Thursday, August 11, 2022

The family paradox

The great cosmic joke is that we don't choose our parents, yet we spend the bulk of our lives defining ourselves in relation to them and wrestling with their at-times outsized influence on us. The artist Joe Schactman died in 2000 when his daughter Lilly Dancyger was 12. In her tough, affecting memoir Negative Space, Dancyger explores the pull that her father has on her in both his presence and absence. 

Many memoirs, especially contemporary ones, are variations on the K├╝nstlerroman, the story of how a writer comes into being. Dancyger has lived with art all of her life. Her father was a vagabond sculptor/painter, often using found objects such as tossed hardware, roadkill, and parts of bird corpses in his jarring, sometimes disturbing, work. He remained stubbornly outside of the East Village art scene of the 1980s and '90s. He was also a heroin addict, and left Dancyger's mother, an addict who cleaned up, when Dancyger was small. Dancyger maneuvers among these biographical data points, assembling meaning as she ping-pongs from one truth to the next. Early on she writes, "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." She adds, "I'd changed, cell by cell, into a person he never knew." Charged by this startling realization, Dancyger feels compelled to learn the ways that that person unknown to her father might've been shaped by him.

Throughout Negative Space, Dancyger wrestles with paradox, that stubbornly human dilemma that marks most thoughtful and searching memoirs. "Once again," she observes near the middle of her book, "I was faced with the feeling that by living my life, I was abandoning my father, that each milestone I reached brought me further and further away from him." Written over many years, her book is an attempt to bridge that gap, yet, as countless writers have recognized before her, by writing the book she widens the gap between herself and her subject, that weird discovery that dawns at some point in the writing process: the further we're distanced from our family they clearer we might be able to see them.

Three paradoxes rule the book; call them the Paradox of Family. Dancyger's mother Heidi was sexually abused when she was young, a truth that she confessed to her daughter; she also admitted that her husband, Lilly's father, insisted on having sex with her even she was working through the traumas with her therapist. "I knew that my father adored my mother, thought she was unbelievably beautiful and constantly stopped to admire her. But I never realized there was such an ugly side to this admiration, that it was a sometimes violent, possessive love."

I strained to visualize that dark side, and I waited. I waited for something in me to shatter, for my memory of him to shift—I waited for my idealized, mythologized vision of my father to distort now that I knew about this selfish, coercive side of him. I felt like it should. But it didn’t.

Dancyger writes powerfully about that discomfiting fact that we can be both repelled by and forgiving of a loved one: echoing F. Scott Fitzgerald's famous definition of intelligence, she admits that she somehow "could hold these two images in my mind at once: the brutish, demanding husband who compounded his young wife’s sexual trauma: and my father, endless source of art supplies and projects, who used to wink at me with conspiratorial glee after making references to inside jokes, even when we were alone." The two Joe's lived together in Dancyger's mind, obstinately so, "butting up against each other, contradicting each other, but neither erased the other. I could see more, could see deeper into the story, but the parts I remembered and cherished remained unchanged. Like the frame of the image expanded to show more around the edges, but what had always been at the center stayed the same."

Bound as much to her responsibilities as a writer as to her obligations as a daughter, Dancyger admits that  "Something in [her] mind" sheltered her memory of her father "by walling it off from this idea of him as an antagonist; [she] created a whole other version of him, like a separate character, distinct form the father I loved." We're talking about candid, brave writing here, and its requirements; as so many memoirs do, Negative Space ends up being a book as much about writing as it is about anything else. If Family is the great subject of contemporary American memoir, so is the journey of writing itself. 

Joe Schactman and Lilly Dancyger, San Fransisco, ca. 1996 (via Negative Space)

And that journey's usually fraught. Similar to Alison Bechdel's epiphany in Fun Home—that if her father had embraced his queerness as a young man rather than chosen the heteronormative route, she wouldn't exist—Dancyger recognizes the grim fact that had her father lived, she wouldn't be writing her book, and by extension, likely wouldn't have made the series of profound discoveries about herself and her mother that she does. "In a strange way," she writes, with a touch of regret, "I might not feel as close to him as I do now, his life and story and art such an urgent thread in my life. I hold the image of us together, artist-father and writer-daughter drinking coffee, talking craft and words and life, so tightly that I can almost see it like a photograph."

But it’s an image that would be impossible even if he'd lived—the version of me that I became without him could never have known him. They can only exist together here on these pages, and in my mind. I wonder sometimes what will happen when I’m finally done with this book, when I don't have this search to keep me connected to him anymore. I expect that I’ll mourn him all over again, in a whole new way.

Near the end of the book, Dancyger describes a moment when she's tasked in a writing workshop with making a list of her most crucial personal metaphors. She suddenly realized—"with an audible gasp that caused several writers to look up from their own lists"—that she'd become heir to her father's vast storehouse of images and symbols that had made up his art. "Of course they were mine too, not just to observe and read, but to play with, to make my own meaning out of. I didn't inherit the physical pieces of his artwork; I inherited the language in which his art was written, like I'd hoped to do all along." Chasing after her father’s story "into the core of my own grief, thinking of writing about him as a response to the call of his work" she recognized that she wasn’t simply "layering his imagery into my own creative experience, but building my own identity as an artist out of the pieces my father had left behind for me." The presence of her absent father is everywhere—she hangs his art, much of which is reproduced in the book, in her tiny apartments and interprets it, interviews his friends and art associates, reads his letters and diaries, breathes in the scents of his left-behind shirt as if it were life-giving—and turns out to have been instrumental in her her own creations, less a void filled with grief, though of course it's that too, than a kind of found puzzle piece that completed her own identity as an artist.

In his poem "Ars Poetica" the late Tom Andrews wrote that "the dead drag a grappling hook for the living." That's always seemed to me a graphically effective and powerful way to describe grief, that unwanted thing that seizes and takes you, usually against your will, to wherever it's headed and whatever it is you may or may not learn there. In the middle of her book, Dancyger ends a segment with a knock-out sentence, and an essential discovery: "I had a happy childhood, and my parents were junkies. Both of these things are true." Negative Space is a brave and clear-eyed story about the friction perpetually humming in the center of that conflict.

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