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The bandit's
daughter

Writer Molly Brodak comes to terms with
growing up in the shadow of her bank-robber dad.

On a recent Friday afternoon, the author Molly Brodak baked a cake. This was not unusual.

On any given day, a cake is part of Molly’s routine. Molly is a poet, both by training and disposition. She writes poems in the mornings, often when she first gets up. After that, she may drive to Kennesaw State University to teach a class, meet with a student worried about an assignment, grade papers, prepare a syllabus. Later in the day, she’ll sit down at her dining-room table to work on her flowers, tiny fragile looking gum-paste sculptures for cake decoration.

At some point, she’ll prepare a jam or clarify butter or blend ganache. Or else she’ll do the actual baking, maybe a gift for a friend or a test of a recipe or a commission for someone’s birthday or wedding or anniversary. Molly has baked cakes this way, her talents recognized by word of mouth, for several years. When her cakes are finished, they are works of exceptional beauty. Somewhere in the midst of this, she finds time to write books.

This month, Grove Atlantic published Molly’s second book, “Bandit: A Daughter’s Memoir.” The memoir concerns her relationship with her father, Joseph Brodak, who robbed 11 banks the summer she turned 13. He is currently serving his second sentence in federal prison.

“Bandit” tells the story of growing up with and without Joseph, of thinking that her father was one person when he was actually another, of learning to recognize his deceptions. Molly makes no effort to appeal to true-crime tropes, there is no lurid recounting of the crimes. In fact, the earliest pages of the book are a simple, bare statement of facts: Dad robbed this bank, Dad robbed that bank, and so on. “There: see? Done with the facts already. … This isn’t about them,” she writes.

Instead, “Bandit” is a book about stories and character, of how events and actions shape who we are, how a father becomes one person, how a daughter grows up to be another.

Joseph was born in 1945 in Germany, in a refugee camp for survivors just liberated from the Nazi camps. His parents were from Poland, rounded up and taken to Dachau. His mother had carried him in secret. They survived somehow, but Joseph’s father died before the family could emigrate to the United States. She sees her father’s longing for his father not unlike her own:

“Aren’t we together on this, Dad, together on missing our dads, and what has it done to you and me? You left an unknowable self behind, with us, your cover story, your dupes, and I kept following, and I’m still following, somehow more than ever, in love with this trouble, this difficult family, in love with my troubled mom and sister and you too, maybe most of all you, the unknowable one.”

For several reasons, this is not the book that Molly ever hoped to write.

2

Order and disorder

More than some forms of cooking, baking is often considered a science. Unlike the touch and feel and intuition that guides a sauté pan, baking is largely guided by precise measurements and ratios that allow no room for improvisation or interpretation. Before Molly on the counter, was an arrangement of flours, powders, sugars, clarified butter, eggs and a digital scale that measures by the gram. When she bakes, Molly said, “The butter is in charge.”

Molly lives in a Craftsman bungalow in Ormewood Park that bears her visual touch. The kitchen is filled with a collection of antique bakeware, mixing bowls and cake stands. She not only selected the wallpaper in the breakfast nook, she hung it herself. In the backyard, Silkie chickens, a breed known for their absurd plumage, peck and scratch and lay the eggs for her baked goods. In the bathroom, a poem by Robert Bly is taped to the mirror. A single line circled for emphasis: “Think in ways you’ve never thought before.”

“I made books when I was a little kid. I would get pieces of paper and staple them together and write a book, a little booklet. I had a ton of those. I remember getting in trouble because I would rip the pages out of my mother’s books to write on them. I wanted to write between the lines, you know?”

Molly grew up in Royal Oak, a working-class suburb of Detroit, where her father had a union job with General Motors. Joe had met Molly’s mother, Nora, while working in a tool-and-die shop. He courted her, taking her along to glamorous dates at the racetrack. He showered her with gifts, flowers, jewelry. He wrote her poems. Nora collected his letters in a shoebox. They had two children, first Molly’s older sister and then her.

“This was the time we were a normal family, for just a few years,” Molly writes. “Normal school, birthday parties, forts in the living room, our sweet cats, dinners together. … I had no idea how not normal things were.”

For Nora, a pattern of deception had already become apparent. When she had become pregnant with Molly’s older sister, a receptionist at the tool-and-die shop where they both worked looked at her in pity and said, “Darlin, he didn’t tell you he’s married, did he?” As it turned out, Joe already had a wife, already had a 4-year-old daughter, a whole family he’d hidden away from Nora. He’d married as soon as he’d come home from the Vietnam War.

Nora tried to leave him, but he was convincing, insistent, relentless. In another light, those showers of gifts became apologies for false promises. She acquiesced. They were eventually married in the basement of a courthouse. Molly was born not long after.

The trips to the racetrack were an indication of something else, too. Joe had a habit of betting often, sometimes too often and too much, betting away money before he even had it. After a trip to Atlantic City, Nora discovered he’d lost “their savings, his car, his wedding ring, every penny he could find.” She tried to leave him again, filed for divorce. Joe followed again. She acquiesced again. They moved in together again.

Molly writes of discovering her father’s deceptions in glimmers and flashes, moments where one father reveals himself to be another. She struggles to reconcile the two.

“I can’t feel my way towards a sharper picture of him. Nothing really matches up. There are fragments of a criminal alongside fragments of a normal dad, and nothing overlaps, nothing eclipses the other, they’re just there, next to each other. No narrative fits.”

After explaining some of this in the kitchen, Molly began combining the ingredients for the cake. Melting sugar into water, adding butter, salt and vanilla, whisking in the flour. She lets this mixture cool before adding the eggs, carefully so they don’t toughen. Last, she folds in whipped cream, gently until completely combined. Molly’s hand with these ingredients is patient, careful, adding the wet to the dry until they are one and the same.

Molly teaches an English class at Kennesaw State University.

3

The thief and the poet

After the ingredients are combined, baking is largely waiting. The pans go in the oven. After that, they come out and cool.

For the cake she was making that afternoon, Molly included twice-toasted hazelnuts, meaning that she toasted them first in a pan, then ground the nuts into a fine paste, and then toasted the paste before folding it into the batter. Her oven expelled a rich aroma, as if the air, too, had been toasted to a light golden brown. With the baking commenced, Molly sat down at her breakfast table and continued her story.

Molly’s parents divorced when she was 8. She stayed with her mother; her older sister moved in with her father.

By this time, Molly had learned to be suspicious of Joe.

One summer, he took her on a vacation to Mexico and booked a room with a beachfront view. On the first morning there, he handed her a $20 bill and left her behind at the hotel. She wandered the halls, aimless and abandoned and unsure of what to think. When he did reappear, it was only to hand her a little more lunch money and disappear again. This cycle of appearance and disappearance, of feigned generosity to hide something else, began to define their relationship.

He told stories that she knew could not be true. There were strange occurrences, hard for a child to understand: new cars that seemed to come and go with the week; his angry fixation with certain sports; the way he’d watch two or three games, televisions stacked together, at the same time. On occasion, men would come looking for him, though they wouldn’t say why.

It was around this time that Molly began to read, to discover the world within books.

“I spent a lot of time alone as a child, so books were everything for me,” she said. “When you’re young, a lot of what you’re reading is about family or friendship or cooperation, those are values that tend to be emphasized, and those things didn’t make sense in my life. I never felt satisfied with fiction. There was too much moralizing in stories. I wanted, rather, to just learn things.”

She discovered poetry, the vast universe of language that can be contained inside of books. With her home life in turmoil, she retreated inside of herself. She challenged her teachers, refusing to play along with assignments she deemed dumb. Nora, concerned for her daughter, sent her to a counselor. One summer, when she was 11, Molly was sent to an Amish camp, “a place for troubled kids.” Molly writes, “Since I knew I didn’t cause trouble to anyone – I supposed, then, that I was the trouble that needed to be removed.”

When Molly was 13, she and her mother had just returned home from a short vacation together when Nora received a phone call. After she hung up, Nora called Molly into the kitchen and told her that her father had been arrested.

“What did he do?” Molly asked.

“Robbed banks,” Nora said.

For most anyone, to hear those words would be the moment when a life turned upside down. Undoubtedly, the revelation of Joe’s crimes changed the course of her family’s lives. But standing next to her mother that night, Molly remembers, “It didn’t feel like some kind of mistake, like it sometimes feels when you don’t want to believe what’s happened. It was horrible how easy it was to accept.”

On the local news, Joe became known as the Mario Bros. Bandit, named for his disguise that included a fake mustache, glasses, a cap. He never brought a gun or made a scene. He just passed the tellers a note and walked away with cash. He used it all to pay gambling debts. Investigators charged him with 11 robberies. He was sentenced to 10 years.

Molly searched for a way forward. With her father in prison, life was more calm, less disrupted. She and her mother lived in a house for four years, longer than she had ever lived in one place in her life. She threw herself into chemistry in high school, but upon graduation decided to pursue a degree in illustration at Savannah College of Art and Design, far away from the state she’d grown up in.

She intended to write and illustrate children’s books, but as she studied, she found herself spending longer and longer on the writing, and less time on the illustration. So she left art school, moved back to Michigan. She worked jobs and took classes at Oakland College, slowly working her way to a degree in English. It was a painful path, she says, trying to figure out how to be a writer.

“When you tell a regular person you’re a poet, it’s like saying you’re a unicorn,” she says. “It sounds so old-fashioned. It’s this title you can’t really be.”

While Molly was in college, Joe was released early from prison after serving seven years. He got his job back at GM. For a time, it seemed, things were becoming normal. Her sister worked at a bank. After graduating from Oakland College, Molly moved to University of West Virginia to get an MFA in poetry.

But in 2009, while Molly was in graduate school, Joseph robbed another bank. And this time he’d brought a gun. The teller gave him a bag of cash with an exploding dye pack inside. He was chased by a customer. The scene was a scandal in the papers, the latest chapter in the Mario Bros. Bandit saga. Joe was convicted again, sentenced to 10 years, just like the last time.

Photo: Molly does most of her writing sitting on the bed in the guestroom in her home in the Ormewood Park neighborhood of Atlanta.


4

Her story to tell

In graduate school, Molly brought a poem she’d written about her family into a writing workshop. It was unlike her other work at the time. The words were raw and emotional, as if bubbled up intact from a deep well of pressure inside. Her peers didn’t know what to make of it. The events didn’t seem real, they said. Would anyone believe such a thing? Even if it were plausible, so what? one student said. The poem is just poor, poor me, my poor, sad life, blah blah–

These words are the ones she heard every time she began to consider writing about her life again.

Her ambitions were different.

“I always wanted to be a male poet. I wanted to be Robert Bly, the tough guy who would not be writing about flowers and love and your child. I wanted to be the male poet who could tackle America or concepts or things that were traditionally associated with male writers. They’re allowed to write about the big ideas. I loved that.”

Her first book, “A Little Middle of the Night,” began that career. The collection was awarded the Iowa Poetry Prize in 2010. She got a job teaching at Augusta State University and then a prestigious fellowship at Emory University.

After the quick, early success of her first book, Molly struggled.

“I was not writing very well for a long time,” she said. In the years since, she has finished five collections of poems but published none of them. The conversation in poetry was changing and she struggled to find her place in it. She wrote a book of poems about holograms and the idea, pushed forward by some theoretical physicists, that our universe resembles one. She wrote poems about an early Spanish explorer of North America.

What she knew she didn’t want to write about was her father. She’d gotten used to telling it. Every time she’d get close to someone and tell about her father, she could see the same reaction. “People always wanted to hear a kind of glamorous story about bank robbery and mystery and the reason why. They always want to know why would he do that,” she said.

A few years ago, that changed. In Atlanta, she started dating another writer, the transgressive novelist Blake Butler (“Three Hundred Million”; “Nothing: A Memoir of Insomnia”) and, in the course of their conversations, he encouraged her to write about her father.

“It’s such a boring story,” she said. “I could tell it in five minutes. There’s not really a book here.”

“Well,” he said, “just say what you really want to say about it then.”

With the time granted her by the fellowship at Emory, she threw herself into the book, rejecting all the versions of the story that people seemed to want, rejecting all the lurid interest and the useless questions about why. Shortly after finishing the manuscript, the agent Bill Clegg picked it up. The literary magazine Granta published an excerpt. Foreign editions of the book were sold in England and Germany, and Grove Press published it earlier this month.

The two writers are engaged to marry next year.

Molly with her fiance, author Blake Butler, at her home in the Ormewood Park neighborhood of Atlanta.

5

Defining characteristics

“Bandit” is in many ways an investigation. As with the form of memoir, Molly explores the scraps and threads of her memories, the little details and images and events that have become the sum of her life. She also pushes forward, traveling and asking questions and learning ways to fathom her own life.

She goes to Detroit and visits St. Albertus Church, the place that sheltered her father when he came to the United States as a refugee. What she finds is beautiful and haunting, an abandoned building ornate with the flaws of decay. She visits a giant casino and, instead of being seduced by the promises of chance that possessed her father, finds herself meditating on the nature of money.

She asks questions of her family, discovers traumatic details of her mother’s past, connects with her sister, examines the way that all three of them have coped with their relationships to Joseph. Molly is an unsparing observer. She accepts no easy explanation, plays along with no excuse. She interrogates her own teenage habit of shoplifting, leaving not even herself unindicted.

In particular, she takes that old, tired phrase, “out of character,” and accepts no such thing. “Character,” she writes, “is exactly defined by the actions one takes – especially in crisis.” Those poetic fragments and shards, the short images that accumulate the many brief chapters of the book, become an accrued inventory of character, the actions that she and her family have chosen to take in the wake of their own traumas.

It is a book that in no way resembles, say, a newspaper summary of the same events.

“The book partly was for me to say, that’s not right. There’s no easy answer. He doesn’t know why he did it. I don’t know. I don’t know if we’ll ever know him really. I think we know him as well as anyone will know him, which is not very much. People are very hard to know.”

But she knows him enough.

“When my dad robbed 10 banks one summer, I didn’t see it as out of character. I saw it as something he was definitely capable of doing,” she said.

In Molly’s character, this lesson has not been lost on her. She can be seen in the sum of the work that guides her every day: the advice and lessons she lends to her students, the poems that accumulate on her pages, the books that she writes, the cakes that she bakes.

The last step Molly took that afternoon was icing the cake. Between the layers she spread apricot jam, orange and sticky. Once the layers were set, she spread on a thick, dark brown chocolate ganache. For this step, Molly used a wide, heavy-duty paint scraper, the kind of thing you’d buy at a hardware store, and a spinning wheel. She crouched down, eye level with the cake, wielding the two tools like a craftsman of furniture, until the imperfections were erased, the sides smooth, sharp and clean.

Asked what she thinks about when she bakes, Molly paused for a long stretch of silence.

“Baking, for me, is not thinking,” she said. “It is a loss of self.”

She paused again, seeming to think of another way to explain, and wondered aloud if I’d ever read a book called “Flow” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

“He had this idea that artists and musicians can get into this state of flow, where there is a complete loss of self-awareness. Like, Marshawn Lynch describes that he can’t even hear the crowd during a football game. Baking’s kind of like that for me. I don’t think about myself. I’m not anxious. I’m not worried about my story or my problems. It is a kind of submission. For someone who is not religious, I think it is a healthy thing to submit once in a while to something greater than you, even if it is just butter.”

Near the end of “Bandit,” Molly writes about another kind of submission, the way her father surrendered himself to the blackjack table, “to the trustworthy outcomes of gambling, to give over completely to the simple rhythm and singular focus of its movements.” She knows what submission looks like. She has chosen to find hers among the butter and the eggs and the flour.

On the kitchen counter, the cake was done.

Behind the story


ABOUT THE STORY

The events of Molly Brodak’s life are hard for me to fathom. I can’t imagine living through them, surviving them the way she has. The thing that compelled me as a writer to tell her story was the way she distilled those experiences into such a strong book. “Bandit” (see review next Sunday) is a terribly honest, beautiful thing. I hope people who read this story go find a copy and read it for themselves.

Wyatt Williams
Freelance writer
personaljourneys@ajc.com


ABOUT THE REPORTER

Wyatt Williams is a dining critic for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. His work has been published by The Paris Review, Oxford American, Los Angeles Review of Books, Vice, BuzzFeed, Eater and many other publications. He is at work on a book about meat.

ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER

Bob Andres joined the AJC in 1998. Born in San Francisco, he has held photography and photo editing positions in California, Florida and Georgia. A journalism graduate of San Francisco State University, Andres has also worked as the AJC’s metro photo editor, Sports photo editor and has taught photojournalism at UGA and Cal State Hayward.