Negative Space by Dancyger; Santa Fe Writer's Project; 296 pages; $16.95
“They say all the cells in your body regenerate every seven years. When I turned twenty, my father had been dead for eight—so if that theory is true, no cell in my body had ever been on the planet at the same time as him. I’d changed, cell by cell, into a person he never knew.” - Lilly Dancyger
Negative Space by Lilly Dancyger is an exceptionally honest memoir that is, first and foremost, about familial love and how it survives over time. It’s about dealing with pain, anger, and other circumstances that can seem paralyzing yet somehow one finds the way to move forward anyway. The author’s father died in his early forties due to undetermined circumstances, and she struggles with what to believe about his death. What is a particularly troubling thought is the role that his addiction may or may not have played.
It’s clear Dancyger inherited her father’s imagination as she pieces together his story through his journals, photography, letters, sculptures, silver and glass pieces, and anything else she can think of, to show readers who he was and still is. He lives on through this memoir because she’s made it clear he is part of her even as she’s still getting to know his memory. Readers experience both of their struggles on the page as the narrative meanders through the artistic lifestyle and issues with sobriety, something they both struggled with, as well as the author’s own sense of overwhelming loss.
This memoir argues that the future can’t start until mourning ends, mourning being something different than grief. Dancyger demonstrates that it’s easy to get caught up in guilt when grieving and conveys that happiness without the individual one has lost feels like abandonment, a betrayal almost, an idea frequently returned to throughout the text. Her eye for detail and the unflinchingly vulnerable lens she allows readers to see through are part of what make this project so special in that one is able to empathize whether or not we have been there ourselves because the author takes our hands and brings us deep into her world, a task which could not have been easy.
Dancyger makes use of interviews of individuals from her father’s life, his journals, sculptures, paintings, and prints, as well as her own memories, to piece together an examination of her father’s experiences, as well as her own, as an artist and an addict. The visual art acts as a skeletal structure for the narrative, and each artistic piece grounds the reader in time since each is tied to a significant anecdote respectively. At the same time, these allow the reader to experience what the author is so beautifully and articulately describing. Essentially, the art is a treasure map that leads one to understand the enigma that is Joe Schactman.
The strongest points of narration are the flashbacks to childhood and adolescence. Readers begin with the author talking about her father’s laugh and how grief sometimes steals the sound from her memories and how important it was for her to know that her father was clean when he died. Dancyger and her parents were addicts, and they loved each other very much. The author grew up poor, and she had a happy childhood. The writer demonstrates each of these things is allowed to be true at the same time and offers a narrative free of dichotomies, one that shows the promise of a life . One thing it is unable to accomplish, however, is to covey to readers the full one hundred percent truth. That is impossible because Joe Schactman isn’t alive to tell it for himself. The author addresses this, though, when she explains, “The more I saw how rarely two people remembered the same event in the same way, the more I realized that even if I could have interviewed my father directly, I still wouldn’t have gotten ‘the truth,’ whatever that even means. So this story is a truth—one of many.” Though there is no way to know everything that happened, that’s acceptable because it is the author’s truth, and she is uniquely qualified to write about addiction because she has seen it from both sides. It is something she shares in common with her father.
Though the subject material of the book is encompassed by tragedy, there are so many beautiful moments in what she calls “the New York City version of fresh-cut grass:” bus tours of the Bronx, wet flannel, drying paint, and loose tobacco. It is details like these that keep a reader engaged and grounded in time and space throughout this story of her fascinating life. She does not make light of any of her experiences, but rather illuminates what’s already there behind the heavy curtain of grief. It’s a genius move on her part because she uses humor as medicine for these inevitable wounds.
This book has so many things—complicated family dynamics, struggles with addiction, love in the wake of tragedy, abuse, rape culture, art, nature, animals, and real people with their own personal truths—all of which add context and invoke empathy for readers. Negative Space is brilliant, philosophical, and genuine, and was written for a father and for anyone “living with an absence,” which in our current climate, is everyone.