In the Dream House: A Memoir That Draws the Connection Between Structural Ignorance + Domestic Abuse
Writing by Emily Hughes. Illustration by Phoebe McGowan.
“Putting language to something for which you have no language is no easy feat.”
- Carmen Maria Machado, In the Dream House, 2019
In Carmen Maria Machado’s memoir In the Dream House, she unpicks the liminal space she occupies as a lesbian woman in an emotionally abusive relationship. Throughout, she depicts the traumas, lack of representation and invisibility she felt in a situation which veers outside of the norm of what we classically picture when we hear ‘domestic abuse’. A quote from the novel that succinctly underpins her situation is that “most types of domestic abuse are completely legal”. Granted, the reporting of domestic abuse and violence has often been at the forefront of headlines, the beginning of the first COVID-19 lockdown last year having seen a surge in domestic abuse allegations, and domestic abuse killings having more than doubled during this time. It goes without saying that in the vast majority of these situations it is violence against women at the hands of men that occurs, to the extent that it has become the default in our minds that when we hear of ‘domestic abuse’.
A lack of representation is just one of the issues, however, that Machado talks about in this exquisitely fragmented memoir:
‘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.’
‘Queer abusers, and the queer abused- reveals itself as another ghost that has always been here, haunting the ruler’s house.’
Alongside her being abused emotionally, but never physically, Machado unpicks the other liminality of her situation; being in a same-sex couple. The trope of the ‘abused woman' doesn’t fit her quite so snugly as it would in the eyes of media and literary representation, had she been at the mercy of an opposite-sex, physically abusive partner.
Only recently has abuse within same-sex romantic relationships been properly researched. A 2018 article condenses an array of statistics that indicate, despite the lack of studies into the topic, same-sex abuse occurs at a rate that is comparable or even higher than heterosexual domestic abuse. Almost one-third of sexual minority males and one-half of sexual minority women in the United States having affirmed they were victims of physical or psychological abuse in a relationship. Another 50% of gay men and almost 75% of lesbian women reported that, very much like Machado’s predicament in Dream House, they were victims of psychological abuse.
It remains, however, in the public opinion, that domestic abuse takes place predominantly within heterosexual couples. This structural ignorance and stereotyping of male virility as the cause of ‘abuse’ is a damaging misconception and can hinder lesbian victims in recognizing the abusive and abnormal nature of their partner’s behaviours. This is why representation is important. Carmen Maria Machado throughout In the Dream House maintains that, among other stressors to the LGBTQ community, the invisible nature of this abuse that dodges our preconceptions of domestic abuse is partially responsible for it being able to continue without our knowing.
Machado takes this further, referring to an array of historical and literary examples throughout her memoir. She uses pop culture references, various tropes ascribed to the LGBTQ community in literature and various historical events to articulate notions of both her abuse and the ignorance surrounding it. For example, she recalls the election of Obama in 2008, voting for him despite his position on same-sex marriage because he was the best thing available at the time, and the paradox of voting for a candidate who would openly debate her rights and humanity on national television, when the defence of them was not a requirement for presidency.
This structural ignorance extends to the law itself; courtrooms trying and failing to grapple with variations of intimate partner violence, before falling dismally short of justice. Machado cites the particular case of Debra Reid, the second to last of the Framingham Eight to receive any form of freedom for killing her abusive partner. As not only a Black woman, but also the only member of the Eight in a same-sex relationship, people were uncertain about what to do with her. In order to gain parole, attorneys believed (and were right), that she had to conform to the heteronormative notion of being the ‘woman’ in the relationship (she cooked, she cleaned, she supervised the children), so that she could more convincingly play the ‘battered woman’ victim stereotype, even though both the abused and the abuser were women. Most of the other members of the Eight had their sentences stripped away or commuted, yet Debra remained incarcerated, and the board concluded that she and her girlfriend had partaken in a “mutual battering relationship”, despite this never having been mentioned during her trial. This story, among many others, lends itself to the conclusion that psychological domestic abuse within same-sex relationships is not just rare, but legally unfathomable.
Machado eloquently wrings the truth out of these blind spots in both the law and in the mass-culture driven popular opinion. Structural ignorance not only isolates the victims of same-sex domestic violence, but sees it going unpunished and alienates it so far from popular perception of abuse that even the victims scarcely see it as that. If the law can’t comprehend it, if the media can’t comprehend it, this is the book to tell us that all forms of abuse are legitimate and worthy of our awareness. Compile these forms of ignorance, these micro-aggressions, these major and minor manipulations into the shape of a relationship, then you’re looking at the very architecture of emotional abuse.
Machado drives forward the point that structural and societal ignorance of an issue does not mean that it doesn’t exist. More, the archival silence of the ‘queer abused’ is part of their plight which allows their situation to be commonly overlooked. It is evident that societal ignorance and the overlooking of non-physical forms of domestic abuse, both by law and by public perception, go hand in hand. Therefore, the sheer lack of representation faced by those in Machado’s predicament, (a minority in an abusive relationship) is fuel to the fire which harms them. Carmen Maria Machado argues, explores and articulates this in a relentlessly creative, ardently witty and sweepingly elegant manner, compiling fragments of experience to compact her story into an exquisitely genre-crushing beacon of a memoir.
1) Rollè Luca, Giardina Giulia, Caldarera Angela M., Gerino Eva, Brustia Pier; “When Intimate Partner Violence Meets Same Sex Couples: A Review of Same Sex Intimate Partner Violence” 2018. < https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01506/full >
2) The Framingham Eight were a group of women imprisoned for killing abusive partners who came into the public eye in 1992, seeking acquittal on the grounds of self-defence.