The BookBrowse Review

Published January 22, 2020

ISSN: 1930-0018

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In the Dream House
In the Dream House
by Carmen Maria Machado

Hardcover (5 Nov 2019), 272 pages.
(Due out in paperback May 2021)
Publisher: Graywolf Press
ISBN-13: 9781644450031

A revolutionary memoir about domestic abuse by the award-winning author of Her Body and Other Parties.

In the Dream House is Carmen Maria Machado's engrossing and wildly innovative account of a relationship gone bad, and a bold dissection of the mechanisms and cultural representations of psychological abuse. Tracing the full arc of a harrowing relationship with a charismatic but volatile woman, Machado struggles to make sense of how what happened to her shaped the person she was becoming.

And it's that struggle that gives the book its original structure: each chapter is driven by its own narrative trope―the haunted house, erotica, the bildungsroman―through which Machado holds the events up to the light and examines them from different angles. She looks back at her religious adolescence, unpacks the stereotype of lesbian relationships as safe and utopian, and widens the view with essayistic explorations of the history and reality of abuse in queer relationships.

Machado's dire narrative is leavened with her characteristic wit, playfulness, and openness to inquiry. She casts a critical eye over legal proceedings, fairy tales, Star Trek, and Disney villains, as well as iconic works of film and fiction. The result is a wrenching, riveting book that explodes our ideas about what a memoir can do and be.

Dream House as Overture

I never read prologues. I find them tedious. If what the author has to say is so important, why relegate it to the paratext? What are they trying to hide?

Dream House as Prologue

In her essay "Venus in Two Acts," on the dearth of contemporaneous African accounts of slavery, Saidiya Hartman talks about the "violence of the archive." This concept—also called "archival silence"—illustrates a difficult truth: sometimes stories are destroyed, and sometimes they are never uttered in the first place; either way something very large is irrevocably missing from our collective histories.

The word archive, Jacques Derrida tells us, comes from the ancient Greek ἀρχεῖον: arkheion, "the house of the ruler." When I first learned about this etymology, I was taken with the use of house (a lover of haunted house stories, I'm a sucker for architecture metaphors), but it is the power, the authority, that is the most telling element. What is placed in or left out of the archive is a political act, dictated by the archivist and the political context in which she lives. This is true whether it's a parent deciding what's worth recording of a child's early life or—like Europe and its Stolpersteine, its "stumbling blocks"—a continent publicly reckoning with its past. Here is where Sebastian took his first fat-footed baby steps; here is the house where Judith was living when we took her to her death.

Sometimes the proof is never committed to the archive—it is not considered important enough to record, or if it is, not important enough to preserve. Sometimes there is a deliberate act of destruction: consider the more explicit letters between Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok, burned by Hickok for their lack of discretion. Almost certainly erotic and gay as hell, especially considering what wasn't burned. ("I'm getting so hungry to see you.")

The late queer theorist José Esteban Muñoz pointed out that "queerness has an especially vexed relationship to evidence... . When the historian of queer experience attempts to document a queer past, there is often a gatekeeper, representing a straight present." What gets left behind? Gaps where people never see themselves or find information about themselves. Holes that make it impossible to give oneself a context. Crevices people fall into. Impenetrable silence.

The complete archive is mythological, possible only in theory; somewhere in Jorge Luis Borges's Total Library, perhaps, buried under the detailed history of the future and his dreams and half dreams at dawn on August 14, 1934. But we can try. "How does one tell impossible stories?" Hartman asks, and she suggests many avenues: "advancing a series of speculative arguments," "exploiting the capacities of the subjunctive (a grammatical mood that expresses doubts, wishes, and possibilities)," writing history "with and against the archive," "imagining what cannot be verified."

The abused woman has certainly been around as long as human beings have been capable of psychological manipulation and interpersonal violence, but as a generally understood concept it—and she—did not exist until about fifty years ago. The conversation about domestic abuse within queer communities is even newer, and even more shadowed. As we consider the forms intimate violence takes today, each new concept—the male victim, the female perpetrator, queer abusers, and the queer abused—reveals itself as another ghost that has always been here, haunting the ruler's house. Modern academics, writers, and thinkers have new tools to delve back into the archives in the same way that historians and scholars have made their understanding of contemporary queer sexuality reverberate through the past. Consider: What is the topography of these holes? Where do the lacunae live? How do we move toward wholeness? How do we do right by the wronged people of the past without physical evidence of their suffering? How do we direct our record keeping toward justice?

Full Excerpt

Excerpt from In the Dream House . Copyright © 2019 by Carmen Maria Machado. Reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota,

Blending memoir and queer critical discourse, Carmen Maria Machado narrates the disturbing story of her abusive relationship with another woman.

Print Article

In the introduction to In the Dream House, Carmen Maria Machado (a National Book Award finalist for her collection of short stories Her Body and Other Parties) tells us she is writing in part to dispel an "archival silence" about abuse in queer relationships. In other words, there is little documentation about this phenomenon available, it has rarely permeated popular culture, and as such, it is largely invisible. She later notes that lesbian relationships in particular are presumed to be idyllic—two women sharing their feelings openly, treating one another with respect and unwavering loyalty—when this is certainly not always the case. Queer women are people, and are just as likely to behave monstrously as anyone else.

Machado is attending the Iowa Writers' Workshop for her MFA in 2011-2012 when she meets the charismatic woman who will become her abuser through a friend and the two begin dating. The relationship becomes serious alarmingly fast, despite some early warning signs that something is amiss (general controlling behavior that turns physical on a trip to the woman's parents' house in Florida). Machado's abuser is accepted to a writing program in Indiana and moves there, into the Victorian home referred to throughout as the Dream House. Subsequently, the author begins driving from Iowa to Indiana every other weekend to visit. The distance stokes her abuser's insecurities, and she begins accusing Machado of being unfaithful. All manner of abusive terrors ensue, and the author recounts the psychological nightmare of her experience in prose that is both bluntly confessional and poetically allusive.

Machado narrates her story in short chapters (ranging from a single sentence to a few pages), each of which is titled after a different trope or narrative component, i.e., "Dream House as Inciting Incident," "Dream House as Bildungsroman," "Dream House as Chekhov's Gun." Each of these tropes (which range from literary to cinematic to folkloric) serves as a lens through which Machado examines her abusive relationship with the woman from the Dream House. In this way, the author is recounting her own narrative, but also building on a foundation of storytelling that is timeless. There's a villain, but the hero doesn't know she is in danger. There's a haunted house, and we want to tell the hero to get out of there. There's ominous foreshadowing around every corner, and we want to grab her by the lapels and shake her, tell her, "This is not right!" Which is to say, Machado is a master of dramatic tension, and brilliantly illustrates the constant, low-level dread and psychological stress one feels in a relationship with an abusive person.

It's human nature to absorb a story like this and wonder of the victim, "Why didn't she just..." or believe, somewhere in the back of one's mind, "This would never happen to me..." Machado anticipates this, and even finds fault with her naivete in retrospect, but hindsight is 20/20, and again, there's that archival silence. It's so difficult to recognize what's happening if you've never seen it before, and it's even harder to respond appropriately to circumstances you'd never imagined might happen to you. She explains in "Dream House as Public Relations":

I have spent years struggling to find examples of my own experience in history's queer women...wondering what would happen if they had let the world know they were unmade by someone with just as little power as they. Did Susan B. Anthony's womanizing extend to psychological torment? What did Elizabeth Bishop really say to Lota de Macedo Soares when she'd been drinking heavily? Did their voices crawl with jealousy? Did they hurl inkwells and figurines? Did any of them gingerly touch their bruises and know that explaining would be too complicated? Did any of them wonder if what happened to them had any name at all?

If all this makes In the Dream House sound like an intellectual exercise, that's an accurate assessment. But it's also an incredibly moving piece of art. It's a dark dissection of an everyday horror that is no less terrifying for its pervasiveness. And perhaps most importantly, it speaks an ugly, irrevocable truth where there had been silence—it is a vital, monumental addition to the queer canon.

Reviewed by Lisa Butts

Harper's Bazaar
Two years after first commanding the world's attention with her debut collection Her Body and Other Parties, Carmen Maria Machado is back with In The Dream House, an engrossing memoir that blurs the lines between personal narrative and literary criticism.

Marie Claire
Machado is able to captivate the reader while telling a brutally honest narrative of abuse.

The Philadelphia Inquirer
The Philly author of the much-awarded Her Body and Other Parties comes back strong with this memoir about adolescence, sexual identity, and damaging love.

Women's Review of Books
It seems absurd that no one has written about abuse in queer relationships like this before. Mercifully, In the Dream House fills an aching void.

Machado rejects standard memoir conventions in favor of short discursive chapters...The result is a thoroughly engrossing, sometimes enraging must-read.

The Boston Globe
A stunning book, both deeply felt and elegantly written.

Forget everything you think you know about memoir when reading Carmen Maria Machado's brilliant, twisting, provocative entry in the genre.

The New Yorker
Breathtakingly inventive...But what makes In the Dream House a particularly self-aware structure—which is to say, a true haunted house—is the intimation that it is critiquing itself in real time...Here and in her short stories, Machado subjects the contemporary world to the logic of dreaming.

Entertainment Weekly
If there are no new stories, only new ways to tell them, Carmen Maria Machado has found a way to do exactly that, ingeniously...The result is a gorgeously kaleidoscopic feat—not just of literature but of pure, uncut humanity.

The Observer (UK)
A groundbreaking memoir in terms of both form and content...Get ready for Machado to take you on several breakneck cross-country trips of the soul.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Machado has written an affecting, chilling memoir about domestic abuse.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
[D]aringly structured and ruthlessly inquisitive...A fiercely honest, imaginatively written, and necessary memoir from one of our great young writers.

The New York Times
Merge the house and the woman—watch the woman experience her own body as a haunted house, a place of sudden, inexplicable terrors—and you are reading the blazingly talented Carmen Maria Machado.

Author Blurb Roxane Gay
Absolutely remarkable...What makes this book truly exceptional is how Machado creates an archive where, shamefully, there is none.

Print Article

The Murder of Freda Ward

Portrait of Freda Ward In Carmen Maria Machado's memoir In the Dream House, she writes of her abusive relationship with another woman and the lack of scholarship and cultural representations available on the subject of abuse in queer relationships in general. Having researched the subject exhaustively, she provides snapshots of examples throughout the book, including the 1892 murder of 17-year-old Freda Ward by 19-year-old Alice Mitchell, with whom Freda was romantically involved.

Freda and Alice met at the Higbee School for Girls in Memphis, Tennessee. They grew close, and it was not unusual at the time for girls to hold hands, kiss and otherwise express affection, so their attachment was not regarded with any special notice by most. The Wards moved to Arkansas, and Alice took the separation especially hard. Her sadness was compounded when she learned that Freda was being courted by men. She attempted to overdose on laudanum but survived. Freda's mother eventually came to the conclusion that her daughter's relationship with Alice was inappropriate and forbade them from seeing one another.

In response, Alice proposed to Freda and Freda accepted. The two planned to elope and move to St. Louis, where Alice would live as a man. In August of 1891, Freda was caught by her older sister as she was preparing to leave for Memphis to meet Alice. All correspondence was cut off between the two in the aftermath, and Freda continued to see men, even entertaining another marriage proposal.

On January 25, 1892, Freda visited a family friend in Memphis with her sister and, unbeknownst to her, was followed by Alice Mitchell and a friend, Lillie Johnson. Alice jumped from her buggy to confront Freda by the dock where she was waiting for the ferry to return to Arkansas, and shouted, "I'll fix her!" before cutting Freda's throat. Freda was carried into a nearby office, where she bled to death. Alice and Lillie were both arrested the following morning.

Lillie Johnson's trial for aiding and abetting the murder was held first, in February, 1892. It attracted an enormous amount of public attention and thousands of people showed up to court for the proceedings. Lillie was released on bail, and the charges against her were eventually dropped after her lawyer argued she had no prior knowledge of Alice's plan to murder Freda.

Alice's trial began in July, 1892. Her lawyer contended that she was insane, and her father and brother testified on her behalf. While it certainly seems likely that Alice was mentally ill, her sexuality was used as evidence to that effect. In her 2014 book on the murder, Alice + Freda Forever: A Murder in Memphis, author Alexis Coe writes, "There was no denying that she had killed Freda, but in 1892 her motive was utterly inconceivable...Alice's insistence that she killed Freda because she loved her and could not stand the idea of anyone else having her...seemed nothing short of insane."

The jury found Alice legally insane and she was committed to the Tennessee State Insane Asylum. She reportedly died there of tuberculosis in 1898.

While things might have unfolded differently for Alice and Freda if their relationship took place today, Alice exhibited all the classic behaviors of a controlling and abusive partner, factors that transcend time and often end in tragedy.

Portrait of Freda Ward from the Memphis Appeal Avalanche newspaper, 1892

Filed under People, Eras & Events

By Lisa Butts

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