A local poet is bringing a taste of the darker side of Virginian history to Oxford at 5 p.m. tomorrow at Off Square Books.
Poet and author Molly McCully Brown will be reading excerpts from her new book “The Virginia State Colony For Epileptics and Feebleminded.”
The book features poems from the perspective of patients and staff in the Virginia State Colony, a mental institution near Lynchburg, Virginia, at the center of the American eugenics movement in the 20th century.
“I got really interested in the Colony because I grew up just a couple of miles from there,” Brown said. “From about 1915 to 1955, thousands of people with mental and physical disabilities were forcibly admitted to this hospital and sterilized, largely without their consent and often without their knowledge.”
Brown has cerebral palsy, a neurological disorder affecting muscle tone, balance and motor function, and because of this she found a connection with the patients at the Colony.
“I had this moment where I sort of realized that if I had been born in the same part of the world 50 years ago, I would have been a prime candidate for this hospital,” Brown said.
Brown has been a writer her entire life, and her parents — both novelists — encouraged her pursuits throughout her childhood and into her later years.
“My parents like to joke that my small rebellion in life was that I was a poet and not a fiction writer,” Brown said. “But writing poetry has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember.”
Brown’s perspective on the world has been changed dramatically by poetry and the poets she admires. She said the thing she loves about being a writer is training herself to pay more attention to the world and the things people ordinarily might miss.
“I find the world inspiring — both in the moments when it’s beautiful and a wonderful place to be, and in moments like in this book, that are darker,” Brown said. “The primary job of the writer is to pay attention and figure what we have to say back to the world.”
While her book will be officially released tonight at Square Books, Brown has allowed some people to preview her work and has had several teachers use it in classes.
“It’s cool to see how people have reacted to this thing that for so long only existed inside my head,” Brown said. “It’s fun to see something that you’ve dreamed up become an object in the world. Now it’s a real thing that I can hold, and that’s kind of amazing.”
Brown said writing her book did not come without its difficult moments. Between drafting, multiple rounds of revisions and finally getting published, she faced a great deal of anxiety.
“Any time you take something you care about and put it out in the world, that’s an anxiety-producing thing,” Brown said. “I think it’s because it’s not just a set of poems about my life or a place I grew up; it’s a set of poems about a really difficult and dark and important part of American history. I hope that I did justice to this thing and these people who lived these lives.”
The event will be free to the public, and copies of “The Virginia Colony” will be available for purchase.
“I’m excited,” Brown said. “I’m really grateful to all the people at Square Books for this opportunity, and I can’t wait to share this moment with them.”