In The Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado (reviewed by Haley Papa)

by | Apr 9, 2020 | Blog, Microviews, Reviews

Carmen Maria Machado’s memoir reads like a whispered truth only she can give the reader, and a different take on what a memoir entails. Machado first entered the literary world with her short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties in 2017, and now sets off to unravel her deep-set shame of an enthralling and toxic relationship with an abusive woman. There is no pitying her victimhood here. Machado reflects openly on her narrative of abuse and in each arc of her relationship reveals a change in style to explore queer domestic violence and the way we use art to put memories on the page. 

Machado deftly weaves form with pop culture, personal anecdotes, and cutting brevity to move the story along. In The Dream House is structured by sections, most brief and lasting no more than a page, using the Dream House as the subject of each part. Machado takes the reader’s hand through the two years of her relationship, the first meeting with the abusive woman, their journey to a polyamorous and then monogamous relationship, and then to a nightmare wrought with verbal and physical violence and manipulation. The rental in Indiana where Machado’s lover lived is coined the “Dream House” and thus giving us the setting of Machado’s fear. Within the growing suspense and terror Machado cultivates throughout the memoir lies intermingled commentaries on queerness and art itself, as not just a narrative of written word, but an experience of various forms to convey emotion and the self.

Queerness is not an uncommon subject, but Machado addresses the idea of domestic violence outright from the first pages. She says, “As we consider the forms intimate violence takes today, each new concept — the male victim, the female perpetrator, queer abusers’ and the queer abused — reveals itself as another ghost that has always been here, haunting the ruler’s house.” Machado knows there is a lack of queer stories in the world and even fewer tales of queer domestic violence that get reported. She doesn’t hide her shame and doubt within each piece, using the second person as the role of her younger self, illuminating her uncertainties with fresh eyes. She cites various historical cases of violence, bringing us with her to the same understanding she begins to bear of a new kind of stigmatization toward queer relationships. Society has born an inclination for years to ignore or bury cases of queer abuse, from the mildest of cases to eventual deaths. This new stigma Machado reveals, however, of the queer community burying its own abusive narratives is becoming more prevalent and she laments the fact that she has few resources in other women’s stories. She ponders the consequences for the victim and the abuser, using her own fragile position to comment on the abuse for what it is in the context of her queerness and not because of it. Her own community refuses to acknowledge what she experienced with her ex-lover and defends its humanity by pushing her narrative aside just like heteronormative communities have. She laments her bitterness over her status as the victim, particularly when describing the outcomes of domestic abuse cases involving murder. With her own lack of scars in comparison, her story is all the proof Machado has left and she knows it, opening her heart with no absence of blunt honesty: “I think a lot about what evidence, had it been measured or recorded or kept, would help my case.”

We are never left doubting the truth of Machado’s narrative, though, and the unusual structure of this queer memoir gives us a fresh look at both queerness and popular culture. Disregarding tradition works in Machado’s favor here with the introduction of popular tropes as titles and subjects of the sections. A couple of examples of these tropes can be seen with two sections: “Star-Crossed Lovers”, which digs into the period of polyamory between Machado, the girlfriend, and another woman, and “Lesbian Cult Classic” which describes the initial hook-up Machado has with her soon-to-be girlfriend. Machado is well aware of each trope and moments before the hook-up happens in the latter section, she writes, “You know this move. You’ve done this move a thousand times: I am too shy to turn to you and tell you what I want; instead, I will pretend that I am not quite in control of this single, nomadic digit.” She is correct; one can think of dozens of examples of star-crossed lovers in literature and media, and the idea could even be considered cliché and overused. Machado instead plays with the tropes’ repetitive nature in our culture to offer the barebones of each trope for us to examine. What makes polyamory unable to insert itself into this narrative with three lovers, she asks? What is so special about this hook-up that it becomes a “cult classic” for others to enjoy? As Machado wades into the fray, tossing forth tropes for the reader to mull over, she knows she “speaks into the silence” as she declares herself and her own experiences to the reader: “I toss the stone of my story into a vast crevice; measure the emptiness by its small sound.”

Machado’s voice shines through prominently in one experimental section titled “Dream House as Choose Your Own Adventure” that gives the reader a typical morning within her two-year cycle of abuse. In this section, we become the decision-maker, stepping into Machado’s shoes, and must make a series of choices to attempt to avoid the cruelty of the girlfriend. Each decision results in similar situations no matter the choice, from getting reprimanded for defending moving around in your sleep, to telling the girlfriend off, to waking to a new day and the same cycle of choices. The final consequence of this “adventure” comes with the decision to escape and Machado sadly declaring, “That’s not how it happened, but okay. We can pretend. I’ll give it to you, just this one.” The line and reality of the situation are heartbreaking, but Machado doesn’t pull her punches, allowing each outcome to simmer with the reader alongside her lingering anguish over each decision.

It is this bluntness that permeates throughout the memoir, and as Machado tries to give the reader a satisfying end, perhaps with a confrontation as the reader may desire. We instead are left in an uncomfortable position wherein the ending brings no justice for what Machado experienced, even as she tells her friends what she went through. However, Machado recognizes that this ending is a necessary evil: “That there’s a real ending to anything is, I’m pretty sure, the lie of all autobiographical writing. You have to choose to stop somewhere. You have to let the reader go.” Her story has served its purpose and been brought to light and, like the conversations in recent years about the #MeToo movement, there is only so much one can do to convince readers that the Dream House and the abuse were real. There is no definitive ending in sight, not a concrete one anyway, and she does her best to give what resolution she can. It appears to Machado herself comes to her own kind of resolution, not one of satisfied justice but simple content that her story is out in the world, and she bids the reader goodbye: “My tale goes only to here; it ends, and the wind carries it to you.”

In The Dream House is a thrilling and haunting exploration of art and the complexity of queerness in a situation both familiar and unfamiliar, and Machado writes an explosion of creativity on the page, knocking down walls to be heard in any form she can devise – and there’s truly nothing else like it.

“In The Dream House”:

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