Molly McCully Brown On Joy, Desire, Connection, and The Body As Place

Molly McCully Brown’s first book, a collection of poetry titled The Virginia State Colony For Epileptics and Feebleminded, won the 2016 Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize and was named a New York Times Critics’ Top Book of 2017. Since then, she has received a United States Artists Fellowship, a Civitella Ranieri Foundation Fellowship, the Amy Lowell Poetry Traveling Scholarship, and the Jeff Baskin Writers Fellowship, among other prizes and accolades. Brown teaches at Kenyon College, where she is the Kenyon Review Fellow in Poetry. In Places I’ve Taken My Body, Brown adroitly adds “essayist” to her long list of accomplishments with seventeen works exploring travel, religion, pain, loss, desire, and much more—all through her lens of living with cerebral palsy. 

Throughout this essay collection, you talk a lot about having versions of your body. Given the context of the world today — with the publication of your book, with the structure of academia so up in the air, with travel so diminished, with movement in general so minimized — where do you think you are now with your body?

The ways I have typically charted changes in feeling like [I’m in some new] version of my body normally fall along the lines of either a real change in the amount of pain I’m in or the level of mobility that I have or by surgical intervention when my body has literally been breached and reshaped in some physical way. But the shifts I’m feeling [now] are what, I think, so many people are feeling. They’re subtler in some ways, but I think we’ve all been forced to live with a much more present awareness of just how fragile a state it is to be a person in a body in the world at this moment in time. Also, I’m back with my folks in Virginia for the foreseeable future, and, you know, I went to college early, I moved out of my parents’ house at 16 years old, and I have lived in cities across the world very intentionally because that level of motion and travel and independence was really important to me. I’ve always had a desire for exploration and education, plus I think that desire was also tied to a kind of running away that was not always healthy, an attachment to motion that was about avoidance. This is the longest I have lived at home since I was a teenager. It’s a sort of return to a place I haven’t been to since I was an adolescent in a body that was frequently recovering from medical intervention. And so it’s a funny kind of “returning to” as much as it’s also something new. So, that’s a strange position to be in physically. I feel like I’m coming into contact with a prior version of myself that I hadn’t had to look in the face in a long time. 

How has physical pain and discomfort influenced your writing, from literally how you write to what you write about? Do you feel more aware of or connected to other people’s pain?

Because of the particular limitations on my coordination and mobility that cerebral palsy imposes, I have always written on a computer. I’ve always had to write on a computer. As I talk about in the book, I can’t write more than maybe one sentence by hand before it becomes physically painful because of the way that I have to grip a pen. And so, in a way, even the basic choices I make about my writing process are to some degree dictated by [cerebral palsy]. I don’t know whether I would be a person who loves to write by hand. I sometimes have these moments where I wish I could write in a notebook. You know, I think as artists, we often are aesthetically motivated people. And sometimes I think, oh, it’d be so nice to have a beautiful notebook. But you know, [working on a computer] is so effortless and wonderful! And it’s such a gift to be able to do that. And then, the particular degree of pain that I am in or have been in lends a kind of slowness and intentionality to much of what I do. There’s a kind of deliberateness to the way that I have to be in the world that I think—I hope—is present in my work, and it’s absolutely what drew me to poetry. Slowness and deliberateness in language does so frequently make space for transformation and revelation and magic. And you know, I don’t believe that one kind of pain or one person’s pain immediately makes you better at noticing or being available for someone else’s pain or suffering. I think that in its simplest form, [that kind of belief] can be unproductive and even dangerous; it bleeds too easily into this idea that you have to be actively suffering to make good art, or that you can only make good art when you’re miserable. In the moments when I have been in the most pain with my body or when I’ve been struggling most emotionally or psychologically, those are moments when I can’t actually make anything. So I have to be really aware of talking directly to the truth of that reality sort of after the fact, because, in the moments when my body demands the most attention, I don’t do anything except give it attention. There just isn’t space for other things, and that often feels like one of the biggest costs to me, when I feel like I can’t show up for the other things in my life, whether that’s art or literature or the people I love or my job or whatever it is because I am too busy attending to the physical realities of my own life. But I do hope that the kind of awareness with which I have to move through the world, the intentionality that I have to have to move through the world, and my understanding of this sort of simultaneous omnipresence of my own fragility and toughness make me more available to what other people are going through. The only thing we owe strangers in the world is the understanding that so much of their experience of their life is not immediately visible to us.

You often weave in expressions of gratitude within your work, even as you describe a moment of frustration or sadness. In “Calling Long-Distance,” you write, “Somewhere along the way, I got cleaved down the middle. There was my damaged body, and then there was the rest of me, desperately trying to hold that body together, thinking: I hate you, and then, I need you, and then, Thank you, and then, Please don’t fall apart!” Can you speak more to this appreciation you feel for your body and your well-being, despite the challenges you’ve gone through? Does that kind of checking in or countering yourself come easily for you?

Thanks for asking about that. I think that was something I was sort of always aware of as I was working through the book, and it’s something that’s really important to me in my own life. And in a way, it just comes down to the basic reality of being alive for me: yes, my body is the site of a lot of difficulty and a lot of pain and a lot of limitations that I chafe against and grapple with. But it’s also my body, right? It’s the body in which I live my entire life, which means it’s the body in which I eat food that is delicious, and the body in which I encounter things in the world that are beautiful, and the body with which I touch the people I love, and it’s the body in which I live out the relationships that are most important to me. Those realities are not somehow separate from my body; [they exist] in spite of it. They’re all things I do with my body. There’s plenty of grief and rage in the book. There’s plenty of resistance to feeling that grief and rage. There’s plenty of trying to outrun that grief and rage, and there’s plenty of feeling guilty for it. But there’s also a continual reckoning with the fact that there is so much that I love about my life. I do make a practice of reminding myself of all of those things because I think it’s important to keep perspective on the totality of life. The joys and the dark moments all live alongside one another. One of the things I realized as I was editing the book and feeling really anxious about it and worrying that I’d maybe written this incredibly angry, depressing collection was that the only word that appears in the book even half as many times as the word “body” is the word “love.” 

Another aspect of your writing that really stood out to me is the way you weave in your thoughts and emotions toward what you describe as your privilege. Can you speak more to this sense of privilege and how it affects the relationship you have with your body?

I think we are all having a deeply, deeply necessary conversation right now about privilege in this country—specifically as it relates to race, but also as it relates to class and to all kinds of things. And we’re all having the occasion to think about the complex intersections at which our identity occurs. I am always a disabled person; I am always a woman; I’m always a white person. Those things all make up my identity and come with certain kinds of privileges that I benefit from. I think there’s also privilege in the degree of independent motion that I am capable of. There’s privilege in the fact that I am physically capable of speaking in a way that is always intelligible to other people without any assistance. There are all these kinds of privileges that I possess alongside ways that I am not privileged. I live in a society that is not built for my body and does not value it and does not make my life any easier. I haven’t really seen myself represented in particular ways. I am always thinking about how I’m going to continue to have healthcare because the vulnerability of my body in that way is so omnipresent. 

How did you transition from writing poetry to creative nonfiction?

Oh man, accidentally! I mean, poetry was very much my first language. But I’ve also always loved to read nonfiction, and in particular essays and memoir. And I think that I was like a lot of people who are readers from a very young age and who maybe also find themselves lonely or isolated in particular ways. Books were always where I went for company. They were always where I went for community. And as I grew up, I sort of came into full awareness of the kind of inalienable realities of my body that were not going anywhere, [as well as] the fact that I had been sort of coached through being a kid with a disability. But then all of a sudden, I was an adult, and I was still disabled. There was no one in my life who really understood what that was like, you know, even though I have beloved parents who were great and who had educated themselves in every way they possibly could, and who had advocated for me at every turn, but who were able-bodied. … And so, I think I really started writing creative nonfiction about my life and about living with a disability coming into adulthood as a way [to continue] to keep myself company, and also to write the thing that I was looking for and couldn’t find.

What brought you to the use of the word “country” as a way to talk about your body?

Susannah Nevison [co-author on the book of poetry In The Field Between Us, just published by Persea], is also a writer with a physical disability, and she has also had, like me, a great deal of surgery, especially in childhood, to sort of alter and “repair” her body. We were often having these discussions in which we were sort of half-jokingly talking about our bodies as this thing that was separate from us, saying things like, “Oh, I wish every day wasn’t Bring-Your-Body-To-Work Day,” [as though] you could just leave it in the freezer. Well, we also immediately began talking about our bodies as places we know, territories that we were continually having to relearn, for both the map and the margins. I think in some ways, that sense of my body as a place, as a country, gets at [number one] my knowledge that whether I like it or not, I am intrinsically linked to my body and that there is no me apart from it. And [number two] that I often do feel separate from it and feel like it is this place that is foreign to me. We are citizens of countries; we are inhabitants of countries; we explore them while we belong to them. They are separate from us, yet they’re integral to who we are. Another thing that I write about in the book is that I literally never physically have any idea where I am in the world. So for me, the notion of a body being a place is especially poignant because I am always to some degree lost.

Do you see yourself as an activist? And do your experiences with cerebral palsy specifically influence the way that you engage with your students?

I always wanted to be an artist. And I confess that I still want to be an artist first. But I also understand that it’s a privilege to be an activist as it relates to your life and your identity, and it’s also a privilege to have the platform to be an activist. And so it’s been one of the great gifts of my work that I feel like I’ve really gotten to do both. This is maybe a reductive thing to say, but I think that, in its most basic form, being an educator is inherent to being an activist. Because educating people is an inherently political act, right? If I do one thing in the classroom, I hope it is cultivating an understanding that there is value and importance in lives that, at least on their face, look nothing like your own. I hope that the fact that I’m an educator with a disability means that I am more responsible about cultivating a classroom that is inclusive and democratic in all kinds of ways. I do believe that, as with most things in my life, [cerebral palsy] makes me careful and more intentional about what I do. I think for lots of my students, I am the first and sometimes the only visibly disabled educator they’ve encountered. And regardless of whether [disability] is something we’re discussing explicitly, it’s always a lived reality in my classroom. 

It seems there is a renewed sense of urgency these days to encourage and uplift more diverse voices, yet it still seems that hearing the voices of disabled women — especially on the topic of sex — is not very common. You point out in your essay, “The Broken Country: On Disability and Desire,” that you didn’t have any role models in pop culture to look up to as you were growing up. Has that changed for you? Are there other writers and role models out there now that you recommend for others — whether they’re young or old, disabled or not, female or otherwise — who might be hungry for those voices?

Yeah, we’re behind. But there are people out there doing incredible work. The documentary “Crip Camp,” which I think is now on Netflix, is about this summer camp for people with disabilities and how many of these campers became the leading voices of the disability rights movement. It’s extraordinary; it’s a really, really important and moving and smart and deeply political piece of media. I think everyone should go watch it, right now! Also, there are writers out there doing really wonderful work, such as Susannah Nevison. Her work and friendship have just meant an extraordinary amount to me. The writer Jillian Weise is also doing really wonderful and important work. The poet Meg Day writes really, really beautiful work, which is in part about her deafness and also her queerness, and she is a really extraordinary figure. But I still don’t think we are doing a particularly good job of uplifting or highlighting the voices of disabled writers, and I should say particularly disabled women, and I should say particularly disabled women of color. We are just failing over and over again to do a good job of that.

On the topic of disability and sex in that same essay, you write:

“…[B]ecause some of you are wondering (I see you leering at me, stranger at the bank. I see you, terrible internet date); because we live in the world we do, a world that often assumes disabled people are sexless or infantile; … I want to be clear: I can, in fact, have sex. I am a woman who wants in ways that are both abstract and concrete. … The finer points I’ll keep to myself, except to say that my familiarity with how to jump-rope the line between pleasure and pain has done me some favors. If you’re listening, younger self, some of what you’re learning will eventually have uses no one’s naming for you now, I swear.”

Why was it important for you to bring up sex and desire in this collection? What else might you say to your younger self, on the topic of sex or otherwise?

One of the most damaging stereotypes of disability, and a physical disability, in particular, is this idea that disabled people are inherently sexless, or at the very least undesirable. And I think that’s a really, really deeply pervasive and harmful cultural stereotype. I really wish someone had said to me as I was growing up, “We want to help you be as comfortable in your body as possible, but it’s not just about trying to build a body in which you can go get groceries. It’s also about building a body that could be a source of joy and intimacy and connection with someone else.” Our medical establishment just does not say that to people with disabilities, ever. And I think it’s a problem that I am still grappling with, so I wanted to say in the book explicitly: I am also a person who has been in many fulfilling sexual relationships and is capable of having sex. I wanted to say that directly because I had never read that from anyone with a disability that looked anything like mine. As a teenager, I think I would have felt a lot less alone if I had been able to read somebody saying, yep, your body can be a place where you find desire and fulfillment and intimacy and joy.

Places I’ve Taken My Body
By Molly McCully Brown
Persea Books
Published June 2, 2020