“Molly McCully Brown’s first book of poems, “The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded,” is part history lesson, part séance, part ode to dread…it is beautiful and devastating.”The New York Times
Poet Molly McCully Brown’s prizewinning first collection, The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded, is about a real, state-run residential hospital for people with serious mental and physical disabilities that was the epicenter of the American eugenics movement in the first half of the twentieth century. All the poems are in the voices of imagined patients and staff on the Colony grounds in the 1930s. The result is a beautiful and excruciating consideration of the theological meaning of the human body in all its imperfection and suffering. The New York Times book critics named it a Top Book of 2017.
If she’d been born in another time, Molly Brown might have been a patient at the Virginia Colony. She grew up just a short drive away from that facility, and she was born with cerebral palsy, severely physically disabled. Her twin sister, Frances, died 36 hours after their birth.
Brown’s essay, “Bent Body, Lamb”, originally published in Image 88 and our most-read essay of 2016, begins with the author and her mother lying in the dark heat of their Virginia home on a summer night, enduring, together, the physical torment of Molly’s post-op leg convulsions. In a moment of despair and adolescent bravado—she was about 14 at the time—Molly turns to her mother and snarls, “God isn’t real,” and adds, with deliberate cruelty, “this is all your fault.”
From the raw intimacy of that moment, the essay expands into a consideration of the meaning of bodily suffering and then to a comic, tender, and profound narration of how an intellectual “interest in religion” led, during her MFA program, to a sincere conversion to Catholicism.
Molly Brown has two more books forthcoming in 2020: In the Field Between Us, a collection of collaborative poems about living in disabled bodies, written with Susannah Nevison, and an essay collection called Places I’ve Taken My Body.
We sat down at the Catholic Imagination Conference at Loyola University in Chicago to talk about her childhood in Virginia, the unexpected gifts of artistic friendship and collaboration, and how Catholicism responds, and doesn’t, to the problem of the body.
- “Bent Body, Lamb” by Molly McCully Brown
- Buck vs. Bell
- Central Virginia Training Center
- Susannah Nevison, Teratology
- In the Field Between Us by Molly McCully Brown and Susannah Nevison
- “Proof, Matter, Stars” by Molly Brown and Susannah Nevison in Image 100
- Places I’ve Taken My Body by Molly McCully Brown
- Catholic Imagination Conference 2019
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.