“Most types of domestic abuse are completely legal.”
Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House is an astounding, genre-upending memoir that exceeds the mountains of praise that have been heaped on it. Her raw prose is powerful and honest. Machado’s book will be read and taught for decades and decades for both its unconventional techniques as well as the openness with which it confronts physical abuse in the queer community.
In the Dream House is comprised of dozens and dozens of short chapters, some bite-sized paragraphs, some that stretch for pages. It dissects her lesbian relationship from a myriad of perspectives (literary theory, pop culture, fairy-tale tropes, etc.) and creates a kaleidoscopic melange of thoughts and reactions around the trope of a dream house. Chapter titles (chosen randomly) include Dream House as a Spy Thriller, Dream House as Meet the Parents, Dream House as Ambiguity. Machado frames her story as fragments that coalesce on her queer (her linguistic preference) fairy-tale relationship that became abusive and dominated by petty jealousies, physical threats, paranoid recriminations.
Machado’s Dream House is a literal structure where her girlfriend lived and that Machado regularly visited. It became a metaphorical depository for her identity as a queer woman and contained multitudes:
“The Dream House was never just the Dream House. It was, in turn, a convent of promise (herb garden, wine, writing across the table from each other), a den of debauchery (fucking with the windows open, waking up with mouth on mouth, the low, insistent murmur of fantasy), a haunted house (none of this can really be happening), a prison (need to get out need to get out), and finally, a dungeon of memory. In dreams it sits behind a green door, for reasons you have never understood. The door was not green.”
For obvious reasons, Machado never names her abusive lover and in fact refers to her as The Dream House. A story from her collection Her Body and Other Parties features a woman named Bad who is clearly based on her girlfriend from this memoir.
Among dozens of stark, memorable images in her book, I was particularly struck by one incomprehensibly sad episode. One evening she was looking forward to re-watching an escapist movie from her childhood in the comfort of the couple with whom she was renting a room. She falls asleep and misses most of the movie. After waking up, feeling peaceful and safe, she realizes that her girlfriend has been angrily texting her. Machado apologizes, repeatedly denies being with another woman, and offers her friends as witnesses who can testify for her. Machado’s recollection is heartbreaking:
“If you live into eternity, if you live until the sun crashes into the earth, you will never forget the expression on John’s face, the way he slumps forward and looks flattened with grief. He shakes his head very slightly, though it’s not clear if he’s refusing the task or refusing the reality where the task is being offered him.”
Machado writes this scene in the second person, which is a narrative choice that she repeatedly exploits. Sliding out of first person distances herself from her text’s scenes and allows direct commentary as if from the viewpoint of an outsider. Such dislocation is a common idea of domestic abuse.
Her make-your-own-adventure section was another (among many) compelling chapter that dramatized the trap faced by victims of abuse. No escape is possible from this adventure. You try over and over again to locate the exit, but every move is trumped by your oppressor, and you lose. Every time. If you cheat, you are caught and chastised. A chilling refutation to those who cluck, “I don’t understand why she stayed with her terrible partner, why didn’t she just leave?”
Machado’s memoir is not devoid of dark humor. She describes her physical ailments, presumably caused by stress, to a doctor who warns her that she must lose some weight. She jokes: “the weight you need to lose is 105 pounds and blonde and sitting in the waiting room with an annoyed expression on her face.”
Any Cop?: You read this book slowly because its emotional impact is dense, intense, and painful. You savour the writing and its descriptions of the emotional trauma its author endured. But its pain is difficult to process, shards of pain lay on its pages and they cut your fingers as you read, you are trapped by the compelling page-turning prose, which disgusts you, but its narrative is compelling, you need to see what happens next. You are scared of the Dream House.