“There: see? Done with the facts already. The facts are easy to say; I say them all the time. This isn’t about them. This is about whatever is cut from the frame of narrative. The fat remnants, broken bones, gristle, untender bits.”
— Molly Brodak, Bandit: A Daughter’s Memoir
On the day that David Bowie died, Molly Brodak and I had dinner plans. Something I’ve learned: When your heroes die, you very much want to feel loved and safe, but you don’t want to do either of those things out in public. So we pivoted. We rallied at her and Blake Butler’s home. We watched The Labyrinth together, all three of us on their couch. We talked about all sorts of things. I was really delighted by some art on their refrigerator — some watercolor pages from a coloring book that had been painted magnificently and hilariously by a friend or family member’s little one. “What a beautiful bouquet for Belle!” it said. Underneath the inscription was the outline of a woman. Her eyes were painted a deep purple. The bouquet of roses she held were all black. The woman’s mouth was bright red and made me think of Pennywise, the clown. I took a photo because it made me laugh. “I love it so much,” Molly said.
Molly had been craving frosted animal crackers and had made some herself that day. They were crisp and delicious, and she iced them to look like different eras of David Bowie. I ate a hippo that looked like Ziggy Stardust. Another one was something between red and orange and had an eyepatch. I remember feeling loved and safe and very sad. Sad because David Bowie died, yes. But also sad because I didn’t know why more of life couldn’t be like that evening, all huddled in with people I admired and feeling safe, loved and warm. Why was I always so preoccupied and busy? I didn’t want the movie to end.
On March 8, 2020, another one of my heroes died.
Atlanta’s creative community suffered a heartbreaking loss with the passing of Molly Brodak. She was born in Detroit in 1980, the daughter of Nora Tavalieri. She was a devoted sister to Rebecca Gale. She grew up loving nature and animals, gleaning knowledge from her mother on the names of all the little things in the world, which she took note of, which were innumerable. She was incredibly perceptive. She attended the Savannah College of Art and Design and received her B.A. in English from Oakland University and an M.F.A. in creative writing at West Virginia University. She was a poetry fellow at Emory University from 2011 to 2013. It was at this time she met her future husband, Blake Butler. They were together for a decade, married for three years.
She went on to write prolifically. In two decades, she published works in countless journals and collections including Granta, Poetry, Fence, Map Literary, NY Tyrant, Diode, New Orleans Review, Ninth Letter, Colorado Review, Bateau and Hayden’s Ferry Review.
Her poetry collection, A Little Middle of the Night, earned her the Iowa Poetry Prize selected by Mary Ruefle. Her first memoir, Bandit, was a tender and piercingly observant recollection of her youth and her realization that her father was a compulsive gambler, liar and bank robber. But these works were just the tip of the iceberg, as was often the case with Brodak. She also has multiple unpublished books across every sort of genre, including a nonfiction work based on her experiences traveling to Poland to locate the site of her grandparent’s death, both of whom passed during the Holocaust. She received an NEA grant to pursue that work. Her second book of poetry, The Cipher, will be published this fall.
A demanding and incisive teacher
For 15 years she taught writing, though one could also argue that Brodak was a lifelong teacher. She taught everyone she knew all sorts of things. But when it came to writing and literature — at Emory, Augusta State University, SCAD, Georgia College and Kennesaw State University, respectively — Brodak applied a painstaking devotion to her art and her students that was unparalleled in her field. She took great care.
“Molly Brodak is easily the best creative writing prof at Emory or in the world,” reflected one former Emory student at ratemyprofessor.com. “She is inspiring; life-changing. She drags the awe out of you no matter how much you kick and scream. Like a quiet beautiful unicorn ninja, she will pull out the best in you and the beast in you and she will lick both clean until they stand on their own wobbly legs.”
She also expected the best of her students in return. “Not lenient at all, if you miss just one single article or even a piece of paper in your assignments (she) will fail you,” remarked one Kennesaw State student, who still gave Brodak a four out of five stars.
“There are classes that you brag about how little work you put in and still managed to get the A, and there are classes where you are so inspired by the professor that the work put in is worth it,” said yet another student. “This class is definitely the latter. This professor is easily the best professor I’ve had in my entire undergraduate career.”
Fellow poet and professor Nick Sturm shared this story: “We found this really, really old coin in a drawer by the front door of Blake and Molly’s home — it was so old it seemed like it must be fake. I showed it to Blake and he said it was a real ancient Roman coin, that Molly would buy them in bulk on eBay to give to her students as a gift. She’d tell them, ‘Here is an object that is thousands of years old, as old as the questions you’re thinking about in our class.’” Later that day Sturm discovered a slim brown envelope marked “Roman coins” in one of Brodak’s backpacks full of even more of the tokens.
Molly was also a prolific baker. She founded Kookie House, a “no flex zone of contemplation on sweetcraft,” as she put it. Her confections were endless: beautifully illustrated and iced shortbread cookies, caramels individually wrapped, cakes that looked like octopus, swans, monsters, skulls. Candy flowers that looked like peonies plucked straight from a garden. On her website, she shared her abundant recipes openly and lovingly. One cake even landed her a spot on The Great American Baking Show, on which she was a finalist.
After a lifelong battle with depression, Molly took her own life on March 8, 2020. She was 39.
A breathtaking talent
As Brodak said herself in her memoir, Bandit, these are the facts, which are easy to say. Her life and existence is not one easily summarized. In fact, Molly Brodak’s perpetual talent was breathtakingly and astoundingly unfathomable. Molly was an anomaly, a miracle. As my friend and fellow poet Carrie Lorig said in her remembrance at Molly’s memorial service, she was the kind of person you were proud to know, that you would show off to other people: Look at this person! She actually exists!
I liked to allude to Molly’s ethereal nature by reminding her, somewhat regularly, of her long and flowing “magical unicorn hair” which for years she painstakingly maintained in a space between white, silver and blonde, reminiscent only of Lady Amalthea’s in the 1982 film The Last Unicorn. One time, we were talking in her car and I complimented her hair and she told me exactly how she managed it — how the bleaching process was regular and painful, how she self-administered regular hair trimmings, dustings she called them, because no one else could get it quite right. This was one of the first things Molly taught me. She was bubbling over with the practical life tips you usually only get if you’re really, really listening to a grandparent, and she doled this insight out often and generously.
Generosity was one of her many virtues. I can’t recall an occasion where she showed up empty-handed to anything. She showered adoration on her friends, her family, all cats and her beloved chickens. And whatever she showed up with, to any gathering, it was usually heartfelt, homemade, and keenly perceptive. Molly had a way of making her loved ones feel seen. Her only expectation on us was uncompromising honesty — she wanted the good, the bad and the ugly of us. Her veracity was at times intimidating and overwhelming; but when you were open to it, incredibly fortifying.
She met us with that same ferocious sense of self. Her own tastes were delightfully charming and at times contradictory, which was one of the things that makes her so hard to define. For instance, she was a baker who could use butter and sugar to create a sugar-glass terrarium cake (complete with mesmerizingly realistic fondant succulents) that looked as if it were snagged from the shelves of some upper-crust boutique. She was also a woman who gleefully elected to spend her birthday at Golden Corral. She could tell the difference between milk glass and imposter milk glass with just a glance. She was also a person whose car was laden with empty Little Debbie wrappers. She could talk at length about her love of the NBA and in the same breath select the perfect wine to pair with your dinner.
Molly held herself, and every one of her pursuits, to standards of impeccability that were unyielding. When she presented a cake at a party, a candy flower on Instagram, a poem in a publication, a lesson to her classroom or herself to the world, the presentation was always purer than the driven snow. But behind all of that faultlessness was unequaled sedulousness and countless failed attempts.
Once, in her home with Blake Butler, there was a fuzzy green monster on her cake stand. He had a wide blank stare and an even wider, smiling mouth. To my amazement, it was a cake, a re-creation of a stuffed animal that Molly loved. (This was when she was first toying with the idea of Kookie House, years before her season on the Great American Baking Show.) To me, what was as amazing as the finished product cake on the pedestal was the number of pound cakes in the fridge that had come up wanting in her eyes.
So effortlessly perfect
In her own words, published on Everyday Genius, “Being a good baker, or a good anything, doesn’t mean you just inherently do things perfectly. It means you are willing to face what you’ve learned and start again, because you don’t want to settle for something that falls short of your vision. . . . Your errors are your greatest allies in teaching you how to be good at something: don’t ignore them.”
And yet, Molly came off as so effortlessly perfect to so many of us, and gave so generously, that, without having actually witnessed all of the attempted cakes, one would have never thought they existed. But when you think about how much she gave — perfectly individually wrapped caramels at a housewarming, cookies that looked so much like oysters and pearls you could swear you found them washed up at the beach, a poem so haltingly spare and heartbreaking that you held your breath when you read it, a necessary but hard lesson in life, love or poetry — and you think about how those were just the tip of the iceberg of her creations, that there were so many attempts and so much study put into each one of those things, well, the thought of all of that effort into everything is exhausting. It is unfathomable.
Those of us who knew Molly Brodak are lucky to have witnessed her brilliance. She was sterling. We are luckier still that she was so prolific in her art, that when we miss her we can spend time with her reveling in her words, her recipes, her memory. We can pay tribute to her by demanding the best of ourselves and presenting those efforts with love and pride.
I don’t know if we are to glean any lesson from the cavernous, unshakeable ache that lurked in her life, that bore down on her so heavily and ultimately took her under. But if there is, maybe it’s to just as readily and openly admit our failures and aches as brazenly as we do our successes, to not try to make that part of ourselves small or hidden. Or that for those who have experienced any kind of childhood trauma: it’s OK to reach out for support. Ultimately, we learn how important it is to reach out to ourselves with the same level of brazen love that we brazenly bestow on others.
Molly is survived by her husband, Blake Butler; her mother, Nora Tavalieri; a sister, Rebecca Gale, and her husband, Patrick Gale; a nephew, Xander Gale; her sister-in-law, Morgan Kendal, and her husband, Justin Kendall; a nephew, Lucien; and her friends and communities. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made as a celebration of Molly’s memory to the Environmental Defense Fund.
If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK). You can find a list of additional resources at SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources.
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