This review was written during my internship with Bancroft Press
Who isn’t intrigued by the Kennedys? Everyone has an opinion of the famous family, but one of the most important opinions comes from Elizabeth Koehler-Pentacoff, author of The Missing Kennedy: Rosemary Kennedy and the Secret Bonds of Four Women, whose paperback version hits shelves October 2016. The author’s voice carries sincerity because she grew up knowing the one Kennedy who never experienced the spotlight: Rosemary “Rosie” Kennedy.
Rosemary was born slower than her siblings, but doctors could never figure out what exactly was wrong with her. The Kennedys coped with Rosemary’s undiagnosed mental illness by treating her with a gentler touch. However, as she became a young woman, men took advantage of her naiveté, which was a concern for the Kennedys because their family was prominent in the political sphere. To alleviate their concerns, Joseph Kennedy, Rosemary’s father, had her undergo a lobotomy; the procedure forever altered her life.
Koehler-Pentacoff says that Joe Kennedy, much like all of us, was simply a victim of society. She notes that at the time, the doctor who advised Joseph on Rosie’s condition was respected and praised by the media for his renowned lobotomies; they were supposedly the cure for mental illness. Joseph hid Rosemary — even from his wife and family — after the lobotomy because of the brain damage she incurred: He feared scandal, shame, and stigma.
Koehler-Pentacoff’s aunt, Sister Paulus, was a nun who cared for Rosemary following her lobotomy. As a child, the author frequently visited Sister Paulus and Rosemary at St. Coletta in Wisconsin, a residential facility for the intellectually disabled where Rosemary was sent by her father to live out her adult life. “To the state of Wisconsin, she was our Kennedy,” says the author.
It was not until 1961 — 20 years after her lobotomy — that the rest of Rosemary’s family discovered where she was and what had happened. After Joe Kennedy suffered a stroke that took away his mobility and ability to speak, St. Coletta had to contact Rosemary’s mother, Rose Kennedy, about her wellbeing. When reunited at the airport, Rosemary charged at her mother, pounding her fists into her mother’s chest. The lobotomy had not erased Rosemary’s memories and emotions; she knew that her family had abandoned her.
While Koehler-Pentacoff grew up watching Rosemary be shunned and ignored, she refused to let the tragedy negatively impact her opinion of the Kennedys or her own outlook on life.
“We come from a culture where it [mental illness] wasn’t supposed to be,” she says when asked if Joe Kennedy was wrong to hide Rosemary from her family. She sadly notes that Rose Kennedy lived her life in denial rather than asking her husband for the truth. She says that President Kennedy didn’t visit his sister for fear of a media circus. She refuses to say anything negative about the family, most likely because she’s only found positivity in Rosemary’s life and the impact it’s had on her own.
She also believes that Rosemary’s story can help others. She says, “The more we talk about it [mental illness], the more we can help each other.” She adds that like any family, the Kennedys are entitled to their privacy. “They’re not required to talk about their problems, but it’s really nice when famous people as well as regular people can benefit society in some way.”
As a “regular person,” Koehler-Pentacoff is benefitting society in a profound way. Much of her life after leaving Milwaukee, Wisconsin for college and graduating from California State University Fresno has been dedicated to children. She’s taught elementary and middle school children and has conducted writing workshops for them as well. She’s also chaired The California Writers Club Young Writers Program, hoping to share her talents and love for writing with the younger generation. She says her time with Rosemary was a major influence on her career path; Rosemary taught her compassion.
Even more profound, her first memoir, awarded the 2015 Benjamin Franklin Silver Medal for memoirs, is a way to start a serious conversation about the state of mental health in 21st century America, especially because much of the shame and stigma felt by the Kennedy family in the previous century is still felt by millions of families today.
Koehler-Pentacoff is no stranger to the strain an intellectually disabled person can place on a family. Her Aunt Zora suffered from schizophrenia, though, at the time, her family didn’t truly understand what caused Aunt Zora’s erratic behavior.
After several incidents involving Aunt Zora, the Koehler family said they could no longer help her. Later in life, the author refused to reconnect with Aunt Zora after her aunt tried to make contact. She says that she regrets that decision and no longer blames Aunt Zora for disrupting the peace in her family. She didn’t agree to reconnect because of fear, but now she wonders if she would’ve been able to make a difference in Aunt Zora’s life.
At least she knows that her memoir is helping to make a difference.
The Missing Kennedy tells the story of empathy and the good that can come from tragedy. For example, Rosemary inspired Eunice Shriver, President Kennedy’s sister, to push the president to pass groundbreaking legislation for the intellectually disabled; Rosemary also inspired the creation of Camp Shriver, The Special Olympics, and Best Buddies.
While the cost of a fuller life may not be viewed by all as worth the resulting good, Koehler-Pentacoff believes that everything happens for a reason and that everyone has a calling. She believes that Sister Paulus may very well have been called to be a nun because Rosemary would one day need her. Likewise, she believes it was her calling to meet Rosemary and share her story, especially because the idea for the memoir came to her in a dream.
Koehler-Pentacoff’s memoir piques readers’ interest because of the Kennedys; however, her own life is weaved into the story as well, and it is no less fascinating.
For an entire year of junior high, Koehler-Pentacoff was kept home from school after being misdiagnosed with epilepsy; years later, she was correctly diagnosed as suffering from intense migraines. During her year home, she was cut off from the world, but she knew that Rosemary was worse off than she was; visits from Sister Paulus and Rosemary helped keep her spirits high. She says that she didn’t resent her parents for keeping her epilepsy concealed from friends and other family members. “I knew that if I had gone public at the time, I could’ve been ostracized,” she says. Yet, both she and Rosemary lived in the shadows of shame that mental illness still causes in society today.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 43.8 million adults experience mental illness in a given year. Sadly, 60 percent of those adults don’t seek treatment, choosing instead to suffer alone.
Koehler-Pentacoff says, “It is much easier today to research our own health issues, and much easier to get second opinions. Always get as much information as possible.” She doesn’t want anyone to suffer alone and hopes that her book will encourage all people to be compassionate toward those who are.
When asked what the takeaway from her memoir is, the author says, “Even ordinary people can be extraordinary. My aunt was a very ordinary, poor young lady, but she became extraordinary.”
Koehler-Pentacoff – mother, teacher, author – may see herself as ordinary, but the message in her memoir is extraordinary. Not only will readers learn more about the family history loves to discuss, their hearts will be opened and they will experience a story of hope.