Rosemary Kennedy, Rose Williams and my mother did not know each other. They were of an age, but came from very different circumstances and had very different personalities. Rosemary Kennedy was from the well-off Kennedy clan and led a privileged life. Having an IQ between 60 and 70, she was slow and surviving letters from her teenage years are in a childish handwriting and written in short, declarative sentences. But she had a radiant personality and participated in dizzying rounds of dress fittings and social events, even being presented at court when her father was the U.S. ambassador to England. She apparently realized that she would never equal the accomplishments of her siblings and as she grew older began to be rebellious and moody, sneaking out at night from the convent boarding school she was attending.
Rose Williams came from a much less exalted background; her alcoholic father, given to rages, worked for a shoe company and her parents fought bitterly. It was a dysfunctional home with her mother’s using the withholding of sex as a weapon and her father forcing the issue within the hearing of Rose and her brother Tennessee. Rose Williams slowly unraveled, well aware of her descent into madness. She once told her brother that he and his friends should not make fun of the mentally ill: “You must never make fun of insanity. It’s worse than death.”
My mother also came from a working class background; her father was the custodian at the local Catholic girls school. But hers was a stable home, with her parents caring for each other; she was intelligent, athletic and very much a part of the teenage social whirl. Unlike Kennedy and Williams, she held jobs and what jobs! After graduation from high school she had a remarkable career in Chicago, rising from working at the lunch counter of a Walgreen’s drug store to being hostess at the swanky Camellia House of the Drake Hotel where she escorted celebrities such as Clark Gable and Greta Garbo to their tables. It was only after my birth and then again four years later after my brother’s that she exhibited paranoia.
So what do these three women have in common? They were all given lobotomies and in each case female sexuality played a role. Rosemary Kennedy’s father Joe was afraid that his attractive young daughter might be sexually abused or get pregnant and embarrass the politically ambitious family. Rose Williams accused her mother of being a prostitute and having sex with her father’s salesmen. She deliberately shocked her mother by telling her “. . . you know we girls at All Saints College, we . . .abuse ourselves with altar candles we stole from the chapel.” In the long years she was institutionalized before she was given the lobotomy, the staff observed that she masturbated and she was given to explicit sexual outbursts interlaced with obscenities which even shocked her brother. My mother’s paranoia was centered around sensing my father no longer loved her (which was the case) and his subsequent failure to satisfy her sexually. She felt if he wasn’t having sex with her he must be having sex with other people—even the maid and her own mother. She too acknowledged to her mother that she masturbated.
Obviously there were many other forces and issues involved in each instance, but their sexual desires and frustrations certainly played a role in the extreme reactions these women received from those around them. They lived in an era when female sexuality was not well-understood and was not even considered a proper topic for discussion or research in medical schools. It was not until 1953, three years after the last of these women received a lobotomy, that Kinsey published his then controversial Sexual Behavior in the Human Female. Kinsey’s findings challenged the notion that women were just a passive partner in the sex act. But it was not until 1966 that William Masters and Virginia Johnson published Human Sexual Response, which for the first time documented the complexities of the female sexual response and that women, unlike men, were capable of multiple organisms in a short period of time.
Of the three women, Rose Williams was the one who exhibited psychotic symptoms; Rosemary Kennedy and my mother, both of whom were lobotomized by Walter Freeman, the popularizer of lobotomies in the United States, had not lost touch with reality. In fact my mother only became psychotic after her lobotomy.
None of the lobotomies were necessary. Rose’s brother Tennessee came to regard the lobotomy authorized by his mother as a tragic mistake and that Rose could have made a full recovery. Certainly Rosemary Kennedy and my mother could have with the right help.
Of the three, my mother was the most “fortunate.” Rose Williams spent most of the rest of her life in institutions with some interludes with her brother. Rosemary Kennedy fared even worse. Her lobotomy reduced her to a vegetable and she was secluded away from the public eye. My mother ended up institutionalized, but she got the right help there and was able within a few years to leave and lead a relatively normal life, although as my aunt said, she had lost her “sparkle.”
What happened to these women of such diverse backgrounds and social standing is a cautionary tale for us all. When are experimental techniques, and the lobotomy was experimental, used to actually benefit and when are they a means of control?