All of the easy facts, as Atlanta-transplant Molly Brodak refers to them, are neatly laid out by page four, so there's no spoiler here: Her dad robbed 11 banks when she was 13, went to prison for seven years, got out and lived "normally" for seven years before being locked up again for robbing more banks.
Much more slowly do you learn about the “fat remnants, broke bones, gristle, untender bits” that don’t fit neatly into one paragraph. How her father sold his life insurance policy to take her mom on vacation when he was courting her, despite the fact that he already had a wife he hadn’t mentioned. How her mother, a therapist, was bipolar and suicidal. How her older sister, who her father got custody of after the divorce, kept a secret savings account from him when they lived like a happy but “unbalanced couple” together after his release. How Brodak had a brain tumor and, once healed after surgery, wasn’t exactly happy to have her “head back.” The story is a relentless analysis of every decision, moment and factor that may explain her father, his actions and how those elements ultimately shaped her family.
It’s clear early on that she’s not completely comfortable with the whole notion of writing her memoir. You see it when she contemplates one of the few pictures she’s seen of her father as a child, wondering who would take such a photo – his family is portrayed next to their father’s grave in “their most private and serious grief, not posing but mourning” – and is that what she’s doing by writing about her family? You sense it when the regular-length chapters are interrupted by one that’s all of two lines, designed to emphasize a point, but nonetheless exposing the fact that she’s a poet first; one who is, in her mind, possibly betraying herself by writing such an inward-facing book. You feel it when reading anguish-ridden lines like, “I don’t want to see these words touching these true things.”
It’s this uncertainty that makes the read so refreshing. It’s not as if she’s writing because she has a fascinating story to tell – which she does. It’s as if she’s writing from a place of compulsion. Most readers likely will not have had bank robbers as fathers, but most will be able to relate to a child growing up way too fast, having contradictory memories as an adult and being plagued by the simple question: Why did things happen this way?
It’s for this reason the reader becomes thankful to a psychic astrologer who sensed Brodak was working on a book and told her to “say it all. The raw part especially.” Brodak evidently took the advice; there are deeply dark admissions. Like the one where she reminisced about her teenage-self taking a bike trip – a coping mechanism she adopted from her mom after her dad was arrested. At one point she lay in the grass and fantasized about her body sinking into the ground, becoming part of the dirt and sand, where it would be safe “in an honest home.”
And even though the first sentence of the book reveals that at age 7, the first thing she stole was a book of baby names, which her dad made her return, it's still a bit shocking when it's divulged that she became a regular, systematic shoplifter during college. Acknowledging her method of stealing was "a little sociopathic," she addresses her dad directly, agreeing that it is similar to an out-of-body experience, as he'd claimed. The layers keep getting more dynamic.
The memoir is not purely reflective; it is also a researched deep dive. In addition to interviewing family and accessing records, she went places that weren’t practically necessary to go. For instance, trespassing alone into an abandoned Detroit school to stand where her father “stood at the beginning of his life, as a refugee just landed in a city about to crash down around him.”
And despite her purposeful avoidance of gambling due to her father's addiction to it, she wanted to see if she could "feel gambling for the fun it was supposed to be." So she played blackjack – Dad's game – at a casino. Perhaps a bit too much time is devoted to dissecting this addiction, though it's an interesting interpretation of why gamblers gamble. Brodak started to understand why the game had such a hold on her father; the "neatness of a complete escape" was not alien to what she'd experienced on the hospital bed after brain surgery, and to what she'd felt at the Amish farm where she was sent one summer. The "feeling of possibility compared with the insane secret confidence all of the players seemed to have that they were the ones who could outwit this unfair game, and that it could be this next spin/card/roll that might be the one to make up for all the others," became comprehensible to her.
About her adopted home, Brodak says Atlanta is “a city that really did rise again after being burned to the ground during the Civil War, a city whose seal I see imprinted on the trash bins I pass on my morning run, a seal that lays bare a phoenix face-on, rising from a bank of flames toward the word RESURGENS above.” It is a metaphor she can relate to. She, too, has rebuilt herself – if she “can just let ashes be ashes.”
"Bandit: A Daughter's Memoir"
By Molly Brodak
Black Cat/Grove Press
320 pages, $16.