Molly (Archway Editions, 2023), the new memoir by writer and editor Blake Butler, opens with the stomach-clenching dread of a horror movie. One morning, Butler is conversing his wife, the award-winning poet and memoirist Molly Brodak; a few hours later, her finds her dead by her own hand. Butler is raw and unsparing in his depiction of the day: his discovery of her suicide note, which he reprints in full; his desperate search for her body, found alongside another brief note, explaining VOLUNTARY EXIT; the brutal and mundane aftermath of logistics.
What follows from this bracing, visceral opening is Butler’s excavation of his life with Molly and what’s left of his own life after Molly is gone. From the beginning, there is an implicit promise that Butler will discover things about Molly in the aftermath of her death that change the way he understands his wife and their relationship. But even before that revelation, the memoir feels like the clash of two competing impulses: the need for Butler to grieve for someone he clearly loved deeply, and his urge to make sense of who she was—and why she hurt him in the ways she did.
“Does this all seem like one big mess?” Butler asks himself. “A vortex of betrayal and bad faith? I know it must, but it didn’t at the time, at least to me.”
After the opening scene of her death, Butler returns to his earliest days with Molly. The two writers first meet online, then in Atlanta, and Butler finds himself both wary and in awe of the woman who would become his wife.
“Molly was troubled—that was clear,” Butler writes. She shoplifts compulsively and keeps a rare earth magnet tucked into her purse to evade the anti-theft tags on expensive clothing. When they sleep together, Molly “screamed so loud it hurt my ears, shrill to the point that I’d get a noise warning from my apartments’ HOA any time that she stayed over.” She has a history of trauma, most visibly in the form of a sociopathic bank-robbing father who she wrote about in her own memoir, Bandit, which Butler quotes from frequently in this book.
Molly is also clearly brilliant. Her MFA thesis wins the Iowa Poetry Prize. When she dedicates herself to baking, she wins a spot on the reality show The Great American Bake-Off, one of ten among thousands of entrants and the only “home baker” to earn a place in the competition. When she is awarded an NEA grant, she uses the money first to dig a giant hole in their backyard, then to travel to Poland to research a memoir about the Holocaust.
But Molly seems unable to see any of this as a sign of true success. On the day she discovers that she’s won the Iowa Poetry Prize, “Her [first] husband, Matt, had found her out in their backyard that afternoon, hitting herself in the head with a hammer over and over, crying and shrieking at the sky. The fact that they’d chosen her meant the prize was worthless, the judges morons, one big sham.”
Butler has plenty of his own troubles when he meets Molly. He’s losing his father to Alzheimer’s; his mother is showing early signs of dementia. He’s contemplating killing himself once his parents are gone, drinking until blackout and then waking up in the mornings with nacho cheese smeared on his steering wheel from late night Taco Bell binges, unable to remember driving home. “I was aware, at least in part, that I had abundant flaws like anybody,” Butler writes, “talking to myself, pounding on my desk, inattentive to the groceries, often sleepless, drinking too much, pessimistic and occasionally vindictive, obsessed with work.”
Despite all this—or perhaps in part because of it—Butler and Molly become yoked together, two unconventional people building an unconventional life together in Atlanta. This is a couple whose “comfort movie” is The Shining, who dress up as the Insane Clown Posse for Halloween and laugh as they garishly paint their faces together in the mirror.
“Our daily homelife as a couple—despite the hard times—was full of joy,” Butler insists, though the focus stays so steadfastly on the hard times that it feels as though the reader has to take Butler at his word, rather than understand that joy viscerally.
Butler’s recollection of their shared life is complicated by the long-promised discovery of the “real Molly” after her death. Butler, reading through her journals and combing through her online accounts, learns that she has been unfaithful to him, from essentially the beginning of their relationship. Affairs with other writers; explicit photos and videos shared with strangers online; multiple inappropriate relationships with her students at the colleges where she teaches, “clearly grooming,” as Butler describes it.
“At first, I decided to keep this information to myself,” he writes. “I didn’t want anyone to know what Molly had done to herself, to us, to me, nor could I even think of who to tell, how to begin. I didn’t want to have to put shame upon her after all else, choosing instead to bear it, no matter what the incipient damage of covering over her lies might do to me.”
But this, of course, isn’t the choice that Butler ultimately makes. The memoir is at its thorniest when it shows Butler wrestling with the question of what is his to say and how to divide his loyalties between the memories of the woman he loved and his dawning awareness of all the things he didn’t see while she was still alive. At times, the revelation of her infidelity seems to unmoor him from any familiar sense of his late wife.
“Beyond the shock of her adultery, I realized I had little articulable idea left of who she was, or how to parse the values she’d outwardly upheld, burned others over, against her own opposing actions and obfuscations, without any direct path to conversation, much less resolve.”
How much, though, is the reader’s understanding of Molly—and her relationship with Butler—ultimately changed by the revelation of her infidelity? Butler tries to untangle that knotty question by probing memories that bounce from the mundane to the intimate. In recalling the time Molly suggests to Butler that they try riskier, more aggressive sex, Butler asks, “What right did I have—as a man, as a husband to a person who I saw as nearly flawless, if affected—to suspect anything else?”
But the portrait he’s created of Molly, even before we learn about her affairs and betrayals, doesn’t square with the notion of the person who’s “nearly flawless.” Instead, he carefully documents the ways in which she belittles and demeans him along with her coldness and emotional unavailability at times of need, such as in the aftermath of his mother’s eventual death and the ways in which she systematically lies to him about having a gun when he reaches out.
All of this, he admits, is tantamount to abuse. But Butler still seems deeply conflicted about the ways in which he has depicted his late wife. “I’ve despaired over sharing these darker parts of Molly, the parts she hated herself for, and used against herself like cutting,” he writes. “Even writing it feels like transcribing a secret meant for silence. Should I be allowed to make this said? To bring to light a part of Molly’s story she covered over at any cost? At this point, I feel like I hardly have a choice, given the way the story, bound up inside me, feels like frying in a slow electrocution, with nowhere else to set it down.”
This is not the first time that Butler describes himself feeling as though he doesn’t have a choice but to write this memoir—in the opening pages, he says, “I’m writing this, therefore, with what seems little choice: to shut my mouth and turn away, as might a stranger, or to force myself to look again, and then again, and then again.”
Of course, Butler does have a choice: to pretend otherwise is to abdicate responsibility and intentionality of the part of the writer. And I would argue that Butler has in Molly made the difficult but ultimately brave choice to not let his love for Molly keep him from giving as true and honest a portrait of her, to show their relationship in the fullness of their flaws and glory.