Dance With a Demon

Years after his death, a daughter started to hold her father responsible for his destructive choices.

By Lilly Dancyger, published March 7, 2017 - last reviewed on May 1, 2017

Daddy Dearest: Joe Schactman was a talented artist and loving father. He was also a heroin addict who tried to assuage his young daughter's concerns about his addiction. Photo courtesy of Lilly O'Donnell

I was eight the first time my father and I spoke about heroin. He was working on a sculpture, sitting cross-legged on the floor with his curly hair hanging down over his face. I stood at his bookshelf, perusing the thick art volumes. Tucked between the pages of one, I found a piece of tinfoil folded into a square and marked with small circular burns. I'd never seen another like it, but I had a hunch that this peculiar object had something to do with his drug habit.

"Papa," I asked, "what's this?" He frowned in the same way he would when I'd decline to try out a new drawing technique, but I knew I wasn't the source of this disappointment. Some tense seconds ticked by before he finally answered. "That's from doing drugs. But it's from a long time ago. It must have gotten lost in that book."

There was another pause. Guilt must have overcome him because he then confessed that the tinfoil square actually wasn't from that long ago, though he assured me that he had stopped using drugs again and was doing better this time. Smelling of tobacco and plaster, he took me in his construction-toned arms, planted a kiss on the top of my head, and went back to chiseling a block of wood into a female form.

I knew from a young age that my parents were heroin addicts. It doesn't take the world's smartest kid to figure out the purpose of a methadone clinic, or to decipher loud, tearful arguments about how "it's time to stop," muffled only by a thin wall, when you're supposed to be asleep. Growing up where and when I did, in New York's East Village and San Francisco's Mission District in the early '90s, their predicament was common. Plenty of people were slowly caving in on themselves due to the ravages of drugs, their skin growing sallow and their eyes becoming vacant as they were eaten alive from within.

But despite knowing that my parents struggled with addiction, I had only a patchy understanding of what that meant, either for them or for the hollow-eyed strangers on the street and in the clinic waiting room. I'd picked up enough from movies and foreboding commercials to know that drugs were bad for you, but I understood it in the same abstract way that I knew broccoli was good for you. I couldn't really differentiate between my parents' drug problem and all their other grown-up problems, like making the rent or keeping the house clean. Even possessed of facts and evidence, a child can only grasp a fraction of what adults do.

In the years after the tinfoil incident, after my parents split up and my mother successfully kicked her heroin habit, my father and I had an ongoing coded dialogue about his efforts to do the same. He would tell me that he was "healthy," which was his way of saying that he was clean. He couldn't bring himself to be completely frank about his struggle, but he knew that I worried about it and he wanted to reassure me. The fact that he told me how he was doing, no matter how euphemistically, made me trust him. It made me feel even more invested as I rooted for him from the sidelines of his invisible battle.

I believed in him so intensely that I was probably the only person who didn't immediately assume drugs were involved when he died. I was 12 and living in upstate New York with my mother. He had gone to live in a cabin in the Northern California redwoods, to be in nature and away from drugs. He died in his sleep. Even though I was across the country when it happened, I felt certain my father was clean because of the postcards he'd sent me, always mentioning how well he was doing and how he couldn't wait for me to visit so we could camp out under the ancient, majestic trees. 

The autopsy report eventually confirmed that there was no heroin in my father's blood when he died. The coroner couldn't determine a cause of death, which left many open questions, but I had the answer to the one question that mattered to me. As far as I knew, the only way heroin could become fatal was through an overdose, and I took the absence of the drug in his system to mean that his death was unrelated to his many years of abuse. I felt vindicated.

I spent the next decade mourning my father, telling everyone what a great artist he'd been and how much he had taught me about life, literature, and language—that "trendy" was a bad word, for instance, and overusing "like" makes a person sound ignorant. My father was the lost beloved, blameless as a saint—while I sprayed the anger I felt over his loss everywhere else, blasting it like buckshot from a shotgun at my mother, teachers, and classmates, at truant officers, cops, and store owners. I was furious at the world for taking him from me.

When I hit my 20s, I realized that I didn't actually know that much about my father beyond my rosy memories, so I started reaching out to his old friends. The hazy view of heroin I'd had as a child became sharper and more detailed. I learned that he had been using it with far more regularity and for a longer period of time than I'd ever known. I eventually came to face the obvious: that the damage done by injecting poison into your veins for almost two decades doesn't instantly reverse the moment you stop. A 43-year-old man's organs don't just shut down inexplicably. There may not have been heroin in his system when he died, but that didn't mean heroin wasn't the cause of his death. I started to see his death not as some freak occurrence, but something that he let happen willfully. And I was furious.

Letting myself rage at him, at the memory of him, was like releasing a breath I'd held for almost 20 years. As a child, I had thought of addiction as a big bad demon my parents were fighting to escape so that we could all live happily ever after. Now, I had to wonder how they let themselves get into that position in the first place. How could they have looked at the peaceful face of their sleeping child in one room, then closed the door and smoked heroin in another? 

Straight Dope: O'Donnell as a baby with Schactman. Years after his death, she started to hold him responsible for the destructive choices that led to his demise. Photo courtesy of Lilly O'Donnell

My father was a good parent in many ways. He read me Grimm's fairy tales and Greek myths, cherished my every piece of art, and encouraged me to voice my thoughts loudly and clearly. But all the while, he failed at his number one duty to me—to do everything he could to make sure that he'd be in my life. The central requirement of being a parent is to be present for your child. All the rest is a matter of style and degree. But you can't be a good parent, or even a bad parent, if you're not there at all. He hadn't really died by accident, I came to realize. He'd committed suicide by neglect, like a lie of omission.

In a way, feeling my anger at him has lessened its power over me. The story we often hear about the loved ones of addicts—a pat tale of anger resolving into forgiveness—doesn't acknowledge the complexity of feelings layered upon each other, all of them shifting continually with time. I don't know if or when I'll ever forgive my father. But that's OK. Anger hasn't diminished my love for him or my appreciation of everything that was wonderful about him. It's just made him feel more real. It's let me see him with bracing clarity—not only as the adored father I lost too soon, but as the flawed human being who I can now mourn more fully and honestly.

Lilly Dancyger is the deputy editor of Narratively. She's writing a memoir about her father.