In Carmen Maria Machado's book, the eponymous dream house is both a real, physical house and an unrelenting conceit
The disappearance of Lauren Spierer, a 20 year old who went missing from Bloomington, Indiana in 2011, appears 89 pages into Carmen Maria Machado’s memoir In the Dream House. We learn that she is “young and upper class and petite and blonde” just like Machado’s girlfriend, although, unlike her, she is not a student. Machado and her partner also live in Bloomington. The chapter of the title is “Dream House as Warning”. Coming back to this passage, I do a quick internet search to find out that Spierer is presumed dead, having never been found.
What the warning is is unclear. Machado notes that her partner’s parents were “apoplectic”, perhaps fearing that their similar-looking daughter might too be carried off by an assailant, that they might also spend the rest of their lives wondering what happened to her. But this is not what happened, and the trail of Spierer’s narrative is dropped as swiftly as it is raised. Machado concludes the page-long chapter: “You were both acutely aware of Lauren’s nonpresence in those first few months. […] Every time you went out, you thought about Lauren, last seen with no shoes, walking down the street on that humid June night. Where was she going? What was she walking away from?”
At this point in the narrative, violence has bloomed and spread like mould in Machado’s relationship with her partner, the woman from the Dream House. It is a secret kept between them, which like most secrets in relationships is constantly spilling out. Friends see Machado crying in her car while her partner torments her; they hear her screaming down the phone. Everything is imbued with significance and the significance is danger – perhaps that is what Machado means by warning. Again, from scanning the internet I can see that it’s true that Spierer – or Lauren, as Machado calls her, though she has no more claim to her first name than I do – was indeed last seen walking down the street barefoot. The image is an uncanny one which blends the carefree with the deadly– it takes on its significance through hindsight. Of course, it’s an awful thing to be so emotionally raw that the vanishing of a young woman, who is a complete stranger to you, takes on such significance that you think it is a message to you personally, and this is the type of warped thinking that psychological abuse can breed: I hope that is the warning. There are no disappearances in Dream House, rather the opposite, as Machado compulsively binds herself to the woman who makes her life a living nightmare.
I can’t resist picking up on this strange choice of words, “nonpresence”, and what it means to be acutely aware of one. Obviously Machado could have gone with the more obvious, “absence”, but going down the road less travelled is what earns you the Guggenheim fellowship or the Macarthur grant, and Machado knows this. Is a nonpresence more keenly felt than an absence? It certainly seems more poetic, and throughout In the Dream House Machado makes a meal of these nonpresences, or absences. Each chapter is rarely more than a page in length, leaving literally hundreds of interstices and blank spaces where words are not. These spaces do much of the heavy lifting, imbuing each chapter with a poetic significance which Machado unreliably pulls off; it works better in the chapters, about, say, her partner’s reckless driving, falling asleep at the wheel while forbidding Machado from taking over, why do you hate me, you bitch? Other chapters, however, crumble under the scrutiny yielded by the space around them, none the least the chapters about Machado’s childhood, which seems, by my estimations, ordinarily cruel.
Machado makes the best use of these formal quirks when she takes us, the ‘dear reader’, on a choose your own adventure. The scenario:
“You wake up and the air is milky and bright. The room glows with a kind of effervescent contentment, despite the boxes and clothes and dishes. You start to think to yourself: this is the kind of morning you could get used to.
When you turn over, she is staring at you. The luminous innocence of the light curdles in your stomach. You don’t remember ever going from awake to afraid so quickly.
“You were moving all night,” she says. “Your arms and elbows touched me. You kept me awake.”
It’s the domesticity of the scene which lends it its nightmarish quality, the call is coming from inside the house. Minus the curdling in the stomach and the fear, so far, so lovely. Machado presents us, which is to say, you, with three options: apologise profusely; tell her to wake you up next time; or tell her to calm down. Of course, there is no right option in this adventure, and it’s not an adventure at all; the reader is trapped in a labyrinth spanning 16 pages, and throughout Machado uses the second-person present. It might seem wearisome but, dear reader, you get used to it; or perhaps it wears you down, blunting your reading sensibilities, in much the same way as Machado and her own critical faculties are worn down by the abuse. She is us and we are her, the reader called to bear witness to or, rather, endure, what should be banal pillow talk turned into something much nastier. You get up, you apologise, you defy, but all pages lead back to anger and hate; the dream house has become a house of mirrors. These scenarios play out at regular intervals in the memoir, as the girlfriend’s paranoia mounts.
Machado’s woman is androgynous, thin, blue-eyed, lean, blonde, “all of those factors flipped your brain inside out and turned your cunt to pudding”. Reader, if you’re squeamish about this particular expletive then look away now, as it’s Machado’s preferred terminology for the female genitalia. “Cunt” is also, compellingly, the woman from the Dream House’s preferred insult for Machado, which is hissed into her ear or screamed down the phone, the sexual and the hateful bound together in this one violent monosyllable. A more rigorous review could hinge on Machado’s use of this word alone, charting where its sexual contours begin to end, when it becomes deployed purely as hate. The first time Machado’s woman hurts her, it’s with feigned concern, gripping her forearm and pressing her nails into flesh. What’s most menacing is that, to an outsider, nothing would seem wrong. But the violence is almost always psychological rather than physical, the woman exercising control without lifting a finger. It’s a testament to Machado’s creative control that the woman is at turns a movie villain, Jack Torrance tearing down the bathroom door, and at others just a regular monster, a deeply flawed lover who can’t help but prey on her partner’s insecurities.
One of the most disturbing moments in In the Dream House is not one Machado experiences herself, but rather, one she consults from the queer archive, an unstable, shifting category of memory, literature and history. A woman recalls being stoned by her female partner on a beach, running into the sea to escape the rocks and stones being hurled at her. I imagine this scene playing out, perhaps they are both pretending it’s a game, yet the woman running into the sea is too afraid to tell her girlfriend to stop, in case she won’t. Afterwards, she and her partner laugh together and pretend nothing has happened—a dynamic Machado and her partner will mirror, the violence enacted by one party upon the other, followed by a joint, conspiratorial denial. The symbolism of the stoning is obvious, one partner inflicting a punishment for homosexuality on the other, the violence of the act compounded by its own hypocrisy. If so much of male violence towards women stems from sexism and misogyny, Machado asks, does it logically follow that violence within a same-sex relationship is homophobic? The snake eating its own tail comes to mind, and I’m not sure if there’s either a satisfying question – or answer – in this. If male violence against women can be traced back to misogyny, then perhaps a woman committing acts of violence against another woman is, also, a misogynist, the hatred directed at the object of her desire (a woman) rather than the desire itself (homoerotic). But any attempt to trace a genealogy of violence, and in particular queer violence, is doomed to fail, and as Machado is eager to show, we risk tripping over gender essentialism and homophobic, heteronormative stereotypes along the way.
Machado dips into this queer archive freely and frequently in the latter part of the book, and there is a passage in the afterword which serves as a retroactive disclaimer, “In the Dream House is by no means meant to be a comprehensive account of contemporary research about same-sex domestic abuse or history”; it is, by all accounts, a jarring disclaimer for a memoir to have to make. Of course, any queer text is often wrongly charged with representing all queer people, due to heteronormative mainstream discourse, history and lack of queer representation. But I can’t help feeling that this is a mantle Machado takes on herself, seeing herself as writing into, and constructing from, the queer archive. It is a disclaimer that she should not have to make, but the fact that she is making it is somehow falsely self-deprecating, thus setting up an odd straw-man of a reader who has made it all the way through the book in extreme bad faith.
The eponymous dream house is both a real, physical house and an unrelenting conceit. Throughout, Machado embraces the unreliability of her narration. There’s even a chapter about that, ‘Dream House as unreliable narrator’, I’m pretty sure. All this serves to ensure that her book is slippery, gender-bending, queer, impossible to define, and these are labels which have been proudly slapped onto the book jackets and advertising. But what it also does is, disturbingly, pull the rug out from under our feet, giving the sense that the book itself is engaged in an ongoing project of self-effacement, of un-writing, of self-contradiction. It’s also painfully self-aware, peppered with accounts of how and where it was written; it becomes almost the making-of a book rather than the book itself. The titles of the opening chapters, ‘Dream House as Prologue’, ‘Dream House as Overture’, serve as an ironic distancing device, and what appears to be a gimmick endures throughout the entire book. Here, the whole house of cards risks collapsing, to borrow and manipulate Machado’s somewhat tiring conceit. These titles barely hold up to any actual scrutiny, and there is significant slippage between the titles and their adjoining text. Being generous, this could be deliberate, a queering of the relationship between text and title, an attempt to uproot the power of naming which so often belongs to a straight, white hegemony. Being less generous, as I am inclined to be – these titles come thick and fast, with the chapters only a page or two in length – I want to urge Machado to at least scan the Wikipedia entry about ‘The Prisoner’s Dilemma’ before committing a chapter about it to print.
While we’re on the topic of prisons, there’s another significant slippage in the book concerning justice, and what punishments should be meted out to queer abusers. Machado is at pains to demonstrate that same-sex abuse is not treated with the same severity as heterosexual violence, and that queer women seeking justice via the legal system often go ignored because they do not fit the heteronormative template of victim. On the face of it this is a cause for concern, but if we take just one small ideological step further, a self-proclaimed queer woman who seems to want her queer sisters to be incarcerated, especially in the United States, is politically a contradiction in terms. Machado notes that in “an early lesbian domestic abuse trial”, a lesbian juror told the lawyer that “‘she hadn’t wanted to convict a [queer] sister”, as though the abused girlfriend was not herself a queer woman’.” Reading between the lines here, Machado appears to be calling out the jury member for not having enough sympathy with the abused girlfriend; but I’d argue that the lesbian juror displays a queer solidarity which Machado sorely lacks. Violence in any context should be condemned in the strongest possible terms, and that includes the structural violence of the prison complex. There’s another cloyingly neoliberal moment, where Machado’s Trump-supporting, gun-wielding uncle comforts her after the break-up, perhaps serving to remind us that some fascists are soft at heart, or that love is love. In a book which is so self-reflective, these ideological slippages feel particularly ill-judged, and I can’t help but wonder what it was exactly that Machado was doing spending all that time in the queer archive, only to emerge as an equivocating liberal.
Stronger are the wittier and more caustic parts of the book, particularly the chapters on the “bad PR” of abusive lesbian relationships. Machado laments one of the first lesbian couples to marry in the US for divorcing only five years later; her manipulative, toxic girlfriend makes them look bad in public, in front of their straight friends. These bitterly funny renderings of abuse peter out later in the text. At first, I wanted more of these moments, then felt guilty about it; it is a performance of distance, trauma repackaged into a palatable form, and Machado knows this all too well. Nonetheless, the tone I was so eager for Machado to strike always felt just out of reach, maybe located somewhere in the many interstices between chapters, or in some of the other writing she is always doing throughout the book which doesn’t make it into the Book itself. There’s a happy ending, which we see coming a mile off, partly because Machado is dropping breadcrumbs about “my wife” from the very beginning but also because there seems to be a perpetual upswing to her prose which makes the resolution seem inevitable. The wife is, perhaps less predictably, also the ex-girlfriend of the woman from the Dream House, and for a brief while “Val” and Machado were in a polyamorous triad with this woman at the centre. Their relationship is therefore built on the foundation of shared trauma, but Val and Machado have clearly grown around the woman, their roots coming close to strangling her existence altogether. There’s a neatness and symmetry about this ending which I found altogether unsatisfying, but maybe that’s real life for you – or rather, it’s the real life that takes place once you’ve left the Dream House behind.
Thank you to Lucy Mordaunt for writing this excellently scathing review: you can find her on Twitter @lucy_rmm for her takes on contemporary feminist discourse, dog breeds, politics and Kent’s horseriding community.
If you have read and enjoyed, tolerated or despised In The Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado please send us your thoughts either way via email@example.com