A month in review: In The Dream House by Carmen Machado

Words by Scarlett Mansfield

In the Dream House is a memoir that innovatively explores the topic of domestic abuse in a same-sex female relationship. While I had my reservations about the book, I understand that it treads a relatively untrodden path in its crucial pursuit to purvey the concept of queer assault.

As a historian, I enjoyed that she touched on the importance of historiography at the start of the book — how can we re-create the past and reconstruct a dialogue about queer abuse when it’s been neglected in the archives and hidden from view? How do we read between the lines?

I related to the section titled ‘Dream House as Unreliable Narrator’ too — who is to decide who is or is not a reliable narrator? It sparked thoughts about when they used Rosa Parks to propel the civil rights movement instead of Claudette Colvin, a 15-year-old who also refused to give up her seat but wasn’t seen as ‘respectable’ or someone to rally around. ‘Dream House as Myth’ caught my attention too —

we don’t know for certain that it’s as bad as she says. The woman from the Dream House seems perfectly fine, even nice… love is complicated.”

Finally, I really liked ‘Dream House as Death Wish’:

You’ll wish she had hit you. Hit you hard enough that you’d have bruised in grotesque and obvious ways, hard enough that you took photos, hard enough that you went to the cops… you have this fantasy, this fucked up fantasy, of being able to whip out your phone and pull up some awful photo of yourself… clarity is an intoxicating drug… and you want something black and white more than you’ve ever wanted anything in this world.” Later, she writes “I think a lot about what evidence, had it been measured or recorded or kept, would help make my case… there are many things that happen to us that are beyond the purview of even a perfectly executed legal system but the court of other people, the court of the body.”

I really related to that last section — I have a text on my computer from an ex-boyfriend that I look at a lot, to remind me he admitted to what he did, and knew it was wrong. To confirm with my conscience and with those around me that things happened the way they did. It gives me a weird sense of relief being able to do so. I scour through old conversations looking for more proof, because one text isn’t enough, witnesses aren’t enough to placate self-doubt.

Despite being deeply moved by and engaging with many parts of the book, I found the format of each chapter to be too referential, which left me feeling confused and left behind. For instance, I understood the chapter titled ‘Dream House as Mrs Dalloway’ because I studied Mrs Dalloway extensively during A-Levels, and was hit with the rare sensation of Machado’s metaphor falling comfortably into place. However, typically I struggled with many of the references and felt like it required a lot more reading between around the text than should be necessary. I’ve never seen a book written so uniquely or abstractly and I would have loved to be set the text in a study setting, as it would allow time to pick apart all the references and fully appreciate (I’m sure) the book’s true value.

At one point, Carmen writes:

The irony, of course, is that queer folks need that good PR; to fight for rights we don’t have, to retain ones we do. But haven’t we been trying to say, this whole time, that we’re just like you? …One day, I will invite young queers over for tea and cheese platters and advice, and I will be able to tell them you can be hurt by people who look just like you…”

This speaks to the fact domestic abuse in queer relationships is often overlooked or ignored. People don’t want to give queer relationships a bad name, so avoid coming forward. Yet, ultimately, queer relationships are — just like heterosexual relationships — visited by the good and the bad.

Last year, for example, at a Pride parade I attended, after a few drinks I started kissing a girl I’d met. She wanted to go to Tesco to get more drink and I didn’t want to — in broad daylight, with tons of people around, she grabbed my throat and essentially strangled me until I agreed. Nobody said a thing. I would expect that if this had been an exchange between a man and a woman, the reaction of those around us might have been different. Why highlight such a terrible thing on one of the only days we’re supposed to be celebrating the LGBTQ+ population? We wouldn’t want the bad publicity, right?

Such experiences are the reason I chose to volunteer my time with Sexpression and teach sex education to high school children. I wanted to educate teenagers about the meaning of consent — how to read non-verbal signals, how to have safe sex with different and same gendered partners. I do feel that this text serves to encourage and normalise conversation about these fundamental issues.

Finally, I want to speak about something I found odd in the book — the lack of the word ‘bisexual’. Carmen talks about her girlfriend, and her wife, but also hooking up with her ex-boyfriend again, yet the only time she mentions bisexuality is when she writes that life could be difficult because “Bay Area lesbians proved to be pretty testy about the whole bisexual thing“.

The book thus felt like a huge example of bi-erasure, which drew me back to experiences of members of the LGBTQ+ population finding it challenging to accept bisexual people. In which case, I feel she has perhaps done a disservice to the bisexual population who needed to hear her story, especially given that according to statistics, bisexual women are actually at the greatest risk of domestic violence out of the LGBTQ+ umbrella. It’s such a shame this book about WLW relationships, and the large platform it presents, failed to highlight the issue.

Regardless, the book provides an extremely interesting and nuanced insight and I do think it’s worth a go — especially if you have the extra time to study the references she makes!

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