Author Carmen Maria Machado writes a groundbreaking, stylistic account of an emotionally and mentally abusive lesbian relationship, and underscores the message that domestic abuse in LGBTQ+ relationships are neither the subject of adequate scholarship nor open discussion, nor even, to some extent, belief.
In a semi-linear, genre-bending, frequently surrealistic style, Machado uses a plethora of narrative devices, genre examinations, extracts from existing scholarship, art, cinema, and pop cultural references to tell this disturbing story. It includes establishing something about herself, who she was before she met the woman only ever identified as “the woman in the dream house” and what this relationship was like from its genesis, through its changes, and finally to her freedom from it.
It takes awhile to get into the rhythm of her style, mainly because she’s primarily writing in the second person. It’s distracting at first but becomes less so as you get used to it. It perhaps feels more powerful in retrospect, as Machado concludes the story where it feels like an ending to her, and directly addresses the separate self who lived through this nightmare.
I wish I had always lived in this body, and you could have lived here with me, and I could have told you it’s all right, it’s going to be all right.
The chapters are quick and short before Machado shifts focus and storytelling lens again, which is effective in some ways but frustrating in others. Sometimes a scene cuts away before we get more information that would’ve been helpful or interesting. This is also a testament to the power of her storytelling and world-building, because the reader becomes invested in the scenes she’s so vividly painting, and when they fade to black, dreamlike, and we find ourselves in a new setting with a new narrative device, it can be disappointing.
And I had this feeling too in parts telling about herself, where the camera pans away (and it does often feel camera-like) before we really get a good feel for the entire scope and scene. Like here: “I didn’t date when most people dated. When other teenagers were figuring out what good and bad relationships looked like, I was busy being extremely weird: praying a lot, getting obsessed with sexual purity.” This segues into a story about a menacing pastor at her church and youth group, but doesn’t go as deeply into this intriguing part of her past personality as it felt set up for. But I would’ve read a whole book just building on those two sentences.
Machado is a gifted, amazingly eloquent writer who crafts powerful descriptions and imbues telltale human qualities to the inanimate, a classic trope of any haunted house story, even when she’s not describing the titular house: “Elsewhere in the basement, a Lovecraftian heating system reached long tentacles up into the rest of the house. When it was humid, the front door swelled in its frame and refused to open, like a punched eye.” Elsewhere the haunted object is her own body, a far scarier horror story to be sure. The descriptions of what this kind of relationship feels like are near-overwhelming: “You wander ahead of her, far ahead so you don’t have to feel her presence weighing on you like a pillow on the face.”
The stylistic choices were a mixed bag. When they hit the right notes they’re perfect, capturing something about her relationship and its place in long historical context, even if the mainstream doesn’t always reflect that. Elsewhere there can be a sense of some shoehorning happening. I think overall it’s more impressive and well done than not, though, considering how many elements were at play.
I found the horror story-type tropes most effective, perhaps not surprisingly, in capturing the eerie, uneasy, at times outright horrific nature of the abuse Machado suffered and the actual feeling of the relationship. Sometimes the horror connections were too overt not to make:
You want an explanation that clears her of responsibility, that permits your relationship to continue unabated. You want to be able to explain to others what she’s done without seeing horror on their faces. “But she was possessed, see.” “Oh well, that happens to everyone at one time or another, doesn’t it?”
At night, you lie next to her and watch her sleep. What is lurking inside?
She examines many classic indicators of mentally and emotionally abusive relationships, and although these are harrowing, she does remarkable work in outlining the additional difficulties when these stem from a non-hetero relationship.
A reminder to remember: just because the sharpness of the sadness has faded does not mean that it was not, once, terrible. It means only that time and space, creatures of infinite girth and tenderness, have stepped between the two of you, and they are keeping you safe as they were once unable to.
Despite much here being, quite simply, harrowing, Machado is clearly writing from a place of peace. She says as much as she brings the story to where she feels an ending of sorts, and emphasizes the healing that can be found in a healthy relationship, and in herself, particularly when she’s finally able to parse all that happened within this nightmare state. It can feel terrifying and stomach-churning, but she doesn’t wallow in it, and I think any discomfort in reading is outweighed by how important this text is.
I enter into the archive that domestic abuse between partners who share a gender identity is both possible and not uncommon, and that it can look something like this. I speak into the silence.
There is a void here, and Machado has accomplished something commendable in writing such an emotional, memorable book that will speak to many who need it. It’s dreamlike, impressionistic, and undeniably affecting, but I would’ve preferred a more straightforward story I think, because the many narrative shifts undermined the impact of such an intense message. The efforts at placing this in literary, cultural, and cinematic history, among others, worked when they worked but sometimes just didn’t, or else had underwhelming scenes.
But maybe, for the author, this was the only way it seemed tellable. Pain and trauma are funny like that, even when you have to write about them — and this book does feel very strongly like a necessary catharsis — and there’s comfort in releasing this into the world, there’s also an intensity for both writer and reader that’s tough to address without some psychological distance. The creative glossing does help to distract from the visceral awfulness of it and focus instead on broader ideas and concepts here, and maybe that’s going to be more effective in getting people to listen and understand than a traditional linear narrative would be. I hope so. 3.75/5
In the Dream House: A Memoir
by Carmen Maria Machado
published November 5, 2019 by Graywolf Press