Review of Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House: A Memoir
February 3, 2020 § 2 Comments
By Candace Walsh
Imagine a memoir in the form of a centipede. Each segment of its body is a chapter. In each chapter, the narrative takes on a new genre’s characteristics, from noir to Choose Your Own Adventure. This is Carmen Maria Machado’s second book, In the Dream House: A Memoir. Her narrative flows through each discrete-genre segment like the centipede’s life force: potent, skittery, undulant, spiky, and fluid.
Once, Carmen Maria Machado fell in love with an unnamed woman writer, who gained her trust, mingled their worlds, and then steadily turned their love affair from a fairy tale into a horror movie.
The story Machado tells, of her time with an abusive girlfriend, is executed in her signature gorgeous-surprising style, but the story of one woman abusing another is absolutely horrid, because we women can at least, while enduring vagaries petty and seismic of the patriarchy, comfort ourselves from the lofty moral high ground. No, we can’t? Not entirely.
In the book’s prologue, Machado acknowledges the brutal incompleteness of queer life in historical archives; even sparser, depictions of queer abuse. She writes, “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.”
Machado’s story is also absolutely horrid because we queer women can at least, while enduring homophobia, heteronormativity, physical threats, and microaggressions, feel smug because as Machado avers, “To find desire, love, everyday joy without men’s accompanying bullshit is a pretty decent working definition of paradise.” But it is sometimes hell instead? Yes.
The ever shape-shifting momentum of the book, powered by its thrumming, antic centipede energy, echoes the relationship’s mutability from heart-shaped bed to haunted basement, bliss portal to sinkhole; Machado’s role from chosen to chastised as her girlfriend rapid cycles through the roles of love-bomber, interrogator, waif, harpy, terrorist.
The book’s structure and craft choices also foil merciful dissociation. Even the most traumatized, abuse-experienced readers who would otherwise dissociate or put the book down are strapped in by her use of second person point of view, and captivated by the pleasures of her text: the how and the wow of Machado pulling off her ongoing legerdemain, iron-hand-in-velvet-glove with the recognition of Machado’s girlfriend’s moves and the speaker’s justifying responses. The gullibility. The freeze hunkered down in a seat reserved for flee: when the girlfriend squeezes her wrist, “It is the first time she is touching you in a way that is not filled with love, and you don’t know what to do. This is not normal, this is not normal, this is not normal. Your brain is scrambling for an explanation, and it hurts more and more, and everything is static.” The mucky, shamed feeling of being treated like garbage. Maybe I’m garbage? Garbage that dare not speak its name: a partner-abused queer person.
Why the silence? That comes down to questions like: Who gets to be a bad person or be the prey of a bad person? Not a marginalized person, not without maligning the fragile reputation of their already-marginalized group. These conundra pace the perimeter of In the Dream House’s scar-tissued heart. It’s definitely Bad for Lesbians when an abusive lesbian is outed. Back when Machado was tweeting about writing this book, my unvoiced gut response took the form of tut-tutting thoughts: “Can’t you write about something else? Didn’t you get the memo about how we all have to be exemplary citizens in order to maintain our meager patch of societal acceptability?” Queer women can’t afford to be as publicly bad or done-bad as straight white couples, for fear our singular stories will erase all the Ellen-and-Portia happily ever afters that justify us to straight relatives, friends, and legislators, and reassure vulnerable young queer folks that It Gets Better.
Garbage festers in dark, covered places. Having to be perfect is another way society tells us we’re not allowed to be who we are, what we are: flawed humans. Not flawed because of who we love. Flawed because we’re humans. As Machado puts it, “queers—real-life ones—do not deserve representation, protection, and rights because they are morally pure or upright as a people. They deserve those things because they are human beings, and that is enough.”
For all this talk of flaws, Machado’s book is free of them. Machado is a master of roping the glancing and the glinting, the ineffable and the unseemly. She hazards offbeat comparisons: “In those months, hazy from lack of sleep and raw with anxiety, I felt like a calculator with someone’s finger over the solar panel—fading in and out, threatening to shut off altogether.” She also describes things we often banish from our minds before putting them into words, like the dissipating pleasure that anticipates an argument with a volatile person: “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.”
In the Dream House is intoxicating, mesmerizing, and addictive like the best bad relationships are, but at the end, we aren’t abruptly dumped as readers the way the horrid girlfriend dumps the speaker. Machado ushers us to a curtailed freedom via final chapters limning her release and recovery: a chiaroscuro of rebound sex, epiphany, and her friends’ and acquaintances’ stinging skepticism: “Maybe it was rough, but was it really abusive?” She exits the dream house, but the dream house has forever changed the way she sees the world, imparting the fraught knowledge that far too many people on the outside are zombified by the same inertia and denial that once kept her captivated and captive.
Candace Walsh is a first-year creative writing (fiction) PhD student at Ohio University. Her essays have recently appeared in Pigeon Pages, The New Limestone Review, and K’in Literary Journal. She also has a short story in Akashic Books’ Santa Fe Noir. Follow her on Twitter @candacewalsh.