In the Dream House
(Graywolf Press, 2019)
In a work with many notable features, perhaps the most notable in Carmen Maria Machado’s anticipated new memoir In the Dream House is its structure. After the customary title and copyright pages, there is a dedication, “If you need this book, it is for you,” four additional epigraphs, each on its own page, a second title page, an overture and a prologue—the former of which contradicts the necessity of the latter: “I never read prologues. I find them tedious”—then the first of four pages marking the four major parts of the work, each with its own Roman numeral and epigraph, then 140-plus smaller sections distributed across the four parts, which range in length from a single sentence to a few pages, all individually titled in the form “Dream House as...” There is Dream House as Overture and as Prologue, as Not a Metaphor and as Picaresque, as Erotica, Noir, Bildungsroman, American Gothic, Myth, Déjà Vu (which recurs three times), as Lesbian Pulp Novel, World Building, Spy Thriller, Fantasy, Ambiguity, Choose Your Own Adventure, Unreliable Narrator, Sci-Fi Thriller, Surprise Ending, and more. There are 52 footnotes sprinkled throughout the text, many of which refer to Stith Thompson’s multi-volume reference work Motif-Index of Folk-Literature (1932 – 36), providing both a scholarly apparatus of sorts and a running gag, and the two sections that complete part four, Dream House as Ending and Dream House as Epilogue, are punctuated by an Afterword and Acknowledgments. The subsections are comprised of an impressively accomplished array of sketches, vignettes, personal remembrances, family history, aphorisms, cultural criticism, queer history and theory, theoretical physics, uncomfortable party scenes, and harrowing incidents, to name a few. As seen in the list above, however, many of the section titles are in fact similes that compare the Dream House to literary concepts, genres, tropes, and techniques, thereby repeatedly calling attention to the fact that the author is acutely concerned not only with the kind of story she is telling, but also how she is telling it.
The exuberance, inventiveness, and obsessiveness of the memoir’s structure may put readers familiar with Machado’s short story collection Her Body and Other Parties (2017) in mind of “Especially Heinous,” in which she gives plot summaries or reactions to 272 episodes of Law & Order: SVU, each one beginning with the episode’s title. The subject matter of her memoir, however, is vastly different: it centers on the passionate same-sex relationship between the author in her mid-twenties and another young woman that quickly turned sour and became abusive. The eponymous Dream House, the author informs us, is neither a Hollywood set nor a narrative prop, but rather an actual place—the idyllic-seeming home that Machado and her lover shared in Bloomington, Indiana—as well as a “haunted house” where “metaphors abound.” This troubling ambivalence between the seeming solidity and univocality of reality and facts and the unconstrained proliferation of meaning that often occurs when traumatic events color a person’s perception of self and world (Dream House as and as and as) is near the heart of Machado’s experiences and work. For instance, the emotional and psychological torment that she endured lacked both physical and sexual violence, making it invisible to agents of the state—as she notes, “most forms of domestic abuse are completely legal”—as well as the forensic hallmarks that would render her pain and anguish credible and convincing to others. For some, Machado would not have a story to be believed or listened to because, at base, nothing really happened to her. Met with this response on numerous occasions, she admits to entertaining the “fucked-up fantasy” of having been hit by her abuser (fortunately she was not), and not just hit but “hit hard”: hard enough to have left bruises and swelling, hard enough to have left proof to offer “the court of other people,” hard enough that her wounds would have given her the “clarity” that was achingly absent from what she had undergone for almost two years.
In the Dream House therefore confronts the issues of credibility, self-doubt, and disbelief that all too frequently arise when survivors of domestic abuse speak out. But the work also stands as an intervention explicitly aimed at the silences, erasures, and lacunae of the culture at large. In the Prologue, Machado states her intention to “enter into the archive that domestic abuse between partners who share a gender identity is both possible and not uncommon and it can look something like this.” Her reasons for such a declaration stem from her own experiences, of course, but also the fact that “queer people and domestic abuse” are “two topics that have, historically, been hidden away or rarely talked about.” As a consequence of this reticence and the forms of ambivalence and invisibility mentioned above, “narratives about abuse in queer relationships...that don’t culminate in extreme violence” are “unbelievably difficult” to find, which in turn underscores the extent to which “our culture does not have an investment in helping queer folks understand what their experiences mean.” Machado therefore attempts to put language to personal experiences for which she previously had none, with the hope of dispelling the “archival silence” surrounding lesbian domestic abuse and simultaneously offering an account that might be helpful for others in similar situations, now or in the future.
The importance of her subject and the relative scarcity of literature on it help us to resituate Machado’s fixation on how to tell her tale. As she notes, “to describe an abusive situation is almost certainly to deploy cliché,” which in turn, “has a flattening effect, making singularly boring what is in fact a defining and terrible experience.” As an example, Machado expresses her horror at having read “book after book about lesbian abuse” to discover “there is a pie chart to encompass these years of my life. A pie chart!” In addition to cliché, she also has to contend with ready-to-hand stereotypes and tropes about queers and lesbians that distort and deny their humanity. Among these she names and explores “queer villainy,” the notion that abusers are “cackling maniacs,” the figure of the “lunatic lesbian,” and “the rhetoric of gender roles as a way of absolving queer women from responsibility for domestic abuse.” The driving concern through all is what Machado calls “minority anxiety,” the fear that “if you’re not careful, someone will see you—or someone who shares your identity—doing something human and use it against you.”
This leads Machado into a paradox of which she is well aware. Ongoing LGBTQ+ struggles for recognition and rights are at the same time strivings to be seen and accepted as fully human across diverse segments of American society, including the dominant straight culture. And therein lies the problem: “In trying to get people to see your humanity, you reveal just that: your humanity. Your fundamentally problematic nature. All the unique and terrible ways in which people can, and do, fail.” Although in our current political climate the “last thing that queer women need is bad fucking PR,” Machado holds out hope that “by expanding representation, we give space to queers to be—as characters, as real people—human beings.”
The innovative structure that Machado has devised for her memoir expertly and self-consciously creates such a space. The scores of subsections are not exhaustive with regard to how her experiences can be named, analyzed, or interpreted, but rather are expansive and generative, continuously modeling Machado’s resolve that an account of lesbian domestic abuse need not be limited by clichéd narratives or demeaning stereotypes. There is no predetermined form for such an account, no shape to which it must conform. The only limits are the intellect and imagination that the author can bring to bear on her experiences and, ultimately, what she cares to articulate about what she has worked (or is still working) through. Machado’s In the Dream House shows us that a narrative of lesbian domestic abuse can be her story told in precisely her way—a human story, full of artistry, candor, and grace.