Book bites: Rosie Kennedy’s tragic story is a moving tribute to selflessness

A timely reminder of Mental Health Month (May) is “The Missing Kennedy: Rosemary Kennedy and the Secret Bonds of Four Women” by Elizabeth Koehler-Pentacoff (Bancroft, $27.50, 270 pages).

Rose Marie “Rosemary” Kennedy (1918-2005) was the older sister of brothers John, Robert and Ted Kennedy. As a teen and young adult, her erratic behavior led to her father having her lobotomized at age 23. The barbaric procedure went awry, and she was institutionalized in St. Coletta, a home for the mentally challenged.

Koehler-Pentacoff was the niece of Rose Marie’s caretaker-driver, Sister Paulus. Her memoir includes 150 never-before-seen photos. Emma Stone will play Rosemary Kennedy in the upcoming biopic “Letters From Rosemary Kennedy.”

Koehler-Pentacoff will appear at 11:30 a.m. Monday, May 2, on Channel 10’s “Sac & Co.” Meanwhile, I talked with her by email:

Q: What were your ages?

A: I was 4 when I met Rosie in 1962. She was 43. I grew up visiting her throughout my life and hers.

Q: How did the friendship start?

A: I had a close relationship with my aunt, which grew to become a friendship with Rosie, too.

Q: What was the dynamic?

A: When Rosie spoke, some of her words were understandable, others were gibberish. But to her they weren’t gibberish. We could figure out what she was saying by listening and watching for cues. We took walks, looked at her colorful greeting cards people sent her, and danced with music. She loved swimming and was proud of it.

Q: The Kennedy family must have carried immense guilt.

A: My aunt said whenever she and Rosie were with Rosie’s mother (Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy), she’d walk by Rosie and say softly and with much anguish, “Oh, Rosie, what have we done to you?” When I spoke with Eunice Kennedy Shriver’s sons for this book, they were filled with grief.

Q: This must have been a life-changing experience for you.

A: I discovered no matter what tragedies we may experience within our lives, we can take action to help ourselves, our loved ones and society. Rose motivated the Kennedys to begin the Special Olympics, President Kennedy began a national dialogue on mental health and disabilities, and Ted and Bobby worked for (related) legislation throughout their lives.

Q: If you could say one more thing to Rosie …

A: Thank you for your service in helping us become more empathetic.