'These Stories Have Been Around for a Long Time': An Interview with Carmen Maria Machado

The author of In the Dream House on gaslighting, the lack of institutional capacity for change, and formal experimentation. 

Photo © Art Streiber

When I meet author Carmen Maria Machado—essayist, National Book Award finalist for the fiction collection Her Body and Other Parties, and now memoirist—it's a bleak, freezing morning in Toronto. She had been out late at an event promoting her new book, In the Dream House (Strange Light), and is fighting a brutal cold.

I'm there to talk to her about this newest book, which chronicles an abusive relationship Machado had with an ex-girlfriend. In the Dream House is primarily written in the second person, as though Machado is addressing a younger version of herself who is simultaneously excited about the new relationship and slowly trying to grapple with the accumulating red flags that present themselves through her girlfriend's controlling, rage—induced behaviour. Alternating her own memories with cultural criticism, she looks to fairy tales, academic texts, pop culture cornerstones, and other mediums in order to relate her own experiences in a larger context of abuse narratives that centre on heterosexual physical violence. 

It was, of course, a heavy subject to broach on a weekday morning while Machado is drinking an herbal tea, but it's subject matter that she has been sitting with for years now—first in her life, then in her art, now in a press tour. Still, she has a lot to say, often letting one thought trail off before switching to another, still trying to find the right words to express what is widely experienced but rarely talked about.

Anna Fitzpatrick: You're touring a book right now that's about trauma, so my first question is just, how are you doing?

Carmen Maria Machado: [Laughs] Great opening question. I don't know. I'm OK. I'm fine—my little pin [points to pin on her lapel that has a cat in a box that says "I'm Fine."]. It's been really hard. The process of writing the book was hard, and the process of touring it. Touring it is not as bad, but it feels similar. It's very intense, and I certainly will be excited to be done with this part of it, and I'm excited to talk about other things.

Have you been meeting people on tour who have been sharing their experiences?

I have, which I expected. I get a lot of messages online. I think, when you feel like someone's speaking to you and you haven't felt spoken to, people respond in kind with their stories.

Which was, I'm assuming, one of the goals of the book. Such as with its dedication: "If you need this book, it is for you."

For sure.

There's one part of the book where you're talking about fitting your story in this history of queer abuse narratives, of which there aren't that many, and you bring up one example with this Bollywood movie Girlfriend. It shows the butch woman as abuser, and the femme as a mostly straight woman who is temporarily seduced away. In a lot of depictions of abuse, it shows this similar dynamic. How do you think this fits in with how society views these gender dynamics, and the way these biases are placed onto queer relationships?

The fact that that story—you know, "Oh yes, the butch, the man, is the abuser." That was a thing I found doing my research, when people are talking about it they would talk about it, like, as butches beating femmes, this reproduction of this heterosexist dynamic. It's obviously fucked up, and not accurate, and not helpful to anybody, 'cause it just reproduces this idea that only men or masculine people abuse, and women or feminine people are abused. And it's like, no, that's not the dynamic. That's a version, but it's not the only one.

Your book is about how the way we talk about abuse is in this limited imagination, that even when people try to "queer the narrative" that imagination is still limited.

Well, the narrative is insufficient. It's very gendered, it's very white, it's very size-ist, you know, this idea of a big dude beating a little woman. All these very weird assumptions and connections that we project onto it. But it's very interesting, because it tells us a lot about how we imagine trauma, and how we imagine violence, and how we imagine gender, and all these things.

Formally, your book has been getting a lot of attention. Every chapter heading in the book calls attention to different narrative conceits. In the process of writing that, did you start with just writing and seeing which themes or motifs jumped out, or did you work backwards?

It just depends on the chapter. The memoir bits, those I was writing what happened. I just wrote what happened, and then figured out how to frame the discrete scenes or pieces of it. For the essay ones, and a lot of the ones where I'd do like, time travel, I'd think about time travel in relation to this whole thing, and then I would write from the prompt of the conceit. It was really dependent on which chapter it was.

Did having those prompts help?

Oh yeah. A lot. I work from prompts really well. I work from conceits and constraints, and I feel like my brain, somebody gives me a thing and then I take it and run with it. It's actually really helpful to have those things. I don't know if I would have thought in those exact terms if I hadn't had that thing kicking off my brain.

Which sections were most challenging to figure out, in terms of form rather than theme?

Just the general shape of the book. Putting everything in order was really hard. My editor actually had to help me do it. He did it for me [laughs]. When I was writing it, the memoir bits were in chronological order, but all the history pieces were in the order I wrote them in the document. I was like, OK, I actually have to put these in throughout, and I had to figure out where they belong, and so I actually had to have him do it, because I was so stressed out and I couldn't make it work. I was like, "Can you do this for me? My brain is truly broken." He was like, Yeah, of course, and he did it. It was amazing.

Who was the editor?

Ethan Nosowsky at Graywolf. He's a genius. He's a really—we're very simpatico. Our brains are just very synced up in that way. He did a great job. He put it in the correct order.

Writing the individual pieces wasn't necessarily formulaically difficult. I guess the Choose Your Own Adventure had a lot of things I had to figure out.

What sorts of things?

How to structure it, because you had to map it out. You have to make sure it's doing all the things you want to do. That one took some work.

With trying to find these thematic narratives, you look to a lot of stories that don't necessarily depict abuse in an overt way. The most notable one is the Star Trek chapter ["Dream House as Five Lights"]. You have essays about Disney Villains and old films. How did looking at these different forms of pop culture, different ways to tell stories, how did that help you ground your experiences, if at all?

I don't know if they grounded it. I feel like I was just really interested—I'm sort of a voracious consumer of books and movies and video games and TV, and that is just the way I've always been. I feel like it was really interesting to me to see the ways human experience is really fractured and fragmented through those narratives. They gave me lenses to think critically.

I feel Gaslight was really instructive, sort of for a few reasons. Like the story of it, evolution from play to film to second film, and the way they tried to destroy the old material to pretend it didn't exist, that was really interesting. The fact of Gaslight being a narrative in which, actually, the husband is not—like, he doesn't lay a hand on her. He does illegal things, but not to her. There's a lack of violence, physical violence. It's a lot of emotional and psychological violence. That seemed important and relevant. It seemed the way in which Gaslight just had this cultural footprint with the language, the way we talk about it, gaslighting seemed relevant. It feels like so many things pull out of that one film, or that one property, because it's been multiple things, that story, it feels so... Star Trek is the same way. That episode where I was like, Oh, there's something happening in here about, you know, being told to think a thing that is not true, and then eventually coming to believe that it's true, which is really fucked up. Or "Voices Carry," talking about Aimee Mann, talking about how that song was initially about a woman, which is such a strange thing. What a weird footnote. It just felt like a different way of thinking about it and understanding it and getting a different sense of how other people have thought about these things.

The Aimee Mann example is such an interesting one, because the seeds of the story are there. The stories are in the public, there's this history there, they're just not talked about explicitly.

The thing about "Voices Carry," I remember years ago hearing that from someone. Like, someone said to me, "I heard that 'Voices Carry' was supposed to be about a woman." And I was like, "Really?" And then I was looking it up and thought, surely someone has written about this, and I, like, found the material where the producer is talking about it, and thought, "OK, great, so I have that." Again, I thought certainly someone has written about this, this seems so relevant. Couldn't find anything. To the point where I was like, "Is this really anything?" It just felt really strange, that I heard a rumour, someone mentioned it to me.

Like the Berenstain Bears Mandela Effect.

Exactly! It's also like, it was for a while on the Wikipedia page for "Voices Carry," but then at some point it was gone. It's a fact that just seemed to exist in this weird liminal space. It's like, how weird, you know? What a weird super apt metaphor. It was so accurate, and the fact of it just being made with male pronouns, but that the video is so over the top, and he's so masculine, it's just so interesting to me. I feel like those pieces just gave me a whole new way. It wouldn't be enough to just be in my own brain, because my own brain is insufficient. I need to sort of be looking in what other people have done and talked about, and that just feels important to me.

That's sort of one of the big points of art, to see certain narratives reflected, and to know that the history of queerness didn't start in 2008 or whatever, when certain mainstream sources started to pay attention to it. The same with the history of abuse.

Right. These stories have been around for a long time.

"Gaslight," I feel that's a term that a lot of people didn't really know about until a few years ago, but then it just hit the mainstream. If you search on Twitter now, you'll see thirty different definitions of what it means. We're having a moment where people are talking about abuse, and so many stories are coming forward, but in a way that's sometimes messy, and people don't know what the next steps are. People are still debating what gaslighting is, or people discussing what we're supposed to do with the art of "bad men," and all these other conversations. I was wondering if you've given any thought to what happens next?

Hmm. It's funny because obviously there is no agreed upon... like a formal body of who said what gaslighting is. I think people use it to mean a lot of things of which I don't think are always accurate or useful as I would want them to be. I think it's also funny because I found it very useful to go back to, not just the original film, but to go to the source material, and watch the movie, and watch it many times. I feel people are always saying the wrong thing about it. I feel people are always saying, "He's trying to drive her crazy!" There's just all these weird ways people talk about it when they clearly haven't seen the movie, or they don't really understand. I feel going back to it and looking at what he does and his intentions and motivations, is actually far more interesting and subtle and really fucked up, more than I think people fully realize. I feel there's something useful about going back to that material and looking at it that way. People use the word to mean a lot of things. I think it's fully used when describing a full system, so I feel like, in the same way that you can be gaslit in a relationship, you also can be gaslit at a job, where there's a closed system in which there are these agreed upon facts and there's a power structure, and like, you can be manipulated in this way. I've had friends use that word, "gaslighting," to describe a work experience they've had and I'm like, yeah, that feels actually very accurate. Gaslighting also exists in closed systems of oppression. I feel like we can culturally gaslight people. We can culturally gaslight women. We can culturally gaslight people of colour. There's a sense of undermining what has happened through agreed upon cultural amnesia. It is possible to do it in that way. Some people use it to mean "I don't like what's being said to me" and that is not quite gaslighting.

I don't know how it connects to #MeToo directly. #MeToo is very interesting to me because I did an event last week at the height of my illness, so I was in a very bad mood. It was at the Strand in New York. Someone asked me about #MeToo, and I think one of the biggest revelations of my adult life has been what I want to tell to people who are younger. I'm not old. I'm in my thirties. But what I want to say to people who are in their twenties and in their teens is, #MeToo is good. It's good that it's happening. I don't think it's going to create long-term change because I don't think that the people who are in power have sufficient incentive to change the way that they behave. We've created a power structure where it's impossible—I think individual things can happen. Good individual things, people can be individually punished, but do I think the culture of men feeling entitled to women's bodies and minds and stories, is that ever going to change? No, I don't think so. I think that's the fact of the world. I don't want to believe that's true. A thing I've come to believe is, expecting institutions, like media institutions or universities or whatever, to do the right thing is really quite pointless. I think when they do do the right thing, it's by accident. It's because the right thing also serves their interests. Institutions are meant to maintain their own longevity. Their function is to keep existing. They will do that in whatever way they can, and sometimes that might include going after somebody bad, but it also might not. I feel like I've watched institutions both relevant to my own story and to this book, and also to other people, all kinds of things, just make bad choices of self-preservation that throw people under the bus and there's no recompense. There's no recourse.

I feel that's a very dark and depressing way of thinking about it. I don't want to believe it's true. But I feel it makes the world make a lot more sense. If you believe these things are going to change, you're going to feel sad and disappointed forever, but I've recognized expecting the right thing to happen in this sort of arena, that there's just no point. You have to do what you can do individually because expecting larger groups of people to do the right thing is sort of pointless. Again, I feel people disagree with me. Once I said that, I was at an event and a lady came up to me, and she was like, "Are you in therapy?" I was like, "I'm in so much therapy. I love therapy!" But I'm just saying I don't feel optimistic about the world. We're getting a little better. When it does happen I'm pleasantly surprised. I don't know.

Or there might be one public figure associated with an organization scapegoated while the institution doesn't change.

Exactly. Right, where it's like, Oh, we can fire so-and-so for saying this thing, but these larger problems going on in our organization can go unchecked. I feel when you realize that, it really does make the world make a lot more sense. Honestly, when I figured that out—and I figured that out through the process of going through this stuff in my life that became this book—once I figured out that that was what it was... [pauses]. It made me feel less crazy. Because I was like, this is actually what's happening.

You have this scene in the book where you visit ex-girlfriend's family, and you see that she wasn't created in a vacuum. You talk about her father, and these patterns that have replicated themselves. You also point out that almost nothing she did was technically illegal. I think that speaks to your point about how just occasionally punishing the one public bad person without looking at the systems that create this or the ways abuse happens on a spectrum beyond what is or isn't legal—

Right. I think it requires a kind of nuance that we're not capable of on a large scale. You know what I mean? Trying to convince people to do the right thing, or to be critical of themselves, or be critical of their own sexism or racism or homophobia or whatever, I think people want to believe that they are fundamentally good, and that other people are fundamentally good. To encounter evidence to the contrary is very stressful to people. I don't think we want to change in a way that would actually effect change.

And to believe also that people exist in a dichotomy of good or bad—

Exactly. You want people to be cackling maniacs, like I say in the book. We want people to be like, "Muahaha," twirling the mustache, tying damsels to railroad tracks, and it's like, "Well..." Sometimes people are just fucking selfish, and they don't care, and that doesn't make them evil. It just makes them indifferent or amoral. I don't know. I don't know.

Has it become easier to talk about, with the more interviews you give?

It's about the same. The thing about being on tour for anything is that you eventually figure out what your answers are, and you say them, and I feel like I'm able to talk about it because it's in this sheath of, "Well, I've now said the answer to this thing or this thing so many times." I can deliver it without having to engage with what it means in my mind and my inner, most tender self. I already did that. It's in the book. I don't want to do it again. It's funny, last night when I read, I went out afterwards with some folks from Strange Light, and Anthony [Oliviera], the guy that I did the event with, was like, "You were so present. What does it feel like to read from the book?" And I was like, Oh I seem present, but I'm a million miles away. I could deliver those in my sleep. If I really thought about what I was saying, if I really super engaged, I don't think I'd be able to get through it, you know? So, I have to kind of create this distance for myself. I could recite the Bluebeard chapter from memory. I need that for my own sanity.

The stuff that's really interesting to me is the formal stuff. I like talking about structure and craft. That to me is very interesting. I'm a little less interested in talking about—which doesn't mean that people shouldn't ask me about it—but I'd rather talk about structure than about the worst thing that ever happened to me. But you know. It is what it is. I'll tour the book until I don't, and then I'll never talk about it again [laughs].