Molly McCully Brown‘s The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded is a magnificent collection of poems, depicting the experiences of profoundly disabled persons who, shunned by mainstream society, are institutionalized and hidden from view. These are people whose bodies fail them so thoroughly they seem less than human. For Brown, these profound disabilities reveal how embodiment creates the potential for either communion or dominion, love or use, and being or nothingness.
A Communion of Brokenness
The second poem, “Where you are (i),” immediately introduces the possibilities for communion with others that being embodied allows. It describes the dormitory in which the inmates sleep, which is, like the patients, broken. The walls keep out neither the winter cold nor the summer heat. Those in the dormitory cannot isolate themselves from what is outside by putting up walls, and similarly, they cannot isolate themselves from each other’s physical presence; one girl reaches out to brush another’s shoulder; bodies do not protect abstract selves from other abstract selves, but make possible contact between tangible selves. There is a permanent openness to others which is also a vulnerability.
While the dormitory’s lack of shelter is clearly negative, the possibility to communicate affection with a touch, to be open to accepting another’s care, is a positive. In this touch, there is tenderness and friendship. However, the danger of being vulnerable to another’s touch is revealed fully in “The Cleaving,” in which a patient being unwittingly sterilized notes that
More people touch you
in a single day than have touched you
in all the hours of the last, dry year.
The people touching the patient are not gently brushing a shoulder, but preparing her for “the day / I was cleaved from my body.” They lie to her, saying she needs an appendectomy, instead of admitting they’ve deemed her unworthy to be a parent.
For Brown, to have a body, whether disabled or not, is to be open to receiving something from others, either good or ill. In the Theology of the Body, Pope St. John Paul the Great describes the “double solitude” that allows communion: bodies delineate where one person ends and another begins, but bodies can also experience union, most obviously nuptial union, but also in other acts of love; however, these bodies can also receive abuse that a disembodied self cannot, and these vulnerable patients are especially vulnerable to this dominion.
Because these poems insist so much on the possibilities being embodied afford a person, the greatest threat is to be unmade, to be removed from the possibility of communion, which the patients face in the section of poems depicting the Blind Room, or solitary confinement. Where they are alone and in the dark is where “the world unmakes itself,” as the speaker in “The Blind Room: An Execration” says; where there’s no chance of communion is where their bodies are least important. In “New Knowledge for the Dark,” the speaker describes the blind room as the place that makes every other place seem desirable, making it a Hell where there is no love or communion with others, but it’s also where he urges himself to think about his body, and also God. In the dark ether comes an awareness of the importance of the body. Indeed, in “The Blind Room: A Consecration,” in the unmaking of the world and the loss of everything, the speaker comes to hear Gabriel calling. This is reminiscent of T.S. Eliot’s East Coker, in which the speaker says,
I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you
Which shall be the darkness of God. As, in a theatre,
The lights are extinguished, for the scene to be changed
With a hollow rumble of wings, with a movement of darkness on darkness,
And we know that the hills and the trees, the distant panorama
And the bold imposing facade are all being rolled away—
Or as, when an underground train, in the tube, stops too long between stations
And the conversation rises and slowly fades into silence
And you see behind every face the mental emptiness deepen
Leaving only the growing terror of nothing to think about;
Or when, under ether, the mind is conscious but conscious of nothing—
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
It is in the dying to self, when there’s no assertion of oneself over God, in the stillness and silence of the darkness, that the inmate can have an epiphany. Again, Brown presents us with a paradox, this time that the solitary confinement of the blind room is a Dantesque hell where even personhood is unmade by the unmaking of a body, but in the unmaking of the body, paradoxically, there is a death to self that allows God to enter. Along these lines, Pope Benedict XVI discussed the need for silence and stillness in prayer, saying,
Silence can carve out an inner space in our very depths to enable God to dwell there, so that his word will remain within us and love for him take root in our minds and hearts and inspire our life. Hence the first direction: relearning silence, openness to listening, which opens us to the other, to the word of God.
However, there is also a second important connection between silence and prayer. Indeed it is not only our silence that disposes us to listen to the word of God; in our prayers we often find we are confronted by God’s silence, we feel, as it were, let down, it seems to us that God neither listens nor responds. Yet God’s silence, as happened to Jesus, does not indicate his absence. Christians know well that the Lord is present and listens, even in the darkness of pain, rejection and loneliness.
Like with Brown, there is a tension here: between silence being a self-effacement that allows God to enter or being the sign of God’s absence. The silence, darkness, and isolation of the blind room paradoxically embody all these different possibilities.
What World Are They For?
This sense that the broken-bodied are between Heaven and Hell, between communion and dominion, between this world and the next, leads one to ask just which world these people are meant for. The staff tending to the patients can’t understand their conditions, which seem to have otherworldly origins and ends. In “Without a Mind,” the speaker asks
What sin warrants a blown brain,
a lame body? Where does it wait
to be born?
This clearly alludes to John 9, in which the Apostles ask whose sins led to the man being born blind, and Jesus replies that this blindness is not because of sin, but to show the glory of God. The problem is that in these poems, Christ doesn’t encounter the inmates along the side of the road and heal them. So, does the answer still stand? Indeed, there seems no glory in blown brains, cavernous faces, and people who can’t even reproduce the echo of another’s voice. In “A Dictionary of Hereditary Defects,” the speaker lists these faults and concludes the patients “are not for this world,” and must be sterilized.
The inmates are a sign of despair for the colony’s staff; the chapel was built for the staff because this place is where they need God more than ever. As the speaker says in “The Convulsions Choir,”
I am the worst thing
the reasoned world
However, confronted with the worst things in the world, the staff don’t even use the chapel build for their own use; they bar the inmates in the chapel instead. They abnegate their responsibilities and let God handle the mess, and this refusal to love people is a refusal to turn to God. The “normal” people, challenged by how the broken people straddle two worlds, push the broken people out of their world. Indeed, Brown herself asks, in her essay “Bent Body, Lamb,” whether it’s “absurd to adhere to a religion whose most central rituals my body won’t even let me perform?” Her own body prevents her from genuflecting, or kneeling and standing in the liturgy. Can she be truly meant for the world of the Church?
Even sterilizing the patients, so they don’t bear similarly disabled children, is justified by saying that these patients aren’t for this world. This unflinching presentation of cruel dominion over others is, of course, not something that belongs to the first several decades of twentieth-century Virginia. We sill wonder about sterilizing a disabled child for a better life. In France it’s inappropriate to show happy people with Down Syndrome in a television advertisement, in Iceland, they’ve “basically eradicated” Down Syndrome through abortion. In North America, the same attitudes regarding people with Down Syndrome are at play, even if they’re not yet that extreme, and so we stand indicted of the same contempt Brown exposes.
Jeffrey Tranzillo, in John Paul on the Vulnerable, discusses the application of the Theology of the Body to disabled persons, saying,
Every human being is a bodily person created in God’s image. That decisive fact of human existence us the true measure according to which we must understand ourselves in general and the meaning of human vulnerability in particular. Like everyone else, vulnerable human beings transcend the whole material order of created being – they are ends in themselves – from the first moment of their existence. That is true regardless of whether the nature of their vulnerability allows them self-consciously to reflect on and to assert that truth for themselves … However weak, undeveloped, unaware, poor, disabled, deformed, or dependent some vulnerable persons might be, their somatic homogeneity with us… signals to us, objectively, the real presence of a person…
…even the most vulnerable persons can and do establish bonds of mutual self-giving and other-receiving with other human beings directly and concretely through the body. Indeed, their bodily vulnerability is often the main or the only means by which they express themselves as person-gifts and thus invite others – with the force of a moral imperative – to welcome that gift freely by the reciprocal gift of themselves, which the vulnerable are naturally disposed and able to receive in turn. Like every other human being, then, vulnerable persons communicate one way or another by means of the same Gift-Language spoken by the three divine Persons in the intra-Trinitarian communion of Love.
Sine that is the case, it follows that from the moment we come into existence as exceedingly vulnerable persons, we are equipped for an entrusted with the mission to love and to be loved, to give the personal gift of self and to welcome the personal gift of other selves…
…By receiving their self-gift in the very act by which we reciprocally give ourselves as a gift to them, we affirm the vulnerable as subjects of truth and love whose value and dignity transcend their vulnerability and shine forth through it.
Therefore, disability doesn’t mean the patients are meant only for another world but indeed makes them vital to this one. The caregivers, however, neither accept the patients’ self-gift not give themselves in return. They relive the sin of Adam and Eve, preferring to hide their patients from their sight in the chapel (and thereby hide from God), objectifying them as things that either have social utility or not, and wallow in the shame of not being able to love.
Suffering and Personhood
Molly McCully Brown doesn’t let her readers off easy. Her patients aren’t romanticized; instead, they’re children who are baptized though they will never begin to understand the concept of God, who are “caught between human and animal,” who are destroying themselves “from the inside out,” who will never make a more “useful” noise than echoing what doctors shout at them. They are terrifyingly broken, and yet, at the end of the collection, one of the speakers concludes,
this is what no one tells you about suffering
sometimes you would not give it up for all the world.
Because if you did give it up, you would be giving up your entire world. A love that is true love and seeks to put the other person ahead of oneself, that unmakes oneself in favour of loving the other, is a love that gives up one’s entire world. In a wonderful interview with NPR, Brown speaks of how Catholicism
never forgets that to be a person is inherently and inescapably and necessarily to be in a body — a body that brings you pain, a body that brings you pleasure, a body that can be a barrier to thinking more completely about your life and your soul — but [that it] can also be a vehicle to delivering you into better communion with the world, with other people and to whatever divinity it is that you believe in.
What Catholicism did for me, in part, is give me a framework in which to understand my body as not an accident or a punishment or a mistake, but as the body that I am meant to have and that is constitutive of so much of who I am and what I’ve done and what I hope I will do in the world.
We speak so often as if our bodies are something we possess, that the “I” can be abstracted into the ether, and is a ghost that operates a meat machine. Brown rejects that abstraction; her persons are indelibly concrete, and it is not the case that an abstract “I” could be operating one of any number of very different bodies. Therefore, to renounce that body is to renounce the self, which is precious even though, paradoxically, it is silent self-renouncement that lets Gabriel approach.
And so, yes, these patients are for this world, at least as much as anyone else is. Their flaws are the memorably graphic ones, but the nurses and doctors and surgeons and chaplains who fear them and detest them and cannot love them are just as flawed, though these flaws aren’t immediately visible. In “Prayer for the Wretched Among Us,” the chaplain who begs for forgiveness for his inability to love and for “the distance to forget” must pour “Holy Water from a chipped blue pitcher” like St. Paul’s fragile jars of clay that show that this all-surpassing power is from God, not man. And he’s just as fragile as the patients, just as much in need of care, healing, and love.