In one of the stories from “Her Body and Other Parties,” Carmen Maria Machado’s debut collection, women afflicted by some unnamed illness begin to physically disappear. Some lose their corporeality completely and their ghostly essence is sewn into the tulle and lace of women’s dresses. “I can see the faded women all bound up in them, fingers laced tightly through the grommets,” Machado writes. “I cannot tell if they are holding on for dear life or if they are trapped.”
The notion of entrapment also animates Machado’s new memoir, In the Dream House. The book details her descent into a psychologically abusive relationship with a woman during her 20s. The unnamed girlfriend, who seems impossibly golden at first, soon displays possessiveness, rage, and cruelty. Like the faded women in the earlier story, Machado feels herself disappearing under the strain, unsure how or if to let go.
Toni Morrison famously said, “If you find a book you really want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” This is that book for Machado. Regarding the scarcity of documentation around domestic abuse in lesbian couples, the prologue introduces scholar and writer Saidiya Hartman’s notion of the “violence of the archive” — the harm that’s caused by a historical record that neglects certain stories. Gaps of this sort “make it impossible to give oneself a context,” Machado relates. And context is everything: If you don’t see yourself reflected in history, how can you understand yourself, your story?
Machado examines domestic abuse through film criticism, law precedents, and historical research. Though she focuses primarily on relationships between women, she considers, too, how heterosexual relationships have shaped and limited our understanding of what constitutes partner abuse. Machado collects the scraps of history to frame her experience. In 1892, for example, when Freda Ward was murdered by her possessive lover, the papers “hardly knew what to do with themselves.” Machado offers up her experience as evidence in a long obscured lineage of abuse between people who share a gender identity. In this way, she writes herself back into her own story — and the collective cultural archive.
The memoir orbits the eponymous Dream House — both an actual building in Bloomington, Indiana, and a repository of figurative meaning. The Dream House is the locus of the couple’s ravenous love and the destruction that follows. Machado makes a point of establishing the building as a physical structure (an early vignette is titled “Dream House as Not a Metaphor”) before twisting the construct like literary origami into “Dream House as Erotica,” “Pop Single,” “Folktale Taxonomy,” “Epiphany,” “Inciting Incident,” “Romance Novel,” and “Choose Your Own Adventure®,” to name a few.
The format recalls Raymond Queneau’s “Exercises in Style” from 1947, which toyed with rapid genre shifts as a way to tell a single story. Each vignette in Machado’s memoir presents and interrogates a given trope, searching it for depth or deceit. It is through this anxious shape-shifting that the story gains dimension. Though Machado never departs from her incisive, lyrical voice, the conceptual variety keeps the conceit fresh. The Dream House is constantly shifting, accumulating new meaning and insisting upon a reappraisal of common narrative confines.
The house is, of course, more nightmare than dream. Written largely in the second person, we as readers are ensnared in the abuse as it unfolds, no more able to stop it than Machado. “In the pit of it, you fantasize about dying,” she writes. “You have forgotten that leaving is an option.” But choices that seem obvious in hindsight were obscured at the time by hope and by love and by fear. (“You shouldn’t have been so stupid; the warnings were already there, but the prospect of endless days of fucking for hours in a lavender bed and eating decadently and being with her was too tantalizing.”)
We’re reminded again and again that captivity comes in many forms and leaves scars that are mental, and enduring: “She makes you tell her what is wrong with you. This is a favorite activity; even better than her telling you what is wrong with you. Years later, it’s a habit that’s hard to break.” In sequences such as this, Machado is trapped by her girlfriend’s manipulations. She is holding on for dear life.
Manipulation also takes the form of “gaslighting,” the practice of making someone question their own sense of reality. Machado references the 1944 film Gaslight in which “a woman’s sanity is undercut by her conniving husband, who misplaces objects — a brooch, a painting, a letter — in an attempt to make her believe she is mad.” In doing so, “he turns her mind into a prison.” Similarly, when Machado tries to raise a concern, her girlfriend twists her words until all perspective is lost: “You say what you are thinking and you say it after thinking a lot, and yet when she repeats what you’ve said back to you nothing makes sense. Did you say that? Really? You can’t remember saying that or even thinking it, and yet she is letting you know that it was said, and you definitely meant it that way.”
Moments of eerie, repentant tenderness soften the girlfriend’s edges between bursts of rage — “the bite of the fight has sweetened; whiskey unraveled by ice.” We’re left mid-flinch, unsure which version of her will materialize on the next page. So years later, when a woman approaches Machado at a party and says, “I believe you,” in her ear it is revelatory. “You cry so hard you have to leave.”
Anyone who has relegated the genre of memoir to navel-gazing will be proven wrong here. Machado conscientiously delineates the stakes of telling her story that transcend her own healing. She makes an admirable, though necessarily incomplete, effort to wrap her words around an expanse of injustices — the undue burden placed on the already marginalized, the interrelations between sexism and homophobia and racism — and how these injuries compound and sprout new wounds. Her memoir is a moving addition to the history of intimate partner abuse and the public imagination.
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. I speak into the silence. I toss the stone of my story into a vast crevice; measure the emptiness by its small sound.
We’d all do well to listen.
In the Dream House by Carmen Machado is published by Graywolf Press and is available online and from indie booksellers.
Contact information for the National Domestic Violence Hotline can be found here.