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'The Missing Kennedy': A Call for Love, Empathy & Understanding

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Bancroft Press
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The Kennedy family is one of America’s great dynasties. They are famous for their wealth, their political power and influence, their scandals and, for what some considered an intentionally hidden secret, the fate of Rosemary Kennedy. She's the mentally fragile sister of President John, Attorney General Bobby and Senator Ted.

Rosemary suffered a lack of oxygen during birth that left her intellectual capacity permanently diminished. At the age of 23, she underwent a prefrontal lobotomy, which further reduced her cognitive abilities. After the lobotomy, Kennedy lived at St. Coletta in Jefferson, Wisconsin. And that’s where author Elizabeth Koehler-Pentacoff met her.

Koehler-Pentacoff’s aunt was Sister Paulus, who was Kennedy’s devoted caretaker, driver and travel companion for over thirty years. Koehler-Pentacoff started visiting Rosemary and her aunt at St. Coletta when she was four and Rosemary was 43. Thanks to Sister Paulus, the relationship between the author and Rosemary "fostered and blossomed."

Now a decade after Kennedy’s death, Koehler-Pentacoff has written a book that combines memoir and biography. The Missing Kennedy depicts Rosemary’s, her family’s and the author’s own experiences with mental illness and how the Kennedys and a family from rural Wisconsin became integrated into each other’s lives.

The lives of the four women highlighted in the book were not just connected through Rosemary, but through their life-long struggles with mental illness and poor treatment, a result of misdiagnosis, stigma and silence. A majority of Koehler-Pentacoff's extended family suffered various forms of mental illness, something the author discovered while researching the book.

"It wasn't until I started writing about Rosemary and realizing that although her story began with a supposed mentally challenged beginning, it really was more about mental illness that Rosemary suffered," explains Keohler-Pentacoff. "That was the real true reason for her lobotomy, and once I started uncovering this and relating to this, all of my memories surfaced."

Rosemary Kennedy was never the same after her lobotomy and had to learn basic tasks all over again post-surgery. At the time a lobotomy was considered a last resort, and in his Victorian ideal frame of mind, Rosemary's father Joe Kennedy made the decision and kept his daughter's whereabouts and surgery a secret from his own family. He placed her at St. Coletta in Jefferson, Wisconsin at the recommendation of a Massachusetts archbishop to ensure her safety, privacy and protection.

It was at St. Colletta's that Sister Paulus and Rosemary created a sister-like bond that would last for decades. Koehler-Pentacoff recalls fondly how the pair would interact with one another. "Seeing how they related, even in eye contact - their eyes would sparkle - showed the great love they had for each other," says Koehler-Pentacoff. Sister Paulus made great progress with Rosemary through positive reinforcement and love, teaching the author that love and empathy were key in the success and happiness of everyone's lives.

It was only after Joe Kennedy suffered a stroke twenty years after Rosemary's lobotomy that the family found out what happened to Rosie and where she was.

"Fortunately for Rosemary, she was rediscovered by her family, embraced by her family and the Kennedys did a lot of positive action," says Koehler-Pentacoff.

Most notably, Rosemary's sister Eunice Shriver immediately rekindled their relationship and worked tirelessly for the rights of all disabled Americans. The Shriver and Kennedy families created legislation, founded summer camps and created the Special Olympics.

Both the Kennedys and the Koehlers discovered that the stigma around mental illness hindered healing and communication that could have saved lives. "All mental illness, although we are taught in the past to make it a secret and not to talk about it, it is so much more healthy when we actually can communicate about it," says Koehler-Pentacoff.

Koehler-Pentacoff also hopes her book will initiate wider communication in families as well as spark a new movement to continue the fight against the stigma that surrounds mental illness.

"It's time. We need our own revolution - a Rosemary revolution - to really confront mental illness in our country," she says. Koehler-Pentacoff says that if her aunt Sister Paulus taught her anything, it's that love and empathy can make an extraordinary difference in the world.

"We might not be rich and famous like the Kennedys, but we can be extraordinary in just our everyday lives in how we touch people," she says.

Elizabeth Koehler-Pentacoff is the author of The Missing Kennedy: Rosemary Kennedy and the secret Bonds of Four Women. Koehler-Pentacoff was born and raised in Wisconsin but now lives in California. She will be back in the state for several appearances: 

May 13, Library Association (Oshkosh)
May 14, Writing Workshop/Keynote Talk (Oshkosh)
May 16, Supper Oshkosh Library (Oshkosh)
May 17, Watertown Library (Watertown)
May 18, KM Global School, Kettle Moraine School District (Wales)
May 19, Three Pillars, Village on the Square (Dousman)

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Audrey is a producer, host and reporter for Lake Effect. She is involved with every aspect of the show — from conducting interviews, editing audio, posting web stories and mixing the show together.