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Negative Space by Lilly Dancyger

Peyton Wahl

cover image of Lilly Dancyger's NEGATIVE SPACE: a. monochrome print of a flock of birds partially obscuring a rabbit

Grief is often devouring, alienating, and impenetrable. However, not so much in spite of grief but in an embrace of it, Lilly Dancyger is able to discover both herself and her seemingly larger-than-life father in the creation of her memoir Negative Space. Through gripping interviews and reflections, Dancyger uncovers her father’s story that he never had the chance to tell and grapples with how his tragic early death affected her own life. A reader of Negative Space learns about father and daughter simultaneously, as one’s life is intrinsically linked to the other through a flurry of heartbreaking yet beautiful glimpses into each person’s story. Readers also find, at the heart of Dancyger’s tale, an account of love and self-discovery in the wake of overwhelming and often indescribable grief.

Dancyger’s father, Joe Schactman, was many things: a passionate artist in New York’s East Village, a lover of literature, a devoted father, a free spirit, and a heroin addict. Much of Dancyger’s memoir, then, is devoted to connecting these seemingly incompatible pieces as she works to create a complete image of her father. One of Dancyger’s greatest accomplishments in Negative Space is her discussion of the complexity of human nature. The discovery of the darker corners of her father’s life leads Dancyger to question the reliability of memory and ask how the image of her loving father can exist in the shadow of his addiction. However, she decides that one facet of her father’s life does not negate the other, stating, “I had a happy childhood, and my parents were junkies. Both of these things are true.” The recreation of her father through his art and her interviews with the people he loved not only provides Dancyger with a clearer vision of her father but also of herself, a being just as complex as Schactman.

In Negative Space, Dancyger effortlessly braids together timelines as she explores her past and present and the many facets of her father’s life. As she switches between moments in time, she also switches narrative perspectives, casting herself in the roles of the hopeful child, the rebellious teenager, and the driven young adult. These different glimpses allow the reader to watch Dancyger grow alongside her father instead of in absence of him. While she says the motivation for this project was to make her grief “tangible,” the two stories that unfold and then seamlessly connect depict not only grief but also passion, love, and growth. Negative Space becomes a captivating project between Dancyger and her father as they work alongside one another on the page, allowing the reader to bear witness to her moments of destruction, self-doubt, and her eventual relief. So, by the end, readers feel proud of her—proud of the strength it took to create this book, proud of her journey to self-discovery. Most importantly, readers know that her father is proud too.

One of the most compelling features of Negative Space is Dancyger’s ability to lead the reader through her own journey toward understanding her father. Her emotions are palpable and inspire the same in her reader, often leading one to feel both angry with and in awe of her father, frustrated with and yet sympathetic toward her mother. As grief is never linear, neither are Dancyger’s emotions in Negative Space. Her triumph, though, is making the reader feel alongside her. By the close of the memoir, the reader feels a closeness to Dancyger’s story and a sense of mourning for a man they never knew. Adding to this are the many photographs of Schactman’s art and the pictures of Dancyger’s family that fill the book. Schactman’s art was unique, often made of roadkill and trash, but viewing it alongside a beautiful vignette from his life completes the image of him that Dancyger is creating for her reader. Toward the close of Negative Space, Dancyger mentions that previous editors and well-meaning friends encouraged her to remove the images of her father’s art to make her book more marketable. Thankfully, she refused. Without the images of Schactman’s sculptures, paintings, and sketches, the reader would be missing a major element of both Dancyger and her father’s lives. She says that art was her inheritance, and by celebrating her father’s work in her memoir, she is continuing his legacy while creating her own.

Through her exploration of her father’s art and the creation of her memoir, Dancyger is reminded of the importance Schactman placed on negative space. Negative space, he said, was vital to the composition of a painting: “The shape of the absence is just as important as the shape of the figure”; “One can’t exist without the other.” For Dancyger, her father resides in the space that surrounds her, and his memory informs much of her own life, constantly pulling her between nostalgia, grief, and confusion. However, as she uncovers and embraces her father’s life and all his complexities, she is able to embrace that negative space her father occupies.


PEYTON WAHL is a PhD student in Literature, Media, and Culture at Florida State University. Her research focuses on Victorian literature, specifically the Gothic, Spiritualism, and the supernatural in literature by women. She received both her BA and MA in English Literature from Jacksonville State University in Alabama.

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