By Carmen Maria Machado
“The abused woman has certainly been around as long as human beings have been capable of psychological manipulation and interpersonal violence, but as a generally understood concept it–and she–did not exist until about fifty years ago.”
We’ve all seen the statistics and winced at the daily litany of horrific reports in the media concerning domestic abuse. Sometimes the violence is physical, sometimes psychological, often both, but our general impression is of a male abusing a female partner or relative.
How often, though, do we hear of female on female abuse – not in the school bully or street gang sense, but between two women involved in a lesbian relationship? It’s rarely reported, and more shocking for that reason, but domestic abuse within the LGBTQ+ community is far from uncommon. It is simply a facet of everyday life concealed by the ongoing struggle for acceptance and “minority anxiety”. People are people, regardless of their sexuality.
In her new memoir, Carmen Maria Machado finds ways to present an abusive relationship between two women by focusing on her own traumatic ordeal with an ex-girlfriend – whom she refers to only as “the woman in the Dream House”. She was a gifted young writing student in Midwest America when they met – fellow writers, soon to be lovers – Machado’s first proper girlfriend.
The ‘dream house’ is sometimes a metaphor for the author’s own body, but the numerous meanings behind the place to which she alludes proliferate like dust mites in a cosy home. She tells her story in fragmentary sketches and vignettes, ranging in length from a single sentence to several pages. Using the language of folklore and fairy tales, she chronicles her infatuation, their mutual desire, the tantalizing flattery, overwhelming attention, constant questioning of motives, absurd accusations, soul-destroying vigilance, flight between rooms, screaming in her ears, and the sweetly uttered, “Why are you crying?”
In the Dream House breaks down the traditional narrative form, pushing the limits of autobiographical writing by presenting us with a montage of tropes and genres. Her account swings between exuberance and despair; from passion to confusion to subjugation to demoralization. Little documentary material exists on queer abuse, so Machado makes it her business to recount these experiences in a way she hopes will be recognisable to others. In her words, queer people “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.”
In her memorable debut short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, which I reviewed for this blog, she cheerfully obliterated traditional boundaries between realism and fantasy, earning her comparisons with Kelly Link. This ambitious book about “a house that was not a house and a dream that was no dream” is similarly shapeshifting but never once averts its gaze from uncomfortable facts.
In the Dream House is written with wit and honesty. Not only does it redefine memoir, but I believe it is hugely important and is destined to be considered a classic.
“She loves you. She sees your subtle, ineffable qualities. You are the only one for her in all the world. She trusts you. She wants to keep you safe. She wants to grow old with you. She thinks you’re beautiful. She thinks you’re sexy. Sometimes when you look at your phone, she has sent you something stunningly filthy, and there is a kick of want between your legs. Sometimes when you catch her looking at you, you feel like the luckiest person in the whole world.”
Many thanks to Serpent’s Tail for providing an advance review copy of this title.