Imaginings from a World Too Close to Home - Poet Molly McCully Brown writes of the lives inside the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded
There are things I don't imagine. Places that I won't let my mind wander to. The nature of the close call is too close for me. I don't think of what it would have been like if my child with cerebral palsey was born five, ten, twenty, forty years earlier. How the world would look at him, what his life would be like, if he would even be welcomed in school. It's a hard corner that I turn away from every time I approach it.
Which is why its taken me so long to finally open Molly McCully Brown's The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded. I've been circling around this book since summer of 2017, when I first heard about it on Terry Gross's Fresh Air. Brown grew up in rural Virginia, and near her home was the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded. She passed the Colony nearly every day. And as a woman born with cerebral palsey she is painfully aware that had she been born only fifty years earlier, she could have been shuttered away in that very place.
The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded was where society closed off those it found unfit. In 1927, Carrie Buck, one of the patients of the Colony, sued the State of Virginia, and her case eventually made it o the Supreme Court. Buck vs. Bell is the infamous eugenics case where Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes stated "three generations of imbeciles are enough" and the Supreme Court upheld the forced sterlization of Carrie Buck on the grounds that she was polluting the gene pool with her idiocy. It is with this painful back drop of history that Brown begins her collection. The collection is short, 70 pages in length, and the bulk of it focuses on the imagined lives of people, both patients and staff inside the Virginia Colony from fall 1936 to spring 1937.
It is impossible, as the mother of a child with cerebral palsey to not see this book as both the embodiment of hope for all my child can achieve and the encompassing fears I carry every time he meets someome new, goes someplace different, moves on. Like my son, Molly McCully Brown has cerebral palsey. Like my son, her disability makes it difficult to walk smoothy or write smoothly. And I am sure that, like my son, she's as been called plenty of names that Oliver Wendell Holmes and the eugenecists of his day would have been familiar with. Yet today Brown holds an MFA from the University of Mississippi, she is the Jeff Baskin Writers Fellow at the Oxford American, and her first published collection of poetry has won the Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize, is a New York Times Critics' Top Book and has received worldwide recognition. However, both Brown and I recognize how few years have passed since Buck vs Bell was decided (and has never been overturned). How, even today, people with disabilities are never granted the presumption of equality that everyone else has, how the world still sees people with disabilities as lacking, or worse, until proven otherwise. Proof of which must be made again and again, in every new situation, with every new person.