Lesbian relationships can also be toxic

In movies or TV series, the villain often has homosexual traits. Disney movies are full of the kind of villains who may not be explicitly queer, but can be read that way because they camp are and ambiguous in their gender expression: think of the ‘female’ Jafar or the ‘queer’ Ursula and Cruella de Vil. But also a seemingly progressive TV series like Downton Abbey features a queer villain, Thomas Barrow, an incredible bully who only becomes more likable once the viewer is comfortable with his forbidden homosexual feelings.

Queer writer Carmen Maria Machado should be outraged by the stereotypical portrayal of queers as morally degenerate, but she actually loves these characters, she admits in her personal essay. In the dream house. Often they are the most interesting characters on screen. After all, they live in a world that hates them. They have adapted; they have learned to hide. They survived.’ She admits her preference somewhat reluctantly because: ‘It only tells one story, […] and creates associations of evil and depravity that resonate in real life.’ When homosexuality is portrayed as evil, it promotes homophobia.

But she wonders if every producer actually has a responsibility for positive representation? Does she always have to portray queer characters in a pure and exemplary way, in the struggle for recognition? Does she have the right to tell her own, far from fairytale story?

abusive wife

It is this persistent problem that is the common thread In the dream house, where the American examines his relationship with a violent woman. She will write about the long-term abuse, the pattern of violence, the subtle mechanisms that make the violence get under your skin, and you can become victims of it almost unnoticed. However, almost nothing is written about toxic relationships and abuse among women. Machado calls it ‘archival silence’ following the example of the postcolonial thinker Saidiya Hartman: there are hardly any examples of lesbian domestic violence in literature and visual culture. On the one hand, it provides In the dream house its right to exist; she adds something to the archive with her book. But: doesn’t she contribute to a bad image of lesbian relationships?

The solution to this problem appears in the structure of the book. In the dream house is written as a collection of short chapters, each approaching the dream house of the title, the place in her memory where the relationship takes place, from a different angle. From different genres, for example (like ‘noir’, ‘lesbian cult classic’ or ‘visual novel’), or from motifs and tropes from existing literature. The pieces have titles like “Dream House as a Lesbian Pulp Novel,” “Dream House as an Exercise in Perspective,” or, the passage that opens this review, “Dream House as Queer Roguery.”

Writing about this painful episode in her life has thus become a writing exercise, and it turns out to be liberating. Machado has always been fond of genre fiction, as evidenced by her strong collection of stories Her body and other parties, where feminist horror, courtroom series and fairy tales formed the blueprints for her unique literary universe. Now the familiar, safe forms of genres provide the distance she needs to dig into her pain. With each chapter she can start over, make a new attempt; nothing definite needs to be said. She doesn’t need to tell the definitive story of a lesbian relationship. With this structure, she escapes the compulsion to mold the relationship into the shape of a classic story, revolving around a central conflict that allows the protagonist to develop. That standard form should make her memories, fragmented and partially forgotten or repressed, into something recognizable. And that’s something Machado resists – because it’s never the real story, and because it turns her experience into a manageable commodity. Now she can show her story from all sides, give different explanations for what happened, compare her own experience with that of others. And perhaps the classic heroic tale is not even suitable for describing the queer experience, which has always been squeezed into the fringes of culture.

madly in love

Above all, the fragmented form is a striking expression of trauma, which, as psychological textbooks teach, prevents the subject from experiencing himself as a unit. For that reason, Machado writes about himself in the second person singular: ‘You weren’t always just you. I was a whole – a symbiotic relationship between my best and worst parts – and then I was split, in one sense of the word: a neat cut in which the first person […] was detached from the other, who was always tense and trembling like too small a breed of dog.’

De facto, this is what happens. Machado is an insecure thief studying at the prestigious master’s degree in creative writing in Iowa when she meets the woman in the dream house (she is not given a name). They immediately fall for each other, even though the woman has another boyfriend, Val. After several months, the woman leaves Val and begins a relationship with Machado. At first, the two are wildly in love; Machado, who struggles to accept her body, has never felt so desirable and loved. But when the woman moves to another state, the tone changes. While visiting her parents, she suddenly turns cold, squeezes Machado’s arm in the company of the parents, hissing in her ear that they hate her. The woman is extremely jealous, imperious. More and more often she humiliates and degrades her beloved. The violence is never overtly physical, just squeezing or smashing things, but the verbal and emotional violence is just as staggering and brutal. Despite the weekly cries and heart palpitations every time the phone rings, Machado can’t leave her. She is addicted, caught like a rat in a trap. It finally ends when the woman finds a new victim. And in a bizarre course of events Machado and Val, the woman’s ex, fall in love. Today they are married.

Lonely in her grief, searching for recognition, Machado alternates autobiographical passages with research into the scant previous depictions and descriptions of lesbian domestic violence, in literature and news reports. The research is informative, but it also gives the book as a whole a somewhat educational character. Especially towards the end, I get the feeling that Machado repeats his intentions very often and makes them too explicit. On page 281, she describes her panicked feeling when one of the first lesbian couples allowed to marry in America broke up. “I remember being scared, as if divorces weren’t the order of the day everywhere, as if they weren’t completely unimportant. But that’s the fear of the minority, right? That if you’re not careful, someone will see you—or people who share your identity—do something human and use it against you. The irony, of course, is that queer people need good PR; to fight for the rights we don’t have, to keep the rights we do have. But aren’t we trying to say we’re like you all the time?’ Actually already 281 pages long.

The translation is also quite stiff at times. The clumsy, formal translation of ‘memoir’ as ‘autobiographical treatise’ makes it almost as if we are reading the work of a scholastic. Machado therefore does not write for an audience of like-minded people, but focuses explicitly on the normative, heterosexual reader, who must be convinced that domestic violence also occurs among marginal population groups. I think the didactic tone of the book is the least successful. The book is strong enough as a personal testament, it does not need to rub us in the fact that it represents an underexposed perspective – that realization is already there without the explicit explanation.

On the other hand, perhaps it is precisely the project-based, political aspect that acts as a safety net for the writer. It gives her a purpose, it objectifies the trauma. Machado doesn’t try to understand or explain her ex’s abuse. Nor does she examine the path of her own trauma processing. Her experience remains a phenomenon that must be framed historically and culturally at some distance.

Toxic cartridges

The book raises the question of whether queer abuse is significantly different from heterosexual abuse. The latest novel Detransition, baby van Torrey Peters suggested that in the absence of intergenerational care, trans women tend to focus their trauma on their own community; that they pass on to each other the violence of which they are often victims in this world. Queer society in the broadest sense is vulnerable, populated by damaged people, and violence against each other is no exception. The difference with the ‘standard family’ is that the taboo to talk about it is greater. But the toxic patterns Machado describes, or what it feels like to be in love with someone who hurts you—they seem universal to me. And that’s the answer to the question of whether or not Machado has the right to open up about her ‘queer villain’ of an ex: she does, because ‘we’re just like you.’ There is no particular connection between homosexuality and moral depravity. A simple answer which requires the construction of a complex literary edifice – this is the paradox on which Machado balances.

In the dream house however, is not only taboo-breaking, but also a literary achievement. Machado has found a new, exciting form. Although the book seems like an exercise in style, she writes penetratingly, at times even terrifyingly. Machado penetrates deep into her pain. ‘If you always tell stories in the same way, you miss the essence of the stories,’ she teaches her students, she writes in funding applications. And meanwhile thinking: “You can’t bring yourself to say what you really think: I broke the stories to pieces because I broke down myself and didn’t know what else to do.”

Also read the review of Detransition, baby from Torrey Peters: Poignant, compelling: this is the ‘book of the year’ (●●●●●)

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