Written with piercing clarity and unmatched beauty, Places I’ve Taken My Body is a collection that offers a compelling look at the human body. Molly McCully Brown has injected her essays with the dancing lyricism of her highly praised poetry. She has a talent for making unique and brilliant connections between art and life, the result being a rich and insightful analysis of existence that extends far beyond her own. Her body is but a drop in a long and complicated history of anatomy, which Brown explores with a depth that is both refreshing and timeless.
Brown was born prematurely and with cerebral palsy, a congenital condition that affects the brains’ ability to control the muscles. Her birth is also overshadowed by the loss of her identical twin, who died shortly afterwards. In Places, Brown details how her parents were told that she may never speak or live independently; fast forward, and Brown is now an accomplished professor and writer, her success made from her ability to write with such gut-wrenching beauty.
Although largely focused on her life with a disability, Places expands far beyond this. Brown’s writing allows us to step inside another person’s shoes and explore our own relationship to our bodies. In moving through the origins of anatomy, finding religion, traversing the globe, and uncovering dark periods of medical history, Places pushes us to confront what it means to inhabit a body and what lies beyond the muscle and bone.
Even after the first few pages of Places, one thing is abundantly clear – Brown is a writer who is acutely aware of her own body, the space it takes up, and the energy it takes to navigate such areas. In writing about her own limitations, as readers, we can’t help but begin to look inward and consider our own physical existences in the places we have been. Brown is forced to consider more than most what it takes to carry herself forward. I came to Brown’s writing with respect and admiration, not only for the things she has recognised but the extent to which she has encouraged others to examine their own spaces.
In much of Places, we’re taken back to the time of Brown’s residency in Europe, which she begins in the Italian city of Bologna. A classical city filled with cobbled streets and narrow pathways, Brown literally struggles to navigate the area, fuelling feelings of frustration and isolation. Yet these periods of extreme perseverance also give way to an education that perhaps the writer wasn’t aware she needed. During her trip, Brown visits the so-called birthplace of modern-day surgery, and is faced with the literal examinations of bodies torn apart and resewn, the people who (often unwillingly) gave their flesh so we could better understand our own. For Brown, these visits are almost spiritual. She details that her first memories are of being cut open and stitched back together again – she, more than many, understands the gruelling procedures and also the significance of the place.
Brown also experiences a more traditional religious and spiritual reckoning, in her connection to the church later in life. These essays and passages suggest a grounding where perhaps one was lacking. Brown finds herself in a community that doesn’t question her need to understand her physical existence and the subsequent loss of her twin sister. Religion allows her to explore the possibility of a higher being and is also something she comes to entirely on her own – we get the impression that this alone is significant, while her life has been continuously governed by the changing state of her body.
Indeed, Brown’s essays take us across the USA and even overseas, as she attempts to outrun what her body could previously do. Though cerebral palsy isn’t degenerative, Brown finds herself becoming increasingly reliant on a wheelchair, due to the wearing down of her joints. In the places, she lives she finds that over the years, she is surrounded by reminders of things she could once accomplish. Brown becomes almost a nomad upping herself and leaving those memories of her body behind, it being too emotionally painful to stay in this nostalgia. For anyone who has suffered from a physical and even psychological condition, this intense notion of looking backwards is only too relatable. Reconciling with the ‘old self’ seems impossible to do. Instead, avoidance and moving forward are the only options.
There are times, though, when Brown’s looking backwards in time has a significant impact beyond her own existence. The essay around The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded (also the subject of Brown’s first book) involves Brown undertaking research into the women whose conditions meant they were othered and criminalised. Brown recognises how close the stories are to her own – epilepsy was a condition that was thought to be the cause of a number of physical deformities – and, given how literally close the Colony was to her home, could have been her life. In her writing, she pays homage to the women whose livelihoods and were muted, so that she (alongside many) were afforded a life of beautiful desire. A poignant and heartbreaking section.
To put Places simply in the category of disability literature would be reducing the significant impact and effect of the book. Through her own examination of her body, Brown has produced a collection of intense relatability, one that not only gives a profound insight into her life but also encourages us to look down and into our own bodies. Much more than flesh and bone, they are things that can betray us, surprise us, and carry us forward in the most fascinating of ways.
Places I’ve Taken My Body is published by Faber and is available here.
Molly McCully Brown
Molly McCully Brown is the author of The Virginia State Colony For Epileptics and Feebleminded (Persea Books, 2017), which won the 2016 Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize and was named a New York Times Critics’ Top Book of 2017. With Susannah Nevison, she is also the co-author of the poetry collection In The Field Between Us (Persea Books, 2020.) Her poems and essays have appeared in Tin House, Virginia Quarterly Review, The New York Times, the Paris Review, and elsewhere.
Reviewed by Mariah Feria
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