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7 March 2024

Blake Butler’s Molly and the moral duty of biography

Butler’s account of his late wife’s affairs and depression has been called “literary revenge porn”. But biography must not shy away from darkness.

By Henry Oliver

Blake Butler’s memoir, Molly, tells the story of his marriage to the poet Molly Brodak, who died by suicide in 2020. Full of depravity, intimacy and sadness, Molly has been controversial, largely because Molly was controversial.

Looking for pictures to use at his late wife’s funeral, Butler found multiple pornographic photos and videos Brodak had sent to other men. Five days after she died, he discovered her secret life. Brodak told these men that Butler was lazy, little more than her roommate, words she had used to him about previous boyfriends. (She also manipulated him into funding an affair.) According to Butler, she was “grooming” and dating several of her writing students. And Brodak was a serial thief, shoplifting expensive clothes (because corporations are bad and ought to be screwed).

As Brodak wrote in her poem “Post Glacier”: “As a thief I wasn’t wasted./As a cheat I wasn’t wasted. As a liar I was wasted least of all.”

Molly, then, is a book of revelations. Inevitably, they went viral. Butler claims to be shocked and angered that, as Vanity Fair said, Molly has been “strip-mined for shock value” in the tabloids. But this feels disingenuous. Butler is a former member of the online Alt-Lit movement, and he knows that the internet is what it is.

Molly is far more nuanced than the tabloid extracts suggest, though. Brodak read Sylvia Plath at the end of her life, and Butler has drawn parallels between the two poets, as the critic Jamie Hood has noted in Bookforum. Such a comparison brings with it unsettling implications. After her death, Plath’s estranged husband, the poet Ted Hughes, inherited her literary estate and made controversial decisions about her work, including burning one of her journals and restructuring her posthumously published collection Ariel. Though Butler excuses Brodak’s behaviour – she was mentally unwell, her father was a bigamous criminal – he is accused of controlling her legacy, just as Hughes was accused of controlling Plath’s.

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The writer Sarah Rose Etter called Molly “literary revenge porn against a mentally unwell woman who took her own life” on Twitter. Indignant at biographical prying, Hughes wrote in a letter to the Independent in 1989 that he hoped “each of us owns the facts of her or his own life”. This was naive. As Janet Malcolm famously argued in her book about the Plath estate, The Silent Woman, the facts of our lives are jointly owned. What Brodak left Butler to discover is part of his life now.

Good biographies should be revelatory – without that, we would know little of VS Naipaul’s domestic violence, Iris Murdoch’s Alzheimer’s, Philip Larkin’s racism, Bloomsbury homosexuality, Charlotte Bronte’s romantic life, Thomas Carlyle’s marital bullying, and on and on. The moral case for publishing some of these revelations can be debated; others cannot.

A common complaint is that revelatory biography detracts from the work. This is difficult to sustain about a poet who appeared on a television baking show and wrote a childhood memoir. The New York Times obituary headline “Poet and memoirist of her father’s crimes” was fair and true, but it caused poet Patricia Lockwood to ask, “Why are you more likely to be remembered as a memoirist of your father’s crimes than as a poet? Why is it easier to appear on The Great American Baking Show, as Molly did in 2017, than it is to get people to read your work when you are alive?”

The answer is that authors are public people and the way they live their lives matters. Molly isn’t merely prurient. Where Hughes sought to conceal Plath’s life, Butler wants us to take Brodak’s seriously. He is at pains not just to reveal Brodak’s behaviour, but to explain it; whether he succeeds in making her sympathetic is a matter of perspective. But his ambition is to reveal a whole person, rather than to gossip. And Molly’s subjects – mental health, adultery, marital deceit, childhood trauma, suicide – have resonance beyond this couple’s story.

As VS Naipaul, who authorised his biographer’s revelations of his cruelty, once said, “The lives of writers are a legitimate subject of inquiry; and the truth should not be skimped. It may well be, in fact, that a full account of a writer’s life might in the end be more a work of literature and more illuminating – of a cultural and historical moment – than the writer’s books.”

This is a hard truth for writers to accept. Butler lionises Brodak’s talent, her capacity for hard work, her enthusiasms, and her strongly held beliefs about art. But ultimately, it is Brodak’s reliance on trauma as an explanation for her flaws, her use of diagnostic terminology and therapeutic platitudes, her deceitfulness, and her struggle to maintain her mental health that feel most illuminating of our moment.

The most compelling and difficult aspect of Molly is Brodak’s nihilism. It’s often clichéd: why have children when the planet is dying and people are cruel? Sometimes, though, it’s horrible, as when “tripping ass” on LSD in the queue to see a live-taping of the TV programme Dr Phil, she compared the experience to Auschwitz. Cynicism runs through Molly. “We are mostly bad,” she said. “The world is mostly cold and tough, and those who come to any genuine understanding of it tend to be the same.”

She believed humanity was a blight, that the universe would be better off without us; she spent hours watching nature documentaries in tears; she became so depressed she hardly moved. In these, and many other details, Butler uses biography not voyeuristically, but as an attempt to wholly understand one person. Molly is a cautionary tale about the worst excesses of modern culture, but also a study of some of the most difficult aspects of human nature.

That’s why it matters that Butler wrote this book. Many suffer. Many doubt the value of their lives. “No one is special,” Brodak said. But, as Butler proves with Molly, the opposite is true.

[See also: Are we really living in Children of Men?]

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