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In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

At the end of 2017, following the release of Carmen Maria Machado’s story collection, My Body and Other Parties, I met her at a signing and listened for an hour, rapt, as she first read aloud one of the stories and went on to describe her writing process and general thoughts on books and publishing. When I waited in line afterwards to get my copy autographed, I congratulated her on her place on the longlist for that year’s National Book Award in Fiction. She humbly said thank you and added that it had actually just gone on to be shortlisted. I felt embarrassed about not having paid attention to the recent announcement a day or so before, but I also felt lucky to have seen her so early in her career trajectory. There was something so special in Machado’s grace and confidence that surely pointed to how wonderful she was as a writer and human.

Ask me if I went home and devoured every story on the train home.

The answer would be no.

I still have yet to crack the spine on my precious personalized edition. And now, I’m glad that I put it off because the background into some of Machado’s past covered in her memoir proved, to me, a better entrance into her work and I still have something else to look forward to reading before she publishes again.

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado, Photograph by Mel Ann Rosenthal for The Book Slut.
Photograph by Mel Ann Rosenthal.

As for In the Dream House, I was dumbfounded while reading, transported back to 2017 and picturing that funny, intelligent person living through the hell that is revealed at the hand of another woman. It is a book for and of our time not just because of the content which pushes the bounds of definitions of abuse previously understood, but also for the goddamn wonderful experimental, textural prose. Each chapter is titled as "Dream House as ______" and most are vignettes of one page or less. Machado breaks herself into two versions of herself so that "you" is her character of the past living in an abusive relationship and the "I" is the better-off self of the present, looking back. This adds to the ease with which a reader can place oneself (yourself) into each situation, allowing for maximum impact as the relationship escalates and breaks apart.

Dream House as Time Travel
One of the questions that has haunted you: Would knowing have made you dumber or smarter? If, one day, a milky portal had opened up in your bedroom and an older version of yourself had stepped out and told you what you know now, would you have listened? You like to think so, but you’d probably be lying; you didn’t listen to any of your smarter, wiser friends when they confessed they were worried about you, so why on earth would you listen to a version of yourself who wrecked her way out of a time orifice like a newborn?”

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To further lay into the surreality, Machado makes references to: the original film Gaslight (1940) and its remake in 1944, the Framingham Eight, a documentary about a group of women imprisoned for killing their partners (seven men and one woman), signs of folk literature (marked as a footnote in reference to Motif Index of Folk-Literature: a Classification of Narrative Elements in Folktales, Myths, Fables, Mediaeval Romances, Exempla, Fabliaux, Jest-books, and Local Legends), and turbulent relationships between other remarkable writers of the previous centuries. She even has a section towards the end of the book constructed in the style of and named after Choose Your Own Adventure®.

“Dream House as Famous Last Words
‘We can fuck,’ she says, ‘but we can’t fall in love.’
[Motif Index: Omens in love affairs.]

Machado's words here on a granular level were brewed with the power of the torture she describes throughout and are further heightened by the strength she found after the end of her relationship with the woman in the Dream House, after the freedom she reclaimed and with the clarity of hindsight.

“Dream House as Death Wish
Afterward—when she will not stop trying to talk to you or emailing you with flowery apologies on Yom Kippur, and when people do not believe what you tell them about her and the Dream House—you’ll wish she had hit you. Hit you hard enough that you’d have bruised in grotesque and obvious ways, hard enough that you took photos, hard enough that you went to the cops, hard enough that you could have gotten the restraining order you wanted. Hard enough that the common sense that evaded you for the entirety of your time in the Dream House had knocked into you…. This is, as you said, fucked up: there are probably millions of people on the blunt end of a lover’s fist who pray for the opposite, daily or even hourly, and to put that sort of wish into the universe is demented in the extreme. You will wish for it anyway. Clarity is an intoxicating drug, and you spent almost two years without it, believing you were losing your mind, believing you were the monster, and you want something black and white more than you’ve ever wanted anything in this world.”

Her experience, as she mentions with that hindsight towards the end, can easily be laden with clichéd descriptions of fearing for her life, waiting out her girlfriend, and metaphors of love, and which thus become descriptions that many readers, queer or not, having lived through a physically/psychologically abusive relationship or not, will be able to relate to. Machado also presented snippets of her younger self, to give example to how she has, for years, been anxious and inexperienced with romantic partners. In her recounting she notes her bisexuality and how she had gained practical experience, but the woman in the Dream House was still a first for her, her first proper girlfriend. So, everything she threw at Machado, actual or verbal, Machado took, thinking that her girlfriend's outbursts and criticisms were exactly what she deserved.

It pains me deeply that for the duration of her time in the Dream House Machado lived through constant fear of bullying and humiliation, always tiptoeing around the other woman's unpredictable temper, sometimes getting too comfortable and mistakenly setting it off in public or private, and using her base instincts to just get them both home safely just so Machado can then be berated again for doing every little thing wrong. I'm enormously thankful that she decided she had the stamina to write this and research the history of heterosexual and homosexual abuse in relationships AND THEN took up the responsibility to create a new archive by combining personal testimony, pop culture, and historical fact which can and will show all readers how despite the prevalence of the "battered woman," we have to extend our sympathies beyond a straight, white woman struggling under the angry control of a man. We have to cover and believe the experiences and abuses of gay men and women, gender non-conforming people, trans people, and ALL people of all races and sexualities in relationships of any combination of the above.

I feel akin to her in how much catharsis I felt reading, and how much I hope she felt while writing. When I feel intense emotions, rage or confusion or joy, I often take to the page in order to make sense of it or take note of it so I can return to it again to relive it and make sure I did justice to the reasoning behind whatever was driving me. In the Dream House will act as a sort of guidebook for me for years to come. It points to the potential of how many different ways one can craft a personal essay and, I think, how necessary it is to be honest with oneself and push the bounds to share the hardest, most personal topics because, ideally, both the writer and the audience can forever seek solace and knowledge and growth from between the pages that were so carefully created.

I'm grateful for this book. How many times can I say that? I'm just so proud and in awe of this woman. I cannot wait to see where she is going to take us along in her next story and the next. I will trust the expanse of her gorgeous mind for the rest of our lives.

In the Dream House

By Carmen Maria Machado

298 pages. 2019.

Buy it here - US, UK, AUS.


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