More Nightmare than Dream in ‘House’

I’ve been recommending Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House to people for months. To the classmate trying to find a way of writing a memoir of her time in the Air Force without resurrecting her past too much. To the colleague arguing that  Choose Your Own Adventures weren’t an effective form of storytelling. To the group of creative nonfiction writers discussing how creative would be too creative. To probably a dozen people since I read about it coming out last year.

Now that I’ve finally read it, I’ve realized I haven’t recommended it to nearly enough people.

If you think the cover is creepy, wait until you start reading.

Briefly, In the Dream House is a recollection of a relationship with an abusive woman. If that were all In the Dream House was, it would undoubtedly still be a compelling read; Machado’s intricate writing is flawless (as in her previous work, the short-story collection Her Body and Other Parties). But this book is not so simple as that. Across dozens of chapters, Machado tackles a different genre or narrative trope or framework for the events unfolding before our eyes, all using the “dream house,” or a house the never-named girlfriend rented during her MFA program in Indiana and in which Machado frequently stayed, as a metaphor. The first few chapters are a little jarring, if you’re not expecting that, but the format quickly becomes a delivery system using expectations and subversion as effectively as it does words.

For example, there’s not one, not two, but three chapters titled “Deja Vu”—each changed slightly to reflect the deteriorating state of the relationship. “She loves you/ She sees your subtle, ineffable qualities. You are the only one for her in all the world. She trusts you. … Sometimes when you catch her looking at you, you feel like the luckiest person in the whole world.” becomes “She says she loves you. She says she sees your subtle, ineffable qualities. She says you are the only one for her, in all the world. She says she trusts you. … Sometimes when you catch her looking at you, you feel like the most scrutinized person in the world.” becomes “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. … Sometimes you catch her looking at you, you feel like she’s determining the best way to take you apart.”

And then there’s the aforementioned Choose Your Own Adventure, in which your options center around placating the girlfriend after your nighttime movements interrupted her sleep. If you take the option to “tell her to calm down,” the page you turn to tells you, “Are you kidding? You’d never do this. Don’t try to convince any of these people that you’d stand up for yourself for one second. Get out of here.” When the section ends with another morning filled with new anger and new blame, the choice to leave gets you the result of, “That’s not how it happened, but okay. We can pretend.” The whole section is frustrating and exhausting and gives a vivid glimpse of what life can look like in an abusive relationship.

Machado also brings in anecdotes and pop culture to illustrate her point. The 1944 film Gaslight has a recurring role throughout the book, including the irony present in the making of it. In “Five Lights,” she recounts the season 6 episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation in which Picard is captured by Cardassians and tortured to give up the Federation’s secrets—and agree that the four lights before him had turned to five. We revisit Alice in Wonderland a few times. A tale of a queen and a squid gives a whimsical tint to a horrifying subject. All of this combines to create a jarring, wondrous journey. Also important is Machado’s witness of abuse within lesbian relationships, a phenomenon, she tells us through rich research of legal cases and queer publications through the years, that has largely been dismissed or overlooked because of a popular assumption that abuse only comes at the hand of a man. The fact that there has been no definitive work of this phenomenon, and which she specifies that In the Dream House isn’t supposed to provide, is equally shocking to the details of what happened in Machado’s experience.

As if it weren’t already an excellent episode.

Nothing about In the Dream House reads like a blow-by-blow account of the relationship with all its ups and more numerous downs; rather, it feels like a collection of memories scattered across the floor like pearls of a broken necklace that Machado has gathered up and compiled in a more-or-less representative account of the events. It is the essence, not a facsimile. It rings of the way traumatic memories flit in and out of reach and how they vary in their potency—some so sharp and clear that they still cut years later, others indistinct like a nightmare whose details fade even as your heart races and your breath catches. The book has an implausibly happy ending but the horror still remains in the fringes of memory. I found myself unable to stay away even thought the subject material even though reading it often made my skin crawl.

In the Dream House isn’t a pleasant read, but it is an exceptional and important one. I’ll be recommending it for a long time.

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