Trauma fragments reality. It breaks down memory, emotion, and reaction, compartmentalizing selfhood into distinct parts: before trauma, after trauma, and what was lost between. Carmen Maria Machado’s memoir In the Dream House (2019) navigates traumatic fracturing by populating the eponymous Dream House with a claustrophobic succession of genres, twisting memory, choice, and self with each new room, hallway, and facade. At the heart of Machado’s deft manipulation of form is a conversation between the I and You, Past and Present, Survivor and Lost. How could this happen? How could You not know better? How could I do nothing?
In the Dream House traces the arc of Machado’s abusive relationship with an unnamed girlfriend, from the hopeful promise of early love (“She loves you. She sees your subtle, ineffable qualities … She wants to keep you safe.”) to the first subtle warning signs of abuse — a rough grip, growing paranoia, and volatility in lists of people the woman accuses Machado of wanting to sleep with. The growing refrain of Machado being reduced to tears builds to an all-consuming cycle: “You have sex with her, because you don’t know what else to do. You only speak the language of giving yourself away.” All the while, we follow Machado as she poses her story within a kaleidoscope of genre conventions, searching for a way to contextualize what has happened to her.
While the relationship forms the skeleton of the piece, Machado’s desire for context and definition is the beating heart of In the Dream House. The memoir feels like an act of reclamation, not only of Machado’s story, but of who she was, attempting to define the uneasy segregation between her present and past. “You were not always just a You. I was a whole … and then, in one sense of the definition, I was cleaved: a neat lop that took first person … away from second.” At all times, there are two women on the page. Machado — the one that “lived … wrote a book … got married,” positioned in first person, narrating the story of who was left behind with the unnamed girlfriend. And Machado — the one that “stayed” in the Dream House, trying to tell her story “to people who didn’t know how to listen,” always addressed in a distanced second person. In this way, Dream House is a story Machado tells to herself first and the reader second, fitting the splintered pieces of memory, guilt, confusion, pain, and grief together in two parallel arcs. The Narrator trying to find herself in the Narrated.
Beneath the shifting form of In the Dream House, Machado’s constant struggle to tell her own story with empathy is itself the most emotionally challenging element of the book. It is heartbreaking to encounter the small aggressions in the I’s recounting of the You’s narrative. You chose to stay. You “made a fool of yourself.” “You were lucky.” The interaction between Machado’s selves is difficult to read, not only because it is clearly painful, but because reading it feels intrusive. We become an uneasy guest in Machado’s home, watching as she attempts to create order from chaos. As she tries again and again to fit herself and her experience into a new form, a devastating truth weighs on the reader. We are witnessing something that has already happened, and no matter which way we look at it, there is no changing how the You’s story ends. The weight of that dread is what pulls the reader forward, inevitably, to where the You ends, and the I’s narrative begins, and although the distance between them is constant, Machado wishes she had always lived in the body she does now — happily married to a loving wife — and that if You could have lived there, too, that it would be alright.
Still, Machado’s caution, even in extending empathy to her own struggle, is indicative of one of the book’s formal weaknesses. It feels almost defensive, written in anticipation of criticism. This is not unfounded, as Machado herself notes, women’s voices, especially the voices of queer women of color, are inherently devalued in society — even more so when speaking about trauma. At times, the book digresses into literary examination, laying out an argument about the genre at hand, and by extension its own existence, offering a proof for why this story needs to exist. This isn’t a flaw of Machado’s writing, which is expertly controlled in nearly every facet, but a symptom of the underlying argument this book is forced to make for and about itself. Still, the reticence can, at times, detract from the flow of the story at hand and the book’s formal triumphs.
Machado’s employment of genre to examine and reconstruct reality is at once intricate and intelligent, using the rules of genre convention to ease readers into a deeper consideration of how stories are told, by who, and why. And while this circling back feels necessary to the narrative’s desire for self-definition, that form does not always offer the needed complexity. When at its best, Machado’s conceit challenges the reader to question the genre at hand, the social implications of its use, and how that further reflects upon In the Dream House. The opening two sections, “Dream House as Overture” and “Dream House as Prologue,” are indicative of this. The overture is short, only a few sentences long: “I never read prologues … if what the author has to say is so important, why relegate it to the paratext? What are they trying to hide?” Directly after, there is a prologue concerned with how heteronormative hegemony controls access to queer context — the act of defining queer violence is made nearly impossible by the lack of historical examples for what it looks like. The sections play off each other, at once calling out the dehumanizing power of straightwashing history, and rendering the straight as inconsequential “paratext.” There is a distinct intention behind Machado’s wielding of structure here, unseating hegemonic control so she can better create the context she lacked when she was being abused.
Set against that complexity, however, the simpler examples of her structure can feel trite — “Dream House as Bildungsroman” utilizes the genre’s narrative “coming-of-age” structure as a thematic primer to, expectedly, return to Machado’s past and recount her first significant emotional relationship. In this section, her friendship with her church’s pastor acts as a meditational beat about how Machado, and women in general, are shown that their value is tied to their availability to another person. The idea itself is complicated, explored with Machado’s characteristic nuance, but it comes after that same emotional beat is offered more directly in previous sections, outlining how the You was devalued enough to consider herself lucky that anyone, even an abuser, would love her. Even as the retreading feels unnecessary, it serves as another indication of the I’s searching for the You: a frenetic desire to be seen and believed.
In The Dream House is many things: a eulogy, a haunted house, a raw, painful reconciliation. It is a risky meditation on form and voice, deftly constructed as a labyrinthine home for Machado’s experience. And, when caution is set aside so Machado’s fractured selves can interact, it is achingly beautiful.