In The 'Dream House,' Carmen Maria Machado Recounts Nightmares

Nov 3, 2019
Originally published on November 3, 2019 3:39 pm

"I speak into the silence. I toss the stone of my story into a vast crevice; measure the emptiness by its small sound."

That's a line from the opening chapters of In the Dream House, a new memoir by Carmen Maria Machado. It's an examination of sexuality and a haunting account of a physically and emotionally abusive relationship with her then girlfriend. Machado — whose first book, Her Body and Other Parties, was nominated for the National Book Award — met the woman at the Iowa Writers' Workshop.

"She was really special," Machado recalls. "I met her and sort of fell head over heels. You know, I'm queer, like I had dated a bunch of men, but I had never dated a woman. And I remember thinking that this was what I'd been waiting for, this experience. And she was really attractive, and really charming, and really funny — and she liked me, which was really intoxicating."


Interview Highlights

On the stereotype of lesbian relationships as safe

There's this idea that not having men present in a relationship takes a certain kind of stress off, which sexually is actually true. ... I always talk about how in my relationship, like, obviously the patriarchy affects me in all kinds of ways. But my sort of day-to-day life, I don't really have to deal with it, because I'm married to a woman, and that's just not part of my experience right now, which is actually really lovely. But I think you have a lot of people sort of translate this into, "women aren't capable of hurting each other," or "women aren't capable of abusing each other." Lesbian relationships are the fantasy, the ideal — I would say that I think lesbians and queer women perpetrate that that idea. And I think it can be really harmful, because it doesn't permit space for a multitude of experiences, some of which can be bad — not because the relationship is a lesbian relationship, but because somebody in the relationship is not well.

On her experience of domestic abuse

It was primarily psychological and emotional — so, my ex would, you know, call me at all times, at all hours, and be like, "Who are you with? Where have you been? Who have you been with, I know you're cheating on me." And she would tell me that I was an egomaniac and a narcissist and a monster, but then she would sort of case it in this, like, "I love you, you're sexy, you're beautiful, you're the best, you're brilliant." And I think on some level I began to believe her, and thought, you know, I'd had myself all wrong. And then when it got really bad, there was a lot of drinking and a lot of, you know, she would drive really insanely with me in the car — which was terrifying — and threw things at me, and screamed in my ear as loudly as she possibly could.

... part of writing the book was trying to say, some people might not think that what I'm describing constitutes abuse. But I think it does, and here's what happened to me. - Carmen Maria Machado

And it was weird, because I think I write about in the book how, you know, people like domestic violence narratives to be very clear cut, and I talk about in the book how on some level I really wished, I wish she had just punched me in the face, and I had this black eye, and I could be like, "Hey, she punched me. I had a black eye. You recognize that, right?" But it was a lot more subtle than that. So I think part of writing the book was trying to say, some people might not think that what I'm describing constitutes abuse. But I think it does, and here's what happened to me. Like I'm gonna put this in a container, like, here's my experience, here's how it felt.

On describing herself as a "weird fat girl"

One of the sort of chief struggles of my adult life, my artistic life, has been trying to reconcile the things I knew to be true about myself with the way that the world views me. I wrote an essay a couple of years ago called "The Trash Heap has Spoken," and I talk about how, in Shirley Jackson's biography, there's this really bizarre line where they're interviewing somebody who knew her, and they said she was so fat she took up half the couch, but she was really brilliant. And I remember thinking, "why the but?" And I think we expect fat people to be unlovable, and we expect them to be stupid. And I think it's a very deep-set bias that a lot of people wouldn't even necessarily acknowledge out loud. It pops up in very interesting ways, and I think about it a lot. And so I feel like for me, there's this tension between, like, being happy with myself and my body and my life and the sort of place I've made for myself and explicitly not hating who I am, while also acknowledging the fact that fatphobia is so real.

I think one of the hardest things ever in this book is acknowledging that damage was done to me. - Carmen Maria Machado

I mean, it's embarrassing, you know. To say I hated myself so much that I believed that I didn't deserve tenderness or any affection.

I think one of the hardest things ever in this book is acknowledging that damage was done to me. ... I think there's some version of me that says that writing this book made me realize that something happened in the past, and it changed me, and that I am different now, and I always will be. And that's OK. You know, that's all of us. It's not just me. It's like, people are like that.

On meeting her wife, an ex-girlfriend of her abuser

It's so funny ... I've had this thought where it's like, you know, if I could go back and change it, would I? And the answer is no, I wouldn't because it brought me Val. It brought me this person who is the most special and important person in my life. And I feel so grateful and so lucky that something really beautiful could come out of such pain.

This story was edited for radio by Samantha Balaban and Ed McNulty, and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

I speak into the silence. I toss the stone of my story into a vast crevice, measure the emptiness by its small sound. So begins "In the Dream House," a new memoir by Carmen Maria Machado. It's an examination of sexuality that recounts - hauntingly - Machado's physically and emotionally abusive relationship with her then girlfriend. Carmen Maria Machado - whose first book, "Her Body and Other Parties," was nominated for the National Book Award - joins me now. Hello.

CARMEN MARIA MACHADO: Hi.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to talk about the relationship that is at the center of this memoir. You met a woman - who you don't name - when you were attending the University of Iowa's Writers' Workshop. And she was your first real girlfriend.

MACHADO: Yes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tell me a little bit about her.

MACHADO: She was really special. I mean, I met her and sort of fell head over heels. You know, I'm queer. Like I had dated a bunch of men. But I had never sort of dated a woman. And I remember thinking that, like, this was what I'd been waiting for, this experience. And she was really attractive and really charming and really funny. And she liked me, which was really intoxicating.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: One of the stereotypes you pick apart in your memoir - which is heavily researched and full of footnotes, we should say, and historical references - is that lesbian relationships have been portrayed as sort of safe and utopian. And you wrote, fantasy is, I think, the defining cliche of female queerness. Where does that notion come from?

MACHADO: I think, you know, there's this idea that, like, you know, not having men present in a relationship takes a certain kind of stress off, which sexually is actually true. I mean, in a lot of ways, I always sort of talk about how in my relationship, like, obviously the patriarchy affects me in all kinds of ways. But in my sort of day-to-day life, I don't really have to deal with it because I'm married to a woman. And that's just not part of my experience right now, which is actually really lovely.

But I think, yeah, a lot of people sort of translate this into, women aren't capable of hurting each other. Or women aren't capable of abusing each other. Lesbian relationships are the fantasy, the ideal. And I'd say that I think lesbians and queer women perpetrate that idea. And I think it can be really harmful because it doesn't permit space for a multitude of experiences, some of which can be bad - not because the relationship is a lesbian relationship, but because somebody in relationship is not well.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. Queer domestic abuse, I mean, you know it is often not recognized for what it is. Do you mind just talking a little bit about how you experience that?

MACHADO: Yeah. I mean, it was primarily psychological and emotional. So my ex would, you know, call me at all hours and be like, who are you with? Where have you been? Like who have you been with? I know you're cheating on me.

And she would tell me that I was an egomaniac and a narcissist and a monster. And, you know - but then she would sort of case it in this, like, I love you. You are the - you know, you're sexy. You're beautiful. You're the best. You're brilliant.

And I think I, on some level, I mean - I began to - not on some level, I began to believe her and thought I - you know, I'd had myself all wrong and yeah. And then when it got really bad, there was a lot of drinking and a lot of - you know, she would drive really insanely with me in the car and - which was terrifying - and threw things at me and screamed in my ear as loudly as she possibly could.

And it was - it's weird because I think I write about in the book how, you know, people like domestic violence narratives to be very clear cut, you know? And I talk about in the book how, on some level, I really wished - I wish she had, like, just punched me in the face, and I had this, like, black eye. And I could, like, be like, hey, she punched me. I had a black eye. You recognize that, right?

But it was a lot more subtle than that. So I think part of writing the book was trying to say, like, some people might not think that what I'm describing constitutes abuse. But I think it does. And here's what happened to me. Like I'm going to put this in a container. Like here's my experience. Here's here's how it felt.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to ask you about one of the other subjects you've written a lot about, which is fatness. You write in your book that part of the problem was, as a weird fat girl - as you described in yourself - you felt lucky. She did what you'd wished a million others had done - looked past arbitrary markers of social currency and seen your brain and ferocious talent and quick wit. Why did you want to explore that, that idea of your own view of yourself and the way that maybe society had viewed you?

MACHADO: You know, I think, for me, one of the chief struggles of my adult life, my artistic life has been trying to reconcile the things I knew to be true about myself with the way that the world views me. I wrote an essay a couple years ago called "The Trash Heap has Spoken." And I talk about how in Shirley Jackson's biography, there's this really bizarre line where they're interviewing somebody who knew her. And she's - they said she was so fat she took up half the couch. But she was really brilliant.

And I remember thinking, why the but? And I think we expect fat people to be unlovable. And we expect them to be stupid. And I think it's like a very deep-set bias that a lot of people wouldn't even necessarily acknowledge out loud.

It pops up in very interesting ways. And I think about it a lot. And so, you know, I feel like, for me, there's this tension between, like, being happy with myself and my body and my life and the sort of place I've made for myself and explicitly not hating who I am, while also acknowledging the fact that fatphobia is so real - excuse me. I'm so sorry.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's OK. Do you mind me asking, though, why, when you talk about this, you feel what you're feeling?

MACHADO: Because I think it's - I mean, I think the thing about this book - I mean, it's embarrassing, you know, to say, like, I hated myself so much that I believed that, like, I didn't deserve, like, any tenderness or any affection.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I don't know that you should feel embarrassed. It's brave to explore that.

MACHADO: I mean, I think one of the hardest things about writing this book is acknowledging that damage was done to me. Sorry.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's OK.

MACHADO: I think there's some version of me that says, you know, that writing this book made me realize that, like, something happened in the past. And it changed me and that I am different. And I always will be. And that's OK, you know? I'm just - that's all of us. It's not just me. Like people are like that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I do want to note that the relationship in this memoir was seminal, though, in more ways than one. It brought you to your wife.

MACHADO: It did. It did.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Because she was also an ex-girlfriend of this woman.

MACHADO: Yes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I guess there is meaning in that, too.

MACHADO: Yeah. And I think - you know, it's so funny. I think sometimes to myself. I mean, I've had this thought where it's like, you know, if I could go back and change it, would I? And the answer is, like, no, I wouldn't because it brought me Val. It brought me this person who is the most special and important person in my life. And I feel so grateful and so lucky that something really beautiful could come out of such pain.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. Carmen Maria Machado, her memoir is "In the Dream House," thank you very much.

MACHADO: Thank you. Thanks so much.

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