Patrick Skene-Catling

Verse and worse

Joseph Brodak was a lying thief who spent long terms in prison. Poetry became his daughter’s salvation

Verse and worse
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Bandit: A Daughter’s Memoir

Molly Brodak

Icon, pp. 299, £

Molly Brodak, a fair, young Polish-American born in Michigan, is a winner of the Iowa Poetry Prize. Iowa: that hotbed of academic creative writing! Her poems, published in A Little Middle of the Night, are intensely private, pointillist compositions of unconnected images. Now, teaching at Emory University in Atlanta, she has written her first book of prose, which is entirely different, an intimate communication in clear language of shocking candour. Without any evident self-pity, it is as frankly accusative and confessional as an ideal patient’s revelations on a psychiatric couch.

Molly analyses her family and herself, evidently achieving understanding, perhaps even forgiveness, of some excruciating emotional entanglements. She presents a detailed case history of her father that makes Sylvia Plath’s own father seem like Santa Claus. According to Molly, her Dad, Joseph Brodak, was a sociopathological, bigamous, larcenous liar, whose financially disastrous addiction to gambling made him feel compelled to rob banks, though ultimately unsuccessfully. On two criminal sprees, he held up a dozen banks for a total haul of about $44,000 and spent two long terms in prison.

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In the meantime, Molly’s mother, Nora, an affectionate, hard-working clinical psychologist, whom Molly describes as ‘pretty and tough,’ somehow survived suicide attempts and electro-convulsive shocks, while Molly’s older sister Boo, to whom this book is dedicated, managed to get over a childhood of mutual sibling hostility. Possibly looking on the bright side, which was much smaller than the dark side, Molly testifies: ‘I was not raped, starved or maimed, just ignored, and I lived OK in that empty space.’

When she was 13, after the police caught up with her father, a school counsellor, a Mrs B, in one of their weekly sessions, told her she was ‘alienated’ from him and the whole world. Molly said:

‘That isn’t how I feel. . . I know enough about therapy to know that you’re not supposed to tell me how I feel or don’t feel. My mom is a therapist, you know. I’ve been in therapy since I was six. I know the deal.’

‘You’re a smart cookie, Molly’, said Mrs B, ‘but you don’t know the deal.’

Molly turned for solace in the school library. ‘Poetry became my companion, starting with Whitman, then Dickinson, then the rest of that small section,’ she recalls. ‘It seemed to know a better way to the world — an approach more honest, more direct, sharper.’ Molly gives an impression of her own honesty to a point of masochistic exhibitionism, admitting, for example, a period of upmarket shoplifting. She seems proud of her expert technique, which enabled her to make thousands of dollars selling the loot on eBay, eventually retiring voluntarily.

Her father’s story suggests a certain fatal inevitability in his decline. His family migrated from a postwar refugee camp to the Polish community in Detroit, when the car-manufacturing industry was booming. After a tour of duty in Vietnam, where he was decorated for bravery, he suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. General Motors employed him as a mechanic, the auto boom ended and Detroit declared municipal bankruptcy. Molly returned there long enough to write a vivid description of the ruins and the ghostliness of St Albertus, the great Polish church.

As his job began to fail, he lost money in the local casino. Molly empathetically experimented with casino gambling and found it ‘Fun. But sick.’ She examined her father’s handicaps. Like all his trial judges, she recognised his faults as causes, not justifications, of criminal behaviour. She visited him in prison, and has experienced a sense of healthy separation from him. She says, ‘Children learn how to deal with adults in order to survive.’

She helped herself with poetry and voluminous diaries. She had to compensate for some appalling miseries. Many of her readers will probably savour the morbid joys of Schadenfreude. After that, they may also appreciate Molly Brodak’s redemption by art. ‘Who,’ she asks, ‘would care about my life?’ I did.