In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado
How do you understand abuse if it is not named, told, and shown? The telling of abuse in queer relationships is missing in society and history. Carmen Maria Machado breaks this “archival silence” by writing her story of queer domestic abuse in her new groundbreaking memoir, In the Dream House. Even as early as the prologue, the reader feels the darkness and weight of this journey: “I toss the stone of my story into a vast crevice; measure the emptiness by its small sound.”
Like Machado’s incredible short story collection Her Body and Other Parties, In the Dream House’s compact, experimental style dominates the reader’s experience. It presents itself as a discourse about relationships, and each chapter (often only a page long) is titled a different theme or trope — déja vu, Chekov’s gun, a road trip to Savannah. Footnotes referencing The Motif-Index of Folk-Literature, a choose-your-own-adventure story, and a fable are also all here. The reader experiences the narrative through so many fragments, each with a different sharp edge, and through this relentless innovation, one can feel Machado searching for answers for her suffering. In the Dream House is a harrowing construction of experiences in both body and mind, mixed with Machado’s towering wit and commentary.
Machado writes most of her narrative in second person and bravely bares her weaknesses (she even inventories all her unlikable qualities). Anxiety and urgency build and build. “You tried to tell your story to people who didn’t know how to listen,” she writes. “You made a fool of yourself, in more ways than one. I thought you died, but in writing this, I’m not sure you did.”
Machado’s “Dream House” is living a relationship that turns to abuse. It’s the bodily experience of psychological horror. It’s all the rooms of the mind. Her dream house is built on the devaluing of queers and the permission allowed for non-physical abuse in society.
Amidst all her experimentation, Machado employs a familiar, grounding narrative arc. Machado meets “the woman in the Dream House,” an androgynous blonde writer, in graduate school. They share a hungry desire: “You would let her swallow you whole, if she could.” The pair writes together, “…occasionally peeking over the edges of your laptops at each other with goofily contorted faces.” But then something changes, and the woman becomes a stranger: “….something essential was shielded, released in tiny bursts until it became a flood — a flood of what I realized I did not know.”
The girlfriend’s touch changes. After an argument, Machado is covertly grasped so tightly by the woman, in anger, that Machado is bruised. There are many psychological bruises as well. The woman accuses Machado of fucking or wanting to fuck everyone: strangers on the subway, even the woman’s father. She’s a dangerously risky driver, and Machado repeatedly feels trapped, endangered.
The attacks get angrier, and the reader experiences the relationship’s evil in all its sensory and psychological forces. The girlfriend screams “like she’s pouring acid out of her mouth and into [Machado].” Machado tries to “scramble away,” but the woman pushes back on her body, “howling like a wounded bear, like an ancient god.” Machado is chased and must lock herself in the bathroom while the horror beats on the door. And then the girlfriend sweetly pretends like nothing happened, a memory lapse.
Elsewhere in the memoir, essays contextualize Machado’s narrative and show her careful search for answers. Machado highlights the case of Debra Reid, a black, butch lesbian who was a victim of domestic abuse and killed her lover. Reid had a chance to be set free, but despite the lawyers’ attempts to portray her as “the woman” in the relationship, Reid did not fit the spotlighted narrative of the abused, which is “meek, straight, white.” Machado also illuminates the harrowing fact that emotional, verbal, and psychological abuse are all legal. She does not directly compare her experiences to Ms. Reid, but instead notes that society only hears about domestic violence in its shocking extremes. Queer domestic violence is even more silenced, and the result is that “our culture does not have an investment in helping queer folks understand what their experiences mean.” In Machado’s own relationship, she “…didn’t know what it meant to be afraid of another woman.” All of this marginalization and lack of representation can lead to queer people who are abused to not know what to do. “Do you see now?” Machado asks.
Machado takes a risk in writing In the Dream House and gives us something monumental, even though the probable criticism is maddening (“Maybe it was rough, but was it really abusive?”). The trauma and exhaustion of Machado’s story is enough, but she has also written a memoir that is revelatory in its innovative structure and truly haunting for tracing the mechanisms of a society that gives permission for queer domestic abuse.