Under a Spell

Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House explores an abusive relationship using the language of fairy tales and folklore.

Carmen Maria Machado sitting at a table.
Carmen Maria Machado. Art Streiber

Even the most artful memoir lays claim to a certain artlessness. Readers expect memoirs to be made of facts, however skillfully those facts are arranged and presented, and facts can be stubbornly uncooperative with our creative designs. But once written, memoirs don’t typically call much attention to how their authors struggled to tell the tale—the choices considered and rejected, the perspectives adopted and set aside. Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House is the rare exception.

As she tells it, when Machado was a young creative writing student in the Midwest, she met another writer, a woman, “rail-thin and androgynous,” who goes unnamed in this account, and the two tumbled into a passionate affair. The woman became Machado’s first real girlfriend. For someone who felt that as a “weird fat girl” she was lucky to be loved at all, the relationship was revelatory. Machado exulted in finding her desire reciprocated “without needing to change a single cell” of who she was.

Sure, there were problems: Her girlfriend already had a girlfriend, for one, but that was said to be an open relationship, and for a while the three women considered the possibility of establishing a long-term ménage. Eventually, however, “the woman in the Dream House,” as Machado calls her, broke up with her old girlfriend and asked Machado to be monogamous, announcing “I don’t want to share you with anyone.” Their relationship, already marred by some jealous outbursts and controlling behavior on the part of the woman in the Dream House, became a bewildering fluctuation between tenderness and torrents of verbal and psychological abuse.

Each chapter of In the Dream House tries on a different way of seeing this relationship and recounting it, reflected in the book’s chapter titles: “Dream House as Lesbian Pulp Novel,” “Dream House as Stoner Comedy,” “Dream House as Myth,” etc. Most of these takes can’t be sustained for more than a page or two; despite the grim subject matter, some land almost like jokes. But all of the chapters gesture toward Machado’s fundamental dilemma in writing the book: How can this story be told?

She begins with the feeling that there is no precedent for what she has to say, that she is alone in stating that “domestic abuse between partners who share a gender identity is both possible and not uncommon.” In fact, feminists have been addressing domestic violence between queer women for several decades, as Machado herself would eventually discover, once she started looking. (In the Dream House includes an excellent bibliography.) But to live, a story can’t just be uttered once or twice. It must be retold, handed around. And queer women—like all those discriminated against—have excellent reasons to refrain from passing on stories that paint a less-than-rosy picture. “Years later,” Machado writes of her ex, “if I could say anything to her, I’d say, ‘For fuck’s sake, stop making us look bad.’ ”

Machado’s tale also serves to debunk the fable of utopian lesbianism, a story that has helped many people defy prejudice and familial disapproval. “To find desire, love, everyday joy without men’s accompanying bullshit,” Machado writes, “is a pretty decent working definition of paradise.” Unfortunately, “the literature of queer domestic abuse is lousy with references to this punctured dream.” Her story betrays that story, a story that once meant a lot to her. In place of the lost dream of lesbian superiority, she considers the allure of queer villainy (as she points out, coded-queer antagonists in movies are usually the most interesting characters on the screen). “We deserve to have our wrongdoing represented as much as our heroism,” she writes, “because when we refuse wrongdoing as a possibility for a group of people, we refuse their humanity.”

Perhaps because she’s primarily a fiction writer, Machado doesn’t fall back on the memoirist’s bedrock defense: This is my truth, and everyone is entitled to tell the truth about her life as she understands it. Instead, she experiments with forms known for their irreality, especially fairy tales and folklore. Fairy tales offer a surprisingly good model for abuse memoirs because, like a fairy tale, the dynamic between abuser and victim seems to take place within a closed system, cut off from the outside world, where the usual rules don’t always apply.

For Machado, the Dream House was such a closed system. It was a rental that was not a dream home in any conventional sense of the term, a “nondescript house in a neighborhood on the outskirts of Bloomington, Indiana,” where her ex-girlfriend lived. The place was crowded with never-unpacked cardboard moving boxes repurposed as furniture and slowly disintegrating into the carpet. “They are soft and smell sweet like Pizza Hut boxes damp with grease,” Machado recalls. At one point, early in the affair, this house had briefly been the locus of Machado’s fantasies of a sweet, arty domesticity, of “herb garden, wine, writing across the table from each other.” (She pokes gentle fun at her younger self’s lifestylish notions of happiness.) Later, it became the main—although far from the only—site of her lover’s terrifying abuse.

In a chapter titled “Dream House as World Building,” Machado explains that “a common feature of domestic abuse is ‘dislocation.’ That is to say, the victim has just moved somewhere new, or she’s somewhere where she doesn’t speak the language, or has been otherwise uprooted from her support network, her friends or family, her ability to communicate. She is made vulnerable by her circumstance, her isolation.” But while the Dream House was isolated—far enough from the neighbors that the shouting and weeping and door-slamming and wall-pounding went unheard or at least unremarked upon—Machado did not actually live in this house with her girlfriend; for most of their relationship, the two women didn’t even live in the same city. “You drove seven hours to Indiana every other week for a year,” she writes, addressing her younger self, as she does in many of these chapters. “Folks say nothing but Why didn’t you go / Why didn’t you run / Why didn’t you say? (Also: Why did you stay?),” another chapter laments. But the more pointed question Machado puts to herself here is this: Why did you keep coming back?

Machado wasn’t without a support network or a sanctuary; she had caring friends, a therapist, a home in Iowa City with roommates who worried about her despite her efforts to cover for her girlfriend. And yet that former self, boarding a plane after one particularly nightmarish visit, persisted in dismantling her own suffering so she could reassemble it into a less objectionable narrative to preserve the very relationship that tormented her. “You swear to yourself that you’re going to tell someone how bad it is,” Machado writes, “but by the time the ground is coming toward you again you are already polishing your story.”

In the Dream House would have benefited from a deeper delving into this conundrum; the relationship between the current Machado, a writer of great talent and authority, and this lost shard of a woman from her past who “was always anxious and vibrating like a too-small breed of dog” is the most fascinating aspect of the book. The obvious explanation for why the past Machado—young, uncertain, besotted, and more than a little hypnotized by lots and lots of terrific sex—couldn’t quit the woman from the Dream House is that she was under a spell. Is there a better word to describe the hold that a charismatic, narcissistic abuser can have over a vulnerable, insecure partner? And that spell was founded on yet another story, the one Machado once told herself about “a whole new life” in the Dream House, “a perfect intersection of hedonism and wholesomeness: canning and pickling, writing in front of a fireplace.”

This was an enchantment the younger Machado couldn’t break; relief only came when her ex got involved with another woman (of course), tried to date both of them for a while, and then finally dumped her. Machado then confronted another story-based dilemma. When she tried to tell people about her experience in the Dream House, they doubted her. At times, she even wishes her ex had hit her, left bruises that could be photographed and offered up as proof. Instead, she has this book, which despite its superficially fragmented form, is held together like a string of beads by a single, unbroken narrative. It even ends in a fittingly fairy-tale twist I won’t spoil. This story may be too dark to be called a last laugh, but its power is undeniable nonetheless.

The cover for In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado.