A Conversation Across Time and Death: A Review of Negative Space by Lilly Dancyger

In Negative Space, writer and editor Lilly Dancyger presents a memoir of growing up and growing stronger in the face of loss. The narrative opens with memories of the last days of the Dancyger’s father Joe Schactman’s life, when the author was twelve. Schactman was an artist in the 1980s East Village gallery scene, and Negative Space is as much a study of his art as it is of his life—his childhood, romances and friendships, and his relationship to Dancyger, as well as his heroin addiction. The latter is speculated upon as being the cause of Schactman’s death and becomes a key point that Dancyger explores as she attempts to uncover the mystery behind his passing.

The exploration of drug use sets the tone of the memoir as one of unmasked honesty. From her parents, to her father’s lovers, to her friends, and Dancyger herself, almost everyone used drugs. Dancyger doesn’t shy away from laying the story bare; she has nothing to hide. The focus of Negative Space shifts from Dancyger’s father to her mother, Heidi, as if it were a dialogue between family members across time and death—old friends catching up.

Negative Space brings to mind such other works as the graphic memoir Fun Home by Alison Bechdel. Both memoirs follow daughters as they attempt to unlock the mysteries surrounding their fathers’ lives. Negative Space also recalls the essay “Notes on Grief” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in the way both offer sincere explorations of grief by examining what colors, songs, and landscapes might reflect about the emotional life of a person.

The memoir recognizes that after the death of a loved one there is a need to move on, a need for freedom. Dancyger shows that the true way to be free is not to let go but to attach oneself so fully that one gets satisfied and reaches a point where there is no more craving.

As the memoir progresses, the reader learns that Dancyger dropped out of high school, ran away from her mother, experimented with drugs, and lived on her own. Despite these obstacles, Dancyger was able to attend both the New School, where she took literature and philosophy classes, and Columbia University’s journalism graduate program. 

Dancyger manages to make the reader as surprised as she herself was on her journey finding out new things about her father. She later discovers that the version of her father as “the hero” might be wrong, only to find another shocking truth about her mother that, had she known earlier as a child, would have given her reason to hate her mother; yet, as an adult, Dancyger can no longer find in it a reason to hate.

The writing style of Negative Space is not calm water. Rather it is a mad river, written in a journalistic and reportage manner. Most chapters of Negative Space close with Schactman’s artworks, making the memoir both a literary work and an exhibition. Dancyger writes, “I was beginning to imagine that these stories I was collecting would end up in a book—my father and his art immortalized.” Through this memoir, Dancyger has created a gift of immortality for her departed father.