One of the key verbs used in therapy is “process”. Go through any traumatic experience — the sudden death of a family member or loved one, or the shocking realization that a destructive relationship needs to end if we expect to survive — and experts will always monitor how we “process” the experience.
The same verb can be used after finishing a memoir. If we read this genre with the voracious appetite of somebody convinced they’ll never be able to read again, or we pick a title at random that proves to conclusively change our lives, the fact that we’ve invested the time to experience the chosen narrative means we have no choice but to process the story.
Many of these titles in what we might refer to as “survivor” narratives can be dismissed and relegated to earnest accounts, each indistinguishable from the other. When the reading experience proves not as easy to dismiss, and we need to take a while to “process” the world we’ve safely entered with the guarantee that the author herself survived, writing about their book becomes a welcome obstacle to overcome.
The only way to effectively process Carmen Maria Machado‘s masterful, harrowing, beautifully controlled memoir, In the Dream House, is to understand that this is one of the more ambitious, audacious, and successful experimental accounts of a journey from a house of horrors. It’s about so many things: a toxic relationship with an emotionally abusive girlfriend; a “choose-your-own-adventure” that proposes scenarios and likely outcomes; fairy tales’ a history of queer domestic abuse built on historical accounts and; connections between the author’s experiences and Stith Thompson’s Motif Index of Folk-Literature (1932-1936).
Like most folk tales, Machado’s narrative is buried beneath a layer of horror. That horror hides behind corners, buries itself in whispered threats. Machado’s the heroine of her memoir, but that’s not to say her nemesis is conclusively full of absolute malevolence. Machado is manipulated, deceived, subject to screaming rages. We know this from hyperbolic portrayals of lethal relationships, but that’s not what we find here. Like most villains, the woman in the Dream House (as Machado names her girlfriend) offers her evil in equally measured, small doses. It is powerful how Machado writes her way out of that life.
“I speak into the silence,” Machado writes. “I toss the stone of my story into a vast crevice; measure the emptiness by its small sound.”
What is happening? Where is the author going with this? The sections, each of varying lengths, are titled. There’s “Dream House as Inciting Incident”, in which Machado meets her nemesis. (These narratives also alternate between second- and third-person.) “Your female crushes were always floating past you,” she writes, “but she touches your arm and looks directly at you…” Later, in “Dream House as Famous Last Words”, a brief stab of a chapter, the dark foreshadowing. “‘We can fuck,’ “she says, ‘but we can’t fall in love.’ “
Why would Machado be attracted to somebody like this? She considers body image and identity as reflected through her weight. The deceit of early love intoxicates her: “You wondered… if this is what most people got to experience in their lives… a straight line from want to satisfaction…” In the Dream House is, oddly, a romance novel of sorts. A déjà vu. At first, Machado feels like the luckiest person in the world, but she also seems to understand (perhaps while it was happening but definitely in retrospect) that it is all bound to change.
Indeed, her understanding of the consequences inherent in those whom she allows power over her life is brutal. She reflects on whether or not silence is the proper response to those who know your name but concludes, “…anyone who knows your name can break you in two.”
The irresistible and undeniable twists of obsession are here, all the signs are flashing. In “Dream House as Noir”, Machado writes that this woman is “…the first…who wants you in that way — desire tinged with obsession.” That’s one of the keys to this remarkably smooth account of trauma absorbed and processed. Machado considers her father’s views of women, his implication that women are “emotional” and “sensitive”. Maybe he is right. What he says, the woman in the Dream House embodies. By the end of Part One, with “Dream House as Bluebeard”, Machado puts herself in the line of fire. She’s one of Bluebeard’s wives, the latest, allowed to do as she pleases so long as she doesn’t put a key into a lock and open the door to freedom.
The locations of this memoir take us to Harvard, Iowa City, and Bloomington, Indiana. Machado is in a polyamorous relationship with the woman in the Dream House. The third woman, Val, is named early and referred to by Machado as her “little plot twist”. The fact that they’re married now and thriving outside the context of the other, the destructive force, is less a spoiler than it is a promise that a reward will come only after some more displacement, some additional relocation. Machado writes:
“Places are never just places in a piece of writing… Setting is not inert… Later, you will learn that a common feature of domestic abuse is dislocation… the victim has just moved… She is made vulnerable by her… isolation… Her only ally is her abuser.”
In “Dream House as American Gothic”, Machado analyzes the elements of a gothic romance: woman plus habitation. This is a narrative of physical movements and emotional inertness. No matter where you move and how far you go, there’s no escape from the self, from the darkest instincts inside. Secrets are made, and kept within. The deepest scars are those nobody sees. Machado considers George Cukor’s 1944 film, Gaslight, in which a distraught Ingrid Bergman is emotionally abused and psychologically manipulated by a suave husband (Charles Boyer.) Machado writes, of the husband:
“He enjoys it and it serves him, and he is twice satisfied… abusers do not need to be, and rarely are, cackling maniacs.”
Many of these short chapters begin with “Many years later, I wrote part of this book in…” This testifies to the power of writing in the healing process. Machado is moving, evolving, getting somewhere else but still haunted by the past. Boyer comes up again in a memory of an I Love Lucy episode that mirrors the domestic abuse of Gaslight. She plays it for laughs. “The slipperiness of reality that comes along with the comedic device of misunderstanding when someone is not mistaken at all feels uncomfortable to me.” There is “rapture”, or the potential of it, and it teaches Machado “…that it is important to live in unyielding fear with a smile on your face.”
Fantasy is a recurring theme in this memoir. Machado writes that it is “…the defining cliché of female queerness.” For her, the best definition of paradise is to find an emotional connection with a woman “…without men’s accompanying bullshit…”It’s fantasy as defense, as a means to carry through and make sense of life until such time that an ideal relationship would “…feel less like entering paradise and more like the claiming of your own body: imperfect, but yours.”
By the start of Part III, it’s apparent that nothing will change unless something erupts. “The house is a circle, so you run away from her, towards the kitchen, and she follows you…” The reader might be asking a simple question at this point: was the woman in the Dream House mentally ill? Should the focus have been on getting her treatment and then leaving? It’s more complicated. “…I am unaccountably haunted by the specter of the lunatic lesbian. I did not want my lover to be dogged by mental illness or…rage issues…unflagging irrationality.”
The question of mental illness will surface, but allowing it to cloud understanding of this text is unfair. There are deeper issues to consider here, and it’s not as conclusively easy to put this woman on anti-psychotic meds. Machado writes of “The Framingham Eight” — abused women who took action against their oppressors. The only lesbian, Debra Reid, was the second-to-last to be paroled. Machado writes: “The board said that she and her girlfriend had participated in a ‘mutual battering relationship.'”
Machado effectively chooses pop culture references to reflect on ideas of domestic abuse. There’s discussion of Captain Picard’s experience being taken over by the Borg in a two-part episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. She reflects on her namesake in Georges Bizet’s Opera, Carmen (1873), the titular character a prostitute who doesn’t shave. But she appreciates Carmen’s declaration that love is a fickle thing. She was born free and she will die free.
Machado contrasts the dangerous drama of Til Tuesday’s “Voices Carry” with the unfortunate connections to be made in the Crystal’s “He Hit Me (and It Felt Like a Kiss)”. She writes of the Til Tuesday song, and lead singer Aimee Mann’s anguished chorus imploring us to keep it down. “The mania of abuse — it’s wild emotional shifts, the eponymous cycle — is in the very marrow of the music.”
The “Choose Your Own Adventure” segment, coming in the final third of this book, reminds us of the choices we make and that the hoped-for outcome of some of the choices will never come true. “That’s not how it happens,” she writes, after one violent scenario, “but okay. We can pretend. I’ll give it to you, just this once.”
More pop culture references surface in Part IV. On Mick Jackson’s 1997 disaster film, Volcano: “The truth is, there is no better place to live than in the shadow of a beautiful, furious mountain.”
Much of what makes this a revelatory text comes through when Machado writes conclusively of domestic abuse in her community. “The queer community has long used the rhetoric of gender roles as a way of absolving queer women from responsibility for domestic abuse.”
Machado mixes her seamless experimentation with form into political commentary and pop culture reflections to create a narrative that wouldn’t have worked in less assured hands. She breaks up with the woman in the Dream House for the final time in May 2012, on the day President Obama announces his support for marriage equality.
There’s a void in Machado’s life after finally severing from this woman, but it begins to fill. She receives unexpected kindness as she comes out to a Republican uncle. As she’s does this, the woman in the Dream House leaves her nine voicemails. “You save the voice mails,” Machado writes, “in case you need to get a restraining order.” She is still haunted by everything, seven years later, “…terrified that if I force myself awake… she will step out of the dream and into the waking world where I am safe and far away.” It’s telling that in this small chapter (“Dream House as Nightmare on Elm Street”) she writes in first person.
“When it started,” Machado writes, “I believed I was special.” Of the effect this memoir might have (in a small chapter called “Dream House as Self-Help Best Seller”) Machado considers options. “I imagine that, one day, I will invite young queers over for tea and cheese platters and advice, and I will… tell them: you can be hurt by people who look just like you.” The chapter ends with this major kicker. This is a style she uses to her advantage, leaving us with the explosive line at the end of each section, compelling us to on. “Even if the dominant culture considers you an anomaly, that doesn’t mean you can’t be common, common as fucking dirt.”
Despite the violence, the overall mood of In the Dream House, is one of peaceful grace. Reflection from a safe distance. Machado captured our attention and earned our commitment from the first page and she never loses it. The beauty here is that she doesn’t keep us at a stranglehold. She allows us to breathe through the lines. This is not a dense, impenetrable narrative. Even through the horror, there’s the power of wisdom: “One day the woman from the Dream House will die, and I will die, and Val will die…”
Machado knows her memoir is a tale, a fable, an indisputable truth made comprehensible through these various literary forms. Writing it as a dry journalistic account of the transpired events would have been equally horrifying, yet the text as delivered has an unexplainable beauty through to the very last line: “My tale goes only to here; it ends, and the wind carries it to you.”
In the Dream House did not take long to read, but it took a while to process. It’s highly unlikely a stronger survivor’s memoir will publish in 2019. The remarkable truths within these pages will transcend categories and make for a harrowing, unforgettable reading experience.