Review: ‘In the Dream House’ by Maria Carmen Machado

3 out of 5 stars

Suffolk Pride Parade

In the Dream House is a memoir that innovatively explores the topic of domestic abuse in a same-sex female relationship. I have given the book three out of five stars but honestly, I found that rating difficult to come to. While I didn’t fall in love with the book, I can completely acknowledge why many people do and would give it a five-star rating – let me discuss this further.

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/ 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? This is why it’s so hard to learn about issues faced by the LGBTQ+ population in the past, and this review is my own attempt to contribute to this discussion and add my own experience to the archive.

However, what I struggled with in this book is the amount of cultural/ literary/ movie references. If I had understood them, I feel I would have appreciated her writing far more. I understood the chapter titled ‘Dream House as Mrs Dalloway’ for example, because I studied Mrs Dalloway extensively while doing my A-Level in English Literature and, suddenly, that section made sense. Typically, though I struggled with a lot of the references and felt like it required a lot more reading between the lines than I would have liked. I’ve never seen a book written so uniquely/ abstractly and I would have loved to be set the text as an A-level or University-level book as it would allow time to pick apart all the references and fully appreciate it however it’s not the sort of thing I usually enjoy in everyday reading unlike some.

I really related to some sections. For example, ‘Dream House as Unreliable Narrator’ – who is to decide who is or is not a reliable narrator – and what is justice anyway? It’s the same reason they used Rosa Parks to propel the civil rights movement forward instead of Claudette Colvin, a 15-year-old who also refused to give up her seat but wasn’t seen as ‘respectable’ and someone to rally around, unlike Parks. ‘Dream House as Myth’ caught my attention as well – “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 drugs… 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.”

That really resonated with me. 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 that he knew it was wrong – I can show it to others to demonstrate I’m not making it up, he really is evil – look! And 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 – confessions aren’t enough – it seems you can never please the court of other people and yet we still try.

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 talks to the fact domestic abuse in queer relationships is often overlooked and one of the reasons people may avoid coming forward is because they don’t want to give queer relationships a bad name. Yet ultimately, our relationships are just like heterosexual relationships, including the good and the bad.

Last year, for example, at a local 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 alcohol, and I didn’t want to. In broad daylight, with tons of people around, she grabbed my throat and strangled me until I agreed. Nobody said a thing. Guaranteed, if this had been a heterosexual relationship, the reaction would have been different. I mean, 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 PR right… that would only show the heterosexuals that we’re ‘wrong’…. Right?

The experiences I have are the reason I chose to volunteer my time with Sexpression and teach sex education to high school kids. I wanted to educate young queers, and heterosexuals, about the different ways you can consent – how to read non-verbal signals, how to have safe sex with different/ same genders etc. To encourage and normalise conversation about these fundamental issues and show abuse can exist regardless of gender.

Finally, I just 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 bisexual is when she writes it was difficult to find women 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 and I wonder if it’s precisely because members of the LGBTQ+ population can be funny about accepting bisexual people. In which case, I feel she has done a huge 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, never highlighted this issue. Regardless, the book is a really interesting read and I recommend it – especially if you have extra time to study the references she makes and fully understand what she is talking about!

Published by Scarlett Mansfield

Scarlett is a freelance writer, editor, researcher, and social media manager with a focus on academic writing and research, travel writing and editing, and automotive writing.

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