Rotary Report: ‘What can be done about the mentally ill?’

Martinez author Elizabeth Koehler-Pentakoff (pictured) recently visited the Martinez Rotary Club to talk about her book, “The Missing Kennedy.” PAUL CRAIG / Courtesy)
Martinez author Elizabeth Koehler-Pentakoff (pictured) recently visited the Martinez Rotary Club to talk about her book, “The Missing Kennedy.” PAUL CRAIG / Courtesy)
Special to the Tribune

Elizabeth Koehler-Pentakoff is one of Martinez’s best-known writers. Her latest book has lessons for all of us. “The Missing Kennedy” is the story of Rosemary Kennedy, brother of President John F. Kennedy. Rosemary was born in 1918, with intellectual disabilities.

Despite the best care money could buy, according to some, Rosemary was never functional. “The best care” in her day included horrible things: a prefrontal lobotomy – a procedure popular in the 1920s and 1930s that involved icepicks in the brain. If that sounds primeval, it is.

Rosemary’s wealthy family was able to provide her with a place to live and (mostly) good care. But her life was awful, and there was nothing to be done about it.

Koehler-Pentakoff is superbly suited to write Rosemary’s sad story – Rosemary was cared for by Koehler-Pentakoff’s aunt. The story includes much first-person detail and many photographs.

The Kennedy family was motivated by their experience with Rosemary to move America toward a more humane health system. JFK’s mother, Rose Kennedy, and her son, Senator Ted Kennedy, took the lead. The Kennedy influence was strongest in the 1960s. During the Reagan years when the government largely got out of the mental health business, the mentally ill were relegated to the pavement, where they remain today.

A major legacy of the Kennedy’s is handicap access, which makes life easier for everyone wheel-chair bound. Thank the Kennedys every time you see a wheel-chair user using a sloped curb. In earlier times every curb was an impenetrable obstacle.

Is there a better way to care for the mentally ill? Koehler-Pentakoff thinks there is. She argues that our society should provide care for people unable to take care of themselves. In earlier days, society accomplished this through almshouses. They didn’t always do it well, but they did quite a lot right.

For a wonderful description of what was and what might be, I recommend a wonderful book about the last San Francisco alms-house: Victoria Sweet’s “God’s Hotel: A Doctor, a Hospital and a Pilgrimage to the Heart of Medicine.” There you’ll learn of compassion and “anima,” the invisible force that animates the soul.

Modern alms-houses wouldn’t keep our streets clear. There’s no way to solve the problems of all mentally disturbed; some folk just want to sleep wherever. However, we’re a wealthy 21st century society; compassion demands that we offer alternatives to those who can’t care for themselves, whether deserving or not. We have the ability. Will we ever gain the necessary will? I hope so. But I’m not holding my breath.

Check out Koehler-Pentakoff’s “The Missing Kennedy” from the Martinez Library. You’ll be glad you did!

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