Day 6

Carmen Maria Machado tackles queer Disney villains and surviving abuse in her memoir, In the Dream House

Carmen Maria Machado takes a new approach to memoir with her latest book, In the Dream House. She details her personal experiences of domestic abuse at the hands of another woman and weaves in pop culture references like her favourite queer Disney villains, as well as historical research and splashes of humour.

'I'm sort of talking about this other version of myself, this old version of myself,' she said

Carmen Maria Machado is the author of In the Dream House and Her Body and Other Parties. (Art Streiber)

Carmen Maria Machado's In the Dream House details her experiences of domestic abuse at the hands of another woman, but it's not what you might expect from a memoir.

Each chapter centres around a different metaphor, with titles like Dream House as Appetite, and Dream House as Luck of the Draw. The chapters are short, chock full of research and pop culture references, like queer Disney villains, and footnotes. Most of it is written in the second person.

"I'm sort of talking about this other version of myself, this old version of myself," Machado told Day 6 host Brent Bambury. "I can't reach her but I'm still sort of talking to her and about her."

Here's part of their conversation:

Tell us about what happened with the person that you call "the woman in the dream house."

Well, when I first went to graduate school, I met her … I knew that I was queer, I had sort of been out for a while, but I had never dated a woman. I dated a lot of dudes and I met her and I just sort of fell head over heels, and she really made me feel really special.

We started dating, and then things got bad, but bad in a way that was sort of hard to put my finger on, and hard to articulate. Pretty soon I was so deep in the situation that … I had no perspective on what was going on.

There's a line in your book where you say, "You fantasize about dying … anything to make it stop. You've forgotten that leaving is an option." What did you tell yourself about leaving that made it not an option?

It just felt like it was an impossible thing. I was like, I can't bring myself to do this, to make this choice.

So I imagined well, there must be other solutions where I just, you know, trip off a curb and get hit by a car and that is somehow preferable to saying, "Look, I don't want to do this anymore," which again sounds nonsensical to say that out loud.

But I didn't know how to articulate what I was feeling. I didn't know how to save myself. Whenever I created any kind of distance between us, she would sort of reel me back in. 

In the Dream House details Carmen Maria Machado's experiences of domestic abuse at the hands of another woman. (Art Streiber)

You said things got bad with the woman in the dream house. How bad did they get?

It was probably around Christmas, about a year after we'd started dating. She chased me, she threw things at me, she screamed in my ears ... and I ran around and then had to lock myself in her bathroom.

She sort of screamed and rained down, pounding on the door, and then after a while, it stopped. When I came out, she claimed to have no memory of what had just transpired. 

And I was, you know, hysterical and crying and she just said, "I don't know what happened." And then she started crying, and then I had to comfort her and spend the rest of the night comforting her. 

What's wild is I stayed with her for another six months after that. So it's not as if that was the thing that made me feel like I have to leave. But … I think that was probably the scariest and worst of it.

There are many moments in this book where you talk about the desire for good PR among lesbians and queer people in general. Did you have reservations about writing this book and telling the story about abuse because you thought it would reflect badly on queer people?

So around the time of the events of this book … I had all these people in my life, very conservative family [who] had met her. And it felt so strange to say, I know you've met exactly one lesbian, and to say, "Oh, I actually just got out of an abusive relationship with that person."

It shouldn't matter, who actually cares? But there was a real anxiety and I think that queer folks want to prove or show that ... being queer makes them excellent and perfect even though it's just a state of being.

But it's very hard to have that conversation when you have a sort of hetero-sexist or dominant culture with its foot on your neck. It's hard to say, let's have an honest conversation about the weaknesses of our community and the places our community has failed when you're also struggling to be recognized.

I kept thinking, is this a mistake? And I still sort of wonder — I'm sure people will ... have different takes on that particular idea — is this book helpful or hurtful to the cause.

Machado loves queer villians, particularly those from Disney films. But she says she recognizes why some bristle at the idea. 'The problem is just a lack of general queer representation across the board, and if there was that, then the queer villain would seem less of a problem,' she said. (Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

I love it that you say you love gay villains. Who are the gay villains in popular culture that you say you love?

I mean, my favourite is Ursula. Ursula from The Little Mermaid… I just, I love her.

Disney in particular has sort of created this weird canon of queer villains, of these sort of fey male villains and these very severe ... women.

People rightly call it out because they're like, it's really weird how there's never any gay people in movies except when they're villains and I'm like, that's a super fair point and I understand that. 

But also I love a queer villain because I feel like it actually underlines this point about how queerness does not equal right or good, and queer villains can be queer and sinister and that those things can exist on the same plane. 

So the problem is just a lack of general queer representation across the board, and if there was that, then the queer villain would seem less of a problem. 

Final question for you Carmen: how did you meet your wife?

Twist ending. So my wife is actually the ex-girlfriend of my ex-girlfriend that the book is about. So my abusive ex-girlfriend had previously dated the person who is now my wife, and we met through her and, yeah, we've been together for seven years now.

This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the full interview with Carmen Maria Machado, download our podcast or click here to hear it on CBC Listen.