Many powerful film projects are generated by the Black List – the renowned collection of the best unproduced screenplays available. The latest to be developed is Letters From Rosemary, written by newcomer Nick Yarborough, and now announced as starring Academy Award nominee Emma Stone in the lead role. The film tells the story of Rose Marie “Rosemary” Kennedy – the eldest sister of President John F. Kennedy. Born in 1918, Rosemary is often referred to as ‘The Forgotten Kennedy,’ since she lived out the majority of her life in a Wisconsin institution, after her father, Joseph P. Kennedy, had her lobotomized when she was 23 years old.
After problems during her birth, Rosemary experienced developmental delays as she grew older, and displayed behavioural problems once she reached her teenage years. In November 1941, doctors recommended the newly developed pre-frontal lobotomy procedure to her father as a possible solution, and he arranged for this to be carried out, without the knowledge of Rosemary’s mother, Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy.
The procedure involved slicing into the front of the brain while asking the patient questions – and doctors performing the procedure on Rosemary stopped when she became incoherent. It soon became clear that she had suffered extreme brain damage and was left incapacitated. Rosemary died in 2005 at the age of 86.
In many respects this is a personal story of family tragedy. However, it presents an opportunity to explore the brutal nature of the medicine and attitudes of decades past, specifically in regard to women. Though the Kennedy family famously kept the circumstances of Rosemary’s condition secret for many years, it is now well-documented that extensive mismanagement of Rosemary’s 1918 birth resulted in serious oxygen deprivation during the event.
The decision to perform what was essentially an experimental brain surgery on the young woman is a reflection of the attitude of the time toward those with developmental problems, and the shocking nature of these types of procedures. It also reflects the attitude toward women with mental problems, since recipients of lobotomies at the time were disproportionately female.
Letters From Rosemary does not yet appear to have a director assigned, but with an actress of the calibre and profile of Emma Stone already on board, an announcement of which filmmaker will take the helm should be expected soon.