A poet by trade, Molly McCully Brown now turns her hand to memoir, using a series of essays to trace the year she spent living in Europe, travelling on a fellowship, exploring Italy, and attempting to use those experiences to write something new. Brown lives with cerebral palsy, a condition I know only a little about, and although the semantics of her disability are different from my own, I felt profoundly connected to her through her expressions of body, chronic pain, the desire to achieve, and the desire to disappear.
The beginning essays discuss mere existence as a disabled person, lamenting the ways society views these bodies as less than, the complex systems that must be traversed to access care, and the dismissal of symptoms that cannot always be seen. Discussing pain in her essay “Muscle Memory,” Brown notes: “When you ignore something, you see it, still, in the corner of your vision. You know it is there, you just refuse to turn your head. This is a tactic I use all the time with chronic pain. I feel it but I decline to attend.”
If you’ve ever spent time in an ancient European city, you’ve probably tripped over a wonky curb, stumbled up old winding steps, and pushed your sweating body against a tall brick wall to let other tourists pass by in a narrow alley. You may have not spent time in a wheelchair, but casting your mind back to those trips, maybe you can see that these places are not compatible with anything other than fully functioning bodyminds. It also seems that the old age of these places is their excuse; there is a choice being made: preservation of history over lives of the present, an understanding that the eras past must be maintained.
On bodies, Brown deftly navigates the maps we draw of ourselves. She lingers over the contradictions created in a body that does not conform to others’ ideals. She notes the stares of strangers and the looks of willful ignorance when attempting to maneuver through unforgiving Italian streets, but she is mostly concerned with the internal desire of conformity—what happens to us when external forces breed dislike for our bodies that will not comply?
Describing her own map in the essay “If You Are Permanently Lost,” Brown writes:
“If there is any territory I should know well, it is the country of my own body. So much of my life has been devoted to attending its margins and features: its tenuous center of gravity; the tense curl of my hamstrings and heel cords; the banks of calluses along the perimeter of my feet, hardened from walking on my toes with my feet listing stubbornly to one side; the thickets of scarring behind my knees and at my ankles, and the fading ridgeline where they sliced me open at the spine. I’ve had so many cartographers and architects: doctors’ appointments and surgeries designed to know and map my body, alter its geography, to make it more habitable. It, at least, should be comprehensible: place instead of merely space.”
Brown has published two poetry collections. Themes from her debut collection, The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded, are redrawn in prose in an essay of the same title. She explores her relationship to Catholicism, the clear contradictions posed to a sick person believing in an almighty power. She refers back to her youth, coming of age in a household that believed in books over bibles and trusted science as the truth. Highlighting the complex relationship between disabled children and nondisabled parents, she lays bare the multitude of feelings she had toward her mother growing up. Her prose sings when discussing the most intimate subjects, as is to be expected when poets turn to long form—they never forget the musicality of single lines. She dives into the landscape of evangelical Christian fundamentalism, having been raised just down the road from one of America’s mega churches. She interviews professors at the infamous evangelical college, Liberty, and presents them with the contradictions of a religion that believes in all good but openly worships at the feet of a man who spreads hatred.
As the collection of essays closes, we return to Italy and to Brown’s reflections on living abroad as a disabled writer, and I find myself mourning alongside her. She longs to immerse herself in Italian cities that claim their ancient architecture as a rebuttal to arguments about the lack of accessibility for chair users. She laments experiences being wasted on a body that cannot see what the city wants to show her. I, for one, disagree that this is the case. Places I’ve Taken My Body is an alternative travelogue, a reimagining of places that previously have been viewed as a Mecca only to Insta-worthy images, and a salve to those of us in bodies that are not well-suited to traversing ancient city walls.