The author's engrossing and wildly innovative account of a relationship gone bad, and a bold dissection of the mechanisms and cultural representations of psychological abuse. Tracing the full arc of a harrowing relationship with a charismatic but volatile woman, Machado struggles to make sense of how what happened to her shaped the person she was becoming.
Machado lacked context for her experience primarily because she was in a lesbian relationship. “Our culture does not have an investment in helping queer folks understand what their experiences mean.” Also, since both participants were women, it did not associate well with #MeToo notions of power in abusive relationships. The scarcity of a literature on homosexual abuse notwithstanding, Machado was eventually forced to conclude that her experience “was common, that everything that had happened to me — a crystalline, devastating landscape I navigated in my bare feet — was detailed in books and reports, in statistics”
Machado’s inventiveness and her fearless honesty distinguish this book from other memoirs. She tells her story in fragments; each short chapter views her experience through a different lens; the genres keep shifting; and the literary forms multiply, even including footnotes about folktales, ogres and fairy princesses. Machado’s honest treatment of her humiliation is undeniably disturbing and makes for an unsettling read. One is constantly left wondering why she keeps returning for more abuse. The answer seems clear: her partner is everything Machado thinks she is not. She is beautiful, wealthy, bright, witty and worldly. Also, she is manipulative and may, in fact, be psychotic. In this context, one can’t help but think of the joke: “Denial is more than just a river in Africa.” By cleverly switching to second person narration, Machado suckers her reader into becoming an unwilling accomplice. However, her failure to place her abuser’s psychological damage into some context is disturbing because it tends to leave one confused about assessing blame. This is not a balanced presentation of the facts of the case. Instead it is an indictment of one party by another.
Despite moving around a bit, the primary setting is a house in Bloomington, Indiana that Machado refers to as “the dream house.” This place is preeminent not only because it is in the title, and the place where much of the abuse occurs, but also because it seems to be an important metaphor for Machado’s understanding of the trauma. It’s a castle keep where the abusive princess resides, a circle where the cycle keeps turning, a trap, and a place where Machado compulsively returns.
It seems that Machado has created a new sort of genre with this book that relates her experiences with with an abusive partner as they worked through a lesbian relationship. To cut to the chase, Machado has set up a most unusual format for this memoir in which she she is blindingly honest in her explanation of exactly how she managed to get through what was obviously a horrific experience for her. And she doesn't hide the fact that she could've, should've gotten out of the relationship several times but somehow couldn't do it. It made me feel that she was so real, so human, because I could picture myself doing something very much like that.
The writing is beautiful and I could hardly stop reading wondering how long she would put up with this woman who was making her life hell. The format, as I mentioned, is very unusual. She compared the Dream House, where they thought they would be so happy, to a number of tropes and headed each section of the book with that metaphor: Dream House as Confession, as Bildungsroman, as Noir, as Here Comes the Bride, as High Fantasy, as Doppleganger, as Demonic Pissession, as Unreliable Narrator and on and on. Absolutely brilliant. And somehow left me feeling unexpectedly hopeful and joyful. Very highly recommended
In the Dream House gives us a series of short images and episodes from the relationship - from the first excitement of lust and love, through the loved one's increasingly unpredictable behaviour, to terrible scenes of rage and jealousy.
You will remember so little about the dinner except that, at the end of it, you want to prolong the evening and so you order tea of all things. You drink it—a mouthful of heat and herb, scorching the roof of your mouth—while trying not to stare at her, trying to be charming and nonchalant while desire gathers in your limbs. Your female crushes were always floating past you, out of reach, but she touches your arm and looks directly at you and you feel like a child buying something with her own money for the first time.
The next day, after you say good-bye to your friends, you sit in the car in the parking lot as she talks at you—your friends hate me, they’re jealous. An hour later you are still there, your head bent tearily against the window. The new bride walks by and notices you in your car. You see her slow down, her face crimped with puzzlement and concern. You shake your head ever so slightly, and she looks uncertain but mercifully she keeps walking so you can endure your punishment in peace. By the time you’ve wound out of the mountains and gotten back to a freeway, the bite of the fight has sweetened; whiskey unraveled by ice.
Some of the episodes are told in stylistically clever ways, which could have seemed gimmicky except that there is always a reason for it which takes you back to what Machado is saying, and which makes sense emotionally. A short chapter which is a 'lipogram' (without the letter 'e') makes a point about what it's like when there is something huge that you can't talk to anyone about. A chapter in the form of a 'choose your own adventure story' conveys the sense that no matter what Machado did, it wasn't right, and there was no way to break out of the cycle of fights and anger.
-Carmen Maria Machado, In the Dream House
This is a remarkable memoir, both as a piece of art and as a social commentary. It's construction is unique to any memoir I've ever read - each section is related to a different fairy tale, or work of folklore, or popular story - and while the narrative jumps in time and space, it culminates in such a way that the reader feels connected to the story in a deep and visceral way.
Carmen Maria Machado is quickly becoming one of my must-read authors. Her work is always complex and emotional, and more than a little otherworldly. I can't wait to see what she brings next.
TW: emotional abuse
“The truth is, there is no better place to live than in the shadow of a beautiful, furious mountain.”
“You cried in front of many people. You missed readings, parties, the supermoon. You tried to tell your story to people who didn’t know how to listen. You made a fool of yourself, in more ways than one.
“When the historian of queer experience attempts to document a queer past, there is often a gatekeeper, representing a straight present.”
For many years, Carmen Maria Machado was locked into an abusive same-sex relationship. A nightmare, she had a hard time pulling herself out of. In her debut memoir Machado, describes this experience, in exquisite and painful detail. It can be a difficult read at times, but her writing is so bold and gorgeous, it guides the reader safely past the ugly passages. I loved her story collection, Her Body and Other Parties and with this one, she has proved to be a voice to be heard. I can't wait to see what she does next.
Rather than going through events in a linear way like most memoirs, it breaks the story down into fragments and intersperses it with reflections on the larger context in which the relationship happened - gaslighting and the movie the term comes from, other writing about abuse in lesbian relationships and its absence from most discussion of domestic violence, the author's experience writing the book.
This is so beautifully written, and so original and thought-provoking. I am sure it will stay with me for a long time, and I will definitely read everything else Machado writes.