Lilly Dancyger’s Unanswerable Questions

The Jewish writer chats with Alma about her debut memoir, "Negative Space," and the difficulty of writing grief.

Lilly Dancyger’s debut memoir, Negative Space, is a book “in pursuit of answering unanswerable questions,” an endeavor she views as very, very Jewish.

“The whole book is a process of striving to understand, while also acknowledging the limits of what is possible to know and embracing grey areas. Which feels really Jewish to me, in the way that I understand what that means,” Dancyger explains to Alma.

The memoir is an examination of the life and work of her father, the artist Joe Schactman, who struggled with a heroin addiction and died when Dancyger was 12 years old. It’s also a reflection of her own life as she dealt with grief and found her own voice as a writer in the ensuing years. It’s not an easy subject matter, but Dancyger, who previously edited Burn It Down: Women Writing About Anger, a powerful collection of essays on anger, dives into the task headfirst in Negative Space.

Ahead of the publication, we chatted about writing grief, finding Judaism, and her father’s impression of Tevye from “Fiddler on the Roof.”

I want to start by talking about the title, “Negative Space.” Towards the end of the book, you write movingly about how your art and writing was built around the shape of your father’s absence. Can you expand on this?

My father was always giving me art lessons from a very young age, explaining technique, concepts, art history — all kinds of things. His description of negative space as a concept was something that really stuck with me, and that I kept coming back to when I was writing this story. It’s about paying attention to the shape of what’s not there — the edges of the thing that you’re describing, whether in words or images.

I kept coming back to that, because no matter how much detail I could fill in about my father’s story and his art and who he was, there was always still this absence. I was thinking about it like a silhouette: I could describe the edges, I could define the shape, but I could never quite fully capture [him]. At the end of the day, he’s still not here. I was engaging a lot with the idea of absence.

You write about your father finding Judaism later in his life — how did that impact you?

It was happening when I was 8 years old. That’s a big shift to all of a sudden introduce at that point in childhood. I knew that we were Jewish before that, but not really. It was very abstract. I understood that he kind of scoffed at Christmas — we did Christmas and Hanukkah in my house growing up, that was about the extent of my connection to Jewishness. Until all of a sudden, when I was 8 years old, we started going to temple every Friday!

I loved it; the synagogue that we went to was beautiful. I got to dress up and all the old ladies thought I was adorable. We got to eat challah, and I had the little cups of grape juice when the adults were drinking wine. It was something special and fun that we did to kick off our weekend together. That was how I understood it. I would wear my synagogue clothes to school on Friday because I was gonna go straight [after school] to get on the bus to meet my father to go to synagogue.

When he died, were there any Jewish rituals that helped you in your mourning process?

I don’t think so. My connection to Jewishness was through him, and he was gone. There was nobody there to explain to me those rituals. I was 12 years old, and I wasn’t going to find them myself.

I loved when you wrote about his impression of Tevye from “Fiddler on the Roof” — he really came to life for me. What other Jewish things make you think of your father?

There’s definitely a style of humor I didn’t understand as Jewish humor until later, like cracking jokes about things that are maybe not appropriate to joke about.

I first found the connection to my own Jewishness alongside him when I was 8, and we started going to temple, but I found it again on my own terms when my mom and I moved back to New York. I made a bunch of friends who were New York Jews and learned through them that a lot of things that I had always thought of as specific to my father were actually very Jewish traits. Recognizing that, finding that in other people, was really a delight. Learning that [humor] was something cultural that I had grown up around, without even knowing it, was cool. And it brought me closer to some of the new friends that I made as a young teenager.

What does being Jewish mean to you today?

I’m not religious at all, I’m very much an atheist.

Very Jewish of you!

Right! For a while, I thought those things were in conflict, and I didn’t identify as much with being Jewish, because I thought of it as meaning you had to be religious. I learned later that’s actually something that I think is really cool about being Jewish, that it’s not a requirement that you believe in God or have any kind of religious observance, that you can still be culturally very Jewish. And so I’ve embraced that more.

And I married a Jewish guy. His family is more observant than mine ever was; they do a seder every year, and they go to temple on Yom Kippur, and have dinner on Rosh Hashanah. At first, I was resistant to that, but I have come to appreciate it more. In this last year, we did our own mini seder at home. That was really nice, and especially put a lot of things about [Passover] into relief, as we’re literally living in a plague right now. Let’s show appreciation for having been passed over.

I was struck by the fact your grandfather, Barry Schactman, was also an artist, and a professor of art, who painted Holocaust victims. Do you see any of your grandfather’s work, which is very violent, reflected in your father’s?

There’s definitely some of that sensibility. My father’s sister was a choreographer and some of that dark edge translates to both of my grandfather’s children’s artistic expression. I didn’t know my grandfather very well; I only met him a couple times, and then he disowned my father. He later disowned me, as well, when I dropped out of high school. My aunt tried to lobby for me — I went to college anyway, and that was the plan. She tried to get him to see that I was doing alright, but that was his pattern, to do it his way or nothing.

I have two questions about lines that really stuck with me after I finished “Negative Space.” The first is, “I had a happy childhood, and my parents were junkies. Both of these things are true.” How do you hope people who may have experienced a similar childhood relate to your memoir?

That complexity is something that will be recognizable to a lot of people. I mean, not everyone. Some people have addict parents and it’s terrible — it ruins their family, it ruins their childhood, it ruins their relationship with their parents. Sometimes it is more extreme, or more black and white. But I think there are a lot of us who are in that in-between, where from the outside a family looks one way — there are all these societal projections onto what it means to be a drug user and a parent, and people assume that means that you’re neglectful and terrible — but that’s not the whole picture. I hope that will be affirming for other people who’ve had that experience. Of course there are ways that it’s damaging, you know, I don’t recommend it [laughs]. But it doesn’t automatically mean that everything is terrible, or that your parents never brought any goodness and joy and love and fun to your life.

Are there any stories that felt affirming for you in that way?

T Kira Madden’s “Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls” was one. That book really, really resonated with me in a deep way, even though a lot of things about our upbringings were very different. I think she did a really good job of capturing how you can hold both at once — the harm and the love.

The other line I can’t stop thinking about is, “Writing my grief onto these pages to make it tangible, so it would exist somewhere outside of me and I wouldn’t have to drag its weight with me always.” Writing grief is an enormous task. How do you go about it?

It’s hard! I mean, that’s why it took me so long. With anything that’s really big and complicated, I had to just approach it one piece at a time. So rather than trying to describe everything about it, let’s see if I can describe what my grief was like when I was 12, when I was 14, when I was 20. It was very different at each of those points in my life. Just trying to capture one state of [grief] at a time was a more achievable task than thinking, okay, how can I describe my grief as a whole?

How does it feel in the lead-up to the publication to be talking about, and thinking about, your grief?

I’m not thinking about the subject matter, necessarily. I’ve spent enough time… The book is a separate thing. The book is not my grief or my life; the book is an object that I created drawing from that. There are separate anxieties and concerns and fears and worries related to publishing the books, but they’re not the grief or the story that I’m feeling at the moment.

How are you feeling?

[Laughs] Anxious!

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