When students apply to Emerson, one of the prompts they are required to answer reads, “Much of the work that students do at Emerson College is a form of storytelling. If you were to write the story of your life until now, what would you title it and why?” Right from the beginning, students here are made aware of what our mission as filmmakers, journalists, writers, and actors entails.
We know very well the power storytelling possesses and its ability to give a voice to those who are not afforded the same opportunities as us. Storytelling can shed light on topics that are seldom touched on. Here, many of us like to reach for stories that are challenging, provocative, and potentially uncomfortable, because these tend to leave the greatest impact.
In the last few months, The Beacon itself has covered stories on a senior who organized a pro-Hong Kong protest, the Straight Pride Parade, the death of an Emerson professor, and the revelation of a student who unknowingly helped raised money for three homeless men with sexual assault convictions.
Still, a number of the stories told at Emerson are repetitive. In that same vein, our student-run media often fails to explore some stories at all. Telling these underserved stories, however, brings up the opportunity to right historical wrongs to a degree.
One of these stories is the history of Rosemary Kennedy.
Yes, Kennedy—the name that dominates American politics. A namesake attached to notions of wealth, fame, and devastation.
The Kennedys publicly faced catastrophe in ways that no other family of such stature has before. Yet, still, little is known of Rosemary’s life. Her journey stands as a reminder that storytelling, especially of tales that are underserved, is an art form worth pursuing.
When my friend first brought up her name, I had no idea who she was talking about. Once she finished her thought, her name and the way she was mistreated left me hooked. I subsequently found myself in a Wikipedia deep-dive, which then extended to four or five articles, and then to a YouTube video of Kate Larson promoting her book Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter at a Washington College event.
Every source seemed to provide considerable coverage of Rosemary’s life. Yet virtually everyone responds with “no” when asked whether they know of Rosemary Kennedy.
I am astounded by the general lack of knowledge surrounding Rosemary. Hardly anyone I speak to recognizes her name, and even fewer know her story. I proved to be no exception. I cannot help but question the credibility of my own awareness. Are there other underserved stories like that of Rosemary and the myriad of women whose stories are lost to their male counterparts? How many Glenn Closes are lost to Jonathan Pryces?
Born on Friday the 13th of September 1918, the odds were stacked against Rosemary from the beginning. Stationed at home, the nurse held Rosemary’s head back in the birth canal for two hours to delay her birth. When the doctor arrived, he delivered Rosemary, but her complicated birth led to her learning disability which revealed itself in her infancy. Her parents denied its existence.
Age brought with it the unveiling of a mental illness. Each of the schools she attended failed to meet her needs. This is unsurprising considering her father left her Catholic school teachers to discover her illness by themselves, rather than telling them directly. She began running away from her schools, and her sedation followed fits of rage. She was subjected to treatments, more accurately described as experiments, that involved injecting her 16-year-old body with hormones.
Throughout her life, Rosemary’s sisters kept a watchful eye on her, her brothers kept her dance card full, and the family diverted adoring photographers away from her to ensure her erasure.
Rosemary remained in the United States from World World II onward where she deteriorated. After proving herself an undeniable threat to the Kennedy name, her father had Rosemary lobotomized at 23. She was left completely disabled. Essentially reduced to a shell, she slipped into secrecy until after their father’s death.
Her tragedy does not lie in the fact that her voice was stifled by those who were louder. Rather, it is rooted in the idea that her opportunity to be heard was stolen out from under her. I wonder what she would have had to say about the way she was treated. What type of reception would her story be met with today? In the pursuit of perfection, she was robbed of a life.
The oppressive nature of history is now widely accepted, and its perpetrators are being persecuted now more than ever. But their victims still largely exist in the dark.
Therefore, we as storytellers need to unearth difficult narratives hidden by money, power, and fame. As students learning and perfecting the art of storytelling, missing moments of past injustices is unacceptable. Instead, we need to search thoroughly for stories that exist exclusively in footnotes, because people like Rosemary, who have been lost to human nature’s perpetual reflex to gloss over, exist. Only then we will be able to correct wrongs and do what we set out to—convey truths.