‘In the Dream House’ Is the Queer History Lesson You Need Right Now

Cover of 'In the Dream House' by Carmen Maria Machado on a light purple background surrounded by little houses.

TW: This review contains mentions of domestic abuse.

In the Dream House is a literary masterpiece of unimaginable proportions. Normally, you’d expect a memoir to tell someone’s experience, to be firmly grounded in reality and offer an insight into the writer’s story. Which is fine, it’s what memoirs are for and why they’re so appreciated.

But then Carmen Maria Machado said: hold my pen, I’ll give you the memoir experience of your life. And so she did, giving us not only a heartbreaking memoir about domestic abuse but also a lesson in queer history, exposing the gaps in knowledge we desperately need to fill, and a subtle lesson in writing because she’s that good.

In the Dream House tells the story of Machado’s toxic relationship with an unnamed woman about ten years ago. The relationship started like any other, with a lot of passion, love and devotion, but took a toll for the unimaginable, as Machado’s girlfriend started displaying abusive behaviours.

The book is constructed in a creative way, each chapter reimagining the dream house as something else, ranging from feelings, to stories, to cultural references. The dream house was, in reality, the house Machado and her girlfriend shared while they were together.

As she masterfully puts it, “places are never just places in a piece of writing. If they are, the author has failed”. This statement almost brings the house to life, making it an accomplice to the story, as you witness it changing from a safe love nest to a trauma-inducing space as the couple’s dynamics degrade.

The chapters are very short and always end with a bang. One of the very few negative reviews I’ve seen blamed Machado for taking us out of the story every so often and telling us about other, unrelated (in appearance) episodes in history, religion or pop culture.

I’m sorry for this reader. They missed the point entirely. The author never really takes you out of the story, she just uses alternative means to tell it. Without being able to make the connection between, say, the random Star Trek scene she recounts in one of the chapters and her relationship story, you won’t be able to enjoy the book to its full extent.

The Book as Queer History Lesson

“We deserve to have our wrongdoing represented as much as our heroism, because when we refuse wrongdoing as a possibility for a group of people, we refuse their humanity.”
― Carmen Maria Machado, In the Dream House

In trying to evade the disbelief most people certainly felt when reading about the mere possibility of an abusive same-sex relationship, Machado researched everything she could possibly find on the history of domestic abuse within queer couples. Unsurprisingly, she didn’t find much. But what she could find showed a grim reality.

In many cases of domestic abuse within lesbian couples, nothing was done to ever believe the victims when they reached their breaking point. Machado recounts a couple of cases in history where one of the partners killed their abusers, to then not receive the same treatment as women who killed their husbands as a result of domestic abuse. The reason simply being that society saw the power dynamics in same-sex couples rendering abuse impossible.

“This is what I keep returning to: how people decide who is or is not an unreliable narrator. And after that decision has been made, what do we do with people who attempt to construct their own vision of justice?”
― Carmen Maria Machado, In the Dream House

“You can be hurt by people who look just like you. Even if the dominant culture considers you an anomaly, that doesn’t mean you can’t be common, common as fucking dirt.”
― Carmen Maria Machado, In the Dream House

The Book as Cultural Metaphor

“Reader, do you remember that ridiculous movie Volcano, the one with Tommy Lee Jones? Do you remember how they stopped eruption in the middle of downtown Los Angeles? Sweet reader, that is not how lava works. Lava keeps leaking down my slopes. You should have listened to the scientist. You should have evacuated earlier.”
― Carmen Maria Machado, In the Dream House

I mentioned above that Machado uses countless references to create a well-rounded account of her story. She doesn’t spend the entire book recounting real situations. She weaves these with cultural, literary and even religious references.

This is a smart way of writing. It’s show-don’t-tell. I’m sad to think how many readers may have missed it, blindly looking for the satisfaction of the classic memoir.

If a memoir is someone’s real story, aren’t we supposed to listen?

“Putting language to something for which you have no language is no easy feat.”
― Carmen Maria Machado, In the Dream House

This is the last phrase in a short chapter, called Dream House as Naming the Animals where Machado wonders for a page or two how terribly confused Adam must have been when God asked him to name all the animals he’d created. This chapter is not at all unrelated to the story. It painfully hits at the last minute: she was being abused, she was suffering, but didn’t know it yet.

The Book as Final Thoughts

I could go on and on but don’t want to give away too much. I loved, admired and suffered for this book in sync with the characters. I’ve taken the different shapes of the Dream House and I felt like a silent witness to something unspeakably inhumane.

On many occasions, I felt powerless, I felt angry, sad, perplexed. But every time, with every closing sentence in every strong chapter, I learned. Not only about this individual story among so many other horrible individual stories, but also about a history no one cared to ever expose before.

Stuck for what to read next? Check out our Reading Recs page. And if you’d like to support our work, please consider making a donation via our Donations page. We’re trying to raise money for paid commissions, so we can support and work with more writers from underrepresented backgrounds, who cannot afford to write for free. Thank you for reading!

Published by Eliza Lita

Founder and editor-in-chief: Coffee Time Reviews. Freelance writer and Higher Ed comms person.

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