you need them most.
Q: What was your relationship to Rosemary?
A: I met Rosemary when I was four and she was 43. I visited her regularly until I was 17, then yearly until my aunt passed in 1996, then sporadically until she passed in 2005 at age 86. My family would spend Sundays with her at St. Coletta School for Exceptional Children [where Rosemary lived]. She and I would take walks, view her greeting cards—which she liked to shuffle—look at books, and dance. She had friendships, enjoyed textures and tastes, and would even try to play miniature golf. She loved her life and had wonderful times.
Q: In your book, Eunice Kennedy Shriver comes off as the hero for founding the Special Olympics along with her other efforts to help the disabled. Did you intend that?
A: When I started writing, it became clear to me that not everyone knew Eunice had started the Special Olympics. Rosemary was Eunice’s inspiration. The family had started the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation after Joe Jr. [JFK’s elder brother] died, which gave money to many causes. Later, Eunice said, “I think we’d get more done focusing on one cause, and that should be helping the intellectually challenged.”
Q: What do you remember most about your aunt, Sister Paulus, who cared for Rosemary for 35 years?
A: My aunt was a model of how we should all be in our lives, and she approached everyone with love and gentleness, which is very difficult. She did not make judgments, which would have been easy for her because she was conservative in her Catholicism, and she rose above that. She was very gentle with people. We need to remember that empathy.
Elizabeth Koehler-Pentacoff will appear at the Walnut Creek Library Foundation’s Live From the Library on May 4, wclibrary.org/live.