What makes Machado’s memoir so distinctive is not just its inventiveness but its unflinching honesty – about the indignities of abuse, about the vulnerability of growing up feeling fat and therefore feeling “grateful for anything you can get” and also about bodily desires. “The diagnosis never changes,” she writes. “We will always be hungry, we will always want. Our bodies and minds will always crave something, even if we don’t recognise it.”
For all the horror, In the Dream House is a ravishingly beautiful book, a tender, incandescent memoir like no other. There’s no doubt that Machado is one of the brightest literary talents around.
That is not to say that the archive has been completely empty. Over the course of the book, Machado seeks out the relatively few historical accounts, research studies and personal stories of abuse among lesbians and queer women. “When it started, I believed I was special”, she writes in “Dream House as Self-Help Bestseller”. “It was a terrible thing to discover that I was common, that everything that happened to me … was detailed in books and reports, in statistics.” But there is little danger that, in her hands, these common threads will become well worn. Leslie Jamison once wrote of clichés that “they work best when they link our singular experiences rather than efface them – when they function as dangling strings around which the rock candy of individual experience crystallizes”. With her tropes and clichés, her genres and styles, Machado piles up these strings like so many necklaces, crystallizing her own experience and spinning new threads around which others might crystallize their own.
We still don’t really know what to do with same-sex relationships that aren’t models of equality. Perhaps one of the reasons it’s so complicated, Machado suggests, is because, in the same way that abuse in heterosexual relationships is a form of sexism, abuse in queer relationships is a form of homophobia: “I am doing this because I can get away with it; I can get away with it because you exist on some cultural margin, some societal periphery.” Yet to deny queer people their wrongdoings and their villainy is also to deny them their humanity.
The African American poet Pat Parker has said: “First forget I am a lesbian. And second, never forget I am a lesbian.” Reading Machado’s extraordinary book one is caught in this ambiguity. The relationship that she describes is so familiar. She meets a woman who is in an open relationship and who has to have her. Machado is completely in sexual thrall to her. It is perfect. Her full body – “zaftig”, as she describes it – is now worshipped. But then her new partner no longer wants to be in an open relationship and no longer wants to share her with anyone. She flies into jealous rages accusing her of wanting to fuck everyone else, including her own father. She scares her, grabs her, rages at her, frightens her. Belittles her, breaks her down.
In painful, discursive style, with short, densely packed chapters (frequently so brief they read like vignettes), Machado deconstructs the dream house (alternately a fairy-tale castle, or a prison, but never a home) both as the setting in which the relationship took place and as the blood and bones of the relationship itself. It dominates each section title – “Dream House As Memory Palace”, “Dream House as Soap Opera”, “Dream House as Diagnosis”, and so on – using objectivity, legal cases, literature and analysis as a means for Machado to rebuild herself. This dismantling and reassembling also acts as a form of therapy. In case this sounds too much like severe sociological tract, Machado’s approach is as compelling as any thriller, playful in its self-discovery, and intriguing in its references to, for example, the stereotyped villainesses of Disney films, such as Cruella de Vil.
But perhaps the most striking and disconcerting aspect of Machado’s story of her life is that it’s written in the second person. Revealing herself in searing honesty, she is utterly vulnerable in the prose she creates, and yet, because that second person prose addresses her reader directly, we are utterly immersed in her world, so much so that her world becomes ours. There is bravery in her endeavour, in honestly questioning how much an intimate, romantic and traumatic story can be told; how she herself can be trusted to tell a tale that has been told so many times before but that changes with every retelling. This leads to a literal and literary rummage through a toolbox of techniques and perspectives as Machado attempts with each chapter to find the right way to tell the story of her enchantment.