The blurb for Carmen Maria Machado’s new memoir about a curdled lesbian relationship does the book no favors.
We’re told that “In the Dream House” offers “a bold dissection of the mechanisms and cultural representations of psychological abuse.” And that each chapter “is driven by its own narrative trope – the haunted house, erotica, the bildungsroman – through which Machado holds her story up to the light and examines it from different angles.”
That précis announces Machado, author of the 2017 short-story collection, “Her Body and Other Parties,” and writer in residence at the University of Pennsylvania, as a memoirist with high-literary ambitions.
But for readers who aren’t aficionados of the avant-garde, it’s worrying. Might “In the Dream House” turn out to be imponderably obscure, the prose equivalent of a John Ashbery or Jorie Graham poem? Might its subject matter render it insufferably dark and dreary?
In fact, this is a stunning book, both deeply felt and elegantly written.
Bite-sized chapters bear such titles as “Dream House as Heat Death of the Universe” and “Dream House as Tragedy of the Commons” – pretentious, to be sure, but also provocative and apt. Unbound by chronology, Machado wanders through her life, recalling childhood insecurities and adolescent crushes, flashing forward to the writing of this book. Her digressive use of myth, literary, and cinematic archetypes (“Bluebeard,” “Gaslight”), and queer history does complicate the narrative. But it never dispels its momentum.
And though the relationship she chronicles, often with graphic candor, is indeed dark, her prose is exhilarating and precise. As a bonus, the story veers unexpectedly, albeit with some foreshadowing, toward a happy ending (even as she interrogates the very notion of endings).
Machado sets the stage with a trio of epigraphs. She quotes a remark by the sculptor Louise Bourgeois that memory is “a form of architecture” and a declaration by the novelist Zora Neale Hurston: “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” A quotation from a play by the English writer Patrick Hamilton annotates her title: “Your mind so tired that it can no longer work at all.…You dream…maliciously and incessantly.”
The Dream House, in Bloomington, Ind., is where Machado lives, intermittently, with her abusive girlfriend. One early chapter is titled, “Dream House as Not a Metaphor.” Over time, though, it mutates into “a den of debauchery, “a haunted house,” “a prison” and “a dungeon of memory.”
Machado, who has dated both men and women, meets her future girlfriend, a Harvard-educated writer, over dinner with another friend. She is immediately smitten, admiring the woman’s “dazzling smile, a raspy voice that sounds like a wheelbarrow being dragged over stones.”
Their first date, of sorts, has Machado giving the woman – who is never named – a ride to the airport to pick up the woman’s then-girlfriend, Val. But the friend who arranged their first dinner assures Machado that that relationship is open – and that the attraction she feels is mutual.
From the beginning, Machado finds herself in thrall to an uncommonly strong sexual bond, a mutual passion that is new to her. “She haunts your erotic imagination,” writes Machado, using a second-person narrative voice to represent her past self.
But the idyllic soon turns ugly. Machado’s lover is frequently angry and jealous, seemingly without cause. She drives recklessly, spews profanity, and throws things. She bursts into the shower to scream at Machado. At one point, she grabs her arm, inspiring “a cramp of alarm.” Mostly, though, the abuse is verbal and emotional.
The incidents escalate in intensity. Stressed and fearful, the Machado of this era experiences “a burning in your gut,” “a tremor in your limbs.” Low self-esteem and doubts about her sexual appeal (she describes herself as “curvy-to-fat”) paralyze her, make her unable to leave.
There are apologies and reconciliations, shock followed by hope: How could the woman she loves transform into this raging monster? Could therapy help her moderate her worst impulses?
Though Machado never arrives at a specific diagnosis, her lover seems mentally ill, a disordered personality, perhaps borderline. In the end, it is she who leaves – first therapy, then the relationship itself.
Machado notes that it is hard to explain what transpired to friends – to convince them that psychological abuse was not just incompatibility. “Most types of domestic abuse,” she writes, “are completely legal.”
She contextualizes her situation by alluding to other chronicles of lesbian abuse, while lamenting the overall informational void, an “archival silence” she seeks to fill. “If you need this book,” Machado writes in her dedication, “it is for you.” Later, she writes: “I speak into the silence. I toss the stone of my story into a vast crevice; measure the emptiness by its small sound.”
Here, finally, is her defense of violating any lingering taboos: “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.”
IN THE DREAM HOUSE: A MEMOIR
By Carmen Maria Machado
Graywolf Press, 252 pages, $26
Julia M. Klein, a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia, has been a two-time finalist for the National Book Critics Circle’s Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing. Follow her on Twitter @JuliaMKlein.