Speaking With Severed Tongues: On “In the Dream House” by Carmen Maria Machado

Cover of In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

For Carmen Maria Machado, memory is a form of haunting.

She introduces us to her debut memoir, In the Dream House, like we’re sneaking onto the set of a horror movie. Our primary setting, the Dream House, has ceilings that wilt with age and faulty electrical wiring we can’t trust to keep the darkness at bay. Each chapter is a new room in our moonlit mansion. Three epigraphs greet us at the door. Traveling down a dark hallway, we enter our first chapters—”Dream House as Overture” leads us to “Dream House as Prologue.” Then—another epigraph. These false starts are warnings. Like the first act of most haunted house stories, jump scares and carefully controlled silence ravel the audience’s nerves into knots. They tease us. Are you sure you can handle this? they ask. And even though the answer is No, more often than not, we nonetheless push deeper into the shadows.

In the Dream House is a memoir about surviving domestic abuse in a queer relationship. Machado’s narrator often cites how difficult it is to depict a wound on the page when no language about the wound has ever been spoken; she must create new narrative forms as she learns to chronicle what it means for a woman to abuse another woman. Most chapters of In the Dream House are only a few paragraphs long. The reading experience, then, leans heavily into the ephemeral; when each page is a new piece of flash prose, the white space surrounding the type becomes as much a part of the narrative as the writing itself. After devastating accounts of abuse, tension is not immediately dispelled with gentler prose. Instead, the reader is asked to pause in their discomfort—to take account of it. Like a poet, Machado is so profoundly in control of silence that she has taught it its own language.

Chapters where Machado’s narrator addresses her past self in the second person are spliced with vignettes taken from a grab bag of other genres. A critical analysis of queer villains in popular culture is eventually followed by a Choose Your Own Adventure sequence that enacts the mental prison of abuse. “Dream House as Folktale Taxonomy” speaks almost exclusively about how Hans Christian Anderson uses a knife to sever the tongue of his little mermaid; several chapters later, Machado conjures the violence of the fairytale in her abuser’s dialogue: “She unbuckles her seatbelt, and leans very close into your ear. ‘You’re not allowed to write about this,’ she says. ‘Don’t you ever write about this. Do you fucking understand me?’” The narrator nods and thinks, “Fear makes liars of us all.”

Machado does not engage with antiquated arguments about the gradients of abuse. In refusing to even question whether the emotional and mental manipulation she survived was abusive, she adds another genre to her memoir—the queering of the domestic abuse mythology. A heteronormative description of abuse would depict a woman being physically assaulted by her male partner. When nearly all domestic abuse literature merely interrogates the lived experience of the cisgender heterosexual man—including how machismo and emotional repression leads to explosive acts of violence—we lose the ability to clearly see how abuse manifests from other positionalities. Abuse is not masculine; trauma knows how to nest inside the body without any physical contact.

In the Dream House is a desperately important book. Its prose is luminescent, and it dances a perfectly executed Viennese waltz with its experimental forms. Most importantly, it creates a capacity for language where there was once only isolation and fear. At the end of horror movies, I often ask myself how the survivors go on living after all they’ve endured. Even if they manage to escape the haunted house physically intact, how do they move about the world after learning its true capacity for harm? In the Dream House is our answer. We pick up our fragments and assemble them into an order that gives rise to new meaning. We tell our stories. At the end of it all, we learn to enjoy silence again—and eagerly wait for the next person who is ready to speak.