Reading In the Dream House as revelation
There is a one-line chapter in Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House that reads: ‘Most types of domestic abuse are completely legal.’ It is in a section entitled ‘Dream House as Epiphany’. I am having an epiphany now.
Reading In the Dream House as exegesis
The book, Machado’s second, is a fragmentary memoir – that blend of autobiography and critique that’s so hot right now. I want to call it autotheory and shelve it next to Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts and Meera Atkinson’s Traumata, though it is unlike them too: less theory-driven and more formally experimental, too. In it, Machado unfolds, slowly and with a mounting sense of dread, the emotionally abusive relationship she was in with her first girlfriend. The narrative is a loose one, interpolated with mediations on pop culture, queer sociology, cultural criticism and legal history. Throughout it, she puts words to the spaces of silence: her own, where she flounders for meaning, understanding; and the wider cultural silence around abuse in queer (and specifically lesbian) relationships. Her fragments vary in length: one line, a page, a few pages; and each is headed by the refrain ‘Dream House as…’, framing what is to follow. Dream House as Destination, as Spy Thriller, as a Lesson in the Subjunctive, as Apartment in Philadelphia, as Tragedy of the Commons, as Choose Your Own Adventure. They pile up, the fragments, stacked angles from which to consider her situation. Multitudinous but narrow, each offering a facet of the whole, like getting to know someone in slow increments.
In an interview with Vulture, Machado revealed that it was not her who put the fragments in order but her editor. They are chronological, yes, but there’s something of Marc Saporta’s Composition no 1: roman to them. You could pick the book up and open it out to any page, shuffle them as though they were loose leaves in a box, and they would stand by themselves as mini essays, or exercises in genre, or anecdotes, or Lydia Davis-esque short short stories, or reflections in the mirror. Each fragment is a stylistic and formal experiment in translating the atmosphere of her relationship, the atmospheric void of queer relationship abuse and of emotional abuse more generally, onto the page. It is so clever that it almost hurts, begging that question we can’t help but ask: how did she, so clever and bright, end up in a situation like that? Or as Machado puts it, ‘Folks say nothing but Why didn’t you go / Why didn’t you run / Why didn’t you say? (Also: Why did you stay?)’
How did I end up in a situation like that? Why did I stay?
Reading In the Dream House as a lesson in genre
There is, actually, a Choose Your Own Adventure, which, over fourteen pages, spirals out from a conversation in bed and loops back in on itself, over and over, a claustrophobic textual enactment of Machado’s relationship. It is not the same thing, but I am suddenly back in my bed, next to him. I have made some innocuous comment, about a book or the political situation or an author, and he has disagreed, and we are spiralling. The fight escalates until there is yelling, tears. I do not know what we are fighting about anymore; everything I say takes us back three pages, everything I say is not right and must be litigated. And yet when I am exhausted, pleading for it to stop, we are back where we started, at my innocuous comment, now his innocuous comment. It is not until years later, after we have broken up and I have begged him to come back and he has said no, after I have met someone else and he has begged me to come back and I have said no, and when another character enters the story, that it stops. She tears out the pages, refuses to let us back. She and I call it the fragile male ego and laugh at the contortions it takes to know more than, to be better than, a woman.
In ‘Dream House as Naming the Animals’, Machado sympathises with the first man’s plight: ‘Putting language to something for which you have no language is no easy feat,’ she writes. And so often we put the wrong language to it, name it another thing.
Reading In the Dream House as notes on literary technique
In the Dream House starts with a dedication, three epigraphs, an overture, a prologue and then another epigraph, each starting on a new page. The reluctance to get started is palpable, manifest in each turning page. Machado drags it out. She is a master of affect through form, of translating the feeling of it into the reading of it. Elsewhere she writes ‘The literature of queer domestic abuse is lousy with reference to this^27 punctured^28 dream,^29 [of utopian queer relationships] which proves to be as much a violation as a black eye…’, the footnotes staccatoing her sentence, a jab-jab-punch on the page. Machado is good at saying things without saying them.
Reading In the Dream House as reference guide
There are a lot of footnotes, mostly tracking various folk tale motifs as they arise in relation to her life. There is, in this, a meticulous classification of (absurd) behaviour that feels like control – the way you might keep track of particular words/topics/facial expressions/tones of voices in order to anticipate the future from their sudden appearance. There is a comparison to the stringent but arbitrary rules governing fairy tales (Cinderella must leave the ball by midnight; the girl must not speak while she sews her shirts of nettle) and those constraining you in an abusive relationship (you must drop everything when they call; you must not speak to that friend anymore). There is, perhaps, a nod to the notion of ‘being under a spell’. There is a gesture at the ubiquity of abuse and the normalisation of abusive behaviours – from the first we are trained not to question violences: not the magic-fuelled violence of fairy tales, not the passion-fuelled violence of film and TV. Violences are everywhere and anyway, they are not violences. In many cases we are conditioned to see them as romance instead: obeying extreme demands is how to show love; it is normal for a princess to be kissed in her sleep or a woman pressed against a wall; love requires sacrifice; you must hurt before the fairy tale ending.
Reading In the Dream House as social commentary
‘Fantasy is, I think, the defining cliché of female queerness,’ Machado writes. ‘Acknowledging the insufficiency of this idealism is nearly as painful as acknowledging that we’re the same as straight folks in this regard: we’re in the muck like everyone else.’ There are thousands of books about domestic violence, but very few about domestic violence in queer relationships; there is very little writing at all, academic or historical or legal, about abuse in queer relationships. This is in part because the straight world does not see it for what it is (Machado gives example on example of lesbian abuse read wrong, or read right only when it could fit the heteronormative mould: butch abuser, feminine abused). It is part, too, because the drive to live and perform the fantasy is so compelling. There is an unwillingness to air your dirty laundry, to give queers a bad name. It is hard, when your identity has been so cruelly and poorly represented, to put into words anything that might reflect negatively on it. But this archival silence is important: when certain histories are missing from the record, context and precedent are missing too. In an interview with Shereen Marisol Meraji on the podcast Code Switch, Machado says that she wanted to look historically and academically at the issue of queer domestic abuse because this lack of context is also a kind of violence, because it is important to know that it is not just you.
She says, too, that we (queer people and straight), feel compelled to perform respectability and that respectability politics can be just as damaging as a lack of context. We pretend at normality and our silence breeds silence: the archive cannot reflect what is never put into words. I read a permission in this. Like Machado, I’m a cis, queer woman, but even so, I felt something like shame at seeing in her book – one explicitly addressing the queer lacuna in literature about intimate partner abuse – a reflection of my heterosexual relationship.
In reading it, the parallels were hard to miss: the emotional manipulation and gaslighting, the subversive attacks on my self-esteem, the jealousy, the intimidation, the lack of actual violence which rendered me, like Machado, un-victim. The yelling, the yelling, the yelling. Fantasy is, too, the defining cliché of abusive straight relationships. The abused imagines their abuser to be, underneath it all, someone different; the situation to be something else. The fantasy is just as vivid in relationships without physical violence, where there is nothing as obvious and grotesque as a punch to tear through the dreamscape. I knew what domestic abuse was. I’d seen it on TV and in books, and I’d seen it in my loungeroom, in the shape of a man pushing my mother against the wall, smashing our landline phone against her head as my sister and I screamed for the neighbours. I knew what domestic abuse was, and that what was happening to me wasn’t it. It was just disagreements, misunderstandings, a heated argument maybe – he was passionate, but not dangerous. He wouldn’t hurt me, words couldn’t hurt me.
Reading In the Dream House as close reading, or as too close to home
In one fragment, ‘Traumhaus as Lipogram’ Machado drops the letter ‘e’ and performs the verbal contortion she describes when she says: ‘It’s hard, saying a story without a critical part. Thinking you can say what you want as you want to, but with a singular constraint.’ The section feels constrained; a twisting into shape, contortion around omission. It is the half-answer to what’s wrong when you’re scared to give the game away. I have written many lipograms about him: called it passion not aggression; love not control; honesty not criticism; my fault not his temper. In the relationship before him, in which we never yelled and sometimes barely spoke, I wrote one and called it sex.
Reading In the Dream House as political action
In her first epigraph, Machado quotes Louise Bourgeois: ‘You pile up associations the way you pile up bricks. Memory itself is a form of architecture.’ A few pages later, she ruminates on Derrida’s translation of ‘archive’ as ‘the house of the ruler.’ This idea, of the archive as both home and seat of authority, is what compels Machado’s fragmented bricklaying. There is an existing archive of intimate partner abuse, a heteronormative canon of literature and experience which has little room for queer relationships, which so often fail to follow the straight blue print. Machado is building, fragment by fragment, another house. She is creating a context for abused queer people to locate themselves and shifting authority away from the palatial (palatial not for its beautify but for its sheer, horrifying size) archive of heterosexual, male-on-female physical abuse to a place with room for the queer and the nuanced. ‘The conversation about domestic abuse within queer communities is even newer, even more shadowed,’ she writes. ‘As we consider the forms intimate violence takes today, each new concept – the male victim, the female perpetrator, queer abusers, and the queer abused – reveals itself as another ghost that has always been here, haunting the ruler’s house.’
The fragments that follow are less bricks than windows. The house Machado is building lets in the light, forces the ghosts out of the shadows.