Carmen Maria Machado is an American author and recipient of the Bard Fiction Prize, the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Fiction, and the John Leonard Prize for her 2017 story collection Her Body and Other Parties. Her most recent work, In The Dream House, is a hauntingly beautiful memoir, and is just as much a tale of warning as it is a catharsis. Machado employs allegory, allusions to film, the bible, multiple figures, and lyric-style writing to examine and bring to life the dimensions of being in an abusive queer relationship. Machado most effectively characterizes this experience through the use of figures to organize the structure of In The Dream House.
Machado frames her narrative in a series of vignettes. Each section is titled “Dream House as. . .” and is followed by a different trope, establishing a specific theme and tone. For example, in the section “Dream House as Demonic Possession,” Machado attempts to justify her partner’s behaviors, finding ways to blame it on memory loss or schizophrenia. She concludes that her mistreatment could be due to an other-worldly force. Machado’s denial expresses how much easier it is to accept a ridiculous excuse than to admit to being continuously and willingly hurt by someone she loves. In the section “Dream House as Chekhov’s Gun,” Machado uses an allusion to the plays of Anton Chekov to anticipate harm. “Chekhov’s Gun” is a symbol commonly found in the Russian playwright’s work: with the introduction of the gun, the audience can always foreshadow the use of it in the second act. In this case, Machado employs the metaphor as a means to highlight the gaslighting which emphasized her partner’s toxicity.
Machado contextualizes gaslighting with George Cukor’s film Gaslight, which allows her to navigate the severity of her girlfriend’s manipulative power in their relationship. After the introduction of the idea of psychological violence, Machado explores her own experiences of similar instances, and reflects on how they affected her mental well-being. Machado uses second person to allow the reader to make sense of this confusing dynamic between fear and lust. “She says she thinks you’re beautiful. She says she thinks you’re sexy. Sometimes when you look at your phone, she has sent you something weirdly ambiguous, and there is a kick of anxiety between your lungs…you feel like the most scrutinized person in the world.”
Emotional vertigo from gaslighting pairs well with the torment of isolation. These forces work to demonstrate the heart-wrenching journey Machado endured. Machado identifies the term “dislocation” as a victim being uprooted and moved somewhere completely new without sufficient communication with any loved ones. By presenting abuse this way, the reader can easily navigate the different spaces the book presents, and can fully recognize how the abuse manifested without physical violence. “She is made vulnerable by her circumstance, her isolation. Her only ally is her abuser, which is to say she has no ally at all.”
The section “Dream House as the River Lethe,” Machado uses a scene from a road trip with her girlfriend to display the cyclical nature of her disparaging behavior. Machado writes about the aftermath of a drunken car ride home, where her girlfriend lashed out at and belittled her. “In the morning, the woman who made you ill with fear brews a pot of coffee and jokes with you and kisses you and sweetly scratches your scalp like nothing happened. And, as though you’d slept, a new day begins again.” This excerpt is an example of the cyclical nature of abuse, and how constant fluctuation between love and harm toys with one’s psyche.
Rotting produce and unpacked boxes serve as a motif for the book’s neglectful tone as it relates to Machado’s abuser, exemplifying how her girlfriend’s remiss manifested in ways other than direct emotional abuse. Machado attempts to make sense of this neglect in the section “Dream House as Naming the Animals,” where she sympathizes with Adam’s task to name each of the animals which were all brand new. “I feel a lot of sympathy. Putting language to something for which you have no language is no easy feat.” Machado is able to effectively explain the difficulty in examining the toxicity of her relationship through an unbiased lens. How could she save herself when she didn’t even realize she needed saving?
Machado focuses greatly on the erasure of queer identity throughout her book. She notes that literature dedicated to the stories of queer characters—especially those detailing abuse in lesbian relationships—is particularly lacking. “I have spent years struggling to find examples of my own experience in history’s queer women…what would happen if they had let the world know they were unmade by someone with just as little power as they.” Machado emphasizes that villainy and abuse are not exclusive to heterosexuality. In The Dream House sheds light on the issue of queerness being associated with ambiguity and romanticized fantasy. Without the stories of queer writers, their existence is reduced to clichés formed by a perceivably straight society. In order to combat these widespread ideas, Machado examines her sexuality as another complexity of simply being human. “Maybe when queerness is so normal and accepted that finding it will feel less like entering paradise and more like the claiming of your own body: imperfect, but yours.”
Rachel McNear is a sophomore at Eckerd College majoring in Creative Writing. She enjoys gripping memoirs and lyric poetry, as well as writing music and caring for her two beautiful hermit crabs.