Memoir/Biography/Autobiography · Nonfiction

In the Dream House

This memoir was published just over a year ago and I think I may be one of the last people (at least on bookstagram) to read it. But let me tell you, it’s both worth the wait and not one to let linger on an unread TBR shelf for a second longer than is necessary. This is one of the best books (definitely the best memoir…sorry to push you aside, Born a Crime, Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls) that I’ve ever read. And despite my insanely high expectations from all the other astoundingly positive reviews, and after being really into Machado’s writing in her short story collection Her Body and Other Parties, it still managed to exceed them all. (Also, this is my choice for prompt #23 “By an LGBTQ+ author” for the Reading Women Challenge 2020.)

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

“The ephemera: The recorded sound waves of her speech on one axis and a precise measurement of the flood of adrenaline and cortisol in my body on the other. Witness statements from the strangers who anxiously looked at us sideways in public places. A photograph of her grip on my arm in Florida, with measurements of the shadows to indicate depth of indentation; an equation to represent the likely pressure. A wire looped through my hair, ready to record her hiss. The rancid smell of anger. The metal tang of fear in the back of my throat. None of these things exist. You have no reason to believe me.”

If you aren’t aware, this is Machado’s memoir of her time in an abusive same-sex relationship, suffering mental and emotional and verbal and, sometimes, physical abuse at the hands of an ex-girlfriend. In addition to a deeply and traumatically articulate reflection of that time in her life, Machado also manages to give the reader an overview of the history and culture around abuse in queer (especially and specifically lesbian/wlw) relationships. And she does it all while also mixing in gothic and fairy-tale like references and vibes that both emphasize the feeling of removal from the real world she experienced and increase the impact on the reader, with a illustrative and comprehensive understanding of the mental/emotional toll of such a lived experience. (So based on that, be aware of the many CWs this novel/review come with.)  

This is one of those books that had me highlighting passages and taking notes on almost every page while reading, so instead of trying to organize everything into a more cohesive traditional review, I’m going to just give you a bullet-pointed list of my thoughts and reactions. And of course, I’ll end with my typical (and in this case quite long) selection of quotes that I was most affected by.

  • Hot damn that prologue. Talking about what is missing from history because so many voices were not deemed worthy of archive or safe enough to speak out. What a way to set it up/start off.
  • Such powerful language. The precise perfection of each word, each turn of phrase, to gather such large emotions and realities into such concise chapters/sections.
  • The way memory is connected to place is communicated with astounding visceral-ness. Wow.
  • I love the way each snippet’s title leads into/explains/clarifies what follows.
  • The connection of low self-esteem, of being grateful for what you can get, amazed at your “luck” and the related psychology of why someone stays in an unhealthy relationship could not be clearer (or more upsetting) to read. It cannot have been easy to write about/come to terms with, especially with the role of societal judgment not only in that self-worth to begin with but also after, when “how come you didn’t just leave” is bandied about. The strength Machado shows in these pages is astounding.  
  • An important theme throughout: the right of a group of people to have their humanity fully represented: not just the bad (to vilify) and not just the pure (as argument for worthy of recognition), but as it all is, as human beings. Very affecting.
  • I loved the Bluebeard section, its imagery and messaging that grabs hold and terrifies. And moving on from there, really liked (in general) the continuous thematic connections of the unreality of living in an abusive relationship paralleling the many references to myths and fairy tales and fiction tropes. It’s a great academic way to distance from and yet closely examine these experiences. Over and over I made notes along these lines: amazing and horrifying parallels of fiction and dislocation.  
  • A damning indictment of the lesbian utopia myth and resulting ignorance of lesbian abuse; a critical look at the “insufficiency of this idealism.” Thinking through acknowledgement of how the fight to be “allowed” to have that relationship to begin with leads to a gratefulness that will not allow for admittance of failings/the “darker” side because to do so would make queer people look bad/prove negative stereotypes. But then, experiencing queer relationship abuse leads to even further, deeper, betrayal that someone would ruin what you had to fight so much harder for in the first place. Plus, she discusses so well the way that those “on the fringe” have to be so much better that those in the mainstream, to receive still only a fraction of the success/acceptance is a very universal struggle – and the struggle to have your humanity recognized leads, in turn, to showing that humanity, which works against you in the greater struggle. What a freaking ridiculous and unfair set-up for us to have accepted as the norm. 
  • The entire chapter on the history of “battered” women in lesbian relationships and the myopic focus on the physical forms, especially in the eyes of the law, is fascinating and horrifying and a little bit darkly funny (as far as mental gymnastics and cognitive dissonance for the straight/cis majority goes). I learned a lot from this section and got myself pointed in the direction I need to go in to learn even more.
  • The stylistic jumping back and forth in time and focus (personal versus cultural) of the snippets truly felt like it embodied the spirit of the memoir. It felt right.
  • The circularity and repetition and lack of an out in the choose your own adventure section is such a perfect metaphor/symbol for communicating the reality of an abusive relationship. So creative, so distressingly poignant.  
  • The way Machado communicates the despair, the stuck-ness, is perfect, painful, heart-wrenching; piercing flickers of images/moments/metaphors/recognitions/insights. Her grasp of language and communication is honestly incomparable.
  • Related: It was so impactful, the way she was able to communicate the way the power of the abuser works, how the mind games play out, the way the abuser can twist and change words and interactions to fit their needs and POV and it completely overpowers the reality and memories of the abused.
  • Her internal exploration of all the “reasons” and contributing factors, from the internal/personal to the familial to the cultural to the situational to the societal (and more), that she can find to try to explain how she ended up in that relationship situation is…just wow. And heart-wrenchingly relatable. Because there’s nothing “special,” really, in her situation, nothing that pinpoints her over any of us, nothing that says it could never have been us instead…
  • All her talk about proof, about being believe, and what does that mean? What’s the value of proof because how do you measure the non-visible effects?
  • A ending thought: a commentary on violence and the vast majority who get away with it, as “a footnote, an acceptable causality.”

This is an emotional and intellectual gut-punch from start to finish; so intense that even though it’s only 250ish pages, it took me over a month to get through it, as I slowly savored the language on every page and took numerous necessary breaks. Without a doubt, this is one of the most powerful books I’ve ever read. I’ve never both dreaded turning a page and wanted it to never end in this way before. Hauntingly compelling. Absolutely the “instant classic” the book blub promises.  

And now for my highlighted passages:

“Sometimes your tongue is removed, sometimes you still it of your own accord. Sometimes you live. Sometimes you die. Sometimes you have a name, sometimes you are named for what – not who – you are. The story always looks a little different, depending on who is telling it.”

“This is how emotions work, right? They get tangled and complicated? They take on their own life? Trying to control them is like trying to control a wild animal: no matter how much you think you’ve taught them, they’re willful. They have minds of their own. That’s the beauty of wildness.”

“Fear makes liars of us all.”

“We deserve to have our wrongdoing represented as much as our heroism, because when we refuse wrongdoing as a possibility for a group of people, we refuse their humanity. That is to say, queers – real-life ones – do not deserve representation, protection, and rights because they are morally pure or upright as a people. They deserve those things because they are human beings, and that is through.”

“Places are never just place in a piece of writing. If they are, the author has failed. Setting is not inert. It is activated by a point of view.” – the way setting does the work on the behalf of the abuser, to isolate and dislocate

“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 has happened. And, as though you’d slept, a new day begins again.”

“…his motivations are not unexplainable. They are, in fact, aggravatingly practical – driven by greed, augmented by a desire for control, shot through with a cat’s instinct for toying with its prey. A reminder, perhaps, that abusers do not need to be, and rarely are, cackling maniacs. They just need to want something, and not care how they get it.” – holy shit

“…you understood, fully: that it is important to live in unyielding fear with a smile on your face.”;

“Most types of domestic abuse are completely legal.” – another holy shit…what a single-liner that chapter was

“Putting language to something for which you have no language is no easy feat.” – and yet…I’m not saying it was easy, in any way, but I’m here reading this lingual masterpiece she’s created to do just that

“But the nature of archival silence is that certain people’s narratives and their nuances are swallowed by history; we see only what pokes through because it is sufficiently salacious for the majority to pay attention.”

“This is what I keep returning to: how people decide who is or is not an unreliable narrator. And after that decision has been made, what do we do with people who attempt to construct their own version of justice?” – oof, what an intense, and truly universal, concept/question

“One day, a bird slammed into my studio window. I was sitting on a yoga ball and tumbled backwards in terror. Almost every residency I’ve had since, I’ve found at least one stunned bird sprawled on the ground outside my workspace. I learned: they never see the glass coming. They only see the reflection of the sky.” – for some reason, the imagery and metaphor of this little moment just really got me

“In the pit of it, you fantasize about dying. […] You have forgotten that leaving is an option.”

“The moment when you woke up on that couch – before you remembered the phone, remembered your entire life – was one of the sweetest from that year. That tiny pocket of safety and oblivion.”

“You celebrated [Obama] despite his position on gays marrying because he was the best thing possible at that moment; imperfect in a way that affected you but was generally good for the world. You did not believe this was a battle that would be won in your lifetime, and so you resolved yourself to live in that wobbly space where your humanity and rights were openly debated on cable news, and the defense of them was not a requirement for the presidency. You were already a woman, so you knew. Occupying that space was your goddamned specialty.” – well this hit on the nose and very closely, reading this right after the 2020 election cycle, yikes

8 thoughts on “In the Dream House

  1. I haven’t read her first book, but this one is on my wish list, and now I DEFINITELY need to get a copy soon. It sounds like such a wonderfully written memoir – one that really packs a punch and opens up people’s eyes when it comes to queer relationships and abuse.


    Liked by 1 person

    1. It was truly amazing. I had so much to say and so many reactions and at the same time, there was no way to put any of it into words with anywhere near the finesse that Machado did. Clearly, I highly recommend it. I hope you are able to read it soon!


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