No Vacancy in the Dream House: Queer Sexuality and Domestic Abuse in Carmen Maria Machado’s New Memoir
by Amy Ge, Associate (Feminuity)
Carmen Maria Machado’s new memoir, In the Dream House, recounts the years she spent in a relationship with an enchanting, yet explosive woman. In the beginning, she is smitten by the woman she describes as “that mix of butch and femme that drives [her] crazy”. Her lover is sophisticated, doting, and envelopes her with an acceptance so strong, it feels radical. She remarks to herself, “How many times had you said, ‘If I just looked a little different, I’d be drowning in love’? Now you got to drown without changing a single cell. Lucky you.”
The book is punctuated by references drawn from both pop culture and folklore. Machado frames vignettes of her relationship as various literary tropes. Each memory and anecdote live within a distinct chapter titled things such as “Dream House as Star-Crossed Lovers”, “Dream House as Haunted House” or “Dream House as American Gothic”.
Machado uses the house imagery throughout her book like a refrain. There’s a reason why horror films are always set in a banal dwelling like a house. A house is the physicality of safety and vulnerability itself. That is why the ghouls and demons that haunt them on film are particularly adept at disturbing our psyche. Much like horror films in the vein of Amityville Horror, Machado brilliantly dismantles what a house is meant to represent. There are idioms aplenty relating to houses such as safe as houses, a house of cards, or do not throw stones at glass houses. But the house she resides in is one where her lover whips a ceramic plate at her, narrowly missing her head. It is one where her lover chases her around, destroying everything in it during a blind fit of rage. Thus, the idiom that best characterizes the eventual dissolution of Machado’s relationship is also the most menacing: the house always wins.
Much like horror films in the vein of Amityville Horror, Machado brilliantly dismantles what a house is meant to represent.
In popular movies, which are frequently referenced in Machado’s book, queer relationships are often portrayed as a final destination – something that the exasperated protagonist receives as a prize for overcoming the adversities of being queer along the way. But Machado shows us what happens in a queer love story after your state legalizes gay marriage and your parents openly accept you for who you are. Her book is an answer to the question, “Now what?”.
There is a myth that queer relationships are insulated from the things that can go wrong in heteronormative relationships. Queer relationships are represented as a sort of haven, whether culturally or in our minds. When it comes to our “othering” of queer relationships, the pendulum of discrimination swings hard in both directions: either we demonize them and refuse to believe they can suffer the same fates as heterosexual relationships, or we idealize them and, still, refuse to believe they can suffer the same fates as heterosexual relationships.
Queer relationships are often portrayed as a final destination – something that the exasperated protagonist receives as a prize for overcoming the adversities of being queer along the way.
She ushers in a reckoning of what has always remained secret: the romantic trauma that we don’t entitle queer folks to feel. We don’t want to see them as flawed human beings. We don’t allow them to be more complex. Domestic abuse victims in queer relationships often feel the pressure to silence themselves as to not prove the heterosexual population “right”. That somehow, equality is not deserved because they, too, sully the sanctity of love with their problems like everyone else.
At the same time, Machado pries apart the heteronormative expectations of violence. She asks, who in our society is allowed to be a victim? Who is exempt from being a villain? She notes that women committing violence is viewed as subversive to the point of being unbelievable. At one point in the book, Machado cites several instances of lesbian domestic murders. She reflects on the public’s incredulity when these cases went to trial because “a love murder involving two girls presented an astonishing and confusing twist that confounded the gendered roles of villain and victim.”
She notes that women committing violence is viewed as subversive to the point of being unbelievable.
For Machado and her lover to step out of their roles is a shock to her as well. Watching her lover flip erratically from protector to abuser, from dream to nightmare, she too doubts the meaning of her own experiences. If Machado’s previous works like “The Husband Stitch” are about how our culture fails to believe women, in Dream House, Machado turns that scrutiny back onto herself to interrogate why she failed to believe something that was right in front of her. But when being alive and queer in this world seems like an impossibility enough, finding love, where love is ordinarily forbidden is so rare as to be a fantasy – one you would eagerly blind yourself from reality in order to stay in.
Machado masterfully shows us how the personal weaves itself into the cultural and the political to create a circumstance that chains someone to an inhospitable setting. Ultimately, Machado’s book is about how to survive a modern-day folk story in which the monster is not hiding under your bed, but rather, lying in bed next to you and she convinces you she loves you. A house is no more a utopia than a lover is a piece of driftwood in turbulent waters – and Machado has had to learn to trust her intuition despite how things may appear.
A special thank you to Haley Cullingham, Senior Editor at Penguin Random House Canada and Hazlitt for the advance reader copy. Feminuity appreciates you.