Wednesday, April 11, 2018

"Eunice" by Eileen McNamara

It's been nice to see more attention being paid in recent years to the Kennedy family women, both collectively (e.g., "The Kennedy Women" by Laurence Leamer) and individually. In recent years I've read a book about the oldest Kennedy sister, Rosemary (reviewed here), and two books about next-oldest sister, Kathleen ("Kick") (reviewed here and here).

Now it's Eunice Kennedy Shriver's turn in the spotlight, with "Eunice: The Kennedy Who Changed the World" by Eileen McNamara. McNamara, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Boston journalist, was granted unrestricted access to more than 30 boxes of Eunice's private papers, as well as interviews with her five children and other family members, friends and colleagues. 

McNamara calls Eunice "the Kennedy who changed the world," and she makes a strong case that Eunice's contributions have had an even greater impact than those of her famous political brothers, John, Robert & Ted. "[She] is the reason we no longer lock away children and adults with intellectual disabilities -- that we educate them, employ them and help them thrive." 

Eunice grew up in the shadow of her four older siblings -- the dazzling "Golden Trio" of Joe Jr., John and Kathleen -- as well as Rosemary, who was, in the language of the time, "mentally retarded" -- and whose condition was made worse when her father (without telling her mother!!) arranged to have her lobotomized.  As the book's jacket states, Eunice's determination and compassion were "born of rage: at the medical establishment that had no answers for her sister Rosemary; at the revered but dismissive father whose vision for his family did not extend beyond his sons; and at the government that failed to deliver on America’s promise of equality."

After her botched lobotomy, Rosemary was sent to live with nuns in Wisconsin and disappeared from both public and family life for decades. But Eunice never forgot her beloved sister.  While she was never its titular head, she ran the family's Joseph P. Kennedy II Foundation for more than 50 years, and focused its work on scientific research that would benefit the mentally retarded (which was then practically non-existent). She hosted summer camps for intellectually disabled children at her home in Maryland, which eventually evolved into the Special Olympics.  After her father suffered a stroke in 1961, Eunice assumed responsibility for Rosemary's care and, after his death in 1969, she brought Rosemary back into the family fold.  

While mental retardation was Eunice's primary cause and the driving force throughout her life, she also advocated for a number of other issues, including support for juvenile delinquents, teen mothers and their babies. Shortly after he became president, she pushed her brother, Jack, to create a separate federal research institute focused specifically on maternal and child health -- the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development --  that now bears her name. 

Many of us in the ALI community have benefited directly from Eunice's persistence on this issue:  
He was cautious, asking his sister why he should invite the ire of NIH officials by arguing for creation of an institute none of them thought necessary. Sailing on Nantucket Sound that summer, Eunice reminded him of his and Jackie's own experiences: one child lost to miscarriage and another to stillbirth. These common but little understood tragedies affected millions of American families, she told him, but they garnered the attention of precious few researchers. For Eunice, the conclusion was obvious: maternal and pediatric medical research promised breakthroughs for all children, not just for those born with mental retardation.... 
A focus on human development throughout the stages of life incubated such new medical specialties as neonatology, which, in the years ahead, would pioneer fresh prevention and treatment approaches, eventually all but eliminating deaths from conditions such as hyaline membrane disease. That lung condition was the most common cause of death among premature infants when Jack signed the NICHD into law in 1962, claiming twenty-five thousand lives a year in the United States. Tragically, it would claim the life of his own son, Patrick Bouvier Kennedy, thirty-nine hours after he was born five and a half weeks premature on August 7, 1963. (p. 169)
"If that girl had been born with balls, she would have been a hell of a politician," her father is reported to have said about her. She campaigned tirelessly for her brothers, advised them, prodded them on behalf of her pet causes, and helped write their speeches. Many thought she would have made a fine president herself. But McNamara argues that she made a far better lobbyist:  
Impatient and insistent, she was the definition of impolitic. In her missionary zeal, she did not much care who she offended in pursuit of her aims. She left it to others to smooth the feathers she ruffled along the way...  
The qualities that might have inhibited a career as a politician enhanced Eunice's effectiveness as an advocate. Good intentions did not impress her;  results did. She measured herself, and everyone around her, by what got done, not by what got promised. It is no wonder then that President Kennedy instructed his aides to "just give Eunice what she wants," not because she was an irritant, although she could be that, but because he trusted that, on issues that mattered to her, his sister had figured out what worked. (p. xxiii) 
If you have any interest in the Kennedy women (or high-achieving women generally) or civil rights for people with disabilities, you will find this book an engaging read.  

This was book #6 that I've read so far in 2018, bringing me to 25% of my 2018 Goodreads Reading Challenge goal of 24 books.  I am -- so far! ;)  -- on track to meet my goal.  :) 


  1. Oh wow, this is a fantastic review. I knew a little about her, but I now want to read more. I share her rage at those injustices, but not, sadly, her efficacy! Thank you for this.

    1. She was quite the dame! I would have hated to have her as a boss, but I would have loved having her fight on my side. ;)

    2. Imagine having her as your mother. The pressure!

    3. Her kids (& nieces & nephews) tell some interesting stories in the book...!