In the Dream House

Of metaphor and memory

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Carmen Maria Machado’s new book, In the Dream House, has been described as “genre-defying.” This shouldn’t surprise anyone who read her 2017 debut, Her Body and Other Parties, a Lambda Award-winning book of original and unsettling short stories that incorporate elements of horror, science fiction and fairy tales.

Returning readers will recognize Machado’s talent for subverting tropes. Here, chapters reimagine a relationship as products of pop culture: creature feature, spy thriller, romance novel. What’s surprising is that the relationship is her own; In the Dream House is not a volume of short stories, but a memoir.

At first glance this is a breakup story, but Machado gives us so much more. It’s the story of how Machado got into and out of a bad relationship, but it’s also an inventive work of nonfiction that contributes to the slim canon of research about domestic abuse in the queer community. In the Dream House’s brief chapters move between memories, queer history and the wisdom of someone looking back at a doomed relationship with 20/20 vision.

The Dream House is both a metaphor and the very real place where Machado lived with her girlfriend, referred to only as “the woman from the Dream House,” during an intense period of psychological abuse. Each chapter frames the Dream House as a snapshot of the relationship. Some are anecdotes from what could be any couple’s relationship: “Dream House as Road Trip;” or “Dream House as First Thanksgiving.”

Others are symbolic and lend a more ominous layer of
meaning: “We can’t fall in love,” the woman tells Machado in a chapter titled “Dream House as Famous Last Words.”

Throughout, Machado places her story within the history of queer people and domestic abuse, “two topics that have, historically been hidden away, or rarely talked about.”

She struggled to find accounts of relationships that mirrored hers. When she did, the outcomes were disheartening. Machado documents court cases in which abusers like her girlfriend—petite, feminine, “the woman” in the relationship—were acquitted or declared mad because they didn’t fit into jurors’ traditional narrative of domestic abuse: the masculine abuser and the feminine abused. Society couldn’t fathom the existence of lesbian relationships, let alone the abuse that occurred within them.

Part of what makes this memoir so compelling is the way Machado invites you into the suffocating headspace of an abusive relationship. She often writes to the reader in the second person, making you feel as much a part of this mess as she is.

Perhaps the most inventive way she does this is with a chapter called “Dream House as Choose Your Own Adventure.” Machado plays with a nonlinear narrative structure and traps the reader inside a cycle of verbal abuse from which no choice can break her (or you) free.

“You shouldn’t be on this page” she writes. “There’s no way to get here from the choices given to you. Did you think that by flipping through this chapter linearly you’d find some kind of relief? Go to page 171.”

No choices yield happy endings. On the last page of the adventure, the only options are to start the story over or to turn to page 176 and leave the Dream House and the woman in it, never to return. At the chapter’s conclusion, Machado acquiesces, “That’s not how it happened, but OK. We can pretend. I’ll give it to you, just this once.”

Emma Radosevich is a collection development librarian and selects nonfiction for the Whatcom County Library System. Find Machado’s memoir and other reading material relating to Pride Month at http://www.wcls.org.

Photo of Carmen Maria Machado by Miranda Barnes.

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