Carmen Maria Machado Takes Us 'In The Dream House' : Code Switch When Carmen Maria Machado started searching for stories about intimate partner violence in queer relationships, there wasn't much out there. But in her new memoir, she says that type of abuse can still be "common as dirt."

Carmen Maria Machado Takes Us 'In The Dream House'

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: If you're silent about your pain, they'll kill you and say you enjoyed it.


That right there is a Zora Neale Hurston quote. And damn, it's powerful. If you're silent about your pain, they'll kill you and say you enjoyed it.

My first time encountering that quote was at the beginning of Carmen Maria Machado's new book called "In The Dream House." It's about Carmen's relationship with an ex-girlfriend who psychologically tormented her. She belittled her, she screamed at her, she controlled and manipulated her.


MERAJI: Reviewers have called "In The Dream House" the most innovative memoir out there - period. There is cultural criticism in it and a Choose Your Own Adventure. The chapters are organized by genre.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Dream House as Murder Mystery.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Dream House as Haunted Mansion.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Dream House as Lesbian Pulp Novel.

CARMEN MARIA MACHADO: It's, like, the way I organize everything, so it just made sense and it was a way that I would organize this book that, in many ways, felt impossible to write, you know, impossible to categorize.

MERAJI: That's Carmen.

MACHADO: I would describe it - oh, my God. And, you know, it's funny because people have been describing it really differently. I guess I would describe it as (laughter) an experimental memoir about many things, including queer intimate partner violence, that uses genre as a mode of interrogation.


MERAJI: You're listening to CODE SWITCH from NPR. I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji, and we're going "In The Dream House" with writer Carmen Maria Machado. And just a warning, there's some cussing in this episode.

MACHADO: Dream House as Inciting Incident. You meet her on a weeknight at dinner with a mutual friend in a diner in Iowa City where the walls are windows. She is sweaty, having just come from the gym, her white-blonde hair pulled back in a short ponytail. She has a dazzling smile, a raspy voice that sounds like a wheelbarrow being dragged over stones. She's that mix of butch and femme that drives you crazy.

You and your friend are talking about television when she arrives. You have been complaining about men's stories, men's stories, how everything is men's stories. She laughs, agrees. She tells you she's freshly transplanted from New York, drawing unemployment insurance and applying to MFA programs. She's a writer, too. Every time she speaks, you feel something inside you drop. You will remember so little about the dinner except that at the end of it, you want to prolong the evening, and so you order tea of all things. You drink it, a mouthful of heat and herb scorching the roof of your mouth while trying not to stare at her, trying to be charming and nonchalant while desire gathers in your limbs.

Your female crushes were always floating past you out of reach, but she touches your arm and looks directly at you. And you feel like a child buying something with her own money for the first time.

MERAJI: So this woman who made you feel like a child buying something with her own money for the first time, you enter into a relationship with her. And this relationship is anything but your fantasy relationship. And in the book, you write that fantasy is this defining cliche of female queerness that, you know, to find desire, love, everyday joy without men's accompanying bulls*** is a pretty decent working definition of paradise. So when was your first realization that this was not that fantasy?

MACHADO: You know, I think there was an incident that happens a few months into our relationship, which I mention in the book, where I had been helping out somebody that I met at a job that we were working, the two of us - like, a temp job. And I sort of vanished for a little bit because I was helping this person. And when my ex finally got in touch with me, she was so angry. And she was yelling, and she yelled so badly at me that I told her, like, don't talk to me like that. Like, that's not OK how you're yelling at me right now. And she threatened me and said, don't ever write about this. Like, do you understand me?

And I feel like looking back on it, it was the first moment where there was this twinge of - like, it was really unpleasant. It was a really horrible sort of thing that felt weird in my stomach. And I remember thinking, like, well, that's not good. And it's weird because, like, so many worse things happened after that, and I feel like that sense got really dulled, you know, by repetition. Eventually, it became this is routine, this is just what happens. But in that first moment, I remember just being very troubled and sort of concerned about it and then thinking, like, it must just be a fluke, you know? It must just be like a - it was a bad day.


MACHADO: The first book about lesbian abuse was published the year I was born - not the most ancient scholarship in the world, but old enough. Why did no one tell me? But who would have told me? I knew so few queer people, and most of them were my age, still figuring things out themselves. I imagine that one day, I will invite young queers over for tea and cheese platters and advice, and I will be able to tell them, you can be hurt by people who look just like you. Not only can it happen, it probably will because the world is full of hurt people who hurt people. Even if a dominant culture considers you an anomaly, that doesn't mean you can't be common, common as f****** dirt.


MERAJI: The title of that chapter is "The Dream House As Self-Help Bestseller." And while you were writing this book - and you put this in the book - you went looking for other stories that would help you make sense of this story and your own experience with queer domestic abuse. What'd you find out there?

MACHADO: Not a whole lot, unfortunately. I mean, you know, domestic violence as a topic of nonfiction, I mean, there's a lot of really, really beautiful, special books about it in the world, so it seemed really odd to me that there just weren't any about queer - like, it just seemed like a very, like, odd omission. And it made my job a lot harder 'cause I sort of - I thought that I could sort of dive in and, you know, maybe there would be, like, some really good - like, a book that touched on, like, some good historical examples that then I could sort of direct my research, you know, and there was just nothing.

MERAJI: Why was it important for you to dig in that way, to do this kind of academic research? Why couldn't you just be like, you know what - it's going to be structured based on genre, and I'm going to write about my own experience, and I don't need to think about it in this very academic way, or this is not necessary?

MACHADO: When we don't allow people context for their experiences and things that have happened to them, it's a kind of violence, you know, and it's almost an implication of, like, you're crazy. And so for me, the sort of academic or historical piece of it is part of that context. It's, like, you know, it's not just me; it's, like, a thing that has happened, like, a thing that exists.

I mean, I feel like writing the book I kept kind of running up against my own anxieties and my own insufficiencies, you know, and the ways in which I felt like I would inevitably fail certain people. You know, I was like, what about these folks? What about these folks? Like, you know, I really hope I do them justice. I hope that I've written a book that I can be proud of and that, like, you know, will do good work in the world.

MERAJI: Did that haunt you? Because I noticed in your afterword you did say very explicitly, hey, I'm more comfortable writing from my lens, which is a cisgender queer woman, and I want to acknowledge that I am not explicitly talking about gay men or queer men or gender nonconforming people in this book. Did you just feel haunted by the fact that you couldn't do that?

MACHADO: Yeah. I don't know if haunted is the right word, but I definitely kept thinking - like, when people do create art from any marginalized identity that hasn't gotten a lot of space in that way, everybody who connected to that identity in any way then wants that piece of art to be everything.


MACHADO: And I feel like that pressure is, like, terrifying. But the pressure's not the fault of that artist; it's the fault of the fact that they are, like, early on in a process. And so I feel like, yeah, like, that was - I thought that was on my mind. And I kept thinking, you know - like, imagining somebody reading the book and being like, well, that's great, but, like, what about me? Sort of wanting to say, like, you know, this book - like, if you can pull something from this book that is useful to you, like, it's for you. That's OK.

But also, like, wanting to clarify my position, you know, saying, like, this is where I'm coming from, and, like, there might be an entirely different book or - you know, to be written about, like, transness and its relationship to this or, like, a black queer perspective or, like, whatever. And, like, that is important to me, that that exists and that, like, there's space for that and that, like, people know that I know that, like, I can only create what I can create, and there's, like, room. There's, like, so much room.

MERAJI: Thank you for - and we feel this all the time on CODE SWITCH.


MERAJI: We get a lot of reaction from listeners who are like, hey, I wasn't represented in that story.

MACHADO: Right. It's like, no anything can be everything for everyone, right? And, like, when you're creating a space in a cannon or you're creating, like, a piece of - like, some room in a sort of existing space, like, yeah, you're - there's always going to be this lack because, you know, it's not like - I don't know. I understand that, and I feel like that pressure is, like, so intense, and it really - I mean, I feel like it - I felt it when I wrote that for my first book, but I really felt it with this book.

MERAJI: I want to go back to this feeling of this unwillingness to air dirty laundry that you really (laughter) - you go to a few times in this book. It's - and I just think it's so relatable to lots of people with marginalized identities, you know. It's this idea that we're all fighting to be seen as full human beings - the good, the bad the ugly - but the minute we talk about what's bad and ugly, the minute that we put that out in public, it's used against us.

MACHADO: Yeah. Yeah.

MERAJI: And, you know, I know you were saying that you're writing from a very particular perspective, but I just feel like that is incredibly relatable. And has anybody talked to you about how relatable that is...


MERAJI: ...Like, other people with different identities?

MACHADO: Yes. A lot of people, actually. I did an interview and the writer was saying to me, like, that in her community - she's like, we don't talk about sexual violence, and, like, I really wish we did. And, you know, feeling like you have to perform respectability, you have to - like, this respectability politics.

And it's so damaging. It's, like, as damaging as the sort of lack of context - right? - where it's like, you can't say, like, anything happened because, like, the person who did it to me falls into some category. And, like, I mean, it makes me feel like I'm glad that the book exists and people can say that, but also it just makes - it, like, breaks my heart.

MERAJI: Well, in "Dream House As Sniffs From The Ink Of Women," you end that with, you know, I didn't want her to be jealous or cruel. Years later, if I could say anything to her, I'd say for f***'s sake, stop making us look bad.

MACHADO: Yeah. But the fact that they're - the cliche of the crazy queer woman is one that I don't want to indulge in. But also, like, how terrible that, like, the fact that non-queer women have used that stereotype. Therefore, I, a queer woman, cannot write a story about a mentally ill queer woman. Like, it just felt, like, really messed up. And I was like, that's just, like, not OK. And - but then I was like, but I also don't want to, like, perpetrate stereotypes and, like, hurt my community, you know?

I need the reader to know that I know that this is complicated, you know? Like, I don't want them to think that I'm sort of uncritically embracing all this. But it's, like, hard. And it's hard to be sort of told, like, because other people have sort of f***ed up in the way that they've represented your community or your identity that, like, you also can't talk about things that have happened to you or things that are real or things that are interesting.


MERAJI: Shereen - just Shereen - CODE SWITCH. Here's Carmen Maria Machado reading from "In The Dream House," The chapter called Dream House as Ambiguity, which talks about a woman named Debra Reid.

MACHADO: The attorneys believed rightly that Debra needed to fit the traditional domestic abuse narrative that people understood. The abuse needed to be a feminine figure - meek, straight, white - and the abuser a masculine one. That Debra was black didn't help her case. It worked against the stereotype.

In another early lesbian abuse case in which a woman gave her girlfriend a pair of shiny black eyes, the prosecutor acknowledged that while she was grateful for and surprised by the abuser's conviction, she believed that the fact that the defendant was butch and black almost certainly played into the jury's willingness to convict her.

MERAJI: In the book, you write that, you know, if you've suffered domestic abuse in a relationship and you're a woman, if you're going to be believed, you better be feminine, you better be straight, and you better be white.


MERAJI: And it's going to be really difficult for you if you're someone like Debra Reid. First of all, what is Debra Reid's story, and why did you choose to include her story in this memoir?

MACHADO: So one of the stories that sort of came up in my research was this group of women called the Framingham Eight. It was in the early '90s. The Boston Globe sort of broke the story, did this big feature about these women. It was eight women who were in Framingham prison who had - are all in prison for killing their abusive spouses or partners. And Debra Reid was black, and she was also the only lesbian in the group who had killed an abusive female lover.

And what was so interesting to me was, like, all of the coverage about her either did not at all or barely touched on her being a lesbian. They didn't sort of know what to do with her. And then part of a process was then they were doing these, like, hearings for clemency. And during these hearings or whatever that were happening in front of this committee, Debra Reid's lawyers were really struggling. So all of the things I read about it were basically saying that they were, like, trying to make her the woman. They were like, you know, she cooked, she cleaned, she took care of the children. Like, her - the person she killed was like the man in the relationship, which hits upon, like, a series of, like, very interesting sort of problems and cliches around this topic which is, like, first of all, the idea that you need to sort of establish, like, who the man and the woman is in, like, a queer relationship.

And eventually, they did not give her clemency. And so yeah, so Debra, like, suffered the rest of her sentence. And I was just so - I was just - I kept - I was, like, hunting down everything I could find about her, which was not a lot and - I don't know, and just being really troubled and, like, feeling for her. And I think about her, like, every day.

MERAJI: I love that you put her in the book. Like, I love that you told these stories of these black women. I want to stick with the topic of race here and talk a little bit about your racial identity. I noticed there were some references to Cuba in the book.


MERAJI: But it wasn't until page 236 in the hardback version that I'm like, oh, Carmen Maria Machado is Cuban (laughter) because you write about visiting Cuba, and you call it your ancestral home, I think, and you visit with your brother.


MERAJI: Is there a reason that your cultural background isn't brought up that often?

MACHADO: Well, there's a few reasons, one of which is that I'm white presenting, and I recognize that that's, like, a privilege that I have and that I have this anxiety that, like, if I talk too much about it or if I make it too much a big thing about my life that, like, people will think I'm, like, appropriating something or that I'm, like, absorbing some identity that isn't fully mine.

So yeah. So I feel like part of me felt like to write about it too much would feel like it wasn't accurate to, like, my experience of the world, you know, or accurate to my identity in this - yeah, I just didn't it to, like - I don't know. Does that make any sense? I feel I'm not explaining it well. But...

MERAJI: It makes complete sense. Well, as - I'm Iranian and Puerto Rican, and so I really feel uncomfortable speaking about my Iranian-ness because I grew up much more Puerto Rican. And so everyone's like, why don't you ever talk about being Iranian?

MACHADO: Yeah. Yeah.

MERAJI: And I'm kind of like - so I thought - I am, but, like, I don't know enough about it, and I feel like I...


MERAJI: I just feel like I want to do justice to this wonderful identity, and I feel like I'm not (laughter).

MACHADO: Yeah. Well, I was telling - so I was in Philadelphia, I was in Center City and I got recognized by a clerk at a store who was like, oh, I'm a fan. Like, I just recognized you. And I was like, oh, that's so nice. And then she said this thing that really stressed me out. She was like, yeah, like, I wasn't sure if it was you because I was like, oh, all white people look alike.


MACHADO: And I was like, I get what you're saying, and I totally understand it. I didn't say anything about it at the moment. I was just sort of like, oh, you know, whatever. Like, it - but it really, like, bothered me (laughter). And I kept kind of, like, turning it over in my head, like, when I got home. And it was this very weird mood, and I was like, how would I even respond to that? Like, insisting, being like, I'm not. Because I'm like, I'm not white, but I look white, and so it feels like - and my mom is white.

You know, like, I grew up in - you know, which is to say that, like, I grew up - like, I know I grew up in the f****** suburbs. Like, I had an experience that feels very, like, sort of, you know, middle class and white. And I feel like - in many ways I feel, like, sort of isolated from parts of my, like, Latina identity and Spanish as a language and, like, all these things. And I don't know to make of that, and I always feel, like, kind of weirdly trapped by that discourse.


MACHADO: And then having it happen in real life, where there was just no way to respond to it, where I was like, you think that I'm white; I'm not white, but if I insist that I'm not white, it's going to be a whole situation.

MERAJI: (Laughter).

MACHADO: Like, there's going to be a whole thing, and I don't want to go through that whole thing. So this is all to say (laughter), yeah, like, it felt like an important part of my book but, like, a small important part, like important in the sense that it's part of my identity, but also, like, I feel like there were larger things to talk about. Like, I feel like my fatness played into the story of the way that my abuse manifested and took place and was possible, like, more than my race. Does that make sense?

MERAJI: It does.


MERAJI: Full transparency here - I wouldn't know a damn thing about Carmen's work if it wasn't for CODE SWITCH producer Kumari Devarajan. I ended up going to an artist's residency over the summer, my first time ever doing something like that. And Kumari encouraged me to read Carmen's short story "The Resident," which is about a writer who attends an artist's residency called Devil's Throat.


MERAJI: And let's just say - it was very creepy.

MACHADO: So you're scared and can't - won't go outside at all.


MERAJI: I know.

MACHADO: So you just stay in the cabin and never go anywhere (laughter).

MERAJI: And I actually didn't read it before I left, which I'm so glad I didn't. I bought your whole book of short stories and I read it while I was there. And all that to say she introduced me to you and your work. I'm super hooked on your work. Would you mind if she came in and asked you a couple questions. I feel like...

MACHADO: Oh, not at all.

MERAJI: OK (laughter).

MACHADO: No, not at all.

MERAJI: Should I leave the studio so you can have time together?



DEVARAJAN: Please stay.


DEVARAJAN: I'm usually not on this side of the wall. I'm usually watching this happen and listening so bear with me.

MACHADO: Oh. No, no worries. Hi.

DEVARAJAN: Hi. So I loved your memoir, and I found myself - when I was reading it, I would get really nervous every time you were describing a sex scene or describing sex. And I think I'm just - I'm very protective of, like, queer sex and lesbian sex, and I don't want, like, men or straight people to be reading it.


MACHADO: That's so interesting.

DEVARAJAN: But I also - I really appreciated how honest you were in both its eroticism and the abusiveness of the sex that you write about. But, yeah, I just want to know what you were thinking when you were writing that stuff.

MACHADO: I was thinking, I do not want my father to read this.


MACHADO: It's so funny because it's, like, my first book was so sexually explicit, but it is really different writing a memoir in which you have sexually explicit material because, I mean, probably everyone assumes that before, you were writing about sex you've had or some - or sex you've imagined having. But if you're putting it in the memoir, like, you have.

You know, there's something about the sort of immediate, like, embodiment of it, which I think is true of, like, all memoir writing - right? - where it's like, there's always this element of, like - like, when an author is standing in front of you, like, you're talking about fiction, you're like, oh, I'm seeing the product of their mind. And then we're just - till you find you're talking about memoir, you're like, oh, I'm seeing the product of, like, the physical being that's, like, standing in front of me that I could, like, reach out and touch, you know.

And so I feel like the sex part of it is, like, also part of that, where it becomes immediately, like, very stressful and intimate in this way that you're not expecting. I sort of went back and forth about how much I wanted to show 'cause it's - it wasn't like the Carmen sex show, you know?


MACHADO: Like, where I felt like it shouldn't be that, you know. Yeah. I don't know. I think it's funny that you say that you feel, like, protective of it, like you don't want other people to know how great it is or something or like...



MACHADO: Yeah. I mean, the reason I write about sex in general really explicitly is because I feel like, A, like, queer sex is an art form deserves to be treated as such, and also, like, it deserves the kind of sort of beautiful, I think, language that we've got in so many other ways, you know, for so many other things.

And it's - like, sex is, like, one of the most human things we do, right? And so it feels just so important to the story. And, like, I'd be lying if I said that, like, sex was not a thing that, like, kept me - like, the potency of my desire and my, like, want to be wanted and my want to f*** and my want to come, like, that that was not, like, a really intense part of, like, this whole relationship.

DEVARAJAN: Yeah. I was also really struck by the certain pieces of your childhood that you chose to include. And it kind of all culminated for me in this one part where you are kind of wondering if you've been trained or groomed to be in this abusive situation. You ask if this is because you've been tenderized, like a pork chop. I'll never forget that line. Why did you choose to include the few glimpses of how you grew up?

MACHADO: I mean - you know, my parents got divorced a few years ago. And it was, like, pretty ugly, and it was sort of the first time that anyone in my family kind of acknowledged, like, how bad my parent's marriage was and what we had grown up thinking was normal or thinking was, like, the way that you conducted a relationship.

And so that was important to me, and it was important for me to talk about, you know, the way that my father talked about gender as, like, a really important sort of way of understanding certain sort of thoughts that, like, seemed normal to me when I was an adult that I talk about in the book.

And I feel like, you know, when you're telling a story about a relationship, like, you're never telling a story but just, like, the thing that happened between, like, X date and X date, right? It's always about the people that came to that space and then left it, you know, and how they came to it and how they left it.

And like, for me, coming to that relationship in particular, it was like all the bits that came before - you know, how you grow up thinking about sex and love and what relationships you look at, the way in which you perceive yourself in relationship to all these things - like, that is who you are, and that is who is one of the people coming into that situation. And so, yeah.

DEVARAJAN: So this was the first book that I found and read that's like this, that talks about queer domestic violence and talks about something that is an experience similar to one I've had. And I'm wondering if you've gotten reactions from people who have gone through similar things and what they're saying.

MACHADO: Yeah. I mean, a lot. I mean, I wish the answer was nobody, (laughter) nobody else has ever felt that way because it would mean that, you know, there was less pain in the world. But, I mean, people - yeah, I mean, I've been getting - I mean, I've been doing events for the book and I've been getting a lot of people just coming up to me and saying something to the effect of, like, you know, this really spoke to something that happened to me. It really meant a lot to me. Thank you.

But I was really surprised. Even before the book came out, I was getting messages from people who were saying, you know, I know you didn't write this for me - like, I had one person who was like, I'm a straight woman, but I've been, like, in an emotionally and psychologically abusive relationship, and I've just never seen that represented anywhere, so thank you. And then I wrote - another email, like, very soon after that from a man who was like, I'm a man who was abused by my ex-wife, and I've never seen a representation of a woman as an abuser before. And, like, thank you.

And both of them were - sort of acknowledged, like, I know this was not meant for me, but it really spoke to me. And I feel like there's something really interesting about, yeah, seeing how people are responding to the book and, you know, understanding that they may not - don't share certain things about my identity but also that, like, it's speaking to, like, sort of a large range of experiences that just haven't been given a lot of space, and that's really special.

I mean, that really - I mean, it makes me sad in some ways because it means that, you know, there's just a lot of pain. But it also makes me feel like the pain of writing the book was worth it.


MERAJI: Carmen Maria Machado's new book is called "In The Dream House."


MERAJI: And that's our show. Please follow us on Twitter. We're at @nprcodeswitch. I'm at @radiomirage. And don't forget to subscribe to the podcast. We're reupping our super popular Ask Code Switch advice segment in 2020, so please send us your toughest, most uncomfortable, most awkward questions about race. We want to answer them. And we know a bunch of you put, read more books, listen to more books, on your 2020 resolutions, and we've got recommendations for you coming soon on the podcast. Here's a hint...


WHITNEY HOUSTON: (Singing) There's a boy I know. She's the one I dream of.

MERAJI: (Singing) There's a girl I know. She's the one I dream of.

HOUSTON: (Singing) Looks into my eyes...

MERAJI: (Singing) My eyes.

I don't know the rest.


HOUSTON: (Singing) ...Takes me to the clouds above.

MERAJI: Kumari Devarajan produced this episode. It was edited by Leah Donnella. A shoutout to the rest of the CODE SWITCH team - Karen Grigsby Bates, Adrian Florido, Jess Kung, LA Johnson and Steve Drummond. Gene's back next week. I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji. Peace.


HOUSTON: (Singing) Really love.

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