In the Dream House: A Memoir by Carmen Maria Machado - chapter 2
Dream House as Overture
I never read prologues. I find them tedious. If what the author has to say is so important, why relegate it to the paratext? What are they trying to hide?
Dream House as Prologue
In her essay “Venus in Two Acts,” on the dearth of contemporaneous African accounts of slavery, Saidiya Hartman talks about the “violence of the archive.” This concept—also called “archival silence”—illustrates a difficult truth: 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.
The word archive, Jacques Derrida tells us, comes from the ancient Greek ἀρχεῖον: arkheion, “the house of the ruler.” When I first learned about this etymology, I was taken with the use of house (a lover of haunted house stories, I’m a sucker for architecture metaphors), but it is the power, the authority, that is the most telling element. What is placed in or left out of the archive is a political act, dictated by the archivist and the political context in which she lives. This is true whether it’s a parent deciding what’s worth recording of a child’s early life or—like Europe and its Stolpersteine, its “stumbling blocks”—a continent publicly reckoning with its past. Here is where Sebastian took his first fat-footed baby steps; here is the house where Judith was living when we took her to her death.
Sometimes the proof is never committed to the archive—it is not considered important enough to record, or if it is, not important enough to preserve. Sometimes there is a deliberate act of destruction: consider the more explicit letters between Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok, burned by Hickok for their lack of discretion. Almost certainly erotic and gay as hell, especially considering what wasn’t burned. (“I’m getting so hungry to see you.”) The late queer theorist José Esteban Muñoz pointed out that “queerness has an especially vexed relationship to evidence…. When the historian of queer experience attempts to document a queer past, there is often a gatekeeper, representing a straight present.” What gets left behind? Gaps where people never see themselves or find information about themselves. Holes that make it impossible to give oneself a context. Crevices people fall into. Impenetrable silence.
The complete archive is mythological, possible only in theory; somewhere in Jorge Luis Borges’s Total Library, perhaps, buried under the detailed history of the future and his dreams and half dreams at dawn on August 14, 1934. But we can try. “How does one tell impossible stories?” Hartman asks, and she suggests many avenues: “advancing a series of speculative arguments,” “exploiting the capacities of the subjunctive (a grammatical mood that expresses doubts, wishes, and possibilities),” writing history “with and against the archive,” “imagining what cannot be verified.”
The abused woman has certainly been around as long as human beings have been capable of psychological manipulation and interpersonal violence, but as a generally understood concept it—and she—did not exist until about fifty years ago. The conversation about domestic abuse within queer communities is even newer, and even more shadowed. As we consider the forms intimate violence takes today, each new concept—the male victim, the female perpetrator, queer abusers, and the queer abused—reveals itself as another ghost that has always been here, haunting the ruler’s house. Modern academics, writers, and thinkers have new tools to delve back into the archives in the same way that historians and scholars have made their understanding of contemporary queer sexuality reverberate through the past. Consider: What is the topography of these holes? Where do the lacunae live? How do we move toward wholeness? How do we do right by the wronged people of the past without physical evidence of their suffering? How do we direct our record keeping toward justice?
The memoir is, at its core, an act of resurrection. Memoirists re-create the past, reconstruct dialogue. They summon meaning from events that have long been dormant. They braid the clays of memory and essay and fact and perception together, smash them into a ball, roll them flat. They manipulate time; resuscitate the dead. They put themselves, and others, into necessary context.
I enter into the archive that domestic abuse between partners who share a gender identity is both possible and not uncommon, and that it can look something like this. I speak into the silence. I toss the stone of my story into a vast crevice; measure the emptiness by its small sound.
Eros limbslackener shakes me again—
that sweet, bitter, impossible creature.
—Sappho, as translated by Jim Powell
Dream House as Not a Metaphor
I daresay you have heard of the Dream House? It is, as you know, a real place. It stands upright. It is next to a forest and at the rim of a sward. It has a foundation, though rumors of the dead buried within it are, almost certainly, a fiction. There used to be a swing dangling from a tree branch but now it’s just a rope, with a single knot swaying in the wind. You may have heard stories about the landlord, but I assure you they are untrue. After all, the landlord is not a man but an entire university. A tiny city of landlords! Can you imagine?
Most of your assumptions are correct: it has floors and walls and windows and a roof. If you are assuming there are two bedrooms, you are both right and wrong. Who is to say that there are only two bedrooms? Every room can be a bedroom: you only need a bed, or not even that. You only need to sleep there. The inhabitant gives the room its purpose. Your actions are mightier than any architect’s intentions. I bring this up because it is important to remember that the Dream House is real. It is as real as the book you are holding in your hands, though significantly less terrifying. If I cared to, I could give you its address, and you could drive there in your own car and sit in front of that Dream House and try to imagine the things that have happened inside. I wouldn’t recommend it. But you could. No one would stop you.
Dream House as Picaresque
Before I met the woman from the Dream House, I lived in a tiny two-bedroom in Iowa City. The house was a mess: owned by a slumlord, slowly falling apart, full of eclectic, nightmarish details. There was a room in the basement—my roommates and I called it the murder room—with blood-red floors, walls, and ceiling, further improved by a secret hatch and a nonfunctional landline phone. Elsewhere in the basement, a Lovecraftian heating system reached long tentacles up into the rest of the house. When it was humid, the front door swelled in its frame and refused to open, like a punched eye. The yard was huge and pocked with a fire pit and edged with poison ivy, trees, a rotting fence.
I lived with John and Laura and their cat, Tokyo. They were a couple; long-legged and pale, erstwhile Floridians who’d gone to hippie college together and had come to Iowa for their respective graduate degrees. The living embodiment of Florida camp and eccentricity, and, ultimately, the only thing that, post–Dream House, would keep the state in my good graces.
Laura looked like an old-fashioned movie star: wide-eyed and ethereal. She was dry and disdainful and wickedly funny; she wrote poetry and was pursuing a degree in library science. She felt like a librarian, like the wise conduit for public knowledge, as if she could lead you anywhere you needed to be. John, on the other hand, looked like a grunge rocker-cum-offbeat-professor who’d discovered God. He made kimchi and sauerkraut in huge mason jars he monitored on the kitchen counter like a mad botanist; he once spent an hour describing the plot of Against Nature to me in exquisite detail, including his favorite scene, in which the eccentric and vile antihero encrusts a tortoise’s shell with exotic jewels and the poor creature, “unable to support the dazzling luxury imposed on it,” dies from the weight. When I first met John, he said to me, “I got a tattoo, do you want to see?” And I said, “Yes,” and he said, “Okay, it’s gonna look like I’m showing you my junk but I’m not, I swear,” and when he lifted the leg of his shorts high on his thigh there was a stick-and-poke tattoo of an upside-down church.“Is that an upside-down church?” I asked, and he smiled and wiggled his eyebrows—not lasciviously, but with genuine mischief—and said, “Upside down according to who?” Once, when Laura came out of their bedroom in cutoffs and a bikini top, John looked at her with real, uncomplicated love and said, “Girl, I want to dig you a watering hole.”
Like a picara, I have spent my adulthood bopping from city to city, acquiring kindred spirits at every stop; a group of guardians who have taken good care of me (a tender of guardians, a dearheart of guardians). My friend Amanda from college, my roommate and housemate until I was twenty-two, whose sharp and logical mind, flat affect, and dry sense of humor witnessed my evolution from messy teenager to messy semiadult. Anne—a rugby player with dyed-pink hair, the first vegetarian and lesbian I ever met— who’d overseen my coming-out like a benevolent gay goddess. Leslie, who coached me through my first bad breakup with brie and two-dollar bottles of wine and time with her animals, including a stocky brown pit bull named Molly who would lick my face until I dissolved into hysterics. Everyone who ever read and commented on my LiveJournal, which I dutifully kept from ages fifteen to twenty-five, spilling my guts to a motley crew of poets, queer weirdos, programmers, RPG buffs, and fanfic writers.
John and Laura were like that. They were always there, intimate with each other in one way and intimate with me in another, as if I were a beloved sibling. They weren’t watching over me, exactly; they were the protagonists of their own stories.
But this story? This one’s mine.
Dream House as Perpetual Motion Machine
There’s this game I played during gym class when I was eight, when they sent me to the outfield during baseball. I would stand so far from everyone else that the balls my classmates hit could never reach me, and our gym teacher didn’t seem to notice that I was sitting open-legged in the tall grass.
The teacher, Ms. Lily, was short and stocky and had a cropped haircut, and one of the kids in my class called her a lesbian. I had no idea what that meant; I’m not sure he did, either. It was 1994. Ms. Lily wore baggy athletic pants with patches of neon greens and purples in abstract, eye-searing patterns. (When I learned the story of Joseph and his coat of many colors in Sunday school, all I could think of was Ms. Lily’s outfit.) The synthetic fabric hissed when she walked; you could always hear her coming. I have a clear memory of her trying to explain body isolation to us—she drew a line down the center of herself, starting at the top of her head. When she reached her crotch, kids giggled. From there, she showed us our left sides and our right sides, how to move each independently and then in tandem. She spun her arms like a carnival ride.
Fitness!, she’d say, touching her right hand to her left foot, then her left hand to her right foot. You only have one body! You have to take care of it! Maybe she was a lesbian.
Sitting in the grass during those baseball games, I’d rip up all of the weeds within my reach, leaving my hands smelling like dirt and wild onions. I broke dandelion stems and marveled at their sticky white milk. The game is this: You take the dandelion and rub it hard beneath your chin—in my case, right over the narrow white scar I earned falling in the tub when I was a toddler—so hard the florets begin to disintegrate. If your chin turns yellow, it means you’re in love.
At eight I was reed-thin, anxious. I was too tightly wound to be dreamy, most of the time, but sitting in the grass gave me a kind of peace. Every class I took that dandelion’s severed head and worked it against my chin until it was a hot, wet ball, like a bud that hadn’t yet opened.
The trick, or maybe it’s the punch line, is that the yellow always comes off on your skin. The dandelion yields every time. It has no wiles, no secrets, no sense of self-preservation. And so it goes that, even as children, we understand something we cannot articulate: The diagnosis never changes. We will always be hungry, will always want. Our bodies and minds will always crave something, even if we don’t recognize it.
And in the same way the dandelion’s destruction tells us about ourselves, so does our own destruction: our bodies are ecosystems, and they shed and replace and repair until we die. And when we die, our bodies feed the hungry earth, our cells becoming part of other cells, and in the world of the living, where we used to be, people kiss and hold hands and fall in love and fuck and laugh and cry and hurt others and nurse broken hearts and start wars and pull sleeping children out of car seats and shout at each other. If you could harness that energy—that constant, roving hunger— you could do wonders with it. You could push the earth inch by inch through the cosmos until it collided heart-first with the sun.
Dream House as an Exercise in Point of View
You were not always just a You. I was whole—a symbiotic relationship between my best and worst parts—and then, in one sense of the definition, I was cleaved: a neat lop that took first person—that assured, confident woman, the girl detective, the adventurer— away from second, who was always anxious and vibrating like a too-small breed of dog.
I left, and then lived: moved to the East Coast, wrote a book, moved in with a beautiful woman, got married, bought a rambling Victorian in Philadelphia. Learned things: how to make Manhattans and use starchy pasta water to create sauces and keep succulents alive.
But you. You took a job as a standardized-test grader. You drove seven hours to Indiana every other week for a year. You churned out mostly garbage for the second half of your MFA. You cried in front of many people. You missed readings, parties, the supermoon. You tried to tell your story to people who didn’t know how to listen. You made a fool of yourself, in more ways than one.
I thought you died, but writing this, I’m not sure you did.