in the dream house by carmen maria machado (graywolf, 2019)
Reviewed by Rebecca Valley
I know many writers obsessed with houses. Houses contain us; we fill them up with ourselves. We share them with our families, lovers, histories, ghosts. In poetry, stanza is another word for room – this makes each poem a house, a self-contained world of its own.
In Carmen Maria Machado’s much-anticipated memoir In the Dream House, the house as an entity is called into question. If houses can symbolize safety, certainty, love, Machado argues, they can just as easily become containers that hide away our violence, the parts of ourselves that allow us to hurt the people we love.
“I always thought the expression ‘safe as houses’ meant that houses were safe places. It’s a beautiful idea; like running home with a late-summer thunderstorm huffing down your neck… But house idioms and their variants, in fact, often signify the opposite of safety and security… ‘Safe as houses’ is something closer to ‘the house always wins.’ Instead of a shared structure providing shelter, it means that the person in charge is secure; everyone else should be afraid” (78).
Machado is known for writing horror, and this memoir is its own kind of horror story. It details Machado’s relationship with a physically and emotionally abusive partner, and her loneliness surrounding the experience of abuse; a loneliness that stemmed, in part, from a lack of social and cultural awareness around the possibility that queer women can abuse each other, too.
In the Dream House, itself an ironic metaphor, is built on a nearly endless sprawl of similes, “Dream House as Confession, Dream House as Sanctuary.” In each of these chapters, Machado explores a different facets of her years-long experience of abuse at the hands of a petite, middle class, well-educated blonde woman from a nice family – the kind of woman more often portrayed as abused than abuser. Machado, who had long wanted to be desired by another woman, to be loved the way so many of us want to be loved, is the first to forgive her partner’s first inklings of control and manipulation:
“… so when she walks into your office and tells you that this is what it’s like to date a woman, you believe her. And why wouldn’t you? You trust her, you have no context for anything else.” (45)
A lack of cultural context. An inability to accuse one woman of abuse without the feeling of damning an entire gender, an entire legacy of queerness. These are the factors that drive Machado to stay, along with more familiar narratives of loyalty, of “it will get better,” of “I deserve this,” of “I won’t be able to find anyone else.” She and her girlfriend move into the Dream House together, despite Machado’s better judgement. And in the Dream House, closed off from the world, Machado struggles to escape.
There are so many intricacies to the abuse that Machado experiences; more intricacies, I am sure, than space on any page, even the pages of In the Dream House. Machado is subjected to sudden bursts of violence, screaming, physical attacks when she is trying to shower, thrown objects. Her partner forces her, against her will, into a series of open relationships that make her feel lonely and uncomfortable. She is possessed, controlled, isolated, demeaned and made to demean herself.
But in “Dream House as Epiphany,” Machado reminds us of the real horror of this story, beyond her own experience, beyond the sole horrors of what happened behind one set of walls.
“Most types of domestic abuse are completely legal” (112).
In the Dream House is not a comfortable book. It is a cultural criticism, a log book, a horror. It is deeply personal – a series of staggering steps toward an escape. But what struck me most about this memoir was the way it complicated queer love, the way it forces us all to look at love and obsession and abuse as a universal, human experience – complicated by gender, always, but not exclusive to any one dominant narrative.
What houses do we make for ourselves? For each other? In the Dream House asks us to look at the way we love and are loved at face value. It asks us to be accountable for our own legacies of violence. It asks us to look out for each other.