What would Rosemary Kennedy be diagnosed with today?
June 22, 2016 2:08 PM   Subscribe

If Rosemary Kennedy were growing up today, what would she likely be diagnosed with? Is there a good source of information on her specific problems?

I just finished reading the excellent Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter and was interested in the [incomplete] descriptions of her physical and emotional problems over the years.

The author infers that a lack of oxygen at birth may have been the cause. Has this been proven? If she were growing up today, what would doctors be likely to diagnose her with?

I don't know if it's even possible to guess, given her family's reluctance to discuss her issues. Is there a more detailed explanation of her emotional / mental problems? The book explained that she was moved from school to school because each felt they weren't equipped to handle her. Given how much money the family was giving to the schools, her behavior must have been extremely problematic. Does this correspond to a clear disorder today?
posted by amicamentis to Health & Fitness (7 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
posted by Iris Gambol at 2:38 PM on June 22, 2016

I have an aunt--younger than Rosemary Kennedy--whose birth was similarly interfered with by a nurse who felt the baby could not be born without the doctor in the room. Her intellectual disabilities were routinely blamed on "lack of oxygen during birth", although now her doctors believe them to be genetic. (She's not disruptive, but she's incapable of living on her own and in the 60's lived in a group school, then group home until de-institutionalization became a thing)

A specific diagnosis is not relevant to her general health and well-being, so they've never done any genetic or other testing.
posted by crush-onastick at 2:44 PM on June 22, 2016

I mean, basically, no-one wanted to say my aunt was "mentally retarded" (which was the term they used when she was born)--so everyone ascribed it lack of oxygen at birth, instead of saying that she had just been born with a disability. It was easier for my grandmother to believe that this child would have been perfect but for, rather than believe that my grandmother had "failed" and produced a disabled child, which my grandmother likely would have, on some level, believed. It was a different world, even more so in 1918.
posted by crush-onastick at 2:49 PM on June 22, 2016 [7 favorites]

Birth asphyxia can lead to cerebral palsy, developmental disabilities, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
posted by zippy at 2:51 PM on June 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

Mine was apparently a very difficult birth and I didn't breathe on my own for a number of minutes, to the point where I was taken to hospital regularly during my first year for checks. The fear was that lack of oxygen had caused cerebral palsy. It wasn't the case but was a real concern for my parents for that year.
posted by Martha My Dear Prudence at 3:07 PM on June 22, 2016

I would say the main thing that was wrong in her life was the apparent willingness, I might even say eagerness, of her family, particularly her father Joseph Kennedy, to sacrifice her on the altar of their political ambitions for their sons.

From your link:
Also described is the decision to have Rosemary lobotomized in her early twenties, how the family concealed the procedure's devastating effects from the public, and family patriarch Joseph P. Kennedy Sr.'s decision to institutionalize Rosemary and keep her separated from the family for more than 20 years.
In those days lobotomies were often performed on young women of any kind of social rank for the socially unpardonable sin of 'incorrigible promiscuity.'

When I Googled 'lobotomy "promiscuity"' without any reference to the Kennedys, this was the first result:
John and Rose Kennedy began searching for a solution to deal with their disturbed daughter. Not only were they worried about her violent acting out, but her sexual maturity meant the increasing possibility of a scandal that might damage the future political careers of the other Kennedy children. Even then, John Kennedy Sr. had every intention of seeing one of his sons as President of the United States in time and the stigma that Rosemary brought to the Kennedy name was a particular concern. John Sr. and Rose also had the concern that all parents of children with intellectual disabilities have. Unfortunately, even for the rich and powerful Kennedy family, actual resources for dealing with these kind of problems were almost nonexistent in the 1940s.

Finally, based on the medical advice provided by the costly specialists they consulted, the Kennedys reached a decision. At that time, Rosemary was living in a convent school in Washington, D.C. though reports of her late-night wandering worried her parents even more. The nuns who ran the school even suggested that she might be picking up men and had become sexually promiscuous; something that terrified both her parents. In the fall of 1941, not long after the incident with her grandfather, Rosemary was admitted to Saint Elizabeth's Hospital in Washington, D.C. for what her mother would later describe as a "certain form of neurosurgery." In other words, a prefrontal lobotomy.

The surgery was a success, of sorts. Rosemary would never be a disgrace to her family, but it came at a terrible price.
As far as a diagnosis is concerned, a contemporary therapist confronted with a family narrative such as Rosemary's -- a marginally normal childhood followed by puberty featuring acting out, large weight gain, and promiscuity -- would immediately begin wondering about the possibility of childhood sexual abuse. And the fact that she physically assaulted her grandfather at the age of 23 would do nothing to discourage that line of thought.
posted by jamjam at 4:04 PM on June 22, 2016 [29 favorites]

I'm not an expert on disabilities or the Kennedys (and I haven't read the book so I don't know if it uses this term), but you might be interested in reading about intellectual disability, which is often idiopathic and can be comorbid with mental health disorders.

My understanding from my brief fascination with the Kennedys way back when (and my historian-psychologist dad) was that Rosemary had a mild intellectual disability and that she was more disabled by the ill-advised lobotomy than anything congential.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 4:12 PM on June 22, 2016 [4 favorites]

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