‘I Was Trapped Forever In This Present Tense’: Carmen Maria Machado on Surviving Abuse

“She was always afraid of my voice. That was the defining factor of our relationship — fear of what I would say and write and do. She’s afraid of … the narrative that I possess.”

Hope Reese | Longreads | November 2019 | 8 minutes (2,125 words)

“The nature of archival silence is that certain people’s narratives and their nuances are swallowed by history,” Carmen Maria Machado writes in her memoir In the Dream House. “We see only what pokes through because it is sufficiently salacious for the majority to pay attention.” In this new book, which draws attention to the rarely-written issue of abuse in queer relationships, she hopes to provide an antidote to the problem.

In her elegant and piercing story, Machado, whose 2017 collection Her Body And Other Parties was a finalist for the National Book Award, fits fragmented memories together to tell her own story of abuse (chapters appear as vignettes, with titles such as “The Dream House as Utopia,” or “The Dream House as Diagnosis”).

“The Dream House” — although entirely real — is a bit fantastical, and Machado writes in the second person to turn the lens around. Her partner is, simply, “the woman in the dream house.” And Machado’s use of footnotes from the Motif Index of Folk Literature is uniquely striking.

I spoke with Machado, currently the Writer in Residence at the University of Pennsylvania, ahead of her book launch, discussing the dearth of literature about abuse in queer relationships and how we think about women as perpetrators of abuse, among other topics. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Hope Reese: When did you first notice a lack of stories about abuse in queer relationships? And what happened when you began digging for more?

Carmen Maria Machado: I was in San Diego for the summer and a friend of mine sent me this beautiful essay by Conner Habib, If you ever did write anything about me, I’d want it to be about love, about his relationship with an abusive man who put him in the hospital. I kept looking for stuff about this, about queer domestic violence, and I’m finding a lot of statistics and a lot of articles that are like, “this is a thing that happens,” but no accounts, or creative nonfiction.

The same way if I want to read a creative nonfiction piece about a cancer survivor, I could find that in a second — you’ll find 50 books like that. So I was looking and just couldn’t find anything and this essay was really beautiful. But it was also published on someone’s blog, and I was like, certainly there must be more of these, right? Like in a book somewhere? There’s another one by Jane Eaton Hamilton, about lesbian abuse, which was published in an online magazine.

But I was like, why is it so hard to find these things? The more I looked, the more I realized that there wasn’t anything there. As a writer, both books that I have written are books that I wanted that didn’t exist, so I decided to fill that space myself. I would love to hear a queer historian’s take on this topic, you know? I really hope someone writes that book.

I kept looking for stuff about this, about queer domestic violence, and I’m finding a lot of statistics … but no accounts, or creative nonfiction.

Is the empty space due to the fact that it might make the queer community feel vulnerable in a certain way? What are your thoughts on why these stories are missing?

It’s a bunch of things. It’s homophobia. It’s the fact that we don’t place any cultural value in telling queer people what their experiences mean. This is just an example of that. I think it’s partially the community protecting itself and not wanting to talk about abuse within its ranks. Not to be very dramatic, but it reminds me of And the Band Played On, about the beginnings of the AIDS crisis. One of the most interesting things about it is when you read it, because it’s a matter-of-fact, chronological progression of the conversations that were happening around HIV — on a scientific level, on a government level, within the queer community itself — and as you’re reading it you’re watching everyone drop the ball, all in a row. Literally everyone. There’s something astonishing about that. This is similar — it’s a lot of people dropping a lot of balls.

When I was reading all these accounts of people talking about this stuff in the ’80s, a lot of lesbians were like, “Oh, women can’t batter other women, that’s not possible,“ or “it’s a paradise here, why would you say otherwise?” Or “only Butch lesbians beat their femmes because they have male privilege,” or whatever. And outside our community, no one gave a shit. A lot of organizations on domestic violence would accuse lesbians of taking away resources from straight battered women. We didn’t know how to talk about these things.

Is it also that we don’t talk about women as abusers, in general? Did you find examples of it being written about in heterosexual relationships?

It’s interesting. I’ve gotten a lot of messages from people saying, “I know you didn’t write this book for me, I’m a straight woman, but I recognized like the dynamics of emotional and verbal abuse that you describe here, which I never see represented anywhere.”

People get really fixated. People like their abuse narratives very neat and clean. And that involves like black eyes, not steady psychological torment. I had somebody write me, saying, “I am a man who was married to a woman who abused me. And I was just really relieved to see a narrative with a woman abuser, because it’s not something you see.” We don’t write about these things enough.

The abuse I suffered was primarily emotional, verbal. There were some physical elements. I think a lot about what would’ve happened if I stayed. If it would’ve escalated. I’m not an expert on domestic violence. I think sometimes people do transition from verbal to physical. But I feel lucky I didn’t have to find out where the bottom was. It felt like the bottom for me, but I don’t know if I hit the bottom of what could’ve happened. It’s really terrifying. One of the hardest things about writing this book was going back to those places. Those really bad moments, the worst of it … I remember thinking, “I didn’t know this could happen.” I was so scared, and I had no language for it.

If I could say anything to anyone, it would be, “you should never feel that way.” I want to convey the deep fucked-upped-ness of it.


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You draw readers immediately into very vulnerable moments — locking yourself in the bathroom, for instance, to escape from your partner’s rage. What was it like to write about things that are happening, as they are happening? Did you take notes as it was happening, or rely on memory?

I kept a for LiveJournal for ten years, in my teens and early 20’s, and that was the first way I ever wrote for an audience. I remember discovering when stuff was happening to me, like a bad shift at work, thinking “oh man, this is going to make a great post.” It’s kind of a writer’s instinct. You know that something is happening that will eventually make an interesting story. Some people who aren’t writers think it needs to be a pure thing. But if you’re a writer, the whole way you observe the world is through this lens of narrative. The more you write and live, you develop the instinct.

So in my head, there was always a sense of purpose. The thing that defined that relationship was the feeling that I was trapped forever in this present tense, which is why I wrote those pieces of the book in second-person present tense. Even once I was out of the relationship, I had a sense of shape but was trying to make sense of it.

I want 50 more books like this. I want people to write a book and say, ‘“In the Dream House” was insufficient, and I’m going to rewrite it in my own way.

There’s a scene where you and your partner are grading standardized tests together. You leave for a bit to help someone, and miss her phone calls, which makes her angry — she tells you not to write about it. What was happening in these moments?

She was always afraid of my voice. That was the defining factor of our relationship — fear of what I would say and write and do. She’s afraid of exposure. Of the narrative that I possess. I’ve never forgotten that. When I wrote that scene, I was thinking about that moment. It was so early in our relationship. Now when you think about it, you think: Red flags everywhere. But at the time, I didn’t see them.

Do you feel conflicted in any way about how you represent her or what she might think of it?

No.

Your book is nonfiction, but has elements of fantasy — even the concept of the “dream house“ seems a bit like a fairytale. What was your intention with bringing elements of fiction into your story?

Well, one of the books that helped unlock something for me was Kevin Brockmeier’s memoir, A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip: A Memoir of Seventh Grade and it’s this really beautiful, spare memoir of middle school. Otherwise, it’s very traditional in terms of the way it’s told. But there’s this moment where he goes to the bathroom or leaves his classroom somehow in the middle of the day, and time freezes. He encounters his adult self, and they have this really beautiful conversation. So it’s the adult Kevin, the author, talking to his younger self. I remember reading that and thinking, “I didn’t know you could do that.” I didn’t know that you could invoke this very obviously fictional gesture into an otherwise nonfiction book. I was moved by the way it opened up something in the book that was so special and so beautiful. So I began thinking a lot about nonfiction, as it exists.

The idea that nonfiction always has this active resurrection. You’re reconstructing dialogue. You’re trying to remember, and memory is weird. Leaning into the part of that process in which like fiction is actually a useful tool as a writer. I also was thinking about Proxies by Brian Blanchfield, an essay collection where every essay is on a certain topic, and he writes it from memory. But the final essay is a correction to all the essays that come before. So it leans into how memory functions, and how the past functions.

When you’re writing about a topic like abuse, that involves gaslighting, all of these things benefit from that kind of inquiry. I think about genre and about the way stories get shaped by the expectations of the genre. I decided that there was enough space in the memoir to have [fictional] bits. For example, like the murder mystery, which was like clearly a fictional gesture, pulling in Alice in Wonderland to an otherwise factual scene. And sort of moving into a fantasy space. Or using a fairy tale, like The Queen and the Squid, to basically do a thing I couldn’t do — reproduce some emails from my ex. I wasn’t allowed to because they’re copyrighted to the person who wrote them. So I had to create another way of showing the reader what I was experiencing, and what I was reading, without actually violating copyright.

A fairy tale is a transformative space. Part of it is that I am a fiction writer. That’s where my training is. So my instinct is to think about things in this way. So even though I had to recreate scenes of my own past, as best and faithfully as I could, and I had to do all this historical research, it feels like a form that I had to push into in my own way.

How do you think your book will be received by the queer community? How would you like it to be received?

When I started writing this book, I thought: This is the most niche book I could write. Both the premise, the structure. But I’m interested to hear that people are finding something in it that I didn’t expect them to find. Which is interesting and rewarding. I do have a lot of anxiety about how the queer community will receive the book, and I don’t want to articulate them because it stresses me out to think about them! I won’t necessarily be part of the conversation, but I’m glad people will be having the conversation.

I want 50 more books like this. I want people to write a book and say,In the Dream House was insufficient, and I’m going to rewrite it in my own way.” I want mine to be a tiny piece of a canon; I want people to feel free to tell their own stories.

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Hope Reese is a journalist based in Louisville, KY. Her work has been featured in The Atlantic, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Village VoiceVox, and other publications.

Editor: Dana Snitzky