Last Updated on February 10, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1145
Queer Erasure of Domestic Abuse
Both the personal narrative and academic elements of In the Dream House focus primarily on the theme of domestic abuse within queer relationships. In particular, they highlight the relative invisibility of that experience, especially compared to representations of heterosexual intimate partner violence. In her prologue, Machado outlines the concept of “archival silence”—the notion that if those primarily responsible for record-keeping share a majority experience, the minority experience will, by default, be inadequately recorded. Noting that the word “archive” is derived from the Greek for “house of the ruler,” she adds:
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. (5)
In braiding academic research on the subject into her own experiences, she demonstrates just how crucial an adequately-documented past is to the experience of the living. The invisibility of same-sex intimate partner violence can—and has—led people to believe that abuse is a problem that the people in same-sex relationships (especially lesbian relationships) don’t need to worry about.
Throughout the narrative, Machado candidly shares her own experience as an abused partner—a danger for which, she notes, she was never prepared. She laments,
I have spent years struggling to find examples of my own experience in history’s queer women. I tore through book after book about the queer women of the past, pen poised over paper, wondering what would happen if they had let the world know they were unmade by someone with just as little power as they. (227)
Machado is deeply honest with the reader about the increasingly malevolent actions of her abuser, but just as vulnerable is her portrait of herself as the abused. She admits the complicated love you can hold for someone who knowingly hurts you, the fear of disrupting your equilibrium, the willingness to be malleable for the sake of preservation, and the surprise and shame of finding yourself in a dynamic you didn’t think existed in your world.
In a chapter dedicated to ruminating on the trope of queer villainy in mainstream media—the pattern that often, the only characters deviating from heterosexual norms in mainstream entertainment are the bad guys—Machado recounts the premise of the Alain Giraudie movie Stranger by the Lake, in which one man witnesses a murder and then begins an affair with the murderer. Machado offers a generously empathetic take on the actions of the witness that speaks to an uncomfortable truth about all relationships:
Franck’s decision to stay with a with the handsome, magnetic murderer is only a few notches exaggerated from a pretty relatable problem: an inability to find logical footing when you’re being knocked around by waves of lust, love, loneliness. (46)
The Importance of Personal Context
In the prologue, Machado asserts that the major consequence of queer erasure—of any erasure—is the absence of personal context. When a perspective is left out of the prevailing social record, she notes, one is left with “gaps where people never see themselves or find information about themselves. Holes that make it impossible to give oneself a context.” This concern with context is central to the choices the author makes, both throughout her primary text and in her structural decisions.
Tucked among Machado’s personal narratives and chapters of academic exposition are brief cultural vignettes, each carefully chosen to demonstrate power imbalances in intimate relationships. The author finds a rich library of illustrative examples from folk tales, popular literature, gothic romance, Bible stories, Star Trek, I Love Lucy, and so on. These examples—many of which the reader may have already seen, but not overtly noticed—create the social precedent that offers that missing context.
Structurally, Machado’s chapter titles also reference well-trodden storytelling tropes: “Bildungsroman,” “Noir,” “Cult Classic,” “Creature Feature.” Through a constant stream of footnotes, she likens her own experiences to citations in the Thompson’s Motif-Index of Folk-Literature, an elaborate six-volume index of concepts appearing in folklore from across the globe. In the absence of a social precedent through which she might better understand her lived experience, Machado establishes her own personal context. She reminds us that her story—her unique, special story—can be assembled out of a thousand small stories that have all been told before. She notes,
When it started, I believed I was special. It was a terrible thing to discover that I was common, that everything that happened to me—a crystalline, devastating landscape I navigated in my bare feet—was detailed in books and reports, in statistics. It was terrible because I wanted to believe that my love was unique and my pain was unique, as all of us do. (232)
Place as Character
At one point, Machado remarks, “Places are never just places in a piece of writing. If they are, the author has failed. Setting is not inert. It is activated by point of view” (72).
Throughout the text, location takes on an outsized meaning. The Dream House itself is a real place; Machado makes a point of reminding readers of this in the first chapter. It’s “important to remember,” she says, the implication being that readers might otherwise lose the concept of the literal house as the figurative house takes over the incoming pages. And readers easily could—the Dream House is real, yes, but it’s also an abstract concept, a character in and of itself, imposing upon the narrative and those living inside. It’s where the author first projects all her idealized hopes about the unnamed woman. It’s also, literally and figuratively, where she experiences the worst of her abuse: behind closed doors, inside the safety and intimacy of the relationship, warm inside the personified space they occupy together. In one vignette, Carmen and the woman sit together and “around them, the house inhales, exhales, inhales again” (72).
In one chapter, the author shares a quote from film theorist Mary Ann Doane. Doane suggests that there is no gothic romance without a woman in a house, because horror is something that, by its nature, infiltrates the home from the outside. Machado counters,
The house is not essential for domestic abuse, but hell, it helps: a private space where private dramas are enacted behind, as the cliché goes, closed doors; but also windows sealed against the sound, drawn curtains, silent phones. A house is never apolitical. It is conceived, constructed, occupied, and policed by people with power, needs, and fears. (76)