Poet Molly McCully Brown’s reading from her first book, “The Virginia State Colony For Epileptics and Feebleminded,” marks a homecoming for the Amherst County native. But it’s also more than that.
The reading, part of Sweet Briar’s spring 2017 Writers Series, will take place at 8 p.m. Tuesday, March 14, at Second Stage in Amherst. Holding it off campus at the renovated church is part of an effort to strengthen connections between Sweet Briar and its community neighbors. The book’s subject, with its place in local history, and the author, are natural conduits for such a conversation.
“We’re hoping to attract Molly’s former teachers, classmates and friends as well as those interested in the complex history of the Central Virginia Training Center,” says Sweet Briar’s Julia Jackson Nichols Professor of English John Gregory Brown, using the contemporary name for the facility in nearby Madison Heights.
Brown is director of Sweet Briar’s creative writing program and organizes the Writers Series. He and his wife, Carrie, the College’s Margaret Banister Writer-in-Residence, raised Molly and her siblings on campus. Both are successful authors. Molly, now 25 and completing her M.F.A. at the University of Mississippi as a John and Renee Grisham Fellow, says the family joke is that poetry is her act of rebellion against her novelist parents.
“Colony,” the winner of Persea Books’ 2016 Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize in Poetry, will be available March 7. The poems speak in the voices of imagined patients — representations of real people committed to the hospital when it was a much different place than it is today. “Colony” is set in the 1930s at the height of the U.S. eugenics movement.
The work can be despairing, as in these verses from a poem in a section of the book called “Blindroom” for the colony’s name for solitary confinement:
In there, wherever / you came from is better. Anywhere is better. … before that, / your father’s small house & swept floors & sometimes /butter & a drawn bath / It’s important to remember that once / you had a good life. Once you did not / know how to lie in a dark room, / your cheek pressed to the floor, peering under the doorframe, / looking for the line of light.
Once you were not waiting / to leave yourself, wanting / your skeleton shaken to pieces / so that, when it ’s over, the rest of you will have nothing /at all to come back to.
In an interview with The Adroit Journal, Brown said she aims to “draw attention to the violence of having sterilized and silenced such a large population of people, and make a space to acknowledge not only the things those people might have done if given the chance, but also the whole and complicated lives they lived behind colony walls.”
The poems are personal for Brown, who has lived with cerebral palsy since birth. She wrote poignantly about her struggles in “Bent Body, Lamb,” an essay that became the most widely read piece in the journal Image in 2016.
Growing up just a few miles from the training center, Brown knew something of its past. Visiting the grounds and cemetery one day, it struck her: Born 50 years earlier, one of those graves could have been hers.
Researching the book was a revelation about being part of a community, Brown says. Until then, she’d mostly thought about how her disability divided her from everyone else.
“I’m ashamed to admit I hadn’t done very much thinking about the fact that people with disabilities have a significant shared and communal history,” she says. “It became a really important act of connection, an acknowledgment of a kind of lineage and linkage I’d never paused to feel or consider before.”
While the finished work took several years to produce, the first drafts came quickly after her initial research, Brown says.
“Once I started on the manuscript I found it difficult to stop,” she says. “Usually I’m an incredibly slow and labored writer, but it felt very much like I was accessing a world and a set of voices which were completely outside of myself.”
John Gregory Brown says his daughter’s gifts as a writer emerged early, and it was a joy to watch her develop them through hard work and commitment. Her first poem was published in the Kenyon Review when she was 16, and her work has since appeared in TriQuarterly Online, The Rumpus, Meridian and elsewhere.
She attended local schools, including Amherst Elementary, before going to the early college program at Bard College at Simon’s Rock, then to Stanford University and Ole Miss.
“Sweet Briar was a wonderful incubator for someone like Molly,” says Carrie Brown.
“Every play, every concert, every exhibition, every lecture, every class she was allowed to join, along with the rich resources of the library — and doting librarians — helped develop her intellectual life at a young age, and many, many students and faculty members were generous with their time with her over the years. … We’re grateful to them and for the childhood Molly enjoyed growing up on Sweet Briar’s campus.”
Molly says Sweet Briar and Central Virginia have lent a strong sense of place to her writing. She’s always known where home is.
“I feel really lucky to be somebody who knows that she’s from somewhere, and that she’s made up — at least in part — of all the beautiful and difficult things about it. I’ve always felt rooted in the South, in Virginia, in Amherst, and at Sweet Briar, and I think that sense of rootedness is the ground from which almost everything I write springs.”
Lately, she says, she’s written a lot of essays, but poetry remains her first love. Its enduring hold is, at least in part, connected to her cerebral palsy.
“In poetry I found a form that not only mirrored my own slowness, but rewarded the careful attention with which I have to move through the world,” Brown says.
But what drew her to poetry in the first place?
“It’s hard to say exactly. I’ve loved poems — their music and concision and strangeness — from my earliest memory.”
For more information, contact John Gregory Brown at email@example.com or (434) 381-6434.