Alexandra Barylski on Molly McCully Brown’s The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded
What sin warrants a blown brain,
a lame body? Where does it wait
to be born?
Molly McCully Brown’s first book, The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded, is already notable for its rich engagement with the history of eugenics and its emphasis on place as an imposing force that shapes our understanding of self. If you have lived anywhere for a significant time, especially as a child, that dirt is rarely scraped clean from under your nails.
Brown’s dirt is the red Virginia clay, which years ago stained everything in my life. While attending an evangelical university in Lynchburg, I was bitten by a tick on one of my many night hikes, though I did not know it then and thought the rash was poison ivy or oak. My body began shutting down in parts while God was elsewhere. It would take another nine years until someone could explain just how dirty my blood had become, that it will not donor itself to anyone or create a little life. My body plays host to five chronic autoimmune diseases that take up residence in the blood through chronic Lyme disease. So what preoccupies me most in this collection are the bodies suffering for some generational, Old Testament transgression and the bodies who have heard that suffering thrusts one into an uneasy salvation.
What incarnates within these pages is not whole. It is not Christ assuming perfect flesh, but rather slivers shaved from the divine and laid into vulnerable forms. To consider each fearfully and wonderfully made body in this collection without the context of Brown’s evangelical upbringing and Catholic experience is to miss the fullest scope of her poetry. Others might have dismissed any notion of God if their twin sister had died at birth and they had been born with cerebral palsy, but Brown chooses to wrestle with the incarnate spirit in all of us, and she engages the “chapel, and a locked door” where redemption is won through anguish. Suffering is often flattened or romanticized by well-meaning churchgoers who do not live life in a disabled or diseased body. Brown rounds what others compress as she lends depth, historical and personal, to the complex and suppressed identities that physical distress creates. The desire for something to reach out and save, to touch or not be touched by God or by human hands, carries an eerie undercurrent through the text.
Brown structures the collection by location and season, building her narration on the haunting legacy of the hospital where the feebleminded and epileptic girls, who run smiling or convulsing between the pages, were sentenced to forced sterilization. Of course, sterilization presumes copulation, and Brown never quite allows the reader to forget that seizures and slower minds would not have precluded these girls from desiring sex or prevented someone from seizing them by force.
“Where You Are (I)” is a portrait of girls locked behind their dormitory door:
One girl after another laughs,
lifts her hair from her neck,
moans in her sleep,
reaches out and brushes
someone else’s shoulder.
Yes, epilepsy’s ghost haunts their gestures. Nothing about the collection will allow one to forget we are, after all, in the colony where bodies are mistreated and mutilated. But could there be an air of self-made or shared pleasure here, too? While their living conditions might reduce them to movable sacks, they are girls who might have desired ribbons in their braids and the boy next door. The able-bodied girls who work in the field report that the foxes “are wildly in love,” and the speaker is reduced to “flinging: the loudest I can ache from the window.” Surely these lines do fling back at lives where friendly or romantic touch was wished for, if not experienced. Yet as the narrative continues, touch is not only rendered in lack but resignation and abuse.
A pastor speaks in another poem, “holds his hand out to every girl / even if she seems more animal, statue, or remnant of plague.” Human contact, though part of his profession, feels forced. Whatever warmth he seems to convince himself he ought to provide is undermined by his creaturely descriptions. Indeed, he confesses he is unable to pray, is thankful for the rubber-gloved last rites so that he never makes full communion: flesh to flesh. While driving home to his pregnant wife he calls down forgiveness “and louder, for protection / and the distance to forget.” He closes the gate behind him to a place that proves God and doctors will use their hands as they please, and one senses Brown knows he does not forget. Such a plea can do nothing for his unborn child’s physical fate, and we wonder who is the more wretched person in these lines. Several themes of the book converge in this poem – sin, distance, beings more gargoyle than girl. However, the contrast between the sterilized, or soon to be sterilized, bodies and this one mention of a life-filled womb proves evocative and melancholy. The unborn baby suggests a life filled with physical affection in a marriage and gestures towards an existence these women will never lead, one filled with comforting human contact. Touch, or rather what lingers after it, becomes the most terrifying specter in a book filled with ghosts.
“Where You Are (II)” is set in the blindroom, which was the colony’s term for solitary confinement. But sometimes you are not in there alone, “sometimes, someone follows you in, / puts his hands on your throat.” As you read this poem, you find a hand rising up, fingers grazing your own neck, either out of fear or sympathetic pain. In another poem, Brown renders the vulnerability of the “witless and mute” all too clearly. If sexual abuse was only hinted at in previous poems, here what happens to the girl left lying in the dark is unmistakable. So, too, the surgeries become symbolic of touch’s deprivation and mistreatment:
More people touch you
in a single day than have touched you
in all the hours of the last, dry year.
The space between their legs aches. The girls sense that what was told to them and what was done to them are not equivalent. By the end of the collection, I don’t want anyone to touch me. Especially God. Of course, it is too late – he’s already meddled with my given form.
The book’s total strength is anchored in its clear narrative, its troubled engagement with faith, and Brown’s deft use of local history that easily might have become her personal history. However, there are times when the storytelling of prose dominates the verse, and her associative, leaping verbal acts of poetry disappear in place of idea and a bit of plot. But this does not undermine Brown’s most successful achievement in the collection, her refusal to provide the hero-narrative. You know what that is, it’s where diseased, disabled, or mentally infirm people overcome their odds so that those who do not experience their body in this way might feel better about each story. And this unwillingness to concede the quick answer weaves the poems together with her belief in a God who took on flesh. But if you’ve come to or kept a faith in hopes that an easy answer that might clarify your life, Brown assures you that you will find none.
Alexandra Barylski is an associate editor for Marginalia and an award-winning poet, critic, teacher, and editor. The author of Imprecise Perishing (Finishing Line Press), she is particularly interested in chronic illness, gendered desire, and the logic of the erotic body in a world dominated by machines.