In the Dream House we commune with our ghosts

National Book Award finalist Carmen Maria Machado, CAS/BA '08, likens writing her new memoir to passing a kidney stone


Carmen Maria Machado and her new book, In the Dream House

A house that is not a house. A dream that is no dream at all. A riddle that is not a riddle, but an act of resurrection. 

The moment we enter Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House, the past comes to life in vivid—and sometimes excruciating—detail. 

Published in November 2019, the memoir chronicles the budding relationship between Machado, CAS/BA ’08, and her first girlfriend—and its eventual demise. What began as an idyllic affair filled with movie nights and road trips steadily devolves into a nightmare of jealous rage, screaming fits, and physical abuse. The bestselling author—and National Book Award finalist for 2017’s Her Body and Other Parties—dissects the relationship, examining who she was before, during, and after, with chapters taking the form of literary genres: noir, erotica, and spy thriller. 

Readers experience the entire course of the caustic relationship as if it is their own. “You” are the protagonist—the Machado of the past—except when her future self takes over, giving readers a chance to catch their breath as she reflects on the history of abuse in queer relationships and the dearth of accounts written about it.

“. . . Sometimes stories are destroyed, and sometimes they are never uttered in the first place; either way something very large is irrevocably missing from our collective histories,” she writes. 

Throughout the book she fills in the missing pieces herself, for there is little for her to build upon. What does exist, Machado says, was difficult to unearth and offers little in the way of reassurance. 

Queer women were treated differently by heteronormative court systems that couldn’t find a place for them. Suffering abuse as a woman was common, but being a woman abused by another woman was almost incomprehensible. In 1811, a judge insisted two schoolmistresses couldn’t have been lovers, as they were accused of being, because they could not penetrate each other and therefore couldn’t orgasm. 

Centuries later, queer women still feel alone. As did Machado. 

Growing up in the suburbs of Pennsylvania in the ’90s, she read books, wrote stories, and went to church and Christian summer camps. 

“There was something very distant about things like queer identity that just existed in the periphery,” she says. “It didn’t really apply to me in that we didn’t really talk about stuff like that.”

It wasn’t until Machado enrolled in the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop that she met the woman from the Dream House, who became her first serious girlfriend. “I came of age, then, in the Dream House, wisdom practically smothering me in my sleep. Everything tasted like an almost epiphany,” she writes. 

The relationship was different from her past affairs with men—more intense and volatile—but she began to think that was just the nature of lesbian relationships (see excerpt). Her girlfriend told her as much, and her father always talked about how emotional women were, so she thought it must be true. When you don’t know that is “normal” in a relationship, you can’t recognize abnormalities. “One of the questions that has haunted you: Would knowing have made you dumber or smarter?” she writes.

The book offers no definitive answers, just as it follows no set genre, jumping from gothic horror to stoner comedy, first-person reflection on queer villainy to second-person road trip with a smart and sexy new girlfriend. The story twists and turns, as does the lens through which the reader sees it. You follow Machado’s thought process as she tries to make sense of what she experiences, barreling through any semblance of a fourth wall.

Some chapters are single sentences: “Most types of domestic abuse are completely legal.” Others exhume painful memories of the woman throwing and chasing Machado around the Dream House, forcing her to seek refuge in a locked bathroom. Another portion is interactive, taking the form of a Choose Your Own Adventure novel.

“Choose Your Own Adventure is like a fake set of choices. You’re following prescribed avenues and ultimately you’re going somewhere where somebody wants to lead you,” she says. 

You go through the motions of the vicious cycle—even options for breaking free from it are imaginary. “That’s not how it happened, but okay. We can pretend. I’ll give it to you, just this once,” one page reads if you choose the option to leave. 

The relationship takes its toll on you. As it deteriorates, so does your perception of self and repetitive déjà vu chapters illustrate the effects of the fall. “She sees your subtle, ineffable qualities,” in the beginning. Then comes the doubt, “she says” she seems them, until finally, in the worst of it, “she sees your qualities, and you should be ashamed.”

It’s not always easy reading—and it wasn’t easy writing either, Machado says between heavy sighs. She likens the experience to passing a kidney stone. 

She talks openly about the book, and the difficulty of writing it, but during an phone interview in April you can hear the weight the words have on her as she folds socks in her home in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania—one of the first states to shutter all nonessential businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Machado’s lost work due to the shut down and had to reschedule a surgery but feels guilty complaining when people are losing their jobs and income. All things considered, she’s doing OK. Still, the situation isn’t conducive to productivity. 

“I’m doing a little bit of writing, but it’s hard to focus with the world coming apart,” she says.

The New Yorker contributor returned to AU for the Visiting Writers Series in February, just before the nation began to lockdown. DC and AU are mentioned seldomly in the memoir: college is the back patio of the Dream House, a “memory palace” built of unrequited crushes and the “worst sex.” Still, she remembers her time at AU fondly. 

As she walked around campus in February, she remembered kids running through the tunnel underneath Mary Graydon with flaming brooms after the Red Sox won the World Series, and students knocking over the panda statues.  

“College is such a weird thing. It’s just a specific set of experiences that are never going to have as much significance to anything else as they do to you,” she says with a laugh.

Machado becomes more sober as the conversation returns to her memoir. 

Eventually, the relationship came to an end not all at once, but through a series of rough detachments. Ends are messy affairs that do not separate cleanly into acts. There are aftershocks to deal with—feelings that seep into the void left by her presence, the woman’s attempts to reconcile by leaving a series of voicemails that range from sorrowful to threatening, and bad habits formed during the relationship that Machado still hasn’t broken.

“My memory has something to say about the way trauma has altered my body’s DNA, like an ancient virus,” she writes.

The memoir ends but the story continues. A lived experience added to the archive. Now Machado’s words can fill the silence, providing answers for those searching for them.