Living the Unknown: Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House
There’s a certain taste that comes with anticipation. The more you yearn for something—the more you want it—the sharper that taste becomes. Excitement is sweet, expectation a little heady. Impatience lends a touch of bitterness. When want becomes collective, everything multiplies. Shared desire makes the waiting that much harder.
Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House is a meal so many people have been waiting for.
Machado’s debut story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, quickly went from a book I brought on a trip to Toronto to my entire focus of my five days spent in the city. After seeing Machado speak in Portland, I knew In the Dream House would be something important, too. With each new bit of advance praise, author interview, and book review, I grew more and more anxious for my own chance to read Machado’s memoir.
When it finally came, I was apprehensive. Should I start it right then? Wait for the right mood? I wanted to pace myself—I’d devoured Her Body and Other Parties at a rate even I was surprised by. I should take my time with In the Dream House, savor it, I thought. I decided I would sit down with a few chapters each night before bed so Machado’s words would be the last I’d see before I closed my eyes, so I could truly take them in and absorb them.
But once I started reading, I couldn’t stop. All my carefully laid plans were ruined in one four-hour sitting. I didn’t revel in Machado’s story of abuse. I found hope in it, an understanding, a hand held out, and a soft smile that said It’s okay, I know this pain, too. There was a rush of validation, a terror of being seen on every page.
I knew going in that In the Dream House was an account of queer abuse. The dust jacket plainly states: “In the Dream House is Carmen Maria Machado’s account of a relationship gone bad and a bold dissection of the mechanisms and cultural representations of psychological abuse.” I hated that phrasing, “a relationship gone bad,” but I pressed on, trusting Machado’s abilities.
I wasn’t expecting to be confronted with my own story.
In the Dream House is laid out like an exquisitely presented academic paper; we’re asked as readers to examine Machado’s personal, lived experience as we would any literary material. Does it fit in to a specific genre? Does it fall under requisite formal guidelines? Or can it be looked at with multiple interpretations? Might In the Dream House be a memoir and an exposé and a scholarly resource the same way a relationship can be toxic and heartbreaking and cherished? Each chapter portrays the dream house—that is, the concept of the dream house, not just the physical building in Bloomington, Indiana that Machado and her ex-girlfriend lived in but also the idea of the dream house, Machado’s memories of the dream house and what it ended up becoming for her—as a different genre. Time travel, point of view, choose your own adventure, detective noir, pulp, science fiction thriller. “Dream House as…” is each chapter’s foray into its specific genre.
I was confident as I made it through the first few chapters, certain I knew what this memoir would be. In the first chapter, Dream House as Overture, Machado reveals her dislike of prologues; this leads immediately into “Dream House as Prologue,” which made me laugh. Machado is good at wringing humor out of places it shouldn’t belong.
But something changed on page fourteen. My heart was beating hard enough to hurt by the end of “Dream House as an Exercise in Point of View.” Something in the cleaving of Machado, the way she talks directly to the “you” of her past self, felt like the knife was digging right into me. She accuses that “you,” dreads what she will do. “Would knowing have made you dumber or smarter? If, one day, a milky portal had opened up in your bedroom and an older version of yourself had stepped out and told you what you know now, would you have listened? You like to think so, but you’d probably be lying.” But she also feels so immensely for this “you,” holds her so tenderly in her memories: “That’s not how it happened, but okay. We can pretend. I’ll give it to you, just this once,” she says at the conclusion of “Dream House as Choose Your Own Adventure.” Near the end of the book Machado writes, “I wished 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.” She ends “Dream House as an Exercise in Point of View” with “I thought you died, but writing this, I’m not sure you did.” I had to pause to catch my breath.
“Part of the problem was, as a weird fat girl, you felt lucky,” Machado writes at the beginning of “Dream House as Luck of the Draw,” and reading the sentence, I felt my guts clench. I had felt lucky with my own “short and pale and rail-thin and androgynous” catch. I was fourteen and fat, acne-ridden and vibrating out of my own skin from constant anxiety, and she’d chosen me. Every sentence in “Dream House as Déjà Vu” was one that could describe our relationship. It made me feel sick to read them on the page, now. I knew what was coming and I couldn’t stop thinking about my own experience, in a way I hadn’t let myself in years.
What they don’t tell you, but what every victim of abuse eventually comes to know, is that it’s very easy to forget what happened to you. While you’re in it, while it’s actively happening, you’re in a state of hypervigilance. You’re living in a perpetual high-stress environment where you can’t settle, can’t relax, always waiting for the next hurt to come your way. After repeated patterns of abuse, there is no “lull” for you. No period where you think things might get better. You’re always wondering what will happen next, what misstep you’ll take that will cause your abuser to lash out.
It’s no wonder that the brain can’t handle this sort of stress. The prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain that’s used for executive function—shuts down. The amygdala takes over, giving control to the “fear circuitry.” The hippocampus, responsible for encoding short-term memory and conversion into long-term memory, is impaired. You remember hyper-specific things, like the smell of the room or the reflection of the light from the sun shining in through the window, but not what you spent the afternoon doing. As time passes, the things you remember come in flashes and blurs. Nothing distinct. The taste of fear, the grip of it around your lungs, but not what their eyes looked like as they pinned you to the wall by the throat.
The longer it’s been since my own abuses, the more I question whether what I remember actually happened. In the Dream House does something that session after session of therapy could not—it validates those memories we feel we can’t trust. There’s something powerful in being seen and understood. Countless people have been traumatized by their childhoods, and queer folks more than most. What we don’t talk about, and what Machado explicitly shares with us within the pages of her memoir, is that queer relationship abuse happens much more often than we think it does. Machado’s understanding of her research comes from her being a queer woman, experiencing her abuse as a queer woman. As she notes:
I primarily use lesbian and queer woman, and I do not explicitly talk about gay or queer men, or gender-nonconforming people, though they too experience domestic abuse. I made these choices for a few reasons… What is even more unthinkable is suggesting that the histories, experiences, and struggles of all queer people are somehow interchangeable, when they absolutely are not.
Our stories are not interchangeable, but Machado’s is one all queer people can find meaning and comfort from.
She goes on to list resources and historical archives she utilized when researching this memoir. The list is “primarily focused on cisgender lesbians and their communities,” because that’s what’s out there. As I read the titles of essays and collection names and research papers, I was astonished. There aren’t nearly enough resources on same-sex domestic violence but it still felt like the pages were overflowing with information for me. Machado identifies this problem in “Dream House as Prologue”: “The conversation about domestic abuse within queer communities is… newer, and even more shadowed.”
There are so many shadows in my past. Days and weeks I can’t recall past a haze of depression and suicidal ideation. Those shadows fled as I continued to read In the Dream House. By the time I got to “Dream House as the Pool of Tears,” I couldn’t help but think of my own first breakup with her. How she’d cheated and I’d found out, told her we couldn’t be together anymore. How I would have to navigate the school hallways with her lingering around every corner. I thought Machado would escape her Dream House woman and move on, the way I hadn’t, but of course that’s not how it works. There were too many pages left for me to be that naïve.
Machado takes her Dream House woman back, the same way I took mine back: through tears. “You have sex with her because you don’t know what else to do; you only speak the language of giving yourself up.” The same way I would continue to have sex with her even though every time it made me feel like she was taking away another part of me, until there wouldn’t be anything left.
Like Machado, when I finally ended it for good, what was left was a void. Unlike Machado, I had nothing to fill it with. All of my friends, I came to learn, were her friends. I’d lost my own, given them up for her. Her friends chose her, believed her. I’d skipped a year, nearly destroyed myself to finish school more quickly, so I could catch up with her and get to where she was, to close the distance between us. Now that she was gone, I was still catapulting towards her. I’d said yes to one college, her college, and I had no choice but to go.
We lived in towers across the street from one another, walked the same paths through campus. The first time I saw her across the quad, stomach acid burned my throat and mouth. My hands shook and my vision narrowed. A panic attack, I’d figure out later. It happened again and again. The third, fifth, tenth time I saw her. I couldn’t help but think, What would she do to me if she saw me? I was terrified. I stopped going to classes, stopped leaving my dorm. I was alone, isolated in a place that stunk of her, had her fingerprints all over it. My mom forced me to leave after a year, to move back home. She was afraid I’d wind up dead if I stayed. I knew I would.
I believed that what had happened to me as a teenager, the abuse I suffered at the hands of a woman who had near-total control over me by the end of our relationship, was aberrant. I readily discuss my childhood trauma, flippantly, describing events in great detail to those who ask, but I hide the events of my adolescence under vague hand-waving and “oh, you know”s. I don’t know how to explicitly talk about those three years of my life. For so long, I thought no one would believe me, or worse, would think I was overreacting. A relationship gone bad. Even twelve years after the fact, I still hesitate to say, My ex-girlfriend abused me.
When we talk about men being violated, we have to tersely remind ourselves that women can be abusive towards men, but we rarely talk about women being abusive towards women. It’s still ingrained in our cultural subconscious that women are the less dominant participants in a relationship. Sure, we can accept that mothers abuse their children, but that’s not about her being a woman any longer. A mother and child are not in a romantic relationship, and so it’s different.
Machado makes us look at these assumptions, these flawed definitions of what a woman might be. “Who is capable of committing unspeakable violence?” she asks us in the footnotes of “Dream House as Queer Villainy.” “Women [can] abuse other women. Women have abused other women. And queers [need] to take this issue seriously, because no one else [will].”
I don’t know if I’m the right person to point out every literary technique Machado uses in In the Dream House. I don’t know that I could name them all, even with the chapter titles and the footnotes. The allusions, the homages, the pastiches. Machado is not just a beautiful writer, she’s a brilliant writer, and it’s easy to feel outmaneuvered as the pages slip through your fingers. Any time a bit of writing caught my breath, I dog-eared the page; I ended up with more pages with creased corners than not. How aptly she describes the sensations I felt for three horrible years: “That night, she fucks you as you lie there mutely, praying for it to be over, praying she won’t notice you’re gone… You shudder and moan with precision. She turns off the lights. You watch the darkness until the darkness leaves you; or you leave it.”
She has a firm grasp on her craft; it’s evident she spent long years writing and rewriting until the book matched the exacting conditions she’d set out for it. It’s so clever that even someone who has read Machado’s author profile as many times as I have is left reeling at the revelation of “Dream House as Plot Twist.” It’s a mix of memoir, fiction, and history lesson. An act of creation and, as Machado says, “an act of resurrection.”
It’s also an act of bravery. Machado’s abuser becomes “the woman from the Dream House,” but that doesn’t make her any less real, any less tangible. This is a person who exists, who people know, who might very well read this book and know herself in it. It’s terrifying, giving your abuser space within the art you create—it’s like you’re telling them, this is because of you, even if you don’t want to admit it. But Machado does it anyway. She does everything but name her abuser, because her abuser’s name doesn’t matter. What she was and what she became matters: The ghost who haunts the memory of the Dream House. The woman who stains the pages of Machado’s history, and the woman who would lay the foundation for Machado’s later happiness.
Near the end of the book, we’re confronted with “Dream House as Proof.” Proof is something a lot of us will never have. We have nothing beyond our own recollections, maybe a few occasions friends or family thought we were acting weird or unlike ourselves. How do we present these things as proof, when what we remember is, as Machado says, “[the] rancid smell of anger. The metal tang of fear in the back of my throat… None of these things exist. You have no reason to believe me.” How do we present these intangible memories as the proof most people demand? Machado has no answer for this. She ends the chapter with five questions, showing us that she doesn’t know. The same way I don’t know. The same way most victims of abuse don’t know. But this book helped me accept that unknown. It gives me comfort to know I’m not alone in my questioning, in my fear. To know that even without that tangible proof, my body still knows what happened. My memories are validated even as my truth is questioned.
“If you need this book, it is for you,” Machado says in her dedication.
I needed this book. Maybe you will, too.