In this eloquent essay collection, Molly McCully Brown offers an account of life with a disability. Born prematurely with an identical twin who died soon after birth, Brown has cerebral palsy, a congenital condition that impedes the brain’s capacity to control the muscles. Told by doctors that she might never speak or live independently, today Brown teaches at Old Dominion University and is an acclaimed poet. Her debut poetry collection, The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded, was selected as a New York Times critics’ top book of 2017.
Brown enjoyed more mobility as a child – climbing trees and even “leaving the ground for an instant in a jump”. Growing up, she endured multiple orthopaedic interventions and braces that made her legs bleed: “my life is built to flex unconsciously around new pain”. While neurological damage affects Brown’s ability “to process numbers, space and patterns”, limited locomotion has only sharpened her poetic scalpel. “In poetry, I found a form that not only mirrored my own slowness, but rewarded the careful attention with which I had to move through the world”, she writes.
While cerebral palsy is not degenerative, spasticity has worn down Brown’s joints, rendering her increasingly reliant on a wheelchair except for short distances. As the parameters of the world she could access shrank, she moved house often, not wanting to stay anywhere long enough to be reminded of what her body had previously been able to do. In Bologna on a fellowship, Brown finds herself repeatedly thwarted at thresholds through which her chair won’t fit and myopically scoping the pavement for pitfalls. “All of this is wasted on you”, she worries.
Without a trace of self-pity, Places I’ve Taken My Body accomplishes what literature does best: it allows readers an opportunity to step into someone else’s shoes. One essay addresses casual cruelties Brown has overheard about her desirability. And yet, “I am still alive,” she writes, “still in the business of heading somewhere, still a woman who can stumble, hurt, and want, and – yes – be wanted”. Elsewhere she writes about living with the shadow of her twin and converting to Catholicism, which draws her with its emphasis on the corporeal.
While Brown offers a clear window onto her world, to corral this collection exclusively into “disability literature” would be to underestimate it. Whatever our physical capabilities, our bodies are only ever ours on loan…