Carmen Maria Machado’s Memoir Is Riddled with Restless Ghosts
The author of "In the Dream House" on memory, abuse, and how writing about yourself can be an act of violence
Electric Lit relies on contributions from our readers to help make literature more exciting, relevant, and inclusive. Please support our work by becoming a member today, or making a one-time donation here.
I first encountered Carmen Maria Machado in 2016, reading her short fiction “Horror Story” in Granta. Her innovative and acclaimed debut collection Her Body and Other Parties had not yet been published, but I scourged the internet for everything I could find. What I found were stories about queer relationships, folk tales updated for our times, a range of different craft techniques I’d never seen in contemporary fiction.
Like her electrifying, bizarre stories, Machado’s debut memoir In the Dream House uses a fragmented structure to tell the story of a queer relationship she was in while she was a student at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, a relationship that spiraled into psychological abuse. Drawing a variety of tropes to organize each segment of the book, from noir to fantasy to Bildungsroman, Machado unearths painful and difficult memories, as well as the trajectory that led her to her relationship, observing and analyzing them from a variety of prisms as one would inspect a jewel. The book examines stereotypes about lesbian relationships and it expands the scope of how we discuss and write about abuse in queer relationships. Difficult and devastating as it is, Machado’s storytelling is playful and inventive, and her analysis rigorous and compassionate. In our phone call, Machado graciously discussed her obsession with haunted houses, time travel and fate, and the shaping of her book.
Roberto Rodriguez-Estrada: In the Dream House is a memoir, which I imagine changes how you feel about it coming into the world.
Carmen Maria Machado: Well, I would be lying if I said I was not stressed and anxious. I’m having a lot of anxiety; it’s a very different process than having a fictional book out and it requires more out of me psychologically, which I’m prepared for but am also dreading. And also another part of me knows what’s coming because, with the last book Her Body and Other Parties, I didn’t know it was going to be a hit so I was surprised constantly about everything that was happening. Now it’s just like: here we go! It’s a different headspace.
RRE: This book is about a literal (and figurative) house; it’s a book with a million different rooms and cabinets and nooks. You recreate your ex’s house in Indiana in many different ways. How was it different to write this book, which requires all this excavation of memory?
CM: I wrote part of the book while I was revising Her Body and Other Parties two years ago. I took a first stab at it and it sucked, but I was also working on it between other projects in a very quick process. And then I sold a sort of skeletal draft to Graywolf Press, which was a third of the material and really, really rough. So last year I sat down to finish it—thinking okay, this has got to be done by the end of the year —and that part was really awful. It was really difficult to return to that headspace while I was in a writing residency all by myself. Far from my spouse. Far from my friends. It was a dark, weird place, and that’s true for both the personal material and the research. I was like, “Oh! Maybe it’ll be easier when I’m reading about other people’s traumas and not just my own,” but it really didn’t get any better. It was just as sad, just as hard. I sort of wanted it to be over and I had to finish it, but it was one of those books that was a mess until it wasn’t anymore. And it only felt like it wasn’t a mess until the very end.
I kept struggling with this idea of “this is all garbage.” And I’m not sure if anyone is going to tell me it is! Normally my spouse is my first reader, but for obvious reasons she was just not ready; it was hard for her to give regular edits like she would for anything else.
RRE: That makes sense. She’s in the book!
CMM: Exactly, so that was hard too. It was fine that she didn’t want to do that, completely understandable, but it took me some time to get used to that because she’s been looking at my work for so long. And so there was this day when I actually emailed a friend of mine and I said, “I don’t need you to give me actual notes; I just need you to tell me it’s not a mess!” He was really sweet and she said, “it’s actually not a mess at all” and gave me concrete reasons about why it wasn’t a mess. And I felt better.
It was just a really difficult and emotional process, and I wonder if all nonfiction is that way. Not that I hadn’t written nonfiction before, I had, but there was something about this book in particular that required so much personal excavation, so much truth telling to myself, and so much accessing this well of great pain, which …part of it is sort of better and part of it is sort of boarded up. It was such a strange process to go back and access that again.
RRE: One of the segments is about your ex forcing you to write down all your worst qualities, all your flaws. How do you walk away from writing something like this?
CMM: Actually that section used to be longer, it had to be cut down because it was too long. It’s weird, though, because I think part of being a functioning adult is being honest with yourself about your flaws and it’s something a well-adjusted person can get used to. But then I think the process of being forced to articulate that to another person is an act of violence, an act of manipulation, and then focuses all these faults and mistakes on you. And then it becomes a sort of habit. One of the hardest parts of writing this book was realizing how many of those habits are still in me. I haven’t seen this person in about eight years and the fact that I still have habits ingrained in me, fears and anxieties that I haven’t shaken. Recognizing that there was damage done and that it was done in reverse, it’s a real bucket of water in the face. I think I always knew this on some level but I haven’t been able to actually articulate it in this way. It means there are all these super straight lines between a thing she made me do and a thing she did to me, or a way that she manipulated me or gaslit me or hurt me in some way. And then recognizing that that still exists somewhere in me is really painful; it’s a hard cold dose of reality. I want to believe that I wrote this book from a healed place because I think it can be really hard to write well from a place of great pain, but for this book I was somewhere in-between. And that’s hard too because I want to say, this is something that happened to me, it’s in the past, it’s boxed up and in this book and I want to share it with you, but what’s hard is that that’s still part of me and I don’t like that. But it is what it is.
RRE: Let’s return to the topic of houses. The house is such an important trope in horror. A lot of the most violent parts of the book occur in houses, or else enclosed, claustrophobic spaces: your ex’s car, over phone calls. There are so many different layers of meaning in the concept of a house. Why do you think writers return to it as a setting of horror? In the section “Dream House as American Gothic,” you cite film theorist Mary-Ann Doane, who says: “Horror, which should by rights be external to domesticity, infiltrates the home.”
CMM: I’ve always been interested in houses and in the past few years I’ve worked and thought about houses, haunted houses, and the ways in which that idea can be both chilling and a useful organizational principal for lots of different ideas. I think this idea of domestic horror, horror that’s coming from the wrong direction, is funny because home invasion is a horror genre I don’t relate to very much, whereas a horror that’s coming from within the house is much more interesting to me.
So, I first started thinking of the house in Indiana and what it means for a house to have metaphors built in, because it was never my house. I was just a visitor. But the fact is that we both spent a lot of time in this house. It was ours in a very personal way. There was also something about having all that created and shattered in the same brush. And the way that destruction was reproduced in enclosed spaces: in the car, in a shipping container flea-market in New York. Or even flying in an airplane or being in an airport, all these places that have these enclosed, liminal qualities about them. The more I thought, the more I was into it, the more I realized that being with her was just a sequence of being trapped in many different kinds of spaces. In the book I talk about Gaslight the film and that enclosure is very literal; as the film progresses she doesn’t leave the house and that’s sort of self-enforced. But when she does, when she removes herself from the house, the structure is still around her. To me there’s something so chilling about that, that the house follows you. Even when you’ve left the space. And that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. It can be good in a way; it can be a good house, it can be a happy house. But in my case it was really bad because I felt like the house was following me around and falling on my body.
RRE: That reminds me of White is For Witching by Helen Oyeyemi, where the character Miranda leaves the house for university, only to return to it at the end of book; it consumes her.
CMM: And that’s what a haunting is; a haunting is a state of being unable not to return. There’s always a sense of returning, a sense of inevitability, a sense of being yoked. I give this craft talk on haunted houses and there’s this great line in this poem by Jane Kenyon and she talks about depression as a ghost. She says, unholy ghosts are certain to come again. It’s a thing you can never exorcise; it’s never gone.
But once I had the house as an organizing principle of the book, the whole thing kind of changed. It was hard to write the book without having a form, so this brought everything together.
RRE: How do you choose which pieces fit into the narrative you’re trying to tell? You include a section about a close and almost inappropriate friendship you had with a priest when you were in high school, which is sort of distinct from the narrative with your ex and the dream house. How do you decide what matters to the overall story?
CCM: I think for the most part they were things I felt were impossible to omit. The more I thought about the thing with my pastor—actually this section is adapted from a piece I wrote years ago for Catapult—I realized that more than anything in my whole life that event really prepped me, and not in a good way. I think the lack of what happened to me exactly, why this situation was so fucked up, why these boundaries were being violated weren’t obvious to me for years later, and there were a lot of things that were prepping me in a really weird way so I had to write about it. And then there was stuff that I just wasn’t sure would fit or just needed to go. The case of the priest felt more obvious to me and it fit with this element of: What does it mean to be this young woman trying to figure out what sexuality is, trying to figure out what desire is, with this weird religious angle and also all this body shame and everything? So that felt obvious. And then there were all these other pieces and I knew I couldn’t write a thousand page book, so I realized I really need the reader to get a sense of it but this is not an autobiography. I don’t need to give every detail.
There were all these moments where I had to think: what does this do for the book? Does it give it dimensionality? I wanted to create a sense of who I was as a person, who I am as a person, and also give a sense of what the path to my ex-girlfriend, the path to this situation, looked like and what were the points along the way that kind of guided me in that direction. And I don’t mean that in a cosmic sense. I don’t think a deity was punishing me there. But more, what in my life made me ready for this? And that was a question I wanted to answer for myself. So looking back and examining your past pain, and trying to honor that. We can never go back to our former selves and just tell them: “Oh honey, that’s just a normal part of adulthood.”
RRE: You touch on fate in a few points, for instance “Dream House as Time Travel,” how you couldn’t change something even if you went back and tried to intervene. What are your thoughts on fate or inevitability?
CCM: The time travel theory I draw on is that if we could access the past in some way we still wouldn’t be able to change a thing that’s already happened because, by definition, it’s already happened. And this is just one theory of time travel, but what was compelling about it to me was that it reminded me of this great Ted Chiang story called “The Merchant and the Alchemist,” which is a really good example of this theory: He wants to travel to the past to rescue his wife but he can’t. She’s already dying; she’s already died. This is far more interesting to me because we can’t go back and change things. I don’t think of it as fate, just that things have already happened, they’re done. And I think for me that also creates a kind of grief because I want to reach back to this person that I used to be and say, “it’s going to be okay but it’s also really going to suck.” I just want to go back and do something or say something but I obviously can’t. So it might as well be fate for her, for that past version of myself. And there’s something really devastating about that; there’s nothing you can do because the moment in which you were that one person is gone and you’re now someone else for better or for worse. Which is okay because that person is still me, but there’s something really horrible about wanting to reach back and say: I’m so sorry. The thing is I don’t actually wish I could undo it because I wouldn’t have met my wife. Even if I could go back in time to keep myself from interacting with this person, I wouldn’t. It brought me the person who gives me the most joy in the world.