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Eunice Kennedy Shriver, founder of Special Olympics, stars in admiring new biography

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 4/10/2018 Charisse Jones

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It is hard to believe that we don't know all there is to know about the Kennedys. Yet we are once again in a moment when pop culture taps into America's endless fascination with the political dynasty.

There is a CNN series now airing about the famous family and a new feature filmChappaquiddick, that chronicles the events surrounding the car accident that led to the death of a young woman named Mary Jo Kopechne and derailed Ted Kennedy's presidential ambitions.

Still, those projects tend to focus on the men. Which is why Eunice: The Kennedy Who Changed the World (Simon & Schuster, 416. pp., ★★★½ out of 4) is, in many ways, a revelation.

Many likely recognize Eunice Kennedy Shriver — who married activist and diplomat Sargent Shriver in 1953 — as the founder of and force behind the Special Olympics. But in this new biography, author and Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Eileen McNamara reveals with meticulous detail and matter-of-fact prose Shriver's relentless drive, nervous energy and lifelong efforts to affirm the dignity and abilities of those with special needs. 

Eunice Kennedy Shriver et al. looking at the camera: In this Jan 28, 2005 file photo, Eunice Kennedy Shriver arrives at the Golden Jubilee Gala of the Viennese Opera Ball at New York's Waldorf Astoria. © Jennifer Szymaszek, AP In this Jan 28, 2005 file photo, Eunice Kennedy Shriver arrives at the Golden Jubilee Gala of the Viennese Opera Ball at New York's Waldorf Astoria.

McNamara relies on letters, family records and the observations of Shriver's acquaintances and family to sketch a nuanced portrait of a woman who was brusque yet charismatic, demanding and at times imperious, but also down-to-earth.

We learn that Shriver, the middle child among the Kennedy siblings, was perhaps the most like John F. Kennedy, the brother whom she adored and with whom she had the strongest bond. They shared a Georgetown home early in Kennedy's political career, struggled with the same frail health, and even sounded alike when they spoke.

After Kennedy won the White House, Shriver pushed her brother to create the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, which would go on to initiate life-saving research in the realms of maternal and child health. And while it is well-known that Robert Kennedy was a close confidante of his older brother, Shriver was also an informal adviser to the president, frequently popping by the White House to share her opinions and priorities.

Eunice does not make a clear declaration that Shriver's activism was solely driven by feelings of concern and guilt about Rosemary, the Kennedy sister who was developmentally delayed and then permanently crippled after her father made the decision to have her undergo a prefrontal lobotomy in November 1941.

John F. Kennedy et al. posing for a photo: In this April 28, 1961, file photo, President John F. Kennedy stands during a welcoming ceremony at Chicago's O'Hare Airport as Mayor Richard Daley looks on, second from left, with Kennedy's sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver, at left, and some of her children. © AP In this April 28, 1961, file photo, President John F. Kennedy stands during a welcoming ceremony at Chicago's O'Hare Airport as Mayor Richard Daley looks on, second from left, with Kennedy's sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver, at left, and some of her children.

But we learn that Eunice is the one who would play with Rosemary and take her sailing as a child. And she would honor Rosemary's life by ensuring that others with similar capabilities were nurtured, respected and included.

Eunice also highlights Shriver's other passions. For instance, while fighting for better treatment of those with special needs was her primary focus, Shriver was no less a champion for women and youths who had been incarcerated, advocating that they be seen, mentored and given second chances.

In the midst of it all, she raised five children, including journalist and former California first lady Maria Shriver. She died on Aug. 11, 2009, at the age of 88.  

Eunice offers glimpses of iconic events, such as how Shriver knelt dry-eyed to pray when she learned that John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. But those much chronicled points in history are not dwelt upon.

Because this is Eunice's story.

It's about time. 

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