In her remarkable debut, The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded, Molly McCully Brown revisits the history of a state-run institution that sterilized patients without their consent, offering readers the opportunity to confront the dark realities of the eugenics movement. With a documentary approach, Brown bases the poems on the historical evidence she gleans from archival research. Exploring the perspectives of the colony’s caretakers, and patients, Brown pays tribute to an unacknowledged chapter from our nation’s dark history.
This collection serves as evidence of Brown’s curiosity and bravery in facing what she considered unknown and scary. Similarly, it can be an act of discovery for the reader as well. Readers might be alarmed to come across such wreckage that they once failed to notice. However, Brown invites readers to understand, rather than rebuking them for not knowing. Brown’s collection reminds us that poetry builds empathy that can raise the awareness needed to foster change.
Readers may have never heard of the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded, a blind room, or known of the sterilizations posed as appendectomies in the state-run institution located in Virginia. Brown’s book allows readers to recognize that this lack of knowledge is a privilege, for the painful history that took life away from innocent girls is a history that must be known. Although much has changed, these poems can encourage us to understand ways in which our current society can do better. While it’s easy for readers to see the title and feel far removed from history, this collection of poems works to close that gap of separation, to use these imagined patients as windows into a haunting past.
The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded by Molly McCully Brown. Persea Books, 2017.
Reviewer bio: Kelly Williamson is a senior at Loyola University Maryland minoring in writing. She has published poems in her school’s literary magazine, Corridors.