Was Eleanor Roosevelt Molested as a Child?


Ms. Rathi is an HNN intern.

For years there have been allegations that Eleanor Roosevelt was sexually abused by either her governess or her father or even by her uncles. Is there anything to these allegations?

The public image of Eleanor Roosevelt was carefully crafted. She appeared to be a privileged child of the upper classes who gave devotedly of herself to social causes affecting people who hadn’t shared the model family life with which she had been blessed. A look beneath the surface however shows something very different. Eleanor’s early family life was troubled. Anna Roosevelt and Elliot Roosevelt, Eleanor’s parents, had a rocky relationship filled with recurring marital problems. Elliot was absent from home a great deal, first to travel and drink, later to family-imposed sanitarium "cures." He was charming when sober, but angry, demanding, and cruel when drunk. Eleanor’s mother, Anna, was an extremely beautiful and social person and a descendant of the New York Livingstons. When Eleanor turned out to be a plain and somewhat awkward child, her mother often criticized her; in effect Eleanor never developed solid maternal bonds. Later, after her mother passed away from diphtheria and her father died of alcoholism. Eleanor was sent to live with her Grandmother Hall, where she was taken care of by a French governess, Madeleine.

Geoffrey Ward explores the notion that Eleanor might have been abused by her governess in his biography of FDR, Before the Trumpet. Madeleine purportedly controlled Eleanor's life twenty-four hours a day for nearly seven years. Eleanor wrote that she never liked Madeleine and at times she felt “desperately afraid of her.” She also says that through the years she could never remember precisely why. She recalled that Madeleine was a demanding teacher who punished her often. For example, when Eleanor’s darning was not up to par, Madeleine would take her scissors and cut another big hole for Eleanor to fill in. Also, if Eleanor was late getting to bed she “not only got a scolding, but [her] hair was unmercifully pulled.”

Iin Before the Trumpet Mr. Ward makes it clear that his theory that Eleanor was abused cannot be positively backed up by evidence; his conclusons are based on a careful review of Eleanor’s autobiography and letters. Ward writes: “what else was it that had been so terrible that her conscious mind could not later summon it up? Had there been more physical abuse than mere hair pulling? Might there have been an element of molestation in it, something that might help account for her later deep ambivalence about sex? No one will ever know.”

Alhough there is no substantial proof that Eleanor was in fact sexually abused by her governess, there are some factors that make the charges of abuse plausible. First, Eleanor was always a quiet and unassertive child, making her a vulnerable target for abuse. In fact, Eleanor did not suggest any unhappiness to her grandmother until the age of thirteen, seven years after Madeleine began caring for her. At thirteen she broke down to her grandmother, and remembered that she could not stop sobbing as she “confessed” it. The use of the word “confession” indicates that whatever the nature of the abuse, psychological, physical or sexual, Eleanor felt that she was responsible for it, making the consequences of abuse even more disastrous. Though she did not remember what she confessed, whatever it was compelled her grandmother to immediately dismiss Madeleine and replace her. Eleanor’s patchy account of the event seems evidence of the defense mechanism known as repression. Often, when girls are physically or sexually abused at a young age they block out their memories of the events. Eleanor Roosevelt’s ability to remember that she was deeply upset and terrified and her inability to recall why she was upset suggest repression.

TR Biographer Kathleen Dalton agrees that Eleanor had represed her memories of abuse. But Dalton argues that the repression was caused by her father’s abuse. She writes: “ Psychologically speaking it is possible for a child like Eleanor to be treated cruelly, even sexually abused, and still suppress the unpleasant memory and idealize her abusive parent.  It happens all the time. Certainly Eleanor idealized Elliott and refused to believe anything bad about him for years.  She had to believe good things about him.  He was the only parent who really loved her.”

Dalton is one of the few biographers to explore the notion of abuse by Eleanor’s alcoholic father. When Dalton read Eleanor’s correspondence and the reaction of the Theodore Roosevelt side of the family to Eleanor and Elliot’s relationship, she suspected something was awry. Dalton writes in her biography of Theodore Roosevelt that Bamie, Theodore’s sister, who stayed with Elliot and Anna during a particularly troubled time, reported that the family was scared of Elliot, particularly during his drunken rages. TR’s wife Edith wrote Bamie: “I have locked away the letters you wrote Theodore as to little Eleanor.” The letter contained hints of abuse worse than drunken shouting matches. Moreover, it was obvious to the family that Eleanor in particular, more than the two male children, needed protection from their father. Bamie pleaded for Eleanor to be sent to Teddy' home at Sagamore Hill, where she would be “safe.” In addition, Theodore recognized the fact that his brother had degenerated into a “dangerous maniac” and a man “absolutely lacking in moral sense.” He too acknowledged that it was not safe to allow Eleanor to see Elliot unsupervised. Edith commented that she did “not feel she [Eleanor] had much of a chance poor little soul,” because of the damage her father inflicted on her. Dalton in a footnote indicates that in the Ward biography, Before the Trumpet, Edith’s suggestion to send Eleanor to a “good school” may have been to keep her out of her father’s hands.

A member of the extended Roosevelt family, Elizabeth Winthrop, wrote a novel, In her Mother’s House, which describes sexual abuse of a daughter by a man modeled after Elliott. It is quite clear that the Roosevelt family believed that Elliot had inflicted some kind of abuse on Eleanor. Again, there is no concrete evidence, but who would know the situation better than the closest of kin to Eleanor’s nuclear family?

The only direct contradiction to the allegations made against Elliot are Eleanor’s memories. Elliot died when Eleanor was nine. But he left a positive and lasting impression. Eleanor said, “With my father I was perfectly happy…. He was the center of my world and all around him loved him.” In 1937, when she wrote her memoirs she looked back with affection upon him. She dedicated her book “To the memory of my father who fired a child’s imagination.”

With these contradictory accounts, the issues of sexual abuse are difficult to sort out. Blanche Wiesen Cook, author of the most comprehensive biography of Eleanor Roosevelt, suggested that Eleanor’s uncles may have abused her. When Professor Cook was asked her opinion about the alleged sexual abuse by Elliot, she told HNN, “No, absolutely not. There was never any sexual abuse by Elliot. Eleanor looked to her father as a knight in shinning armor, he was her joy.”

The truth of the matter is that we will never really know what happened to the adolescent Eleanor. Her complicated familial relations combined with her timid and somewhat reserved personality make it impossible to decipher the intricacies of her childhood. Though we may never know exactly what happened, one thing is striking. In 1899, when Eleanor’s grandmother sent her to Allenswood, a girls’ boarding school in England, Eleanor was taken under the wing of Marie Souvestre. There she became more assertive and learned to be independent. When she was removed from her familial circumstances, with her uncles, her mother, her father, her governess and grandmother, Eleanor thrived. When she returned to New York in 1902, she was a different person. Without the abuses and strains of her family, Eleanor blossomed into the lady she later became known as—the First Lady of the World. Interestingly, Eleanor Roosevelt’s quotes appear on many sexual abuse and physical abuse websites. This quote in particular is especially popular:

I gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which I must stop and look fear in the face.

I say to myself, “I’ve lived though this and can take the next thing that comes along”

We must do the things we think we cannot do, if we wish to grow and really live life.


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More Comments:

Edward J. Renehan Jr. - 4/1/2006

Dear Kathy:

1) I don't think Theodore Roosevelt is a part of this equation. He wasn't Eleanor's father. TR's brother (Eleanor's Dad) was a drug- and alcohol-addicted miscreant whom no-one, including TR, would defend. The only point I've tried to make is that the evidence for abuse of Eleanor by her father his virtually non-existant, and that the theory is highly speculative. Another point: If there were abuse of Eleanor, which I doubt, I don't see how that would reflect one way or the other on TR.

2) I'm running the back-office of the TRA for the moment on a part-time basis, installing new hardware and software systems, and putting the place on a sound business model for the first time ever --- keeping the wheels on until a strategic plan is developed and a longtime CEO appointed. I'm NOT the next John Gable. I'm not out in the trenches working PR for TR. And I wasn't speaking for the TRA in my comment above.


Kathleen Dalton - 2/21/2006

Dear Ed,
How are you? It is logically possible for a father like Elliott not to see his daughter often and still abuse her. It is not the frequency of the contact but the craziness or the drunkenness of the abuser that is the issue. I have no idea whether ER was abused--Geoffrey Ward raised the original question and I have never heard anyone explain in a satisfactory way what the correspondence on the TR side meant in terms of its urgent concern about protecting ER from her father and keeping things quiet afterward. Also what sense does the TRA make of the Elizabeth Winthrop book? Just fiction?
You may write as a civilian rather than as head of the TRA, but let's broaden the conversation a bit. The TRA has had a strange historic desire to control the story of the Roosevelts. How about the TRA's efforts to keep Kermit's suicide quiet? And the TRA's attempts to keep Elliott's behavior bowlderized in print? Maybe it is no different from some presidential libraries' attempts to act as Press Office for Dead Presidents--try to defend their reps even after they're gone. The Nixon library is the most blatant but then that is somehow continuous with Nixon's policies toward lying while in office. I seem to recall some TRA attempts to convince everyone that TR himself never told a lie--gosh, I can disprove that myth easily--I think I did in my book!!!! In the old days we could always start a good fight over this question with our mutual friend John Gable, but he is gone now. So now, Ed, do you want to fight?
What is the problem with the TRA wanting to control the Roosevelt story all these years later? Cheers,
Kathleen Dalton

Edward J. Renehan Jr. - 2/20/2006

Here's the thing: Eleanor was hardly ever, if at all, alone with her father. She was in her seventh year when he went into an asylum in 1891, and he'd been only a sporadic guest at home in the months before that. After he got out of the asylum, he had only the most infrequent, sporadic visits with his kids, all of them closely supervised, because the guy was on booze on drugs. Everyone knew it and no-one was going to risk the children. As well, his whoring and maintenance of a mistress do not support an argument for pedophilia. Nor does Eleanor's subsequent devotion to the man's tainted memory. I agree it seems likely something dark in the way of abuse lingered in Eleanor's past - but I'm inclined to think the truth rests in one of the theories advanced, respecitvely, by Blanche Cooke and Geoff Ward.