Carmen Maria Machado’s genre-bending memoir, In the Dream House, is a clever and poignant exploration of an abusive relationship, one that ranges from Star Trek and film noir to debates of LGBTQ+ rights in the US.
Haunted houses make great settings for horror stories, full of skeletons in the closet, ghosts, creaking floorboards and forbidden rooms. But what happens if the house is a body haunted by memories lurking in dark corners? Reconfiguring what body horror can be, this is one of the many questions Carmen Maria Machado asks in her new memoir.
Following her successful and equally lingering lyrical collection of short stories, Her Body and Other Parties, Machado is back with a widely anticipated memoir. In the Dream House is a recollection like no other, detailing the author’s experience of an abusive queer relationship in a genre-defying page turner.
From the outset, she hints that this will not be your average read. There is a dedication, three epigraphs, an overture denouncing prologues and casting suspicion on writers that use them, then – surprisingly – a prologue. The book is full of this knowing wit and instances of wrong footing the reader, gently impressing that things are not always what they seem.
In the Dream House begins as a love story between two young women, who met when Machado was pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at Iowa. She flashes back and forth between her childhood in suburban Pennsylvania, growing up within the church, dating men and nursing teenage crushes on girls that she didn’t quite understand. So when a petite, blonde Harvard graduate (who’s a perfect mix of masc/femme) walks into her life, she falls fast and hard. They meet each other’s families, go on road trips and Machado spends more and more time in the Dream House, where her girlfriend lives, in Bloomington, Indiana.
They have an intense emotional and sexual relationship, before the narrator realises her partner’s instability. Small instances of gaslighting snowball into episodes of emotional, verbal and, at times, physical abuse. The narrative ‘I’ is seldom used, rather a ‘you’, quickly locking the reader into the same panic and suspense the narrator endures as abusive patterns unfold. You want to scream at her to get out, but by then it’s too late. The call is coming from inside the Dream House.
She creates a world where the happily ever after occurs in reverse; the woman in the dream house casts a love spell on her and, only after she is fully ensnared, does this woman reveal herself to be the monster.
But while the unfurling of their relationship follows a linear path, the way in which it is told does not. Machado is a conjurer of genres, using many literary tropes to explore her memories, from film noir to stoner comedy, literary criticism and pop culture – the references to Star Trek, Doctor Who and queer-coded Disney villains will bring smiles to equally nerdy readers. Despite the difficulty in revisiting and relaying trauma, Machado allows herself, and the reader, to have moments of fun across the pages. Particular instances of cleverness include the use of déjà vu and a brief ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ chapter, with bittersweet endings. Yet the strongest genre Machado uses is fairytale. In harnessing the highly stylised framework, with their strange creatures, morality lessons and creeping sense of dread, Machado manipulates these techniques to explore a modern-day romance gone awry. She creates a world where the happily ever after occurs in reverse; the woman in the dream house casts a love spell on her and, only after she is fully ensnared, does this woman reveal herself to be the monster.
Throughout Machado questions her perceptions, using the device of an unreliable narrator to explore self-doubt, despite the fact her partner reduces her to tears for fun, throws things at her, and accuses her multiple times of unfaithfulness. Despite the breadcrumbs of warning signs that become increasingly bigger as the memoir progresses, Machado works through the self-imposed blame of not standing up for herself, getting help, or leaving sooner. But, as the genre play alludes to, life isn’t a neat story where the good characters emerge unscathed. It is messy and difficult, and shows that we can be in positions where we would rather continue to hurt ourselves, until we’re ready to accept what we already may have known from the outset.
Placing her story in a wider canon, Machado explores abuse in queer relationships, specifically biologically female same-sex relationships, with a clear, intersectional lens. In one chapter, she examines cases of spousal abuse/murder between lesbians and how ill-equipped US law was to deal with them in the not-so-distant past. She deftly draws out the weight of being a member of an already stigmatised group, which bears down on individuals to perform an image of being the Most Upstanding Minority to mainstream society, lest undesirable behaviour leads to further condemnation and delays to equal rights. This burden is then doubled, if not more so, for LGBTQ+ people of colour. So when such instances of violence occur in the community, the risk of it leaking to a majority heterosexual society risks further condemnation. But as Machado says, “Queer folks need that good PR; to fight for rights we don’t have, to retain the ones we do. But haven’t we been trying to say, this whole time, that we’re just like you?” Many people, like Machado, do not fit the image of ‘the victim’ that has been widely expected and reproduced in cases of spousal abuse. She is a woman of Cuban heritage in a large body, in comparison to the white, slim femme form her abuser occupies. Certain bodies, society tells us, are undeserving of love and desire, leaving those who occupy them to feel “grateful for anything you can get”, even if this means unsatisfying – or even dangerous – sex and relationships.
Her memoir sits neatly in this small library as an act of resistance to overlooked silent histories, but also to her former partner.
While queer love is represented in various media with increasing frequency, it is often through rainbow-tinted glasses, with everyday domesticity not necessarily visible, including the unhappier moments that any relationship could go through. While writing and researching, Machado found a void of accessible accounts of abuse in the LGBTQ+ sphere. She recalls reading voraciously to find as many stories of queer/lesbian violence as she could, using zines, history books and community-led groups to try to fill gaps of “archival silence”. Her memoir sits neatly in this small library as an act of resistance to overlooked silent histories, but also to her former partner. After a particularly difficult argument, her ex snarled, “You’re not allowed to write about this… Don’t you ever write about this. Do you fucking understand me?” And I’m so glad she did. In doing so, she provides a beacon of recognition for other people in similar situations. Riffing on the self-help guide in one chapter, Machado hopes that one day she can host spaces for young queers in the same boat that she once was, doling out advice over cheese platters.
In the Dream House is not so much about the destination, but a cathartic journey that explores trauma and survival using literary technique and tenderness. Machado creates the dream house brick by brick before abandoning it in a breathtaking and bizarre bildungsroman. Her memoir is not only a work that many aspiring writers will return to for its clever exposition and creativity, but one queer readers will be thankful exists if they ever find themselves in similar relationships. “Sometimes you have to tell a story, and somewhere, you have to stop,” so no spoilers, but Machado exorcises her demons and gets her fairytale ending – though, true to form, it loops through time and turns out to be another beginning.