In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado / Graywolf Press / 264 pages / November 5, 2019
In the Dream House follows the story of Machado’s own relationship with an emotionally and psychologically abusive woman. I feel obligated to put a disclaimer before my review: I’m in a polyamorous lesbian relationship. One of my girlfriends, (the small, blonde, butch one), has just bought a house in Bloomington, Indiana. In the Dream House, a memoir about a relationship inadvertently mirroring my own in location and number of girlfriends, though not in violence, challenges my analytical distance. Machado’s frequent use of the second person, addressing her younger, still-in-the-relationship self as “you” contributed greatly to the sense of unease I felt while reading the story. In the Dream House is a powerful, much-needed memoir that makes strong work of its experimental form, simultaneously telling a story that most readers would be unfamiliar with while bringing them in close to Machado’s lived experiences.
Ambitious in both style and content, each “chapter” takes a different form — “Dream House as Noir,” “Dream House as Soap Opera,” “Dream House as Self-Help Bestseller.” These shifts in form are used to taxonomize snippets of Machado’s relationship, framing each in the overarching context of pop culture, literary genre, and queer history. This ever-changing form shines the brightest during “Dream House as Choose Your Own Adventure,” a walk through a beautiful and harrowing morning in which you, the reader, are forced to respond to the actions of Machado’s unnamed girlfriend.
The scenario begins with you waking up next to Machado’s girlfriend. You have elbowed her in your sleep and must respond to her anger. The steps the reader chooses to take brings them through Machado’s thought process as she decides how she will deal with the abuse. No matter how careful you are there is no way to “win” the situation or to make it better. The ending of the Adventure fully confronts you with the reality of the cyclical nature of abuse in one of the most emotionally crushing and effective sections in the book.
The memoir also tackles the task of writing about a subject that often goes unnamed and unspoken, especially in best-selling memoirs: abuse in queer relationships. Machado writes deftly about the self-consciousness of the queer experience, the anxiety and behavior-policing that come with knowing that people can and will use you as fodder to feed their own biases and perceptions of the world. Machado writes, “that’s the minority anxiety, right? That if you’re not careful, someone will see you – or people who share your identity – doing something human and use it against you.” She acknowledges the queer community’s instinctive closing of ranks in situations like this, the fear that somebody will blow the whistle, let everybody in on the secret that we can be messy, awful human beings too. The weight of society’s expectations for you and the pressure not to fail them are even higher for people who can become accidental figureheads of an entire demographic just by being visibly out. That is the bravery of this piece; she openly acknowledges all of these fears and pushes forward anyway, becoming a cultural whistleblower and gifting us with this portrayal of the inner machinations of a relationship dynamic.
I — as a person in a polyamorous relationship, a queer person with a history of relationship abuse, a lesbian who worries about how my story fits into the larger narrative of literature — am able to see myself and my struggles on the page in a way that I never have before. In a chapter called “Dream House as Naming the Animals,” a section referencing the way in which Adam had to name all the animals of the Garden of Eden, Machado writes, “Putting language to something for which you have no language for is no easy feat.” She’s right, and yet she’s done it. She has brought the experience of queer abuse to the forefront of popular literature. Machado has stepped away from the pack in both form and content, and she has done so in a beautiful, emotionally fraught, and ultimately rewarding memoir.