I’ve been thinking about the very different lives of reporter Nellie Bly and Rosemary Kennedy. Although over fifty years separated these women, both found themselves at the age of 23 at the mercy of mental health “professionals.” Nellie Bly placed herself in a dangerous lunatic asylum as an investigative journalist because she was desperate to land a job in a world that didn’t welcome female professionals. How else was an uneducated woman to earn a living in 1887?
Bly was the thirteenth of her wealthy father’s fifteen children, her mother being her father’s second wife. When Bly was six, her father died, failing to make specific provisions for Nellie, her mother, and her two brothers. Like many other great women, Nellie Bly (like Annie Oakley) took it upon herself to find a way to take care of her family. She ran a boarding house with her mother and marveled that her uneducated brothers were able to find jobs as clerks and drummers yet, because she was an uneducated woman, she could only aspire to be a chambermaid or washer-woman. Thus it was Nellie’s poverty and the absence of a father that lead her to have herself committed, at the age of 23, to an insane asylum.
But the converse was true of Rosemary Kennedy. Rosemary landed in a mental institution because she was rich and had a father. She had the misfortune to be born “mildly mentally retarded, into a family dominated by her driven and ruthlessly ambitious father,” Joseph P. Kennedy. Rosemary had been living in a convent to keep her out of the public eye, but, as she developed as a young woman, she had begun sneaking out to see boys, and Kennedy was worried that she might damage his famous family’s reputation.
In an attempt to settle her down, her father, without telling his wife, used his money and powerful connections to arrange for his 23-year-old learning-disabled daughter Rosemary to undergo experimental brain surgery, one of the first prefrontal lobotomies ever performed. The operation took place in 1941, but, according to the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, “something went terribly wrong.” Rosemary emerged from surgery not better, but far worse. She regressed to a state of helpless infancy and was confined to a mental asylum for the rest of her life until her death in 2005. Nellie Bly’s story, though, has a happy ending. She walked out of the asylum a free woman and an international celebrity.