“Most types of domestic abuse are completely legal.”
Standing alone on a page, the sole inhabitant of an entire chapter, this one sentence in Carmen Maria Machado’s memoir, “In the Dream House,” is a blow to the stomach. The horror it elicits is not an isolated experience.
While reading Machado’s depiction of a past relationship and its abusive nature, I found myself wanting to shout as if I were watching the latest horror film, “Get out of there while you can!” This horror trope is only one of many that Machado draws on in her writing, stitching together a patchwork of themes.
Since its release in late 2019, “In the Dream House” has garnered much praise from the community of nonfiction readers and writers. It won the Lambda Literary Award in LGBTQ Nonfiction, it was longlisted for the Andrew Carnegie Medal of Excellence in Nonfiction and it landed a spot on Time’s list of 100 must-read books of 2019; its list of accolades goes on and on.
After reading this book, I found that this acclaim was undoubtedly warranted. Machado delves into a past abusive relationship with a woman, another writer; she tears into a wound and bares it for the reader to see. In doing so, she crafts a story that often lacks representation, and does so with an innovative style.
It left me marveling at how I had never read anything like it before. With its unique form and content, “In the Dream House” is a must-read, even for those who do not usually choose memoirs.
An Invisible Story
Machado opens “In the Dream House” with an analysis of archives. Archives are irrevocably flawed, she asserts, “The complete archive is mythological, possible only in theory.”
She spends time grappling with this idea, and the implications of the holes left by history as it is written. An unwritten story is an invisible story, with its possibilities and voices stripped of power.
She points out that stories of domestic abuse fall into this category, as they often go untold. This is even truer for stories of “domestic abuse within queer communities,” which Machado identifies as “even newer, even more shadowed.” This reality lends an importance and urgency to Machado’s memoir.
In sharing her experience of domestic abuse within a queer relationship, Machado constructs archives where there are none. “I speak into the silence,” she writes. “I toss the stone of my story into a vast crevice; measure the emptiness by its small sound.”
Machado’s writing renders her story seen, along with the stories of others with similar experiences, and those with the possibility of sharing the same experiences. In this way, “In the Dream House” is a story of construction. Construction of an archive, but also so much more.
Construction Through Craft
A key element of the memoir — what sparked my initial interest in it — is its borrowing of traditions and tracing of tropes. Each chapter reflects elements of different genres such as “Dream House as Romance Novel,” “Dream House as Noir” and “Dream House as American Gothic.”
This is where various horror elements come into play. In one of my favorite chapters, “Dream House as Haunted Mansion,” Machado explores the idea of a space being haunted. Her introspective and carefully crafted language is evident as she writes that in a haunted space “there’s always an atmosphere to consider, that you can wound air as cleanly as you can wound flesh.”
She leads readers on a seemingly self-chosen scenario with “Dream House as Choose Your Own Adventure.” The chapter eventually shows how arduous it is to navigate, let alone escape, an abusive relationship. Machado shows how easy it was to make her girlfriend explode.
In addition to emulating a different genre with each chapter, Machado includes footnotes, marking tropes in her text. Thus, her experiences and memories are constructed into a story. The story is a layering, a patchwork, one that Machado built from the traditions of storytelling that society provides.
She toys with the idea that stories are told in specific ways, that readers expect certain things from certain stories. Machado subverts these expectations by using these traditions to construct a story that is often not represented by these tropes, as the story is often not represented at all.
Construction of Queer Relationships
“In the Dream House” also serves a place for Machado to explore how the image of queerness and queer relationships are constructed by society.
In the chapter “Dream House as Queer Villainy,” Machado ponders queer representation in pop culture stories, but she takes the question beyond this chapter. Throughout the book, she explores why there is lacking representation of abusive queer relationships, and she explains why this is problematic. “You wish she was a man,” she writes, describing her past self’s thoughts about her girlfriend. “Then at least it could reinforce ideas people had about men.”
Society’s constructed beliefs about women do not match the temper of Machado’s girlfriend. Society’s constructed beliefs about queer relationships do not match the discord of her relationship. Yet, at the same time, Machado remembers feeling hesitant with sharing her experience. She explains, “The last thing queer women need is bad f–king PR.”
Construction of Identity and Self
Of course, as a memoir typically does, “In the Dream House” allows Machado to peer into a mirror. It allows her to look at her past and how the abusive relationship affected her.
This is amplified through another element of the story’s form — the use of second-person point of view. For much of the writing, Machado uses the pronoun “You” to refer to herself. This enables her to look at the cleaving of self that occurred with this relationship. She writes, “You were not always just a You. I was whole.”
She is able to talk to her past self, the version of herself in the relationship. There is a sense of three different Machado’s in this book — a Machado before, during and after the relationship. The reader can see how abuse affects the construction of identity.
For Machado, the memoir serves as a reminder of what happened, because she constructed memories in an altered way during the abuse. Machado describes this, writing that “by the time the ground is coming toward you again you are already polishing your story.” Once again, the way stories and memories are built comes into consideration.
Construction of Permanence
There is no question that the story being represented and the ideas being explored in “In the Dream House” are critical. Important work is being done. Machado not only tells an often untold story, fleshing out archives, but she also forces the readers to consider the constructed ideas that exist in their own lives.
“You’re not allowed to write about this… Don’t you ever write about this. Do you f–king understand me?” Machado bravely and beautifully defies this threat from her past partner, and she delivers a remarkable read, one noteworthy in both content and form. She gives permanence to her story, not only for herself, but for everyone who reads it.