The Kennedy Family and the Story of Mental Retardation. Edward Shorter. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2000.

Until I read the last 2 pages of Shorter's history of the Kennedy family and mental retardation, I was going to start my review with a critical remark about his treatment of the parent movement. However, Professor Shorter is all too aware that his book does not take into strong consideration the contributions made by parent groups, some of which were started in the late 1940s and many in the early 1950s, before the Kennedy family entered the “MR Movement.”

(In using the term the MR Movement, I mean to point to that period of history between the end of World War II, the adoption of the term mental retardation in lieu of that of mental deficiency by the American Association on Mental Deficiency in 1959, and those activities since that have sought to improve the quality of life for people labeled with the diagnosis “mental retardation.” At its outset the MR Movement, as I understand it, was a cooperative venture between parents searching for a kinder nomenclature than that of mental deficiency, which employed such terms as imbecile, idiot, and moron, and progressive professionals of that era who were sympathetic to their cause. This early cooperation is documented in Goode (1998). The activities of the Kennedy family and advent of the Kennedy presidency invigorated the MR Movement, institutionalized many of its goals into government, again in cooperation with the parent movement. And, although today the term mental retardation is out of vogue and largely rejected by self-advocates who have had the label applied to them, many of the goals of the MR Movement continue to be advanced under the nomenclature of developmental disabilities.)

In the preface and postscript to this book, Shorter acknowledges that an important axis in the MR Movement, that of the parent organizations during this era, was not described in his book. The book is dedicated to Elizabeth Boggs, a parent and influential figure of the MR Movement from the early 1950s into the 1990s at the time of her death. Further, although the lack of information about parent activities before and during the Kennedy era does contribute to certain misunderstandings about the MR Movement and its relationship to the political activities of the Kennedy family (see later discussion), it does not diminish the contribution of Professor Shorter's history of the Kennedys' work in the field of mental retardation.

Shorter has produced a scholarly and unique volume based upon oral interviews and access to personal and family records housed at the Kennedy Family Foundation in Washington, DC, and at the John F. Kennedy Library. As he states, “No historian has ever received such exceptional access to Kennedy papers before” (p. x). This exceptional access to private writings couples with the oral histories cited in the book make for a thoroughly intriguing, detailed, and yet highly readable consideration of the Kennedy family's involvement in the MR Movement in our country. Professor Shorter does not avoid controversy, as I had anticipated he might when I first heard about this book. It is one thing to write about history and characters of the distant past whose contentious versions of history the historian can deal with analytically and summarily. It is another to write about persons living, and powerful, who might have different remembrances of “what happened” and who may call the historian into account. It thus occurred to me that Shorter might avoid certain incidents and aspects of the Kennedy history, which I knew about personally or through independent sources. It turns out that this was not the case in Shorter's writings, in which he describes his book as “in no sense an authorized account” (p. x). Confronting some of the discontinuities and contradictions of the history of the Kennedy involvement in the field of mental retardation took some courage on his part.

The book covers three distinct eras in the history of the MR Movement and the Kennedy family's involvement during them. Chapter 1 sets the 19th and early 20th century historical background to the MR Movement in a powerful and succinct fashion. The breadth of material and powerful nature of the incidents cited in the text is noteworthy and gives readers both a “macro” and “micro” level picture of changes in the lives of persons with mental retardation during this period. The first chapter is one of the most succinct and moving summaries of this period of history in the lives of persons with mental retardation of which I am aware. It is an instructive 35 pages for anyone interested in the field of disabilities.

The remainder of the book is concerned with the Kennedy family and its contribution to the MR Movement. Moreover, Shorter focuses on how various familial and political forces shaped Eunice Kennedy Shriver's leadership in the field, in terms of legislation, policy, and the development of the Special Olympics. Although many other family figures and consultants are given their due credit by the author, Eunice Kennedy Shriver is rightfully cited as in the final instance the driving force behind the Kennedy's 40-year involvement in this field.

Mrs. Shriver's commitment is ultimately traced back to her parents and to their religious and political views as well as ‘family dynamics' (particularly her psychodynamically theorized desire to prove herself equally competent as her brothers). Chapter 2 reconstructs Joseph Kennedy Sr.'s creation of the Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. Foundation and contends that he was not initially concerned with making it a foundation primarily concerned with mental retardation. Instead, he appears to have been led to focus on mental retardation through the prodding of his family, Cardinal Cushing, and his exposure to the suffering of parents of children with mental retardation through their correspondence to the foundation.

Chapter 3 deals with the role of the Shriver's in developing the focus of the foundation and Chapter 4, with their and the foundation's relationship to the Kennedy administration. To me these chapters are the heart of the Kennedy story in that it is during this era that the Kennedy Foundation and presidency spearheaded the cause of mental retardation in government. In chapter 3 Shorter paints intriguing portraits of Sargent Shriver and of Eunice Kennedy, their marriage, and their respective roles in leading the Kennedy Foundation during this period. The details of Joe Kennedy's management of the foundation and his family's involvement illustrate the savvy of the “Old Man” and the circuitous route followed by the foundation into the field of mental retardation research. The portrayal of Sargent Shriver as the administrative genius and Mrs. Shriver as the inspiration behind many of the early initiatives rings true to what I heard and saw while visiting the foundation in 1981. At that time Gen. Bob Montague commented to me that since her father's stroke, she's always run the foundation, if not in title, then in practice.

In chapter 4 Shorter documents the way in which the Kennedy family, through its foundation and through the Kennedy Presidency, was able to get the government involved in the field of mental retardation. It is, thus, a most important chapter in the book. It was through the political machinations described in this chapter that the Kennedys were able to make “mental retardation kosher,” as one person I interviewed put it. Their immediate victories included the creation of the President's Panel on Mental Retardation, the National Institute on Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), the University Affiliated Facilities (UAFs), and many other significant pieces of legislation in the field. These actions took place during the very abbreviated Camelot years, which were to radically change the lives of persons with mental retardation and their families.

In Shorter's account, the relationship between Eunice Shriver and the White House was fascinating and clearly a most important factor in placing mental retardation on the governmental map. She is described as “needling” her brother about mental retardation initiatives, and during a conversation with him and Bobby Kennedy, the president remarked that we better give Eunice whatever she wanted so that we can get her off the phone and get on with running the country. Without doubt, the few years that John Kennedy occupied the White House provided an historically unique opportunity for the family, and particularly Eunice Kennedy, to create structural and lasting changes that would have been otherwise impossible. As Shorter indicates, in a very short time they were able to create an incredible amount of federal activity in the field of mental retardation where previously there was very little.

To some degree the role of the parent movement is not acknowledged in Shorter's book the way I think it ought to be. Shorter characterizes the movement as having crystallized in the late 1960s, and although that may be true with regard to the National Association for the Help of Retarded Children and federal legislation, the parent movement on the state and national level had been tremendously powerful and influential from at least the mid-1950s, and something of a parent–professional partnership existed in the post World War II era. The nomenclature of mental retardation itself was largely a parent production, as were various forms of community-based services and education, which were pioneered by such groups as the Association for the Help of Retarded Children in New York City (Goode, 1998) and the Children's Benevolent League of Washington (State) (Jones & Barnes, 1985). Although it is true that the Kennedy Presidency radically transformed mental retardation in the ways described in Shorter's history, this transformation was part of an overall movement in society's treatment of persons with disabilities that began after World War II and continues to this day. That movement includes the efforts of politicians, of parents, of charismatic leaders and families, and, more recently, of people with disabilities themselves. By focusing on the Kennedy family, this overall appreciation is absent. After reading chapter 4, one might get the impression, intended or not, that without the Kennedys and the Kennedy Presidency, there would have been no MR Movement. Such an impression would be a seriously incorrect one to have.

(Admittedly, the presence of parents such as Boggs, Heisel, Trudeau, and others in Washington had not led to the same kinds of successes parent groups had experienced at the state level. This is not to say that there has been no movement at the federal level as a result of parents' efforts. For example, it was largely because of the relationship between Trudeau and Fogarty that a Congressional Panel on the topic of mental retardation was created in 1956, 5 years before the creation of the President's Panel.)

Chapter 5 describes the creation and expansion of the Special Olympics. In this chapter we see again the marriage of the religious, personal, and political that was to characterize the Kennedy legacy in mental retardation. The events leading up to the Special Olympics began first and foremost with the Mrs. Shriver's personal commitment to children with mental retardation and her 1962 camp for such children that was held at her home. During this camp she was involved hands-on, in the pool with the children, organizing their activities. Her experience at that camp, I believe, is at the heart of Special Olympics and why it became the success it is today. What is impressive about chapter 5 is the level of detail of the history, the appreciation of the professional issues involved in the development of the Special Olympics approach, as well as the political and media sophistication that were necessary to create and nurture it. Here, even more than with regard to the foundation and to legislation of the 1960s, Mrs. Shriver emerges as the central driving force. She continues to be the inspiration for Special Olympics today.

In chapter 6 Shorter covers the period from the mid-1960s through the late 1980s and documents how the Kennedys managed, through the use of political strategizing and power, the legacy of mental retardation that they helped establish in the early 1960s. This increasingly involved family members other than Eunice Shriver, especially Ted Kennedy who was the family's only anchor in official government. His role in managing the legacy, especially when the Shrivers were in France, was crucial. In addition, Sargent Shriver's “buzz bomb” (his telephone) would play an increasingly important role in advancing the field of mental retardation. Of course this period also signaled the changeover from a categorical to a functional definition of disability by the government. That is, the term developmental disability was adopted in entitlement legislation (the Developmental Disabilities Act of 1970) in lieu of the categorical terms such as mental retardation, cerebral palsy, or epilepsy. Although this was a sore point to many of those who fought to have the term adopted by the government, including parents and the Kennedy family, they also appreciated why such a change was necessary and learned to work within the new framework. Indeed, the nomenclature change within the federal government did not effect the tremendous increase in funding to persons with mental retardation that occurred between the early 1960s and late 1980s. As Shorter writes, “The story of the DD Act is a classic example of the use of power, as an alliance between parents and Kennedys succeeded in obtaining large amounts of money in order to relieve a terrible social injustice” (p. 167).

In Chapter 7 Shorter describes the sharpening up of the image of the Special Olympics and Kennedy Foundation, mostly through the careful use of the media and media celebrities. Described are the vehicles employed by Mrs. Shriver to promote the Special Olympics nationally and internationally. She continued to display mastery over image management, most notably coming up with the presidential premieres and the E.T. promotion, perhaps the most singly successful advertising vehicles ever devised for the promotion of the interests of people with mental retardation. (Again, it bears mentioning that there were, as early as 1950, some very effective media advertising on behalf of children with mental retardation. See especially Gramm (1962), who described the ad taken by the Association for the Help of Retarded Children in the New York Times in December 1950. The magnitude of the reaction to the E.T. promotion and presidential premieres has more to do with conditions of social readiness in the 1980s versus the 1950s, and growth and influence of television during the same period than with the lack of effort or success of previous attempts.)

Shorter made the judgment based upon his research that Eunice Kennedy Shriver was to be the center of his story. Because of this we get particular insight into how her personal background, activities, motivations, and character helped structure the field of mental retardation. Given Mrs. Shrivers' overwhelming influence on the development of the field during the latter part of the 20th century, this is perhaps the single most important contribution of this text. Many involved in disabilities have some understanding of Eunice Kennedy Shriver's life-long dedication to our field. After reading this book, many of us will have an even deeper appreciation of the nature and extent of her public service.

In summary, Shorter's treatment of the Kennedy's involvement in the field of mental retardation is a fascinating and much needed revelation of a period about which too little history has been written. He has made wonderful use of his unique access to the Kennedy archives and of the interviews he conducted to produce a highly readable and stimulating book. I would recommend this volume highly to anyone interested in the history of the field of developmental disabilities and mental retardation. As a text it would be most useful on the upper-division undergraduate or graduate level classes related to social welfare policy, disability studies, and/or developmental disabilities.


1962, October 1
Your child is a moron … The ad that had to run—What it had to do, and what it did.
Advertising Age
And now let's build a better world: The story of the Association for the Help of Retarded Children, 1948–1998.
(Available over the Internet at http://www.AHRC.ORG)
L. A.
P. A.
Doing justice: A history of the Association for Retarded Citizens in Washington.
Olympia, WA: Association for Retarded Citizens