“In the Dream House” Deconstructs the Nightmare of Abuse in Queer Relationships

Carmen Maria Machado’s memoir begins with a house. Well, no — before we get to the house we have a prologue, one which questions the point of prologues. “I never read prologues. I find them tedious. If it’s so important, why relegate it to the paratext? What is the author trying to hide?” It’s an opening that does the opposite of what one generally wants to do before a piece of personal writing: establish a sense of trust and authority in the narrator, signal to the reader that we can have faith in the story we’re being told and the person telling it. Instead, Machado calls herself into question — What is the author trying to hide? It’s an appropriate entry point into a unique memoir, one which is among other things often about how difficult it is to trust a narrator, including or especially oneself, and how difficult it is to tell a story accurately, or even know what that might mean, particularly when you know from experience that you often won’t be believed no matter what. Also, the necessity of attempting to do so anyway, even or especially if the task seems insurmountable.

The dream house, when we do arrive there, is both real and an abstract idea; it’s the literal house that Machado shared part-time in Bloomington, Indiana with her then-girlfriend, and also it’s the relationship itself: cluttered, isolated and isolating, a home but not one Machado owns or has her own space in, something with a dark basement she hesitates to enter, rooms each with their own bad memory. It’s a memoir of Machado’s survival through that abusive relationship, and trying to reckon with all that her experience implies or reveals. Why did she enter it, and why did she stay as long as she did? What does it mean when queer women are abusive, and what resources, if any, do women abused by other women have to reach out for? What frameworks, if any, does the larger culture have to make sense of abuse between women? Do queer communities have any language for dealing with this? The deeper, harder to answer questions: how does someone who says they love you do this to you? How do you move forward, make sense of your life afterwards?

Readers of Machado’s previous work — and who among us is not! — know that she’s interested deeply in form and genre, and in the tradition of fairy tales and fables. She brings all that knowledge to bear here, making In the Dream House one of the more unique memoirs you’ll ever read. Chapters shift us through genres, exploring all the kaleidoscope angles that an intoxicating, toxic relationship cycles in and out of: Dream house as daydream. Dream house as accident. Dream house as cautionary tale. Dream house as demonic possession. We flash through childhood memories, film criticism, fairy tale analysis, anecdotes of the woman in the dream house both horrifying and nostalgic, Star Trek episodes, excavations of legal history on LGBT abuse cases — the woman in the dream house casting a shadow over all of it. In the footnotes, fairy tale motifs lace themselves through her story. Machado brings in any number of timeless folk tales featuring women and their dooms: the Little Mermaid, the Wild Swans, and some newer narratives, like 1944’s Gaslight, an original Aesop-style fable about a heartbroken squid. What stuck with me most, though, was her evocation of Bluebeard, the fairy tale whose logic undergirds all abusive relationships: Bluebeard tells his innocent new bride that no harm will come to her as long as she stays out of the locked forbidden room, his only rule. When she finally gives in to temptation and opens it, she finds the remains of his previous wives, ostensibly punished for breaking his rule. Machado says of Bluebeard that his “greatest lie was that there was only one rule… we all know that was just the beginning, a test. She failed… but even if she’d passed, even if she’d listened, there would have been some other request, a little larger, a little stranger…”

As fairy tales have been a natural form to look at fear, power and control around women’s bodies in Machado’s fictional work, they make sense as a foundation here. Fairy tales and fables serve the cultural purpose of teaching us how to make sense of the world, the bright heroes and the dark woods of it — both where the danger is to be avoided, and what failings or deviations might mean that we deserve to be fed to it. They’re an index of a culture’s deepest fears and the moral code that they’re meant to reinforce, often with women or children at the center. In the dream house, Machado is trying to figure out what the rules are, what deviations she must avoid in this fable to secure safety — and in the present as she explores the borders and history of abuse between women, she’s attempting to locate the monster, the wolf dressed as an ailing grandmother. The fairy tale framing drops in and out of the book, in some places illuminating and in some places making me feel more distanced from the narrative by layers of metaphor than brought closer to it.

Moreso than the fairy tales, what I found myself most captivated by was the surprising dreamlike language — the bulk of the book is written in the second person, present tense, giving the effect of Machado narrating things happening to you, the reader, in realtime rather than her own story. It’s disconcerting and fascinating, keeping the reader as off-balance and excruciatingly self-aware as Machado is in the dangerous, unreliable dream house of her relationship. The effect is heightened in one of the more formally experimental portions of the book, where the reader is invited to try to choose-your-own-adventure their way through a fraught interaction with the woman in the dream house. Can you find a way to navigate it that keeps you safe? Even at a remove, as part of someone else’s story, the implied question engenders a deep sense of dread. Equally powerful in the waking life of the book is Machado’s exploration of the legal and cultural history of women abused by women in the US. I found myself gripped by the story of Debra Reid, a Black lesbian and one of the Framingham Eight, women incarcerated for killing their abusive partners in self-defense. Reading about how the legal system and her peers struggled to make sense of her experiences, to parse her as a victim, gave me the visceral sense of anger and joy that learning the most resonant parts of our queer history always does – joy at understanding another piece of how we arrived here and finding connection with someone so familiar in our past, and anger that no one had ever told me before.

There is of course, always, an anxiety about discussing abuse in queer relationships — more than once throughout the book, Machado tells us that on top of the fear and confusion and self-loathing and exhaustion of living in an abusive relationship, she found herself thinking of her then-partner you’re making us look bad, a heartbreaking thought to have to carry while being so deeply and intimately harmed. Today, on the book’s official release date, Machado mentioned on Twitter how painful the process of putting into the world has been, how “many times in the past few years, I wished I’d never sold this book.” It’s a supremely fair sentiment; some things don’t become redeemed or meaningful by writing about them; they’re just purely awful. She did sell this book, though, and its dedication now reads: If you need this book, it is for you. Many of us, now and in the future, need this book; it will be needed and recommended and read and reread for generations to come, and help some of us start to try to understand something it’s impossible to make sense of.


In the Dream House is on sale beginning today, November 5.

Rachel is Autostraddle's Managing Editor and the editor who presides over news & politics coverage. Originally from Boston, MA, Rachel now lives in the Midwest. Topics dear to her heart include bisexuality, The X-Files and tacos. Her favorite Ciara video is probably "Ride," but if you're only going to watch one, she recommends "Like A Boy." You can follow her on twitter and instagram.

Rachel has written 1097 articles for us.

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