Feeble Minded Institute of Kentucky--Frankfort, 1898. Image courtesy of University of Kentucky.

The Virginia State Colony For Epileptics & Feebleminded:

A Poetry Review

Written By Fraser Hammersly
Fraser Hammersly was born in San Francisco and raised in Sonoma County. She holds a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from UCLA, and currently lives and works in Los Angeles for ENDPAIN.
The Colony For Epileptics and Feebleminded

Molly McCully Brown was born next to Virginia State Colony, once a home for the “defected and disabled” members of society that has since been converted to a hospital for the severely mentally handicapped. This detail about Brown’s life is fascinating for two reasons: One, because the building serves as the inspiration behind her latest book of poetry, The Virginia State Colony For Epileptics and Feebleminded; and two, because Brown has Cerebral Palsy and often wonders if she may have ended up in the institution herself had she been born fifty years earlier.

Brown’s book of poetry is an incisive inquiry into what disabled life was like for the patients of Virginia State Colony, who were isolated from “normal” society, undergoing dehumanizing experiences such as sterilization to prevent reproduction. Her work is an exploration into the language around disability, often wondering how it shapes the self-perception of the affected as “we are the stories told to us about ourselves.” Brown believes she might have had a different experience of her own disability if the first words she learned to describe her body were not “broken” or “needing to be fixed.”

ENDPAIN’s mission statement is to “reimagine the way we think about, talk about, and process pain” and the paradigms around disability that Brown dismantles in her poetry and through her interview with Terry Gross of Fresh Air does just that. Brown’s work is continually asking us to think outside of our normal idea of what gives “value,” as she reminds us that Cerebral Palsy—a disorder that exists in the brain but affects her body—occurs in the same brain that has given her so much joy in life and the ability to write poetry. It is through Brown’s honesty and personal experience with disability in both her interview and work that we can begin to think differently about the ways in which we give value to experiences and ourselves just by the language we use to describe them.

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