Lilly Dancyger’s Negative Space
(Santa Fe Writers Project, 2021)
Memoir is having its day. And even better, the anti-memoir, a kind of memoir experimental in form or content, is paving the way. While it satisfies the popular inward looking approach of our time—our current need to classify ourselves in so many ways—it also contextualizes experience and often creates a transformative effect through its transgression. Such is the case with Negative Space, Lilly Dancyger’s part-memoir, part-art criticism debut in which a bildungsroman-esque narrative of the author’s journey from “a fatherless girl” to “a fatherless woman” is braided with an investigation into her deceased father’s art, as well as his past.
Fearing the memory of her father—visual artist Joe Schactman, who participated in the East Village art scene in the 1980s and struggled for years with a heroin addiction—would collapse, Dancyger begins an exploration into his life. She unearths notebooks kept closed for eight years; interviews her mother, who also struggled with addiction, as well as family friends, all in an attempt to “find a new way to grieve for him” and ensure their relationship progressed. But how does one continue a relationship with those who are no longer there? Without corporeal form, are they only able to live through our memories; the artifacts they’ve left behind, charged with their former touch? Or, can we conjure up their presence through excavation of the past; continue building our relationship with them—a life after death—as opposed to remaining frozen in their stagnant finality?
Grief is commonly considered a crushing wave, but in Dancyger’s case, she sees her sorrow as an anchor: “If I stayed in my grief, my father would know where to find me.” The disturbing impact of living for so many years with so much pain sets her on an adamant hunt for the truth. But trying to cobble together pieces of her father’s form through his notebooks and her interviews leads her to realize that his true legacy was always right in front of her, concealed within his art:
Everyone inherits their parents’ stories, their baggage, the symbols through which they interpret life. But perhaps this is especially true and inescapable for the children of artists, who are steeped in it and surrounded by it in such a literal sense—growing up in homes decorated with tangible pieces of our parents’ psyches externalized.
Like a phantom limb, the absence of Dancyger’s father grows heavier than his presence. Through loss, he becomes “an urgent thread” in her life; a pervading force that possesses her world. As she methodically archives her father’s art: Bad Barbies, wooden ladies bent backwards, and so many deer, dog, and rabbit works, she discovers the memory she had held of him is just as important as an account of the truth: “The two versions of him existed together in my mind, butting up against each other, contradicting each other, but neither erased the other.” By reaching into the murky depths of memory, dragging something that resembles truth to the surface, she realizes that this reconstructed “reality” wouldn’t or couldn’t hold more weight than the memory of their relationship: “even the ugliest truths wouldn’t change who he was to me as my father.” It is in this reckoning that she finds room to explore her own blossoming as a writer and a person in the world. And refusing to publish her book without his art, something suggested to the author numerous times, is another rebellious nod to her father who also refused to cater to gallerist and buyer preference over his own artistic vision, and is what makes this tale an anti-memoir—a fittingly punk gesture for a book dueling with rebellion and acceptance.
Chronicling a somewhat lawless adolescence to an adulthood burgeoning with creativity, academia, and insight, Dancyger reveals a vibrant, gritty world, one which feels all too familiar. I, too, am well acquainted with working behind an East Village bar—hers Sophie’s and Sidewalk Cafe (RIP), mine Pyramid Club [RIP]), frequenting Mars Bar (RIP) where I had many a conversation with the Chinese cigarette lady she later profiles, and meeting my life partner at a bar—hers was at work, mine was Motor City . . . also RIP). We also have an eerily similar academic trajectory: going from a GED straight to New School (feeling like you’ve fooled them into accepting you while knowing you are absolutely entitled to be there, pouring your heart out in an application, holding back just enough to not let on you might be trouble, until “they bought it.” Crying in financial aid offices, unable to describe the precarious situation your parents have placed you in, and living among the rich and entitled); then getting into Columbia and feeling the weight of a high-dollar degree pressing against every decision. And, like her, I’ve also lost a parent and witnessed people I love deal with addiction.
This colored my reading, of course, as I am one of those greedy readers who longs to feel kinship with an author yet gobble up new encounters to satisfy my own voyeuristic instinct. While I saw much familiarity in the window I was allowed to look through, what I haven’t experienced, and what this writer let me in on, is the kind of deep, earnest longing one experiences after losing a parent as a child and how this emptiness can ultimately change the core of who you are. This, coupled with the pleasure of learning, along with her, the raw emotions of her father understood through an analysis of his work, made Negative Space a penetrating, heartfelt story, one which plunges into the rippling depths of grief and remembrance only to change us for the better.