So Machado’s perspective shatters into a self-reflexive “you” through which readers haunt the humiliation of her besieged past self, compelled by direct address to understand how they, too, might fall prey to such degradation.
Desire enslaves even the brilliant. Now a Guggenheim fellow, Machado was once conditioned to accept that zaftig women are undeserving of worship. “You are lucky to have met her,” she writes. “You are not some weird, desperate mess. You are wanted. Better yet, you are needed. You are a piece of someone’s destiny.”
Gasps that began as erotic rattled into fear and trembling. Her fractured narrative, a montage of tropes through which the “Dream House” is framed, is footnoted with folk tale leitmotifs, which expand readerly consciousness of both the silencing of queer narratives and the womanly endurance of brutal manipulations. Machado’s meta-intrusions disrupt and enrich in ways that hark to Jorge Luis Borges.
Sound complicated? Perhaps. But “In the Dream House” is a page turner of psychological suspense. In short chapters that alternate between lucid scenes from her life and forays into fairy tales, legal histories, queer theory and cultural mainstays like “Star Trek” and “Gaslight,” Machado evokes how abusers entrap their targets with sustained attention, so rare among the distracted shards of modern romance, and therefore precious.
Like flowers turning toward the sun, the victims center wrongdoers in their lives. Machado’s “you” fumbles toward a forgone possibility of happiness, fighting the mounting evidence of her girlfriend’s cruel critiques, arbitrary jealousies and unheralded rage. Still, “You would let her swallow you whole, if she could.”
Her damage did not leave scars, except on the psyche. “She says she loves you, sometimes. She sees your qualities, and you should be ashamed of them. If only you were the only one for her. She’d keep you safe, she’d grow old with you, if she could trust you. You’re not sexy, but she will have sex with you.”
The intended effect was a self-loathing so “demented in the extreme” that Machado ends up wishing she had been hit “hard enough that you’d have bruised in grotesque and obvious ways, hard enough that you took photos,” which could be presented as evidence — whether to cops, her doubters or her future self, crazed by acquaintances skeptical of her emotional and psychological assault.
Searching for evidence that other lesbians had been mistreated by their lovers, she finds that “I was common, that everything that had happened to me — a crystalline, devastating landscape I navigated in my bare feet — was detailed in books and reports, in statistics” she had to parse for truth, given the historical record’s tendency to paper over the pain of marginalized populations.
Machado is Cuban American, but her racial and ethnic identities are rarely the focus, except when she refers to her grandfather’s refusal, as “a little brown kid,” to take a rich white man’s command. While wishing she had done the same, Machado, who calls herself “racially ambiguous,” mostly elides the implications of her abuser’s whiteness, focusing instead on their shared queerness.
Into this “archival silence,” Machado speaks.
Citing José Esteban Muñoz, who wrote that “queerness has an especially vexed relationship to evidence,” she lays out the fragments of her former ruin, when she deliberately misread the signs so she could continue having someone to adore. Maintaining a disordered silence, waving off the concern of friends “so you can endure your punishment in peace,” Machado protected her lover from the contempt of their mutual society so she could stay.
Had she shared what she survived at the time, she might have been shamed into leaving sooner. As it was, each instance could be explained away amid the orgiastic exaltation of early love, until the accumulated ephemera of violence tainted all it touched, settling a fine bone dust over the home where they once typed out their stories, sitting across from each other at a table, their mirroring a facsimile of comfort.
“I enter into the archive that domestic abuse between partners who share a gender identity is both possible and not uncommon, and that it can look something like this,” Machado wrote of the years when she failed to find anything more than a “tiny pocket of safety and oblivion.”
To break silence is a transgression, of sorts, of the uneasy cease-fire that settles over people who were once intimate. Marilynne Robinson wrote, “There is never just one transgression. There is a wound in the flesh of human life that scars when it heals and often enough seems never to heal at all.”
Heal she did, and thrive, though Machado said in a Vulture interview that writing her memoir “kind of killed a little part of me.” The confluence of pleasure, terror, longing, grief and abuse, so toxic in her real life, yielded a literary treasure. “In the Dream House” does bend toward joy that Machado claimed “four houses/three lovers/two states/one wife past the Dream House,” where she almost sacrificed her sense of self.
Having embodied the abundance of loving and being loved, Machado steps into the “I” as an older, wiser narrator, one who knows that “the world is full of hurt people who hurt people.” One who, inviting queer women over for tea, could tell them, “you can be hurt by people who look like you.”
As she wrote in her first book, “Many people live and die without ever confronting themselves in the darkness.” Machado is not among them, nor are her readers.
Kristen Millares Young is the author of “Subduction,” a novel forthcoming from Red Hen Press on April 14.
In the Dream House
By Carmen Maria Machado
Graywolf. 272 pp. $26