Reviewed by Sandra Eliason
Brahna Yassky was an emerging young painter on the New York art scene when her sleeve caught fire on her stovetop. In a panic, she ran out of her apartment while the fire spread up her arm and across her chest and legs. By the time a neighbor saved her, she was burned over 55 percent of her body. In the hospital, Yassky saw a white light “tugging my feet toward the calmness of vanishing,” She decided instead to “incorporate [into herself] the power that could destroy me,” and live.
The rest of Yassky’s life, recounted in her memoir, Slow Dancing with Fire: A Memoir of Resilience (Shanti Arts, May 2022), was spent learning how to live with a new self, one traumatized and scarred, with a body she did not want to look at or to reveal to anyone else. She hid under long and loose clothing, winding scarves, and in her apartment, not wanting to emerge back into the world.
The book explores how Yassky, once a member of the artist activists known as the Guerrilla Girls, learned to show herself and ultimately her body again, accepting intimacy while relearning faith in herself and her art. How she emerged as a woman, though scarred, is told in this engaging book that kept my interest throughout.
In the morphine-induced haze which allows her to withstand the burn treatment, Yassky recalls scenes of her previous life. After the hospitalization, she undergoes multiple skin grafts and learns to use her right arm again. The rest of the book is largely chronological, as we learn how her emotionally and physically scarred life unfolds after her burns. During her recovery, Yassky became a certified art therapist, taught school, and later became an artist in the schools, painting murals with the children.
Swimming daily helped Yassky’s scars to stretch so that she could regain full motion of her burned right arm, and when she made a summer trek to the Long Island shore, she met her athletic husband. Although they were mismatched in many ways, his kind and accepting nature brought her safety and shelter, and encouraged her to continue her art career.
With a skilled artist’s eye, Yassky paints word pictures that bring to life her Tribeca loft, the shore on Long Island where she swam, and her parents’ home, where she recuperated after being burned.
The chapter “Undercover” describes Yassky’s time in the feminist movement, beginning in the early 1980s. To draw attention to the paternalistic system keeping women artists out of museum exhibits, Yassky became a part of a group of feminists highlighting the disparity. Called the Guerilla Girls, they wore gorilla masks, hiding their identities to highlight the cause, not the women promoting it. Yassky states she exchanged personal identity for anonymity, which allowed her to feel free to express herself, just as hiding her scars allowed her to emerge into the world.
This book is well written overall and the voice is strong, describing Yassky’s struggles vividly. If there is a problem, it is in the editing. An example is that characters are introduced and dispatched of without explaining their relevance or what happened to them. An old boyfriend, Keith, is one such character. Occasional dangling modifiers should have been caught by the editor. An example: “As the new teacher, the principal gave me the classes no one wanted.”
In spite of the occasional editing misstep, there is a lot to like in this memoir. It explores the bravery, determination, and heart of a woman recovering from a life-changing incident, her important influence in the women’s art movement, and the contributions she has made in schools teaching children to express themselves through art.
This book would appeal to anyone looking to understand healing from a trauma that permanently changes one’s view of oneself or those who seek to understand how to overcome adversity.