Why Carmen Maria Machado's memoir triggered a necessary reckoning with my own past.
I read In The Dream House—Carmen Maria Machado’s incendiary memoir about an abusive ex-partner, and her grappling with the residue of that relationship—in little apertures during the fall: brief moments of focus on planes and trains and at my partner’s family home in Phoenix when we weren’t preparing our Thanksgiving lunch. I was struck, as ever, by the violent lucidity of Machado’s prose, her ability to ground us in and outside her body at once. The reader succumbs to the illusory magic of this new, heady romance, but tension lingers on each page, ready to boil over and burn. Moments of beauty—a passionate encounter, a tender articulation of desire (“‘I can’t believe that you’ve chosen me,’ she says”)—are undercut by the persistence of a bloody, thrumming pulse that never lets you forget it is the true heart of the story. A breathless sex scene ends with an abrupt halt: “You would let her swallow you whole, if she could.”
With grace and clarity, Machado executes the seemingly impossible: she adds her wild, tangled story to the sparse archive for abusive queer relationship narratives. It’s a domain that has felt out of reach in the public eye due to the pervasive trope of U-Hauling lesbians and the (frankly dangerous) falsity that partner violence is a gendered byproduct of straight masculinity. Machado is acutely aware of the complex task ahead of her, and has created an artifact that marries structure and story to emphasize that dissonance. In The Dream House is a fragmented document. Each section is titled “Dream House as [X]” (typically a common literary device, like Erotica, Noir, Bildungsroman). Some sections are a handful of sentences long, some multiple pages, and they oscillate in tense; they are all focused, dynamic vignettes that non-chronologically trace the relationship’s lifespan from its passionate honeymoon phase to its fevered, overdue dissolution.
Every trope is prodded and probed, refracted and gutted from the inside, as Machado’s story unspools. As the notion of queer partner violence unites two seemingly incongruous ideas, Machado’s memoir structurally creates a similar discord; its structure and content are poles apart and yet inextricable from the other (not to mention that both Machado and her ex-partner are writers, navigating each other’s craft and artistry as they navigate each other, so the examination and appropriation of common literary devices feels deliciously meta and astute). “Dream House as Accident”, for example, is just one sentence long: “In Boston your friend Sam—who you still think of by his college nickname, Big Sam—overhears her making you cry, and acts cold and distant to her even though you just want him to pretend like he didn’t hear anything.” The conceit of the title—an accident—has the reader anticipating some traditional notion of a mishap, or an error. Instead, the quiet beauty of the scene generates a whole new interpretation of what an accident can be construed as and that the fear of making mistakes, however small, can inculcate toxic relationships. The final product of In The Dream House, then, is an alarmingly accurate exercise in queer form: both nonfiction and queerness subscribe to methods of adaptation and forging connection, which Machado embodies in her prose.
“In The Dream House, after all, is a memoir that transcends the sum of its parts. It is an archive of queers past, present, and future, and the mess of structures that bind us.”
I’ve spent the better half of my writing life reckoning with queerness on the page; resisting it, failing to understand it, trying desperately to best articulate it. I majored in Creative Writing for undergrad, and resented that I—a queer with queer parents—held any responsibility to write about the particulars of my family’s identity. It seemed tired. Instead, I wrote sparse, aggressive short stories about disillusioned and sexually confused men whose dogs had died. I had recently been broken up with by a beautiful actress who I’ll call T; it was my first adult relationship. This loss felt irrelevant to my work at the time, but now it seems comically pertinent. I was running from a story I had started with someone, the pages ripped away from me before I could finish it, so I tried to inhabit a foreign, benign world in its absence. “You will spend the next few years of your career coming up with elaborate justifications for the structure of the stories you were writing at the time,” Machado says. “You can’t bring yourself to say what you really think: I broke the stories down because I was breaking down and didn’t know what else to do.”
In The Dream House translates not only the specific experience of a toxic queer relationship, but the turmoil of a toxic queer relationship with another writer, and the impact it has on one’s work. In “Dream House as Dreamboat”, Machado says that “She reads your stories, marvels at the beauty of your sentences.” In “Dream House as Word Problem”, she notes that she “has wasted half of her MFA program driving to her girlfriend’s house to be yelled at for five days.” I dated a fellow writing student for a few months in college, which is where my story mirrors Machado’s with the most acuity. I was a vulnerable writer, voiceless, and my temperament on the page carried into this brief yet darkly formative relationship. Amidst the bad memories—the unsavory dinners, the fights, and the terrible vacation for my birthday—what I recall most vividly is how I envied her confidence and talent as a writer; how she would edit my work scrupulously, but I couldn’t be grateful for it. Her rigorous critiques just made me feel small.
“Every trope is prodded and probed, refracted and gutted from the inside, as Machado’s story unspools.”
In the fall of 2017 I moved from Melbourne to New York to join the Nonfiction MFA program at Columbia University. I was bewildered by the scale of the city; its endless contours and negotiations, of which the MFA seemed to be an apt microcosm. I had never been in a legitimate workshop and wanted to get it over with, so I signed up to submit in the second week of class. The piece I wrote was called “Notes On Acting”—a riff on a now-forgotten title of something I had just read for a film essay class—and was about T. Our love was chaotic and hallucinatory, plagued by drama and deceit, and went on for far too long. My submission was fragmented and non-chronological without any real purpose, attempting to reflect T’s lingering hold on me. When my workshop professor wondered aloud who this narrator was, or what she desired, I realized I didn’t have an answer; and when asked about my intentions with the structure, I boldly replied that I “just wanted to fuck with form.”
It was almost unbearably satisfying for me to read In The Dream House, because Machado has found a grammar for writing about the complexity of distressed queer dynamics. The grammar feels like a collage, a hybrid of postures: an amalgam of ideas subverted to render an experience entirely unique. It’s a grammar that I have been seeking out for years: a fragmented blueprint that I can impose my own story on. Machado establishes this legacy from the outset. “I speak into the silence. I toss the story of my stone into a vast crevice; measure the emptiness by its small sound.” I believe entirely in the merits of critical distance: that a writer often needs nothing but time to process certain events and relationships, and only then are they able to write about them effectively. So In The Dream House elicited gratification in me, and also imbued me with hope. Perhaps, unconsciously, I have been acquiring this process of translation all along.
About halfway through In The Dream House, there is a section titled “Dream House as Legacy,” which is just over a page long. It begins with Machado and her ex talking on the phone about how much they miss each other. It ends with a swift, aggressive break-up, prompted by the ex, that is ultimately redacted. “You will eventually lose track of the number of times she breaks up with you like this,” she writes. It feels totally accurate to identify a legacy with this almost-but-not-quite ending, this painful loop. In The Dream House, after all, is a memoir that transcends the sum of its parts. It is an archive of queers past, present, and future, and the mess of structures that bind us.