“Nothing could have stopped this,” wrote the poet Molly Brodak in the suicide note she left in March 2020 for her novelist husband, Blake Butler. “The way I hate myself is simply so complete that nothing could change it, even as I hoped your love could.”
Butler found Brodak’s note when he returned from a run; it was pinned to the front door of their home in Atlanta, Georgia. In his extraordinary and raw memoir, Molly, he describes his rising panic as he scanned the letter for clues as to where she might be. He soon found them: “I left my body in the nature area where we used to go walking so I could see the sky and trees and hear the birds one last time… I shot myself so it would be over instantly with certainty and no suffering whatsoever.”
Hoping he might have time to save her, Butler felt “a sudden frenzy of possible options” swarm his brain. He phoned the police – “please come and help me” – and set off, screaming her name, dialling her mobile and hearing the answerphone. It was already too late. Soon Butler was standing beside his 39-year-old wife’s body, barred from leaving the scene of her death, repeating his story to detective after detective “like infernal Matryoshka dolls with badges and guns”. They asked him to hand over the note, which became evidence. They asked if he’d had any sense this might happen, which made him feel “embarrassed to say yes, trying to explain in so many feeble words Molly’s attitude, her personal history, her cryptic poetry”.
In fact, it would take this book, not a brutal police interview, to unpack Butler’s complicated feelings about the brilliant, beautiful, damaged and destructive woman he had married three years earlier. “Molly was troubled,” he warns readers from the outset. “She seemed to teeter at the edge of her emotions, unable to take lightly what darkness others often overlooked.”
He was aided, and often unsettled, in this quest to make sense of her life and death by the many poems and journals she left behind, along with her 2016 memoir Bandit, in which she explored the emotional fallout of being a bank robber’s daughter. Joseph Brodak had married and divorced Molly’s bipolar mother twice; Molly was just 13 when he first went to prison for robbing seven banks to pay his gambling debts. Molly loved literature, but burst into tears when she won her first poetry prize: if somebody as fake and unworthy as her could fool the judges, the whole scene must be a sham. By the time she met Blake Butler, she’d long since realised that she got some of her own kicks by lying, cheating and stealing.
They met through work. Butler was immediately snared by her contradictions, her rosy cheeks and cynical wit. Her home-baked gifts of root-beer float cookies and apricot custard pies – all her own quirky recipes – would be balanced by self-deprecating offers of sex: “If you’re busy, just pull up and I’ll come out to your car and I’ll f--- you and you can leave, no talking.” They were both unfaithful to each other early in their relationship. Butler was disturbed by Brodak’s casual shoplifting, suspected her of telling lies, and was hurt when she poured scorn on his devotion to his parents. She wasn’t close to her own neglectful family, and had moved so often that she had few friends: she resented his own large and close network. But she also helped him to stop drinking, which was becoming a problem, and encouraged him to be a better writer.
They managed to build something approaching a cosy life together. They went for walks and kept chickens. They celebrated anniversaries with irony in corporate chain restaurants. They watched movies and TV together, and talked late into the night. She taught creative writing to undergraduates who adored her; she even launched a baking business. She was passionate about the unsung elements of the natural world, alert to the quiet beauty of mosses and stones.
But on going through Brodak’s phone and computer after her death, Butler was forced to accept she’d been betraying him from the beginning. He recounts how he found heartbreaking evidence of manipulative, abusive behaviour (I’ll let readers come to the details on their own). He recalls how he’d taught her what “gaslighting” meant; now he concedes that she gaslit him for years.
Butler’s messy empathy has made him an easy mark, and at times, Molly reads like the words of a bumbling-but-kindly Dr Watson, trying to work out why his pretty Holmes poisoned every good thing in her life. It would have been easy for Butler to crumble into finger-pointing self-pity, but the triumph of his book lies in its compassion. Instead of shaming Brodak, he shows respect to her trickle-down trauma. He diagnoses her – I suspect accurately – with borderline personality disorder. He tells us every awful truth about a toxic relationship. And he does it with real, unending love.
Molly by Blake Butler is published by Archway Editions at $17.95/£14.37