Book Review: The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded (Molly McCully Brown)
Reviewed by Clare Mullaney
Molly McCully Brown's debut chapbook The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded (Persea Books), the winner of the 2016 Lexi Rudnitsky Prize in Poetry, offers a beautiful testimony of disability history. The preface briefly describes the Virginia State Colony (eventually renamed the Central Virginia Training Center in 1983), which opened in 1910 in Amherst County as "a government-run residential hospital" (ix). In the pages that follow, Brown takes us through a grand tour of an institution for the "feebleminded," a term that came into renewed prominence in early twentieth-century eugenic movements.
As James W. Trent notes in his book Inventing the Feeble Mind: A History of Mental Retardation in the United States, mental retardation becomes a social problem in the U.S. in the late nineteenth century, and it accrued a host of different meanings: "a moral flaw, a medical disease, a mental deficiency, a menace to the social fabric, and finally as mental retardation. Constructed sometimes in the name of science, sometimes in the name of care, and sometimes in the name of social control, these view have accompanied and reflected shifts in the social, political, economic, and cultural order in the united States" (2).1 To be "feebleminded" was to be a "half-wit" (36), "mute and monstrous" (36), a "low-grade idiot" (37), and "insane" (40).
Brown's collection offers a stark portrayal of what sociologist Erving Goffman calls "total institutions," sites where people who are cut off from societal space work, live, and sleep; places where you can no longer "remember / the outside" (4) and "there's nowhere to leave to" (12). The poems begin in the dormitory and blind room (what Brown defines as "the Colony's term for solitary confinement" (73)) and then move to the field, chapel, and infirmary, with the book's final pages returning to where we began. The poem "Where You Are" is presented in six different iterations as it's paired with new institutional sites where patients are forced to make a home.
In its emphasis on space, the book centers on perspective—who is within and outside institutional walls. The first poem, "The Central Virginia Training Center," describes a mother and daughter who drive past the center, and the daughter—peering through the car window—sees herself in those walls: "I am my own kind of damaged there," she writes. "Spastic, palsied and off balanced, / I'm taking crooked notes about this place." We might imagine Brown, who has cerebral palsy, as the speaker of this opening poem. A native of southwestern Virginia, she feels so close and yet so far away from that "small group / moving / in the channel between one building / and the next" (3). She writes: "And, by some accident of luck or grace, / some window less than half a century wide, / it is my backyard but not what happened to my body—" (4).
Brown reveals that perspective is always subjective. The sketchy categories of "sick" and "healthy," "sane" and "insane" are merely fiction; these attributions depends on who is doing the naming and when. We hear voices primarily of patients, but also caregivers ("What There is to Give," "What You're After"), a priest ("Prayer for the Wretched Among Us"), and presumably Brown herself ("To that Girl, as an Infant").
The poems, however, explore what new spaces might emerge in confinement, spaces regulated not by state officials but themselves. In "Where You Are (III)," Brown writes:
Wherever you can,
Here, we bear witness to the shrinking of "total" space and a play with scale, "the close buildings" widened by the "miles and miles / of planet outside the walls" (29). Throughout Brown's collection, "where you are" remains disorienting. It becomes hard to locate the body in this all-encompassing, institutional space (what Brown calls in her prose-poem "Transubstantiation," "this nowhere," which "looks like home" (47)), hard to mark where the self ends and "a single chair" with "a broken leg" begins (17). "They say," she writes, "every place starts to look / just like the people who move in it" (17). But darkness offers a way out of as much as a way into institutional space: "the thing about the darkness is / it makes things disappear" (17). Brown again insists in "Where You Are (IV)": "Wherever you can, / make yourself small / in your minor orbit" (32). When inmates recognize that the church is not built for them, a population already deemed sinful by their supposedly "feeble" minds and bodies: "I make an outside world / of the space / between my bones" (42), a way of reclaiming a body deemed disposable.
The book, too, confronts the long history of sterilization laws in the early decades of the twentieth century. Brown includes three documents dated 1936 from the Virginia State Colony, tucked in between the pages of her finals poems, calling for patients' sterilization, which serve as evidence of the state's desire to eliminate those deemed capable of producing "socially inadequate offspring" (58). "[T]he welfare of the inmate and of society will be promoted by such sterilization," the State Hospital Board confidently writes.
It's both easy and hard to travel through Brown's captivatingly rhythmic pages as we confront a history we don't want to read but have to. Today, as we debate what kinds of care disabled people need, these pages mean more than ever.
Title: The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded
1 James R. Trent, Inventing the Feeble Mind: A History of Mental Retardation in the United States (University of California Press, 1994).