In 2012, as President Barack Obama publicly announced his support for same-sex marriage and effectively paved the way for marriage equality, Carmen Maria Machado was freeing herself from an abusive girlfriend. Machado once fantasized about marrying her and starting a family. Yet it’s this dangerous lover who stalks the chambers of Machado’s heart in her memoir, In the Dream House.
Machado’s book is the follow up to her short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, which was shortlisted for the National Book Award; the collection won the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Award for Best New Book. Much like in her fiction, Machado’s prose in her memoir shows an unflinching willingness to stretch the usual conventions of literary technique. It makes for a dynamic read.
Rather than detailing the course of her relationship chronologically, each chapter of In the Dream House is presented through a different narrative trope: “Dream House as Haunted Mansion,” “Dream House as Choose Your Own Adventure,” “Dream House as Prisoner’s Dilemma.” Like many survivors of abuse, the author has turned over the events of her relationship from many angles to ask and understand the questions: Why me? Why would anyone believe me now? Machado’s experiments with form transcend the memoir genre much like how, in order to survive her ordeal, she needed to transcend her crumbling inner fantasy of her life in the dream house.
The woman in the dream house is never given a name. It would be too painful to say aloud. The romance begins as a polyamorous one with the woman and her girlfriend Val. For practical reasons, they all move into the titular house. Val leaves, and the author is left alone with the woman in the dream house. Her lover’s dark side reveals itself. With academic precision, Machado describes how a love life can go from idyllic to alarming to terrifying, often related through episodes in history, culture, and queer representation in pop culture and film.
In her life before living with the woman in the dream house, Machado describes fumbling through youthful relationships. This is all but universally relatable, but understanding what a “normal” relationship feels like gets more complicated when one’s queer identity is nascent, and mainstream culture fails to acknowledge diverse sexual orientations. One of Machado’s earliest romantic interests was a married youth counselor she had an emotional affair with at a religious camp where she was being spiritually “saved.”
The unfortunate relationship in the dream house is revealed through many horror tropes, including the haunted house, misogyny, and deception. Seeking to understand her experiences, Machado analyzes how the abusive husband in the 1940 version of the film Gaslight, which originated the term “gaslighting,” slowly denies his wife’s understand of reality until he warps her perception of empirical truth. How can one defend against an abuser when you’re convinced that the abuse is a figment of your imagination?
Machado writes, “The Dream House was never just the Dream House. It was, in turn, a convent of promise (herb garden, wine, writing across the table from each other), a den of debauchery (fucking with the windows open, waking up with mouth on mouth, the low, insistent murmur of fantasy), a haunted house (none of this can really be happening), a prison (need to get out need to get out), and finally, a dungeon of memory. In dreams it sits behind a green door, for reasons you have never understood. The door was not green.”
Integral to Machado’s account of navigating the “whys” of a romance that veered into abuse is her discussion of queer representation. She makes an argument for allowing fictional queer characters to be villains. She states: “We deserve to have our wrongdoing represented as much as our heroism, because when we refuse wrongdoing as a possibility for a group of people, we refuse their humanity.” Part of personhood is having the capacity to be flawed, to be outright villainous, or simply to make mistakes in love.
In a way, Machado’s memoir is an act of forgiveness for offering that there could be a happily ever after with the monstrous woman in the dream house: a compassionate act of self-exculpation for loving the unnamed lover after the relationship turned toxic. Peeling back the skin of her life in In the Dream House, the author is courageous in her vulnerability.
Machado is an author who writes the truth of her experiences. Her understanding of the events of that ill-fated relationship aren’t up for debate. It’s difficult not to root for her when she recalls her ex informing her, during a certain deranged outburst, “You are not allowed to write about this.”
In the Dream House
By Carmen Maria Machado
Published Nov. 5, 2019