top of page
  • Freya Ford-Elliott

“Most types of domestic abuse are completely legal” – THE DREAM HOUSE REVIEW

IN THE DREAM HOUSE Explores the Complex Realities of Queer Domestic Abuse

CONTENT WARNING! This article discusses topics such as verbal, mental, physical and sexual abuse, fatphobia

In the Dream House, a memoir written by Carmen Maria Machado, is a stunning literary feat that recounts her own experiences of domestic abuse in a lesbian presenting relationship under the extended metaphor of ‘the Dream House’. It is written in vignette-style chapters titled ‘Dream House as’ followed by various literary motifs. She filters the narrative of her abusive relationship through the structures of what these motifs represent. In one chapter, titled ‘Dream House as Choose Your Own Adventure,’ she even invites the reader to participate in the cyclical nature of abuse, demonstrating how, no matter which option you choose, you cannot win.

Her use of second-person narration facilitates a number of conversations throughout the novel. It is a conversation between the ‘I’ of her current self and the ‘you’ of her past self who didn’t have the language to articulate her experiences of abuse. It is also a conversation between Machado and the reader, challenging us to reckon with the rhetorical ‘what would you do?’ question, displacing her own memories and assigning the reader as the victim. This technique is extremely impactful, and creates a connection between the author and reader unlike any other I have experienced in literature before.

It is also a conversation about how wider society has depicted domestic abuse in romantic partnerships. Typical gender roles have a huge part to play in how domestic abuse in lesbian – and on a larger scale, queer – relationships have been delegitimised both on a societal level and on a legal level. If a woman is not viewed as meek, submissive and typically ‘feminine’ in nature, she is less likely to be believed to be a victim. There are undeniably racial ramifications for this. In a similar vein, abusers are more likely to be convicted if they are typically ‘masculine’ and larger in stature than their victim. Therefore, when a woman who is not physically intimidating in stature is abusive, their victim is less likely to be believed. The crux of the novel is this: Machado fears that by accurately depicting domestic abuse in a lesbian presenting relationship, she is giving anti-LGBTQ+ people reasons to delegitimise queer relationships.

The abuser is never named in the entirety of the novel, only referred to as ‘the woman in the Dream House’. To take away her name takes away her power, but it also opens the narrative up to being somehow more universal. Her abuser could be anyone. She is also given very little physical description, described only as blue-eyed, blonde-haired, and a mix between femme and butch. The lack of physical description causes the actions of the abuser to stand out more in the narrative. The abuse, verbal, physical and sexual, remain as the most impactful parts of her character. On the other hand, the narrator’s physical description is significant; the woman in the Dream House is a conventionally attractive (read: skinny and white) woman who ‘chose’ and desires the fat narrator. It’s an understated power imbalance which remains part of the reason why the narrator chooses to stay with the woman in the Dream House, even after the awful ways in which she is treated.

Machado states in the novel that she felt it was imperative to depict the ‘whole story’ of domestic abuse; thus the novel is split into 4 parts: the beginning of the relationship, the during, the ending, and the after. This is impactful because it demonstrates how abuse can become a cyclical pattern. The woman in the Dream House has an abusive father, and fears that she will ‘become him’. The narrator experienced abuse and grooming in her past, and is susceptible to seeking abusive relationships because it’s what she ‘deserves’. It demonstrates that abuse doesn’t start with the physical abuse that most people envision when hearing the term ‘domestic abuse’. It often starts with manipulation, control and obsession. It starts with secrecy, with making excuses for her behaviour, feeling shame and fear of others’ presumptions. The victim becomes hyper-vigilant and tries to learn to predict the unpredictable. It progresses to verbal abuse and accusations; screaming matches over small disagreements, holding the narrator accountable for the mistakes that the woman in the Dream House initially made. Degrading commentary and insulting the victim to break her down into feeling powerless. It only turns physical when the narrator stops blindly accepting such treatment; throwing things, using threats of violence to intimidate the narrator into submitting. Physical aggression becomes power.

In the Dream House reflects Machado’s fears and anxieties of representing her abusive relationship as an attack on the legitimacy of queer relationships. But it is an extremely important conversation to have. Machado, a bisexual woman in a lesbian presenting partnership, faced emotional, physical and sexual abuse at the hands of her partner; and faced scrutiny and doubt by her peers when she tried to vocalise these abuses, solely on the basis that her partner was a woman. She battled with and internalised her own biases in reckoning with these conflicting views from others, and worried even when beginning writing her novel that she would be ‘betraying’ the queer community by painting her abuser in a bad light.

In lesbian and lesbian-adjacent communities, we have a tendency to romanticise our ways of loving, as a solace from heteronormative society, from patriarchy, from binary gendered expectations – but what does it mean, then, if your relationship does not resemble that sense of solace, but becomes a threat to your safety and wellbeing? When does it become right and moral to speak out against that person? It is difficult to navigate the internal struggle between wanting to sanitise queerness to make it palatable for straight and cisgender audiences, from a place that is ultimately protective, whilst also being fully aware that there are darker and very human experiences we face, which, when they’re brought to light, may tarnish our already unstable reputation. But ignoring these issues leaves members of our community who have been targeted by some form of abuse to be completely isolated when we don’t talk about these issues. Physical, emotional and sexual abuse are experiences that many people face within the LGBTQ+ community, from within and outside of it, and it is imperative that we come together to support and uplift the voices of victims of abuse.

It is especially sinister to suggest that abuse between two people of the same gender is not as traumatising, dangerous and harmful as abuse between a heterosexual presenting couple. At the midpoint of the novel, a one-sentence chapter reads as: ‘Most types of domestic abuse are completely legal.’ To de-legitimise queer domestic abuse is to strip those being victimised by their partners of their autonomy and experiences.

Even if you’re not a lesbian or bisexual, or otherwise queer, I believe this is essential reading for everybody – to reckon with the reality that there are bad and harmful people within the queer community is to humanise our experience, not shy away from tougher conversations such as abuse in all its forms. We must believe and validate victims’ experiences.

If you suspect that you or a loved one are experiencing abuse of any kind, you can find a wealth of resources and support at a UK-based charity supporting LGBTQ+ victims of abuse, or call their hotline at 0800 999 5428.

You can buy In the Dream House from Paned o Gê ( or wherever you buy your books.



bottom of page