Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Carmen Maria Machado
Carmen, the author, is a writer from Pennsylvania. She’s bookish, intelligent, witty, acerbic, pragmatic, creative, and thoughtful, but she also struggles with issues of self-doubt and self-worth. Readers see this play out in her willingness to accept a submissive role in relationships, both through her early memory of a teenage relationship with Pastor Joel and through her adult relationship with the unnamed woman.
During most of the time span covered in this memoir, Carmen is working on her MFA at the University of Iowa. When she meets the unnamed woman, she is instantly taken with her, and they begin a relationship. Throughout the text, the power in this relationship becomes more and more imbalanced, and Carmen boxes herself further and further in to make room for the unnamed woman’s growing fury. It’s Carmen’s growth through the end of that relationship that ultimately allows her to build something healthier with the unnamed woman’s ex-girlfriend Val.
The Unnamed Woman
The unnamed woman is also a writer, and when she meets Carmen, she’s just moved to the Midwest from a glamorous life in New York City. Carmen is instantly drawn to the woman’s magnetism: she’s conventionally attractive, clever, funny, worldly, well-educated, and charismatic. In the beginning, the relationship seems ideal. Carmen can’t believe her luck—that this perfect woman has chosen her.
When the unnamed woman breaks up with her other girlfriend, Val, the relationship takes a turn. The woman begins to bully and manipulate Carmen, using explosive rage to undermine her agency and take control. On a trip to Florida to meet the woman’s parents, Carmen sees evidence that there may be a family history of anger issues and abusive behavior.
Over the course of the relationship, these episodes become more and more frequent—and more and more abusive. After many, many fights and many brief breakups that are quickly reconciled, the unnamed woman eventually develops feelings for another woman from her MFA program. This leads to the ultimate dissolution of her relationship with Carmen.
Val is the unnamed woman’s girlfriend for the first portion of the story. She is kind, thoughtful, creative, and open-minded, and Carmen likes her instantly. When Carmen and the unnamed woman develop feelings for each other, Val accepts their relationship. Later, when the unnamed woman ends things with Val to be with Carmen exclusively, Val promises that they’ll all remain friends.
After Carmen and the unnamed woman’s final breakup, Carmen reaches out to Val, and the two begin bonding over their shared experiences with the unnamed woman. As they converse, they grow closer, and over the course of a road trip together, they realize they have much more in common than just their history. It’s revealed toward the end of the book that Val becomes the author’s wife, and the two of them are happily living together as writers in Pennsylvania.
John is one of Carmen’s roommates for the span of time covered in the memoir. A vaguely professorial grunge rocker with a wide, eclectic array of philosophical and practical interests, he (along with his partner, Laura) is one of the stabilizing influences in Carmen’s life. Early on, he looks at Laura with what Carmen calls “real, uncomplicated love.”
When John and Laura find Carmen after her accident, they patch her up and call in her other friends to rally around her. They’re also the only two who know the full extent of the unnamed woman’s abuse until after the fact. When the unnamed woman calls and leaves a string of erratic voicemails after the breakup, it’s John that convinces Carmen not to be...
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taken back in.
Laura—Carmen’s other roommate and John’s partner—is a whip-smart librarian-in-training with a dry wit and a dark sense of humor. With John, she serves as a stabilizing influence in Carmen’s life and an example of healthier love. After Carmen’s accident, Laura is the one who tends to her injuries.
Joel is a pastor who joins Carmen’s United Methodist parish when she is sixteen. She is instantly attracted to him, and over the course of her high school tenure, the two grow close and speak openly about their deepest fears and traumas. Their relationship is not physical, but it is clearly inappropriate; for instance, at a trial run for a youth camp, they sneak out and sleep under the stars together, and go swimming late at night. They continue to meet in secret outside church hours, often at diners in the middle of the night.
When Carmen goes off to go college and experiences intimacy for the first time, she calls Joel to tell him. He responds coldly and ultimately stops taking her calls. Later, she finds out that he was fired for having an affair with another member of the church.
The Unnamed Woman’s Parents
The unnamed woman’s parents live in Florida. When Carmen and the woman travel to see them early in the book, they’re welcoming but acerbic. Carmen notes that they’re “funny and mean,” and that they seem to appreciate her mind in a way that her own family does not.
During the visit, Carmen sees evidence that the dynamic between the woman’s parents is as imbalanced as her own relationship will come to be. Later, when the unnamed woman calls Carmen and they have a fight, Carmen can hear the woman’s dad yelling profanity directed toward her in the background.
Amber, a willowy redhead with a soft voice, is a student in the unnamed woman’s graduate program in Bloomington, Indiana. One drunken night, they share a kiss, and the unnamed woman realizes she has feelings for Amber. This is what ultimately leads to the dissolution of the woman’s relationship with Carmen.
Readers meet Carmen’s mother only in passing, but the implication is that she does not fully understand Carmen. She is, rightfully, skeptical of Carmen’s inappropriate relationship with Pastor Joel, and she is the one who calls Carmen to let her know that he has been fired.
Carmen’s brother, too, is mentioned only in passing, but he is adventurous and kind. Carmen and her brother travel to Santa Clara, Cuba, together to see their ancestral home, and he cares for her when she becomes sick upon their arrival.