By Jody DiPerna
Pittsburgh Current Lit Writer
How do we talk about domestic abuse? How can we get inside an emotionally and psychologically abusive relationship to understand it? What if the relationship is between two women, with a paucity of such stories and histories to draw upon?
How, then, do you write about this kind of hidden abuse? Send a woman whose writing is so daring that she won the Shirley Jackson award for her first collection of stories in 2017.
In her bracing and elegant memoir, “In the Dream House” (Graywolf Press, 2019), Carmen Maria Machado weaves her mastery of science fiction, fantasy and essay through her first person account of an abusive relationship, creating something that is both dazzling and harrowing.
The memoir is impossible to put down. It was also a book which demanded to be written, though reliving and revisiting this hurt-filled chapter in her life is a painful grind, even now.
“I didn’t really want to do it,” Machado laughed when she spoke to the Current via telephone from her home in Philadelphia. “It was very intense. It was very hard to do, but I think I needed to get it out of my system. I needed to get this done.”
Machado earned her MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has been published in The New Yorker, Granta, and Lightspeed Magazine. Her collection of stories, ‘Her Body and Other Parties’ (2017), which she won the Shirley Jackson, was a finalist for the National Book Award. The writing is wild and fantastical, the work of a woman unafraid to veer into untamed, mad territories and use horror to uncover hard truths.
In this memoir, Machado moves through memory, as through a fever dream, feeling her way along, capturing snapshots and scenes of the relationship, dropping the reader into intimate and painful spaces. She allows the reader to feel lost with her as she goes in search of a queer history and her place in it.
“Trying to articulate both thinking about queer history and thinking about the history of this subject matter (which isn’t talked about very much within the community),” she said. “When you combine that with the fact that emotional and psychological abuse can be difficult to pin down and articulate. And it isn’t given the serious treatment as physical abuse. Trying to make a book out of all those pieces that are just moving on you constantly — it was a very strange challenge.”
There were stretches when she was furiously researching, academia and poetry and legal documents. She watched the 1944 classic film, ‘Gaslight’ (starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer) about a half dozen times. Then there were intense stretches of writing and long periods when it was a bit like assembling a mosaic, as she moved pieces around from here to there and back to get just the right order. It is flat-out gorgeous prose.
She folds all of this research — the film tropes and the academic work of queer theorists, the lessons from fairytales like Bluebeard and the court records documenting domestic violence and murder within the context of lesbian relationships — seamlessly into her own story.
“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. That is to say, queers — real-life ones — do not deserve representation, protection, and rights because they are morally pure or upright as people. They deserve those things because they are human beings, and that is enough,” she writes.
Machado gets into every nook and cranny and dusty corner to explore gay history and it’s erasure. Is it even erasure if it was ignored and deliberately obliterated? It is hard to find. There are gaps where people simply do not see themselves. Queers are denied that history.
This work is an essential queer history told without the distortion of the straight gaze.
“That was part of the inspiration for the project — trying to figure out how to — what to do about the fact that when I went looking for these stories, when I went looking for these accounts, they were very hard to find. There hadn’t been a lot of treatment to — this is true of the love stories and the beauty and also the pain, right? The denial of those kinds of stories is a kind of violence — it hurts. It hurts a community. And that just ends up becoming so much of the central part of my project.”