REVIEW: In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado (Graywolf Press, 2019).

Years ago, I read Her Body and Other Parties. I’d come upon it entirely because of the title—I was working at the time on a dissertation about “the body” in English and French literature and film. The collection of short stories, it turns out, was far less foo-foo and pretentious than my dissertating, but entirely smarter and more meaningful to me. (I finished and still have the book; the dissertation, not so much.) Despite all that admiration, I allowed the book to languish for on my shelf (well-fanned, to be sure, but languishing still), along with most of the stuff related to my now-defunct academic career.

So when one of my favorite former students suggested I read In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado, I didn’t make the connection that it was written by the very same author whose work I had loved so well years before. Instead, I went running into it with my eyes closed and my mind (as it so often is) completely blank. I tore through it. I mean, not literally—the book is a little worse for wear, but intact—but I could not stop reading.

In the Dream House is a memoir, the story of a queer woman’s relationship with an abusive partner. As is fitting for a narrative like this, it’s fragmented, told in tiny chapters (the longest of which is probably four pages, but the most common of which barely makes a single pages). It’s gulps of language, and it makes for a rhythm I first fell in love with in poetry. There’s a finished quality to each chapter, each one rounding itself into the perfect sigh of thought; but together, the chapters refuse to make a watertight whole and instead give the impression of bursts (emotion, language, action), snapshots, gut punches. Reading Dream House was very much like being pushed into the pool before I could get my shoes off. It was a violent, nasty little prank of which the teenagers at the public pool seemed very fond. Stooping too near the pool’s edge to remove your shoes made you vulnerable. So did being slight enough to be whisked over someone’s shoulder and carried to water’s edge and tossed in. (There’s a scene like this in the film Dans ma peau that guts me every time.) Dream House felt like this to me: a shockingly immediate opening-up of the narrative.

While that might sound like a criticism, it’s definitely not. One of the things that studying poetry teaches you is the ethos that form should be part and parcel of content—that the shape the art thing takes should be part of the meaning of the art thing—and this is true for Dream House.  It is a story about the unmaking of a woman, how her partner systematically blasted her into pieces, how the imperative of silence (laid out by a disbelieving and homophobic culture) weighed like a brick to keep her in her place. It is the story of why a woman might stay in such a relationship as much as it is the story of the ways in which we often go before truly leaving.

Any review of this book which characterizes it as being a memoir of an abusive relationship runs the risk of mischaracterizing the book, and I’m hoping you’ve read this far in the review so I can explain myself. Let me, as Obama used to say, be clear: it is the story of an abusive relationship. But it’s a story told differently than it’s usually told. Most narratives of abuse focus on what happened and how it made the subject feel. That’s certainly here, but it’s not the focus. The focus seems to be more about recreating the experience of being torn apart and reassembling oneself through the very form of the story and through the telling of it. In other words, this is not a tell-all, salacious narrative of a treacherous relationship. There’s plenty of those out there. What makes this imperative to read is that it is art made from such an experience. Your writing teacher in some grade or other was probably fond of exhorting you to “show, don’t tell.” But better writing such as this doesn’t even do that—if telling is at the bottom rung and showing is one step up, this functions at a higher level. It recreates the experience (of fragmentation, of confusion, of moorless desperation) while still insisting that you understand and make sense of it. It evokes. It pulls you in and won’t let go.

No. It throws you in.


Review: Mx. Bond’s House of Whimsy

REWVIEW: “Mx. Bond’s House of Whimsy” at Bard College

Yesterday my wife took a vacation day from being a therapist and I took a vacation day from… being… well, being, and she whisked me up through the pouring rain to the Bard College campus in Annandale-on-Hudson to watch “Mx. Bond’s House of Whimsy,” a queer cabaret hosted by Justin Vivian Bond.

The cabaret was held in what I assume was a permanent performance space at Bard, built to look like a giant tent (but with solid doors and walls), a space so lush and glittery and fairy-lit that our seatmates were debating whether it called to mind a circus tent or the set of I Dream of Genie. I kind of think it was the latter, just without the o-shaped velvet couch.

Mx. Bond hosted the evening, and so was less present on stage than I’d wished (I kept hoping for a song or something, but Bond graciously played empressarix to other queer acts). I’ve been a fan of Mx. Bond’s since seeing Shortbus, the heartbreaking film by John Cameron Mitchell in which Mx. Bond was featured, so I came ready for v. But the featured acts were so fun I hardly cared Bond wasn’t the star.

First, I was beside myself a little bit when I spied Leigh Crow (Elvis Herselvis, one of my longtime Drag King heroes) waiting in the wings, who came onstage twice to croon out some Presley hits. Herselvis/Crow is a dreamy butch king/King who can really belt and kind of sparkles an oozy, smarmy-but-magnetic sexuality on stage. I’m not sure if it’s the actually-beautiful-and-powerful singing or the wink-wink type of charm that gets me every time, but I’m got.  If I were thinner or more spry, my panties would have dropped. As it was, I just settled for a hot flash and a bit of starstruck fangirling. (I’m old enough now at 47 that perhaps it’s the wrong term… maybe “fanwomaning” is better?) (No. No, it is not.)

Davon, a dancer who lip-synched/danced to some iconic singers, moved Mx Bond (and me) to tears with a beautiful performance about having been hooked on Crystal Meth. Davon danced to music from Porgy and Bess and an aria sung (I think) by Jessye Norman, among other music, and all of It had resonance around Blackness and queerness, and I got good and shattered. One often gets into trouble trying to articulate what’s going on in art… and why would you, when it’s so rightly said by the art itself? I just nod: yes, yes.

As a disabled person who had a youth of able-bodiedness, I always get a bit choked up when I see beautiful dance—that a body can be and do what the body on stage is and does (the agility, the self-possession, the body-as-expression-and-creation) just gets me, it’s so perfectly queer and beautiful. So when the next act, Sadonna—which is a contraction of “Sad Madonna”—came onstage, it was an immense, throat-lump-melting relief. I mean, I was raised by a midwestern white American and an image-conscious Greek immigrant, so public crying is absolutely out of the question.

Sadonna does sad versions of classic Madonna songs—both musically right on and intelligently funny. The leader, Miguel Gutierrez, is funny, but he’s also a beautiful singer; the group (Gutierrez, plus the three Slutinos–Sad Latino boys backup singers) manages to pull to the surface the mournful potential of Madonna’s poppy bubblegum, but balances it with clever wit and the relief of pure camp.

Star Amerasu sang original dance music—confident, bouncy, hair-flipping fun. I think Amerasu might have a great career as a songwriter; there were some nice pop complexities and textures in there.

I flipped a little when Big Dipper was called to the stage—a former student introduced me to his work years ago, and I fell in love with the brainy sendup of that crotch-grabbing, girl-objectifying, hypermasculinist brand of hiphop he ironizes by unabashedly queering it. Apparently, he gets accused often of being “dirty” because his lyrics are explicit in their objectification of bearish men and a frank glorification of gay sex, but it strikes me as a kind of performance art he’s doing, getting folks to balk at the openly queer sexuality when a similar frank-but-hetero sexuality is accepted (perhaps even expected or required) in mainstream hiphop.

That was the roundup of folks, and it was rightly-paced and emotionally-balanced. And it was, as I said, a happy relief to be back in a queer space. Of course, as do many queer spaces nowadays, it held its share of straight folk, most of them white and older and coupled. What felt like a steep ticket price to a lesbian couple may have felt like nothing to middle class established straight couples, and may have been unimaginable to younger queers, but swinging it felt well worth the scrimping we’ll do in other expenses to balance it. And the mainstream folks who were there—the older, white married couples—seemed down and eager to support the performers.

Here’s the gyst: seek out these artists online or, when you can, in live performance. Follow Mx. Bond for new ideas and empressarix services. And more generally, when you find a queer artist whose work moves you, tell them.



What Use Is Violence?

I’m here to contend that not all depictions of violence are equal, and the distinction between them has a lot to do with purpose. There is a real difference between relishing violence and bearing witness to it, but the difficulty is that in art (poetry, fiction, visual art, music, dance, film, etc.), witnessing is often bound up with pleasure and the two are hard to tease apart.

In her article about violence in The New York Times Magazine (“Battle Cry,” 8/20/17, p 9-11), Amanda Hess suggests that how violence is presented makes a big difference, too. Context matters, she says, as in cases ranging “from those who express extreme positions in polite tones [like the white nationalist Richard Spencer, who calls for ‘peaceful ethnic cleansing’] to those who express reasonable positions in impolite ones” (11) like Black Lives Matter protestors have been accused of doing. The conclusion at which Hess arrives is that “[f]etishizing civility has a way of elevating style over substance” (11), so that we pay attention to the apparent politeness of the speech and not its incendiary content. She asks, essentially: should one be expected to politely answer to someone who’s calling for one’s extermination?

The implication here is that not all violence is equal, that there are more forms of violence than the physical (the verbal threat of violence is violence, too, as is hate speech in general), and that violence in many forms can be a necessary tool of resistance.

In the early 2000s, a travelling exhibit and subsequent book of postcards and other memorabilia commemorating the lynching of Black people in the U.S. (Without Sanctuary: Photographs and Postcards of Lynching in America, ed. James Allen) caused a ruffle of objections and questions wherever it went—photographs showed lynched Black bodies and their proud, rowdy white audiences. Should one look, or look away? Is consuming these images the same as participating in the violence? It was disturbing, to say the least, and heartbreaking. As a professor, I told my classes about the online version of the exhibit and warned them that what they would see if they looked was racist and violent, extremely hurtful and most likely indelible (this, of course, only seemed to entice most of them to look).

I’m thinking about this today, so many years later, because the question of violence and its representation has surfaced for me again, though in a much smaller way: my novel Olympia Knife contains several depictions of violence, and there was some discussion between the publisher and me about how best to handle this. The novel takes place in America in the early 20th Century and is concerned with the lives of those misfits who run away with the circus. There is a Black Creole fat lady who, as a child, saw her father lynched by white men. There is a white bearded lady who, as a young woman, was the victim of attempted sexual assault (which she successfully fended off by kicking her assailant). There’s the murder of a violent and dangerous person (I won’t give away who). None of these events are given more than a paragraph or two of prose, and none of the violent events are described graphically or pleasurably, but they are troublesome for me nonetheless.

I know many people are disturbed by such violence depicted in art, and many seek to avoid it. Of course, this is always a person’s choice to do, and only the individual can determine what’s best for them. But sometimes, I think, one needs to be disturbed. It’s dangerous to look away, to sequester oneself in constant, pillowy safety. Many of us, due to our identities (as LGBTQ people, women, POC, disabled folk, immigrants, or other marginalized people) do not have the option to avoid violence. As a queer, disabled, fat woman, I’m subjected to violent speech frequently, occasional threats of physical violence (once, a guy driving a van suggested he might run over a fat woman like me with no problem because I had ample “cushion”), and several occasions of seriously wounding actualized physical violence. I don’t speak, in other words, cavalierly about this subject. And I’m far luckier than many folks in this country, for whom violence is more seriously or more constantly waged, or institutionalized in our very social/governmental structure. It’s a difficult subject I don’t take lightly. It’s life-and-death for many of us.

I thought a lot about this back when I was debating how to address with my college classes the exhibition of the lynching photographs, and came to the conclusions that (1) I believe it’s important to confront the violent realities in which many people are forced to live, (2) it is a disservice to paper over the depiction of that violence with civility when many people have to live through it, but (3) such violence must be addressed carefully to avoid as best one can promoting voyeuristic entertainment from the suffering depicted (promoting, in effect, emotional tourism) and (4) other people may disagree with these ideas, and so there must always be the opportunity to decide not to look.

At the end of his heartbreaking film Bamboozled, director Spike Lee included a montage of his own collection of “mammy” dolls and other racist toys and decorations set against striking monochrome backgrounds and a mournfully beautiful song by Steve Winwood. It’s disturbing and painful (as is the film itself), but entirely necessary for the moment. The film also contains genius performances by Savion Glover and Tommy Davidson in a modern minstrel-type show, and the juxtaposition of pleasure at their humor and talent against the horror of taking pleasure in a racist show is part of how the film intentionally hurts its viewers. But Lee does this for a very good reason. It’s the pain that’s produced alongside the pleasure, and being asked as a viewer to confront how I can enjoy those quietly, politely violent things, that teaches me about locking myself mindlessly into pleasure at the expense of others and gives the film its meaning, its ability to convince and to affect me so deeply.

Too often, in art that attempts to depict the wounds of racism and other dangerous institutions like it, the racism becomes an abstraction. Through depictions of violence, it becomes real—it makes a real, physiological effect on the body: you cry, you go cold, or you shake, you cringe, it produces pain. Because I taught about horror film for so many years, I cannot stop myself from explaining that this very idea is what underlies the workings of many horror films—the combination of psychological and physical reactions to its contents (you jump and shiver, as well as worrying), ensures you are affected deeply and intensely.

A 1922 poster included in the Without Sanctuary exhibit quotes the NAACP: “To maintain civilization in America, you cannot escape your responsibility” ( In light of frequent police violence against people of color, one strategy in recent years has been for bystanders to observe and even film police interactions, to make clear they will bear witness to anything that takes place.

Violence and repression, in other words, happen more effectively in the dark and in silence. Denial is powerful (see, for example, how effective Holocaust deniers can be; 16 countries have laws against Holocaust denial and even more have more general laws against denying genocide). It is our responsibility to bear witness, to others and to ourselves. It’s part of the reason repressive political regimes often quickly silence the press and arrest or kill journalists before doing anything else (or they may simply ban the press from the White House, as a more recent and local example).

In my aesthetic, joy is political and vital—these days, I’ll take it when I can get it. But just as vital are struggle and displeasure. Art must not be an escape from pain and difficulty, it should be our way to confront it. Finding joy must happen in the midst of grief, not in ignorance of it. Responsibility can only be shouldered by those who are willing and able to bear it, of course, but for those who are up for the fight, art is a way of bearing witness and—through that—salving one’s wounds. Respectfully, I urge that one must choose, as a way of being socially responsible, to look and to see.