When people think of the Kennedy family, they’re most likely thinking of the famous Kennedy men. John F. Kennedy was the first Catholic president in the nation’s history; he was assassinated in his first term. His brother Bobby was attorney general and a senator until he was assassinated while running for president. Ted Kennedy was a Massachusett's senator for decades until his death in 2009.
But in her new book “Eunice: The Kennedy Who Changed the World," Eileen McNamara argues the most influential sibling wasn’t J.F.K. or R.F.K; it was their sister: Eunice Kennedy Shriver.
"There are people who will think it's a stretch, but the only reason they think it's a stretch is because they don't know Eunice," says McNamara.
Shriver founded the Special Olympics, which held its first international games in 1968. Millions of athletes and over 170 countries participate in the Games today.
"And that's only the tip of the iceberg," she says.
"Athletes who – until Eunice Shriver came along – were either housed in institutions or hidden at home," says McNamara. "She changed the world because she changed our perception of people with intellectual disabilities."
McNamara says Shriver's work with intellectual disabilities was a natural fit. At 23 years old, Rosemary Kennedy, Shriver's older sister, was lobotomized in 1941 for minor intellectual disabilities.
"Because the surgery went so tragically wrong, Eunice's sister – who she had grown up teaching to sail, teaching to hike, teaching to play tennis – was lost to her," says McNamara.
After that, Rosemary was institutionalized and kept away from the family and the spotlight for decades.
McNamara says Shriver's life's work for people with intellectual disabilities was a way to reclaim her sister.
"And to satisfy her rage at what had happened to her," she says.
To write "Eunice: The Kennedy Who Changed the World," McNamara got access to boxes of records on Shriver that no one – as far as she knows – had studied. She says it took about two and a half years to convince the Shriver family to give her that access.
"Until we looked at the body of records that she kept, I had no idea the scope of her public career," McNamara says.
McNamara says she learned that Eunice Shriver was often a step ahead of her brothers, researching and championing social causes – like juvenile justice and intellectual disabilities – and then convincing her famous brothers to highlight those causes and change federal laws.
"It's quite easy to write women out of history. It happens all the time," says McNamara. "And this book is an attempt to restore her – with all her flaws, all her idiosyncrasies, but all her incredible accomplishments to American history."
About the author:
Eileen McNamara spent 30 years at the Boston Globe as a reporter and a commentary writer. She won the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 1997. In 2001, it was a column McNamara wrote about a clergy sexual abuse case in Boston that prompted the Globe's new editor, Marty Baron, to turn the paper's Spotlight team toward the story. Spotlight's groundbreaking investigation exposed the systemic cover-up of clergy sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Boston.
The National Writers Series presents a conversation with Eileen McNamara on Wednesday, April 25 at 7 p.m. at the City Opera House.