Love and Nightmares
‘Bad childhoods have an unfortunate tendency to drive us to seek out situations in which there is a theoretical possibility of receiving outsized approval — which also means, along the way, a high risk of encountering outsized disapproval.’ — How To Overcome Your Childhood, The School of Life
In The Dream House is a memoir of Carmen Maria Machado’s experiences of abuse in a same-sex relationship.
I read it in one sitting. Then I read it again, also in one go.
It’s standard to begin a book review with a summary of its content before talking about what it means and dispensing opinions. This book doesn’t lend itself well to being summarised. Instead, let’s run through a cosmeticized version of the notes I took after reading it and explain the story along the way.
Chapter Structure as Recollection
The first detail to understand about In The Dream House is its structure.
The book is split into many short chapters, each written in a different style; romance novel, choose your own adventure, fantasy, epiphany, soap opera, plot twist. Through this fragmented style, Machado reflects the splintered nature of her experience of the relationship.
Her chosen form — no consistent form — is a literary representation of the quicksilver nature of that time in her life.
‘You begin to experiment with fragmentation. Maybe “experiment” is a generous word; you’re really just unable to focus enough to string together a proper plot. Every narrative you write is smashed into pieces and shoved into a constraint, an Oulipian’s wet dream…You know that if you break them and reposition them and unravel them and remove their gears you will be able to access their truths in a way you couldn’t before.’
Although she tried to justify it as a deliberate choice, Machado would later realise it was an outgrowth of her mental state at the time: ‘I broke stories down because I was breaking down and didn’t know what else to do.’
As a result, finishing the book does not leave you with a coherent sense of what you just read. It is not an easy book to condense down into a straightforward synopsis. In the weeks since I read it, parts keep drifting back into my mind at odd times, in the way dreams do upon waking.
Machado nails the dreamlike structure, managing to pull off a book that is bewildering without being incoherent. In The Dream House slams together bewildering metaphorical chapters with sharply lucid ones.
There is a bravery to the passages where she describes events in documentary terms and, implicitly, asserts they happened as she remembers, such as a Halloween party where the unnamed girlfriend dresses as a Dalek:
‘After an hour, she walks home drunk and furious. You follow her for blocks, watching her bump along ahead of you, not certain what to do because you have the keys to your house. She has a colander on her head, like a conspiracy theorist — a true tinfoil hat. You’ve been angry with her before, but there is something so tender and vulnerable about a grown woman, in a disintegrating costume of a character from a show she does not watch, stumbling back to a house in drunken anger.’
The Dalek scene, coming after more metaphorical recountings, has a strange kind of punch. It’s a reminder that, no matter how abstract the book gets, we’re still talking about real, solid happenings.
The same is true for an early chapter in which Machado stresses that the house the book centres around, the one where the girlfriend lives, has an address. She could give it to you and you could drive there and sit outside. Someone new lives there now.
Again and again, the girlfriend denies Machado’s version of events. She repeats her words back to her in a twisted form until it seems unclear what was said in the first place. Machado begins to doubt her own memory and often acquiesce to the girlfriend’s account of things. The book beautifully conveys the sensation of being uncertain as to what is truly happening at any moment.
When we are forced to doubt our feelings, again and again, we can reach a point where we cease to feel we ourselves are even real.
Nothing has substance. Reflecting on memories makes us feel like a raccoon washing cotton candy. Things dissolve when we look straight at them because who knows what happened? Without conclusive proof, a mirage in something as subjective and hidden as a fight between partners, it’s safer to defer judgment.
‘You don’t understand, you don’t understand so profoundly your brain skitters, skips, backs up.’
The Violence of the Archive
So, the book fragments because Machado’s experience was one of falling apart. It also seems to fragment as a way of saying something about the lack of an established narrative to fit it into.
Early on, Machado writes of the ‘violence of the archive’ — the way history erases certain stories. The records we have of the past are not, in any way, complete. Certain stories get left out; ‘What is placed in or left out of the archive is a political act, dictated by the archivist and the political context in which she lives.’
What people view as unimportant or unreal never gets a chance to become part of history.
Let’s give a rough overview of what that means within the context of this book. Queer women have, for the most part, been erased from history. Their stories appear throughout archives less as complete narratives and more as occasional shadowy glimpses of something half-erased — coded letters, fragments of poetry, legal accounts of women dressing as men to marry other women, the odd glowing instance of someone who didn’t need to hide.
Considering the obscurity of both women and queer people in our records of history, the juxtaposition of the two spells near total invisibility.
Even at times and in places where queer men faced the harshest persecution, queer women often remained invisible. No one took their relationships with enough seriousness to even be opposed to them. For instance, one perspective from early modern Europe was that queer women were making a deliberate effort to imitate men, but were not experiencing any sort of sexuality of their own. Look to more permissive times and even then queer women have little voice.
And then we throw domestic violence into the mix. The term itself is less than half a century old. The simplistic view of history is that it only began to stop being acceptable in heterosexual couples in spots around the time of the first feminist movements in the 19th century. It would take much longer for the law to condemn it on a wider scale and places where it is handled well remain a minority. The wider context is far too complex for me to attempt to summarise here, this article looks at more of the history of domestic violence in more depth.
Then we make things even more complicated by talking about emotional abuse with no physical aspect. If the recognition of the existence and seriousness of domestic violence is new, then our collective understanding of the meaning and effects of psychological abuse is even newer. Even if people and legal systems recognise and condemn physical violence, abuse leaving no bruises has less legitimacy. After all, it’s much harder to quantify and to prove. Its boundaries are fuzzier. One page of the book, entitled ‘Dream House as epiphany’ reads: ‘Most forms of domestic abuse are legal.’
During the relationship, Machado struggled to understand or label what was happening because her experiences existed at the intersection of many almost invisible things, lacking any sort of coherent framework to fit into.
To write of something many people do not believe exists is to either create a new structure or to co-opt an existing one.
In The Dream House does both. Trying on different narratives, in the way of one trying on different outfits before going out and leaving them scattered across the floor, is its own form.
The Trauma Economy
‘Every act of perception is an attempt to impose order, to make sense of a chaotic universe. Storytelling, at one level, is a manifestation of this process. ’ — John Yorke, Into The Woods
It’s always difficult to know how to process beautiful writing about ugly things. On the one hand, it gets people to listen. On the other hand, it is always going to feel a little perverse to witness.
In The Dream House is unambiguously literary, in the tradition of the sort of writers who seem to enjoy language for its own sake, to disport in its richness and variety.
A lot of memoirs of negative experiences do not necessarily try to be written in an interesting and enjoyable way. They lean on the shock factor of grim, breathless description. I stopped reading such books a few years ago. It’s hard to see who they are for and how productive they are for the author, the readers, or any sort of wider narrative.
It’s too easy for a reader looking for relatability to reject the experiences within this kind of memoir as not as serious as their own, or as much worse. Recounting traumatic events to an audience does not have intrinsic therapeutic value for the writer without sufficient support in handling any emotions it brings up. Writing this type of memoir can carry heavy personal and professional costs. Even when the writing is successful, it can trap the writer within a particular narrative, leaving little room to explore new topics.
The Trauma Economy
Are young writers oversharing their personal lives, or is there something else going on?
For the average inexperienced writer, one’s own life experiences are the easiest topic to write about. Far more accessible than trying to access original reportage and with automatic exclusivity. Also, no one has much right to quibble about the details. Seeing as the mundane details of any random individual’s life are not of much interest to anyone who doesn’t know them, this leads to writing about more extreme and unusual experiences.
Writers are incentivised to recount traumatic events because this is what is both accessible and most likely to garner a response.
The more unpleasant, the better — perhaps explaining the number of high profile works in the misery lit genre that ended up being hoaxes. All of this leads to what Jia Tolentino describes as “a situation in which writers feel like the best thing they have to offer is the worst thing that ever happened to them.”
In the short term, getting to discard shame and reveal what we have kept hidden can be empowering. The act of writing is what brings relief, not always publishing or sharing.
It can attract positive professional attention and offer points of connection with others. But the wider ecosystem, the trauma economy, it fits into is problematic.
Claims that confessional writing is therapeutic and helps raise awareness and the like ignore the incentives at play for writers. Having myself at one point slipped into a spiral of increasing self-disclosure, I don’t think the lofty goals writers and editors espouse have much to do with it. At a certain point, nothing feels private, the attention feels too good to resist, and it’s hard to see what else one has to offer.
All of this is to say that In The Dream House sits within an uneasy category of writing at a time when the confessional is becoming ever more fraught. The random, obsessive scrutiny of individuals for moral failings, no matter how ancient, discourages easy revealing of inner worlds.
To not fall prey to the aforementioned pitfalls, this book has to do a lot of heavy lifting outside of the main story. It kind of needs to be beautiful and literary and smart. It needs a sense of context and a clever structure. It needs to be more than a litany of terrible events.
In The Dream House manages to avoid at every turn becoming a pitiful tale of woe by virtue of the sheer quality of the writing. Machado doesn’t lean on the story — in fact, she takes long deviations from it and puts obvious effort into making the reader engage with something much further reaching than her experience alone.
This is not an unselfconscious book. The awareness that it tells a little-told story is apparent on every page.
It helps too that Machado seems to lean back a little, resisting the incentive to tell everything. She uses unexpected twists of technique. For instance, footnotes passim do not, much of the time, point to sources. Instead, they point to Stith Thompson’s Motif-Index of Folk-Literature, a catalogue of elements persisting across folklore; E402.1.1.3, Ghost cries and screams, C967, Valuable objects turns to worthless, for breaking taboo, C432.1 Guessing name of supernatural creature gives power over him. This is a nerdy choice and I love it.
Folklore from around the world has a way of highlighting human universals through its recurring themes and images. What happens to us in relationships can feel unique, so it’s a surprise to see the same things recurring for others. ‘I wanted to believe that my love was unique and my pain was unique, as all of us do.’
The obvious criticism here is that, at times, the book tries too hard to embroider everything with layers of metaphors and doesn’t give the story room to stretch out and breathe. It never stays in the domain of the tangible for more than a few pages. But I think the way the story itself is not always central is what sets it apart from the confessional genre. Someone else will write the tell-all.
Why She Stayed
‘We squirrel away random, chaotic information, and then tend to retrieve it as stories.’ — John Yorke, Into The Woods
The relationship described in In The Dream House lasted, from memory, about two years. The warning signs were there early on, hints of sourness in the sweetness. Seeing as they studied in different states, Machado spent most of her spare time during that period driving back and forth to spend a few days getting screamed at. There is a lot of driving and motion in this book.
The inevitable question, the one everyone asks of any relationship that doesn’t end as soon as it starts to go bad, has to come up at the same point. Machado answers the interminable query of why she stayed with ‘I try to say, but I fail and fail and fail. This is what I did not know until now: this constraint taints. It is poison. All day and all night, until I ran, I was drinking poison ’
Many of the usual rationales are absent. They weren’t married. They didn’t have kids. They didn’t even live together or appear to have any sort of financial entanglements. There’s no indication Machado had serious fears of terrible revenge if she left. Still, she kept making that long drive to see a person unrecognisable as the woman she first fell for.
I don’t want to make everything about the structure of the book, but at the same time, I find myself wondering if it was all about the story.
One quirk of writers is that we’re not always good at processing experiences as they happen. We have to wait until we can turn them into words before we can gauge our true feelings.
What leaps out to me is the notion that Machado stayed in the relationship because the story didn’t yet have a shape, because she couldn’t map it onto a book she’d read before, because she didn’t yet have the language for it.
Think of that time you read something, maybe this book, describing an experience you never quite knew how to describe and which didn’t feel altogether real until that moment. We’ve all been there. Writing can be about creating that experience for yourself.
Writing is not just an act of creation, it is also a way of processing and ordering. As polished as In The Dreamhouse is, there are vestigial traces of points in the writing process where things were still raw. I was left with the lingering impression that the book itself was part of the process of leaving the relationship (because letting go of people is not always a linear process.)
Of course, the instinct to turn reality into a tidy narrative can just as well be used to deny and to justify. Scenes of conflict between Machado and the girlfriend throughout the book sometimes end with a strange sort of acknowledgement what happened is a story capable of being told many different ways. The girlfriend was a writer too. She has her own take.
After the first serious confrontation described, the girlfriend tells Machado she’s not allowed to write about it, ever (‘Fear makes liars of us all’). Elsewhere, she mentally turns events into a more palatable story, finding justifications for ignoring her fear:
‘And as the ground gets farther and farther away you swear to yourself you’re gonna stop pretending like none of these things are happening, but by the time the ground is coming toward you again you are already polishing your story.’
Don’t Make Us Look Bad
‘Year’ later,’, Machado writes, ‘if I could say anything to her, I’d say “For fuck’s sake, stop making us look bad.”’
When a creative work draws directly from real life, all the more so when it seeks to replicate it as in a memoir, there are consequences for the creator. Deconstructing Harry is a fun representation of this.
Anyone who has made stuff for any length of time has a good chance of knowing the feeling of being confronted by someone who sees themselves in your work. Maybe they’re in your life at the moment, maybe they emerge from the past and you wonder if someone alerted you or if they’ve been keeping tabs on you all along. Maybe you had them in mind, maybe you didn’t, maybe they imagined it.
When we create, we have a certain responsibility to reality.
We cannot ignore forever how our work knocks up against the real world. For In The Dream House, Machado doesn’t just have to consider how her work represents the people who crop up in it — the ex-girlfriend, her future wife, her housemates, her friends, the two sets of parents — to themselves and people who know them. She also has to consider how her representations fit into a bigger narrative for readers:
‘It’s not being radical to point out that people on the fringe have to be better than people in the mainstream, that they have twice as much to prove. In trying to get people to see your humanity, you reveal just that: your humanity. Your fundamentally problematic nature. All the unique and terrible ways in which people can, and do, fail.’
Members of marginalised groups are always forced to think of how their actions are held up as a representation of everyone in that group.
Some people get to be individuals, some people only ever part of a group.
There is an instinct among queer people and those in non-standard relationships to smooth over normal hitches and disasters to avoid looking bad. To talk about normal problems in a normal way can mean having your sexuality or style of relationships criticised, rather than hearing advice or commiseration for the particular situation. Being guarded is the only way to avoid supplying ammunition:
‘…if your family found out they’d probably think it proved every idea they’ve ever had about lesbians, and you wish she was a man because then it could at least reinforce ideas people had about men, and how she probably wouldn’t understand but the last thing queer women need is bad fucking PR.’
Machado acknowledges that domestic abuse in queer relationships has taken on the nature of a secret individuals feel obliged to cover up for the sake of the whole. This thesis lists a series of books and articles on the topic which reflect that theme; Naming The Violence, Unspeakable Acts, Abuse That Dare Not Speak Its Name, Breaking The Silence, Letting Out The Secret. Never mind that it’s unlikely to be believed anyway, unless as ammunition. In The Dream House is a defiant rejection of the expectation of silence.
To rob a group of people of the capacity to be bad is to rob them of their humanity.
Machado argues that portraying queer people as all good and incapable of causing harm is as unhelpful as portraying us all as villains. We need queer villains as much as we need queer heroes and ordinary people. This book is about adding to the spectrum.
‘We deserve to have our wrongdoing represented as much as our heroism, because when we refuse wrongdoing as a possibility for a group of people, we refuse their humanity.’
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