Book: In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado
Age/Genre: Adult Memoir
Reading Accoutrements: A blanket, a soothing beverage, and note taking materials
Content Notes: Abuse, Homophobia
I loved Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado, and when I started seeing interviews and articles about her memoir, In the Dream House, I knew it was only a matter of time until I read it. So, when my husband brought it home from the library, I was ecstatic. “How did you know I wanted to read this?” He was so confused. It had caught his eye and he’d gotten it for himself. So he read it first, but I quickly jumped on it after that.
The sections this book is divided into are short, most shorter than three pages. They are scenes, musings, and essays, each titled “Dream House as….” In the first tidbit, “Dream House as Overture,” Machado states that she doesn’t read prologues because “…if what the author has to say is so important, why relegate it to paratext? What are they trying to hide?” The next piece is “Dream House as Prologue,” which made me laugh and also set my expectations for the rest of the book. Machado muses on and explores serious questions, but provides no concrete answers. She tells her story without trying to make her topics universal. Instead, she shares experiences that are often overlooked, both to the benefit of those who do the overlooking and those who feel alone in their experiences. The first page says, “If you need this book, it is for you.”
In the prologue, Machado explains the “why” of this book. Using the idea of a cultural archive and all of the harm and erasure that occurs in such an archive, Machado asserts, “I enter into the archive that domestic abuse between partners who share a gender identity is both possible and not uncommon, and that it can look something like this.”
The main “plot” of In the Dream House follows Machado’s relationship with a controlling, abusive partner, whom she only refers to as “she” and “the woman in the Dream House.” Machado shares the story of how they met, how their relationship began, the years they were together, and how the relationship puttered out and finally ended. All of this is shared in short scenes. The plot is somewhat linear in that, early in the book, Machado talks about her childhood, and who she was when she met the woman in the Dream House, and about forty pages in, we get the first uncomfortable moment in their relationship. There is no strict timeline, though. Sometimes, we go back and forward in time, and some sections are completely outside of the story of their relationship.
This being an author’s memoir, it is not surprising that so much of the contextualization of her experiences is drawn from media. In “Dream House as Folktale Taxonomy,” Machado discusses several Hans Christian Andersen stories in which women’s/girl’s voices are taken from them. The protagonists, the Little Mermaid, the Goose Girl, and Eliza from “The Wild Swans,” all have vastly different fates, but they share the loss of their voice, whether temporary or permanent. This short essay does not explicitly state what it has to do with the rest of the memoir, as there is no need to have the parallels between these characters and Machado spelled out. In “Dream House as Queer Villainy,” Machado discusses the idea of representation in media, and queer-coding of villains (which is giving villains traits associated with sexual deviance or nonheteronormativity, thus coding those traits as “bad.” Think Jafar in Disney’s Aladdin or Ursula in The Little Mermaid). Her main point is that when villains are not the only queer characters who we see, they become more interesting, and we are allowed to appreciate their nuances, rather than focus on the idea that “queer” is a way to subliminally indicate “bad.” The idea that all queer representation must be positive is as harmful as all representation being negative. This concept is revisited several times, particularly late in the work when court cases of domestic abuse between women are discussed. One juror said she just couldn’t stand to convict a “fellow (lesbian) sister” of domestic violence, completely missing the point that the victim was also a lesbian.
This is the second book I’ve read this year that I would describe as an “extremely artistic memoir.” Perhaps “stylistic” is also an appropriate descriptor. Machado tells the facts of her life, but she does so in a way that reminds me of oral storytelling. The format is fluid, going where it needs to go in any given moment. Perhaps the longest chapter is “Dream House as Choose Your Own Adventure,” which (as the title would suggest) uses the “Choose Your Own Adventure” style as a method to show the fraught decision-making process of people subject to a manipulative relationship. The flexibility of the format allows the messages of each chapter to be presented in the most impactful way.
The “memoir” parts of the book are written in second-person, to a “You” who is the part of Machado who was in the relationship. She specifies that she thought this was a past version of herself, but as time has passed, she is not so sure. Essays and speculation about society are written in first-person, from the perspective of Machado as the author. There were a couple of moments where the POV shifted in really interesting, telling ways.
The events of the book take place in the early 2000s, before, during, and after marriage equality became a legal reality. We see people harass the couple for being in a same-sex relationship. We see the woman in the Dream House explain away bad behavior with “this is how relationships with women are” reasoning. We see Machado believe this reasoning because of her inexperience and the taboo nature of same-sex relationships as she grew up. We see how Machado’s society-inflicted body-consciousness as a fat woman caused her to believe she didn’t deserve better than the relationship she was in. There are so many intersections of issues woven together in this one relationship. It is not oversimplified, and though we obviously get Machado’s perspective and opinions, she is very intentional. I felt that this book really showed the humanity of abusers, how they are shaped by their experiences and environments, without justifying or excusing their behavior. This is a personal experience, yes, but it is also meant to be a resource. Evidence in the archive.