Carmen Maria Machado is by temperament a fiction writer and writing In the Dream House, her memoir of surviving an abusive relationship, was in some ways a long and horrible experiment. The book, which is divided into fragments each cleaving to a different literary genre, is an attempt, at some 10 years’ distance, to make sense of the experience of her early 20s, when she was not only trapped in a house with a woman who gave every appearance of wanting to destroy her, but trapped in a relationship trope – an abusive lesbian partnership – not widely recognised as even existing.
Machado is sitting across from me in the bar of her hotel in New York, on a brief visit from her home in Philadelphia. At 33, she is as far from the version of herself depicted in the book as it is possible to get: happily married to a woman called Val; employed at the University of Pennsylvania, and with a thriving literary career – Machado’s short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, was a finalist for the US National Book Award in 2017. And yet, she says, one of the bleaker side effects of writing the book was the realisation that “Oh, damage can be permanent.”
When Machado meets her abuser – the woman is never named – she is completely smitten. The woman is “short and pale and rail-thin and androgynous”. She has a “dazzling smile” and “a raspy voice that sounds like a wheelbarrow being dragged over stones”. She is confident, assertive and socially at ease – all the things that, at that age, Machado is not. The sex is amazing. Addressing herself in the second person, as she does throughout the book, Machado looks back and observes that, “part of the problem was, as a weird fat girl, you felt lucky”.
The book is skilful at elucidating the doublethink necessary to stay in a bad relationship – the constant shuttle between wanting to leave and wanting to stay; the internal litigation one does to disprove the evidence of one’s own eyes; the sympathy one has for one’s abuser. “The world is full of hurt people who hurt people,” writes Machado, who frequently found herself (after being screamed at, chased and bombarded with objects thrown at her head by her girlfriend) in the position of comforting her. And yet she stayed on. As she writes, “people settle near volcanoes because the resulting soil is extraordinary”.
The “dream house” of the title refers in the literal sense to the house the women occupy in the midwest, and more generally, to the psychic space in which the abusive relationship unfolds, a terrain complicated by the fact that both partners are women. For Machado, the basic dynamic of any abusive relationship – the tendency of the victim to blame herself and assume she has the power to change things – is compounded by the silence that surrounds abusive lesbian relationships. Not only does she lack a language to describe what is happening to her, but there are times when to confront what’s going on feels disloyal to the very idea of lesbianism – the myth that “to find desire, love, everyday joy without men’s accompanying bullshit is a pretty decent working definition of paradise.”
The book’s take on genre – each short section appears under a subhead framing it through a different literary device, for example “Dream House as Soap Opera”, or “Dream House as Comedy of Errors” – speaks to Machado’s desperate efforts to fit her experiences into a pre-existing narrative. At one point, in a section entitled “Dream House as Sanctuary”, she locks herself in the bathroom to escape her girlfriend’s rampage. “I remember sitting with my back against the wall,” she writes, “pleading with the universe that she wouldn’t have the tools or know-how to take the doorknob out of the door.” Meanwhile, the girlfriend batters the door, which rocks on its hinges “with every blow”. It’s a contention of Machado’s that abuse within same sex relationships is homophobic in the same way that heterosexual abuse is fuelled by sexism.
“Inherent to domestic abuse in queer relationships is the fact that no one is going to believe you,” she says, “because there is no narrative for this. You’re in a situation where you’re not going to be understood because of the sexual orientation element, and I think that is a kind of homophobia; it’s relying on a certain understanding, a certain prejudice.” It is, she believes, embedded in the structure of the relationship, “in the same way that when men beat their girlfriends, they’re relying on the fact that sexism permits a certain amount of autonomy and control [within straight relationships]. I thought that was interesting.”
It is one of the aims of In the Dream House to fill what Machado calls the “archival silence” around these thoughts by assembling a “rough, working attempt at a canon” of “queer domestic abuse and sexual assault”. This includes anecdotal and academic references to poems, essays, memoirs, such as Jane Eaton Hamilton’s powerful essay “Never Say I Didn’t Bring You Flowers”, Melissa Febos’s essay “Abandon Me”, and the poems of Leah Horlick, as well as legal precedents that exemplify the reluctance of the courts to recognise and prosecute domestic violence within same sex partnerships.
One result of this silence, she says, is that it may be that perpetrators such as her ex-girlfriend fail even to recognise what they’re doing as abusive. “I think about that a lot, and I go back to this question of did my ex-girlfriend realise what she was doing? Was she aware of it? I have no answer to that, and I have to be comfortable with having no answer. It doesn’t matter in the sense that the outcome is the same.” Neither does she wish to focus on why her ex-girlfriend behaved the way she did. A person who does that “is in pain; of course they’re in pain. Again: does it matter? It’s an interesting question but not one I can begin to psychoanalyse. I’m not her doctor.”
Machado focuses, instead, on the task of identifying and articulating emotional damage, which isn’t for the most part even illegal. To her shame, she says, she went through a phase of the relationship when she hoped that she had external bruises to prove that what was happening was real. “I wished that I had a police report, or a black eye. And I recognise that that’s really fucked up but also there’s something about having clarity that feels intoxicating and that I think I wanted and continue to want. And I don’t know what to do with that.”
The platonic ideal of victimhood, I suggest, is used across the spectrum to undermine women’s credibility and turn the blame back on them, so it’s not as if bruises would necessarily have clarified things. “So maybe it’s really about the fact that we don’t have the tools to deal with anybody’s trauma; the fact that we all think, well, if one thing was different, people would take me seriously or believe me. And the fact is that nobody would believe you.”
For a long time, Machado didn’t even believe herself. When, in the book, she is told by a doctor that she needs to lose weight, she misses “the punchline entirely”, she writes, which is that “the weight you need to lose is 105 pounds and sitting in the waiting room with an annoyed expression on her face.” She is increasingly miserable. Her writing breaks down into smaller and smaller fragments, an unconscious reflection of her shattered equilibrium. Machado had good friends who grew concerned for her welfare and a loving family – her father, the son of a Cuban immigrant, is a chemical engineer and her mother a homemaker. But still she couldn’t walk away. (Hers isn’t an entirely tolerant family – a relative once said to her: “I don’t believe in gay people,” to which she retorted: “Well, we believe in you,” something she now finds funny. “I mean she’s just the worst, but also, like, you know, it’s funny. You don’t believe in us? That doesn’t make any sense. You’re not even saying I don’t think it’s OK or all right. You don’t believe in us – that act of denial in existence. It’s interesting.”)
In the end, Machado was emboldened to leave thanks to the support of friends and the creeping feeling that her girlfriend was seriously unstable. The sobering thing, she says, is that while writing the book she would occasionally catch sight of herself through the lens of her ex’s perspective. “Vestigial trauma,” she calls it. “Places where I could catch myself thinking in a way that I could tell she was shaping, from the past. Which was really disturbing.”
The internalisation of the abuser’s voice can be the worst aspect of an abusive relationship and one that Machado still finds “pretty uncomfortable. It was weird and it remains weird. Healing doesn’t mean undoing things that happened. That’s very painful, and very sad, and the more I think about it, the sadder I feel. But also I’m like, well, you go through life, things happen to you. That’s the human experience.”
Can you see yourself as she saw you?
“Totally, totally. And also the sense of the book as an act of returning to this old version of myself. I can go up to the old Carmen, but I can’t interact with her to say it’s going to be OK. So there’s this act of trying to access the past and an old way of thinking that doesn’t exist any more.”
Machado’s book of short stories, Her Body and Other Parties, was almost impossible to categorise – part gothic horror, part fantasy, part science fiction. It was dark and daring, and fun in a wild sort of way. By contrast, writing In the Dream House felt to her highly restricting. “Fiction, to me, feels like play. Non-fiction is you trying to figure out what you think – to put meaning to things that happened to you, which is really hard. When someone says to you I have an immediately formed opinion about a thing I just heard about, I don’t trust that at all.” It takes her about three years to come up with a solid opinion, she says, to “meditate and contemplate. I write non-fiction so slowly, one essay a year, and I’m really meticulous about it.”
Returning to fiction, she says – “to write funny sentences and just create” – has been, perversely, one of the oddest joys of writing the memoir, a reminder of the satisfaction of controlling one’s narrative, and the power of moving on. “I feel so light!”
• In the Dream House is published by Serpent’s Tail.
Source: The Guardian