‘In the Dream House’ by Carmen Maria Machado: No Mere Confessional

Carmen Maria Machado’s new book, In the Dream House (264 pages; Graywolf Press), begins with a statement of intention. Machado, the author of the acclaimed story collection Her Body and Other Parties, tells us she has written a memoir to add her story of queer domestic violence to the catalog of contemporary literature: “I enter into the archive that domestic abuse between partners who share a gender identity is both possible and not uncommon,” she writes, “and that it can look something like this.”

Depictions of intimate partner violence between women have been largely left out of our collective culture, Machado tells us, warping our understanding of it as a phenomenon. It was imperative, then, that she share her own story of abuse. “I toss the stone of my story into a vast crevice;” she writes, “measure the emptiness by its small sound.” Machado then considers the value of the memoir as a genre, noting its unique capabilities to uncover and contextualize truths. Fundamentally, every memoir is “an act of resurrection.”

She both summons the past and reanimates her former self; she bends genre to her will, excavates meaning from chaos. She reconstructs the limits of form and narrative and structure, delivering a spectacular literary performance.

In often harrowing detail, Machado recounts an abusive relationship that commandeered her life. In graduate school, she met and fell for a beautiful woman, who remains unnamed throughout the book. Instead, she is referred to as “your girlfriend,” or, more chillingly, “the Woman in the Dream House.” Their courtship is lovely and lusty, something plucked from a dream: “Sometimes when you catch her looking at you,” Machado writes, “you feel like the luckiest person in the whole world.” But the relationship quickly devolves into an emotionally, verbally, and psychologically abusive one: “Sometimes when you catch her looking at you, you feel like she’s determining the best way to take you apart.”

Throughout the memoir, Machado refers to her past self in the second person. It isn’t until she has escaped her abuser and regained her agency that she reclaims the first-person pronoun. There are two Carmens, she tells us: “I was cleaved: a neat lop that took first person […] away from second.” In the Dream House, then, is an attempt at wholeness, at reconciling these two selves. “I thought you died,” Machado confesses about her other half, “but writing this, I’m not sure you did.”

Machado wields language like a weapon then applies it like a salve. Her craftsmanship is especially evident in the structure of the book, which is styled as a series of vignettes, each playing with form and centered around a specific genre or trope: “Dream House as Lesbian Pulp Novel,” “Dream House as Choose Your Own Adventure,” “Dream House as Chekov’s Gun,” to name only a few. With each iteration of the Dream House, Machado opens a new avenue of literary exploration. But this isn’t about showing off Machado’s ability to deftly vault between genres (though she certainly can). Every new incarnation of the Dream House gives us a new line of sight, another perspective through which we can construct reality.

Machado dissects the complexities of abuse, love, sex, and violence, all through a distinctly queer lens. She realizes that abuse at the hands of another queer woman feels like a unique betrayal — torture at the hands of one of your own. And because abuse between queer women is so widely ignored, it becomes easier to perpetrate. “I am doing this because I can get away with it; I can get away with it because you exist on some cultural margin, some societal periphery.”

In the Dream House is no mere confessional: Machado also widens her aperture to analyze our larger culture. She tackles depictions of queerness and abuse, from Star Trek to Vertigo to Gaslight, investigating the ways in which abusers ensnare and manipulate their targets. And through a plethora of footnotes, which connect moments in Machado’s life to Stith Thompson’s Motif-Index of Folk-Literature, she irreverently considers how tropes manifest in reality. The footnotes are a sort of book-long wink, a running joke with literary roots; they are painfully clever.

Spending time with Machado inside the Dream House can feel uncomfortable, even claustrophobic—this is by design. It’s on us to linger in that discomfort, to feel—even just temporarily—as trapped and forsaken as Machado has. (This is the resurrection that memoir is capable of—not just the resurrection of people and places, but of ephemeral feelings.) Reading her memoir could in a sense destroy you, but it will reconstruct you, too, leaving you better than before you found it.

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