“I had a happy childhood, and my parents were junkies,” writes Lilly Dancyger. “Both of these things are true.” Her father, Joe Schactman, was not a famous artist, but he was prolific and left deep impressions on those who knew him. His sudden death when Dancyger was 12 threw her into a tailspin but also cemented Schactman as an artistic idol in her mind.
In her memoir, Negative Space, Dancyger carries us back to New York City’s gritty East Village in the 1980s as she investigates Schactman’s tumultuous life. She pages through her father’s old notebooks that she saved after his death. She studies his often strange artwork (depicted throughout the book) made from found objects and roadkill. And she interviews Schactman’s friends, colleagues and even her own mother to learn how and why he descended into heroin addiction.
Dancyger’s struggle to escape the need to prove herself to everyone, including her dead father, is moving. Mourning is not linear, and she skillfully shows how grief mutates during different stages of life. The phantasm of closure stalks all of us who have experienced loss, as both Dancyger’s writing and Schactman’s artwork make clear.
The strongest portions of Negative Space explore Dancyger’s experience as the child of addicts. She largely parented herself, and when she builds a more stable adulthood than the one modeled by her parents, it’s a hard-won victory. Other children of addicts who experienced difficult transitions into adulthood will find much to relate to here.
To this end, Dancyger’s bravery in the face of negative revelations about her dad is admirable. She wants the whole truth, no matter how painful it is to reopen these wounds. Dancyger knew little about Schactman’s addiction when she was young, and she knew nothing about his sometimes abusive relationships with women. But in Negative Space, Dancyger allows her father to be an imperfect and much loved person—her idol still, but a troubled and complicated one.