In the Dream House is a memoir about psychological and emotional abuse in a lesbian relationship. The author, Carmen Maria Machado, reflects on her long-term relationship with a woman and the slow buildup of psychological abuse techniques her girlfriend employs over time: gaslighting, name-calling, self-victimization, privacy violation, triangulated communication and more.
The structure of In the Dream House is contemporary, closer in form to a collection of essays than a long-form nonfiction work. Each section could work as a stand-alone piece, some of them more media criticism op-eds than narrative essays. Machado ties each section together by titling it “Dream House as …,” although many chapters don’t refer to the overarching metaphor of architecture at all. Weaved somewhat consistently throughout the memoir, architecture as a symbol solidifies the author’s isolation in her psychologically abusive relationship. Recurring images include walls, doors, doorknobs and locks — all intended to segment sections of the house, separate them from the rest. The doorknob metaphor offers a sense of hope: We know that the author is writing about this experience through a new lens (through a new keyhole, if you will), one that depicts her ex-partner’s actions as abusive (whereas Machado justified these actions when she was in the relationship). Each reference to a doorknob, the one architectural boundary that can be overturned (pun intended), reminds the reader that the author is now safe outside of the “dream house.”
By allowing each chapter to serve as a stand-alone piece, connected to one another in theme, Machado successfully braided pop culture references, action scenes and architectural exposition throughout the memoir. The intercalary chapters describe plays, movies, books and historical events that bring to light the American understanding of relationships and abuse. Without these interludes, the author could not have effectively made her case: that she endured psychological abuse at the “hands” of her partner, that queer women can also be abusers, that her experience was real. Receiving this information in fragments also mirrors the author’s own experience as she came to understand the reality of her relationship: that her partner was treating her poorly, that she had a right to feel attacked, that her codependency on her partner kept her trapped in the relationship.
I identify with the author on several levels: I am queer, and I am no stranger to codependency. Even still, I caught myself trying to see if the author was exaggerating about her situation in the first third of the book. Being repeatedly gaslighted taught me to question my own perception, so I questioned hers too.
I wonder if that was the author’s intention: to trigger defensiveness in the reader. It seems evident that the author simply wants to validate her own experiences, but just in doing that, she must have known (through her experience with her girlfriend and her experience telling her story before writing and publishing this book) that people would feel that their false perceptions about relationships are being threatened. Lies quickly come to the surface when someone is firm in their truth. In the Dream House is an important work that simultaneously validates the experiences of abuse victims and challenges the manipulative narratives of abusers.