Book Review: Places I've Taken My Body and A Dash of Frankenstein
Updated: Feb 17
I was sixteen when I first read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. I thought it was genius and I’ve thought that each time I’ve re-read it. It has been interpreted and reinterpreted by many, so many times, as an analogy for the French Revolution to a mediation on parenting. Unquestionably, it is a fertile text for the literary imagination. However, on first reading, what really struck me was how I related to the Creature.
At school, children had hoarded me down with questions about my body. Sometimes, these questions came from a place of curiosity. Other times, they were mean-spirited, persistent, and not founded in a place of any real curiosity at all. I spent a lot of my childhood feeling hounded and annoyed. Not only this, but I remember one person not wanting to hold my splinted-hand, for fear that they might catch it. They were a child, with no understanding that there was nothing to catch off me; still, the comment stuck.
As a consequence, I came to internalise these negative reactions to my body. Before I started school, my feelings towards my body were neutral. During school, the loathing I had for my body grew and grew. Looking back at family albums, you can see this transition. Early in my life, I don’t care if I’m wearing my splints and the camera is on. As I age, I’m increasingly recorded less and less in my splints. I become more and more conscious of how my left side looks. And I recollect deleting photographs where my disability is particularly visually obvious.
Here is where I had my recognition with the Creature. The line, ‘I am malicious because I am miserable’ has always been my favourite for how perfectly it exemplifies the novel. It is important that the Creature is not called the Monster. The Creature begins life feeling neutrally towards himself – it is through socialisation and the countless negative reactions to his body – that the Creature comes to hate himself.
I know full well that there are more differences than similarities between the Creature and me. I am not a lone man’s crazed science experiment. I am not made from cobbled together corpses. People don’t scream and run at the sight of me.
However, I felt I could not be the only disabled person who felt this recognition with the Creature. That’s when I came across Molly McCully Brown’s book of essays, Places I’ve Taken My Body.
Brown encapsulates this feeling of recognition whilst also acknowledging how ludicrous this recognition is. ‘At seventeen, I knew enough to feel slightly ridiculous in my identification, to locate something absurd and melodramatic in a tiny blue-eyed girl with spastic legs and a lurching gait professing to see herself in a sallow-skinned giant constructed from corpses.’ Like I have, Brown has returned to Frankenstein. Its grip has superseded centuries and still leaves its imprint upon multiple reads. Shelley obviously wasn’t writing with spastic women in the 21st century in mind. But there is definitely something in the experience of the Creature that speaks to the experience of disability.
Places I’ve Taken My Body is not just a fascinating read for its essay on Frankenstein. In it, Brown weaves her life experiences together with synergy rather than chronology. Brown is an American poet and essayist. She is enviably well-travelled. She released a poetry collection, The Virginia State Colony For Epileptics and Feebleminded in 2017. And she has co-authored In The Field Between Us (2020) with Susannah Nevison. But I found her writing through our shared feelings for Frankenstein.
Reading Places I’ve Taken My Body, there are multiple points where I relate to what Brown has gone through. On the first page, she talks about the tiny adaptions she constantly makes – something that all disabled people do on a daily basis, with or without thought. Brown has not had a steady medical care for her cerebral palsy since she outgrew the paediatric one she had at eighteen. When I was growing, and my body was more pliable, my medical appointments were far more regular. There was a greater feeling that something could be done. Since I stopped growing, the feeling has changed to one of this is more or less it for you. Brown self-identifies as angry and stubborn, which I do too. It is impossible to know if we would have those traits in common if we did not also have CP in common.
There are areas where I don’t relate to Brown’s experiences. Firstly, we have different types of CP: she has spastic diplegia, I have spastic hemiplegia. I point this out not only because it means our bodies and their limitations are different but also people don’t realise that there are types of CP. Consequently, people have not believed that I have CP because they weren’t aware of my type and how it presents. Brown has had much more medical intervention than I have. She also has to navigate in a wheelchair whereas my limping walk takes me almost anywhere. As a result, in preparation for international travel, she talks about crossing whole Italian cities off her list because they are too inaccessible. Disabled people have to think through how they will manage in almost any new space before they enter it. That doesn’t mean the management will be the same. For example, as someone who can’t drive, I find the tube enormously freeing. However, most of the tube is incredibly inaccessible for those that use a wheelchair. Not identifying with Brown’s experiences doesn’t make them any less interesting. It is eye-opening to explore the world from her perspective.
Brown is very honest. When you read about how inaccessible Brown finds certain foreign cities, you feel very angry on her behalf. You also feel strongly that it is the world’s fault. The world doesn’t accommodate for disabled people nearly enough. Yet, Brown has moments where she spirals and this anger turns inwards, ‘All of this is wasted on you’. This refrain doesn’t get any less painful to read each time it’s said.
When disabled people speak about their experiences, it is often because they want the world to make room for them and people like them. But as much as we may be advocates, there can still be moments of self-blame. Where we are frustrated at our bodies rather than the world. Where the anger of a hurt child roars louder than the more-or-less adjusted adult. I’m grateful that Brown puts these moments in. As a younger disabled woman, it feels reassuring to know that those angry moments of self-blame do not infringe on your ability to be an articulate spokesperson.
I’m also grateful that Brown talks very casually about lovers and boyfriends. Something you’d expect from an essay collection by a young woman – but an almost unheard-of subject for a disabled woman to talk about. The Broken Country: On Disability and Desire explores the subject in very necessary detail. In it, Brown talks about the struggle to embrace her body’s sexuality when she was so accustomed to it being constantly medicalised.
As well as this, Brown writes exquisitely about what it is like to be a twin; her twin, Frances, died shortly after birth. We are still culturally uncomfortable speaking about baby loss. When we do speak about baby loss, we only really think of the mother – we rarely think of the implications for the rest of the family. Brown’s writing is a stunning tribute to her sister.
Occasionally, the essays can feel a little repetitive. This may be because the essays can be read as standalone pieces, in which case, Brown must introduce her body (and its unique way of navigating the world) to the reader. However, the effect of this is in Brown’s writing is that it mimics the lived reality of disabled people. You don’t just get to say, ‘I have cerebral palsy…’ once and be done. You will never stop saying that line. The need to explain your body never goes away. So, in my opinion, this slight flaw just adds to the mastery of the collection.
This is one of the greatest releases of 2021. Brown writes so beautifully and poignantly about her life. It’s hard not be drawn in. Her profession as a poet is evident in her prose. It is a book for anyone who loves literature, anyone who loves learning. It is a book for anyone guilty of taking the space around them for granted. And anyone interested in how different bodies find themselves in unfamiliar, often trying but enticing places.
- Apologies, this post is predicated on the assumption that you’ve read Frankenstein. If you’ve only seen the film or worn the Halloween costume, then I’m going to do that very I-Studied-English-At-University thing and tell you to read the book. One can get lost in which edition to get, and I claim no decisive authority over which is the best. Mine is - Mary Shelley, Frankenstein: The 1818 Text, ed. by Charlotte Gordon (London: Penguin Classics, 2018)
 Shelley, p.252  Just to a note: I’m really not, there are plenty of other people who have said similar things.  Brown, p.190  Although Brown is American, in the UK, joined-up healthcare for people with CP stops once they reach 18. NICE guidelines have stated that people with CP should receive joined-up healthcare into adulthood. After all, CP is a life-long condition. Adult CP Hub are campaigning to amend this, learn more about it here.  Brown, p.20  Brown, p.123