Carmen Maria Machado: In the Dream House

Reading this book at the same time as the Ludmilla Petrushevskaya stories was a bit of an emotional challenge, I admit. This is a memoir about a very painful period in the author’s life, while being in an abusive lesbian relationship. Although, on the surface, it doesn’t seem quite as extreme and bleak as the physical and mental abuse Petrushevskaya’s characters have to go through, the description of the insidious nature of control and cruelty in a relationship is perhaps even more chilling. In other words, the gap between what Petrushevskaya describes and what I know seems too wide, so it is easier to accept that as fiction. Machado, however, gives voice to moments I recognise all too well – and that is unnerving.

I also liked the way she circles around the topic, presenting the Dream House (or dream relationship) as a series of metaphors, introducing conceits such as references to anthropological or folklore studies, choose your own adventure pages, or writing in the style of a noir novel, murder mystery, Bildungsroman. In an interview, she said that this was the only way she could write a memoir about this subject. However, I have to admit that it was not quite as experimental and whacky as I expected it to be (and almost wanted it to be): the affair was described in roughly chronological order, and there were no wildly different chapters stylistically speaking. Nevertheless, it was cleverly done, allowing for more inferred meaning, more emphasis on certain horrific moments, than a ‘tell it all’ traditional kind of memoir could have achieved.

Machado is so good at showing that people who stay in a bad relationship need not be stupid, deluded, cowardly or anything that people who have never been in such a position blithely throw at them. She was young and not overly confident, she felt lucky ‘as a weird fat girl’ to attract such a desirable partner. She felt pity for the hurt in the other person which made her lash out against others. She kept believing in the periods of remorse and nice gestures: ‘People settle near volcanoes because the resulting soil is extraordinary’. Above all, because abuse in lesbian relationships is seldom mentioned, she lacks the language to describe (or even recognise) that this is abuse.

This is not really a review. Below, I’ve chosen a few of the quotes that really stuck with me:

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.

You have spent your whole life listening to your father talk about women’s emotions, their sensitivity. He never said it in a bad way, exactly – though the implication was always there. Suddenly you find yourself wondering if you’re in the middle of evidence that he’s right.

I always thought the expression ‘safe as houses’ meant that houses were safe places… but house idioms and their variants, in fact, often signify the opposite of safety and security… House of cards, writing is on the wall, glass houses… Safe as houses is something closer to the house always wins. Instead of a shared structure providing shelter, it means that the person in charge is secure; everyone else should be afraid.

A reminder that abusers do not need to be, and rarely are, cackling maniacs. They just need to want something and not care how they get it.

She is always trying to win. You want to say to her: We cannot advance together if you are like this. Love cannot be won or lost; a relationship doesn’t have a scoring system. We are partners, paired against the world. We cannot succeed if we are at odds with each other. Instead you say: Why don’t you understand?

When I was a child, my parents loved to refer to me as melodramatic or, worse, a drama queen. Both expressions confused adn then rankled me. I felt things deeply, and often the profound unfairness of the world triggered a furious, poetic responde from me… Why do we teach girls that their perspectives are inherently untrustworthy? I want to reclaim those words. That is what I keep returning to: how people decide who is or is not an unreliable narrator.

You know, this little hobby of yours has gone too far. Why can’t you for once do something for me?

In the pit of it, you fantasize about dying. Tripping on a sidewalk and stumbling into the path of an oncoming car… Anything to make it stop. You have forgotten that leaving is an option.

When it started, I believed I was special. It was a terrible thing to discover that I was common, that everything that happened to me – a crystalline, devastating landscape I navigated in my bare feet – was detailed in books and reports, in statistics. It was terrible because I wanted to believe that my love was unique and my pain was unique, as all of us do.