Rosemary Kennedy is perhaps the least well known of Joseph and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy’s brood, which included two United States Senators and a President. Although she had inherited the family’s good looks, she was deemed to be, by the common term at the time of her birth in 1918, “feebleminded.” She couldn’t keep up with her peers, much less with her Type A-plus siblings.
Such children often wound up warehoused in institutions and forgotten, sometimes sterilized, and even left to die throughout history. The Nazis exterminated more than 200,000 “retarded” individuals. But Rosemary’s family did not send her away, at least not initially. They included her. For example, in 1938 when her father was named Ambassador to the Court of St. James's, Rosemary was presented to the king and queen of Great Britain. But within a few years her life would take a terrible turn and she would become a well-kept Kennedy secret for more than two decades.
In Fully Alive: Discovering What Matters Most, Timothy Shriver, Rosemary’s nephew, makes the case that his aunt, despite her intellectual disability, was an extraordinary person, one who served as the “catalyst” for a worldwide movement through her impact on her siblings Eunice Shriver and John F. Kennedy and on generations to follow. Timothy Shriver is the Chairman of Special Olympics, which his mother Eunice founded in 1968.
Although Rosemary’s impact on the birth of Special Olympics previously had been discounted by both the author and his mother, this book makes the connection explicitly: “Despite failing to meet any of the expectations that were imposed on the rest of us, [Rosemary] belonged. She didn’t have to do anything to earn that. Only in retrospect did I realize how, at some level, I envied her deeply. Her presence changed everything.”
Shriver’s book is about people like Rosemary, and how they have come out of the shadows to live happier and useful lives with the help of loving families, government support, and private organizations. But it is not a one-way street, the author makes clear throughout. A 1981 Yale University graduate with two advanced degrees, Shriver insists that the most important lessons in life were taught to him by special Olympians like Loretta Claiborne and Donal Page: “Although it might seem counterintuitive, I believe people with intellectual disabilities are brilliant teachers of that something bigger that we are all looking for … they taught me that we are all totally vulnerable and totally valuable at the same time. They modeled lessons in love and fulfillment that I didn’t even know were possible.”
As that excerpt suggests, the book also is about the author’s struggle to find his own place in the world and to determine what is important, what has value amid the frenetic confusion of modern life. In another time Shriver’s spiritual odyssey might have led him to the priesthood, and his prose is seasoned liberally with contemporary parables, Biblical allusions, and philosophical musings.
The author was nurtured on the progressive ideals of his parents, both devout Catholics who attended daily Mass: Sargent Shriver was a driving force behind the creation of the Peace Corps, the Jobs Corps, Head Start, and President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty; Eunice Shriver, who also was a founder of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, took it upon herself to bring Rosemary back from familial exile, out of the shadows where she had lived for years. Eunice also made sure that intellectual and physical disabilities would be addressed by her brother’s administration.
She and her son, and many others, would bring hundreds of thousands of intellectually disabled people out of the darkness where human fear and shame and despair had sentenced them. Today Special Olympics is active worldwide, in places like Afghanistan, China, and Egypt, and has challenged more than one million athletes to strive to do their best. Some have done quite well, indeed. In addition to being an inspiring speaker with a TED Talk to her credit, Loretta Claiborne became an elite runner, finishing among the top 100 women in the Boston Marathon.
But for an even more stirring example of the power of human determination, it would be difficult to top Donal Page’s performance at the Special Olympics World Summer Games in his native Ireland. Shriver describes movingly how Page, who is extremely handicapped physically, brought 1,500 spectators to their feet, including the Irish President. He stole the show from attendees like Bono and Nelson Mandela.
It took Shriver a while to understand that it wasn’t only the athletes who were benefiting from Special Olympics. He ends the book with a clarion call to service, to storm the nearest castle. His idealistic rhetoric has a nostalgic ring to it, in this era of advancing cynicism and self-indulgence: “So wherever you are, and whatever you’re doing, there’s a castle close by that only you can attack. Don’t delay another second. Take aim, be brave, and have fun. All it takes is a willingness to enter the game and believe. Just by playing, you’ll surely win the medal that matters most.”