With 'In The Dream House,' Carmen Maria Machado Distills Relationship Trauma

Dec 16, 2019

Editor’s note: This hour discusses domestic abuse.

Resources: The National Domestic Violence Hotline can be reached at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).


Acclaimed writer Carmen Maria Machado. Her memoir explores the gray areas of an abusive relationship, and the confusion of falling from soaring happiness to emotional pain.

Guest

Carmen Maria Machado, writer in residence at the University of Pennsylvania.  Author of “In the Dream House” and “Her Body and Other Parties,” which was a finalist for the National Book Award. (@carmenmmachado)

Interview Highlights

On signs of intimate partner violence in her relationship

“In many ways it feels like it started off so small. It’s like a horror movie, you know, and there’s some little detail that’s a little out of place. Where, in the beginning, you know, she would sort of belittle me a little, or sort of make fun of me. And she would sort of call me names, or get very angry. She got very possessive and jealous of me. And when I would be gone out of the house, or I would talk about somebody in a particular way, she would accuse me of wanting to cheat on her, or cheating on her. And yeah, there were just a lot of little cruelties that kind of begin to crop up. And she would sort of make me tell her what was wrong with me. So that was a think she liked to do, is to make me sort of articulate the ways in which I was bad.

“And if I talked about myself in a way that expressed any sort of joy or pride or anything about my life or myself, she would say, ‘Oh, you’re such an egomaniac, you just think you’re the greatest.’ And, you know, after a while, I really began to believe the way that she would speak about me — and the way that she would make me speak about myself — I began to truly believe that I had always thought that I was a good person, and that actually I was a monster. So, yeah. And then eventually it would sort of escalate unto sort of more physical things — like grabbing, and throwing, and running, and sort of more physical stuff. But yeah, for a long time it was really just primarily verbal and psychological.”

On misconceptions about LGBTQ relationships

“There’s sort of this idea, I think, a sort of stereotype about especially lesbian relationships, that they are kind of sort of ideal utopia. That if you don’t have sort of male nonsense kind of mixed up in it, that your day to day life is much easier, and there’s a kind of paradise. And I think that there’s a feeling that if you are looking for that and you find it, it’s actually quite magical. And that’s true to a certain extent. You know, in the sense that when you’re in a relationship with a woman, you know, there’s a different set of power structures at play than when you’re in a relationship with a man. But that being said, I think that sort of translates into this idea that women are incapable of being violent or abusive. And sort of on the other side of that, that men are incapable of being abused.

“And unfortunately that translates into these very strange ways when it comes to sort of talking about queer, intimate partner violence. Where people think it’s not possible, or it’s not as bad, or they’re sort of also a cliche, or sort of a stereotype about what they call mutual abuse, where it’s like, ‘Well, if there is abuse, then it’s both of them at the same time.’ So there’s sort of a series of these ideas. And unfortunately, the queer community has not done a great job of trying to disabuse people of these ideas. … I think because we’ve been struggling for so long to sort of establish ourselves as a category of human beings who deserve human rights, which we do. But unfortunately, that translates to, ‘Let’s prove ourselves to be sort of virtuous and perfect.’ As opposed to being human beings who deserve rights.”

On the legality of intimate partner violence

“We — and by ‘we’ I just mean people in general — get very attached to sort of legality, and the way that that structure gives us some understanding. So we say, ‘It’s not OK, it’s not legal to hit somebody, or physically hurt them.’ And … that transitions to, ‘Well, that’s bad. We know that’s bad.’ But when you have abuse that doesn’t necessarily cross legal thresholds, or isn’t necessarily illegal, people struggle to sort of understand what that means. And when you describe it, they’ll say, ‘So what?’ And so in the book, I write this section — and it’s weird because I feel like as I wrote it, I remember writing it, thinking, ‘This is a horrible thing to write.’ But thinking like, ‘Yeah, I wish I had like a photo of myself with a black eye. So I could just say, like, this is how bad it was.’ And again I recognize how truly ridiculous that is. And I recognize that that is a thing that people for whom that is a reality would obviously never wish that on anybody. But recognizing how painful it is to want to have proof of something that happened to you, and not have it.”

How should we talk to LGBTQ youth about abuse in relationships?

“I sort of want to preface my answer by saying I am not an expert. And I feel like there are a lot of experts on this topic who I think I would love to hear their input, just sort of in general in the conversation. But I think, you know, one of the problems — and I think this is true both for queer youth, but also for non-queer youth. Which is we have — I mean, in some places we have sex ed, I guess we don’t have it everywhere — and we do need it everywhere. But on the other side of it, we really need relationship education. I feel like there is simply not a way that we talk to youth, en masse, about what is OK or acceptable in relationships. And … a thing that I notice, and I sort of notice it everywhere, now that this experience has happened to me. Like, for example, I notice how we romanticize jealousy. Like how we sort of fetishize jealousy and we think like, ‘Oh, it’s so romantic when my partner is insanely jealous of me, you know, doesn’t want me to talk to other people,’ or whatever. And I’m like, ‘That is not healthy or OK.’

“And I really wish we told teenagers that as they’re embarking on relationships. Because unfortunately, it’s in the conversation. It’s in the zeitgeist — you see it in media, you see it on social media. You see it kind of everywhere. And I feel like saying to them, ‘That is not normal or OK’ is actually really important. So honestly, I mean I think obviously with queer youth, I think there’s this additional element to the conversation, which is they’re not getting representation of their relationships as much as straight teens are. But I also think in general, we need to be talking to teenagers about relationships, and healthy relationships, and what they look like, or don’t look like. Because I don’t think we give them that language. I think in the same breath as saying like, you know, ‘Here’s how you use condoms, here’s how you do all the other stuff.’ Like, I think we also should say to them, ‘Here’s what’s OK and here’s what’s not OK. And this is like a warning sign.’”

From The Reading List

Excerpt from “In the Dream House” by Carmen Maria Machado

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?

The memoir is, at its core, an act of resurrection. Memoirists re-create the past, reconstruct dialogue. They summon meaning from events that have long been dormant. They braid the clays of memory and essay and fact and perception together, smash them into a ball, roll them flat. They manipulate time; resuscitate the dead. They put themselves, and others, into necessary context.

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. I speak into the silence. I toss the stone of my story into a vast crevice; measure the emptiness by its small sound.

I

Eros limbslackener shakes me again—

that sweet, bitter, impossible creature.

—Sappho, as translated by Jim Powell

Dream House as Not a Metaphor

I daresay you have heard of the Dream House? It is, as you know, a real place. It stands upright. It is next to a forest and at the rim of a sward. It has a foundation, though rumors of the dead buried within it are, almost certainly, a fiction. There used to be a swing dangling from a tree branch but now it’s just a rope, with a single knot swaying in the wind. You may have heard stories about the landlord, but I assure you they are untrue. After all, the landlord is not a man but an entire university. A tiny city of landlords! Can you imagine?

Most of your assumptions are correct: it has floors and walls and windows and a roof. If you are assuming there are two bedrooms, you are both right and wrong. Who is to say that there are only two bedrooms? Every room can be a bedroom: you only need a bed, or not even that. You only need to sleep there. The inhabitant gives the room its purpose. Your actions are mightier than any architect’s intentions.

I bring this up because it is important to remember that the Dream House is real. It is as real as the book you are holding in your hands, though significantly less terrifying. If I cared to, I could give you its address, and you could drive there in your own car and sit in front of that Dream House and try to imagine the things that have happened inside. I wouldn’t recommend it. But you could. No one would stop you.

Dream House as Picaresque

Before I met the woman from the Dream House, I lived in a tiny two-bedroom in Iowa City. The house was a mess: owned by a slumlord, slowly falling apart, full of eclectic, nightmarish details. There was a room in the basement—my roommates and I called it the murder room—with blood-red floors, walls, and ceiling, further improved by a secret hatch and a nonfunctional landline phone. Elsewhere in the basement, a Lovecraftian heating system reached long tentacles up into the rest of the house. When it was humid, the front door swelled in its frame and refused to open, like a punched eye. The yard was huge and pocked with a fire pit and edged with poison ivy, trees, a rotting fence.

I lived with John and Laura and their cat, Tokyo. They were a couple; long-legged and pale, erstwhile Floridians who’d gone to hippie college together and had come to Iowa for their respective graduate degrees. The living embodiment of Florida camp and eccentricity, and, ultimately, the only thing that, post–Dream House, would keep the state in my good graces.

Laura looked like an old-fashioned movie star: wide-eyed and ethereal. She was dry and disdainful and wickedly funny; she wrote poetry and was pursuing a degree in library science. She felt like a librarian, like the wise conduit for public knowledge, as if she could lead you anywhere you needed to be. John, on the other hand, looked like a grunge rocker-cum-offbeat-professor who’d discovered God. He made kimchi and sauerkraut in huge mason jars he monitored on the kitchen counter like a mad botanist; he once spent an hour describing the plot of Against Nature to me in exquisite detail, including his favorite scene, in which the eccentric and vile antihero encrusts a tortoise’s shell with exotic jewels and the poor creature, “unable to support the dazzling luxury imposed on it,” dies from the weight. When I first met John, he said to me, “I got a tattoo, do you want to see?” And I said, “Yes,” and he said, “Okay, it’s gonna look like I’m showing you my junk but I’m not, I swear,” and when he lifted the leg of his shorts high on his thigh there was a stick-and-poke tattoo of an upside-down church. “Is that an upside-down church?” I asked, and he smiled and wiggled his eyebrows—not lasciviously, but with genuine mischief—and said, “Upside down according to who?” Once, when Laura came out of their bedroom in cutoffs and a bikini top, John looked at her with real, uncomplicated love and said, “Girl, I want to dig you a watering hole.”

Like a picara, I have spent my adulthood bopping from city to city, acquiring kindred spirits at every stop; a group of guardians who have taken good care of me (a tender of guardians, a dearheart of guardians). My friend Amanda from college, my roommate and housemate until I was twenty-two, whose sharp and logical mind, flat affect, and dry sense of humor witnessed my evolution from messy teenager to messy semiadult. Anne—a rugby player with dyed-pink hair, the first vegetarian and lesbian I ever met—who’d overseen my coming-out like a benevolent gay goddess. Leslie, who coached me through my first bad breakup with brie and two-dollar bottles of wine and time with her animals, including a stocky brown pit bull named Molly who would lick my face until I dissolved into hysterics. Everyone who ever read and commented on my LiveJournal, which I dutifully kept from ages fifteen to twenty-five, spilling my guts to a motley crew of poets, queer weirdos, programmers, RPG buffs, and fanfic writers.

John and Laura were like that. They were always there, intimate with each other in one way and intimate with me in another, as if I were a beloved sibling. They weren’t watching over me, exactly; they were the protagonists of their own stories.

But this story? This one’s mine.

Excerpt from IN THE DREAM HOUSE. Copyright © 2019 by Carmen Maria Machado. Reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota.


The New Yorker: “Carmen Maria Machado’s Many Haunted Stories Of A Toxic Relationship” — “The antechamber of ‘In the Dream House,’ a new work of memoir-cum-criticism by Carmen Maria Machado, is crowded. It contains a dedication, three epigraphs, an overture (declaring the author’s suspicion of paratext), a prologue, and another epigraph. Paging through this front matter feels like waiting for a haunted carnival ride to start, only to be wrong-footed. When does it begin? you think. Then you realize, It’s already begun.

“The memoir, by the acclaimed author of the short-story collection ‘Her Body and Other Parties’—which was a finalist, in 2017, for the National Book Award—chronicles Machado’s experience in a horrifying relationship. Just as it is difficult to say when the book begins, it is difficult to say when Machado’s girlfriend, blonde and slight, also a writer, first reveals her nature. Is it when she flies into a rage after Machado fails to respond immediately to a text? When she digs her fingers into Machado’s arm? Over the course of a formative love affair, the woman—who dwells, witchlike, in a cabin, in Bloomington, Indiana, which Machado calls the ‘Dream House’—will accuse Machado of cheating; throw things at her; lie to her; manipulate her; scream at her; and reduce her, again and again, to tears.

“Yet the arc of this ordeal, although it forms the book’s skeleton, is not Machado’s true subject. Instead, ‘In the Dream House’ is primarily about the quandary of constructing ‘In the Dream House.’ It is a quandary both because the telling is painful and because Machado, who has no language for this telling, must invent one. The concept of ‘archival silence,’ Machado writes, captures the idea that certain histories never enter the cultural record. Before she met her ex-girlfriend, Machado hadn’t encountered narratives of queer domestic abuse; she lacked context and precedents; she could not make sense of her experience. (In one passage, she compares her state of mind to that of a gay teen crushing on a same-sex classmate without knowing anything about gayness.) In the book’s opening pages, Machado notes that the word ‘archive’ derives from the ancient Greek word for ‘house.’ She invokes Louise Bourgeois’s theorization of memory as ‘a form of architecture.’ Her intent becomes clear: to imagine an archive, or dream a structure, in which her story can live, surrounded by literary trappings—epigraphs, prologue—that lend it legitimacy. Machado’s introductory quotes aren’t just gloss, in other words. They’re bricks.”

The New York Times: “Carmen Maria Machado Opens Up About Her Domestic Abuse” — “Doorknobs can be nerve-racking things. We take them for granted until, for whatever reason, they jam. Not being allowed access or escape comes as a surprise. We jiggle, we try again gently. Then, feeling frustrated, exposed, we consider force; a kitchen knife.

“They can also be terrifying things. In movies, the silent turning motion of someone trying to enter unnoticed is spine-chilling, the suspense resting on the director’s power to fix our attention on something small, so our imagination can nourish our fears of what’s to come. Sometimes doorknobs convulse, when being jostled angrily from the other side. The knob is us, conditioned to hold on.

“Doorknobs are a small component of what makes a house, but they’re a big part of what makes a home. In the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard’s 1958 book about architecture, ‘The Poetics of Space,’ a psychologist studies children’s drawings of houses to find that the detail of a doorknob makes a house ‘not merely a constructed house, it is also a house that is lived-in.’ It’s a detail ‘so frequently forgotten in the drawings of “tense” children,’ others drawing it too large in scale, ‘its function taking precedence over any question of size.’ “

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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