We cannot solve a problem we do not recognize exists. This is the beating heart of Carmen Maria Machado’s upcoming memoir, “In the Dream House.”
As Machado puts it at the book’s beginning, “In the Dream House” aims to establish an archive of stories about abuse in queer relationships — abuse where the perpetrator does not look exactly as we imagine they would — including her own survival of abuse. I do not identify as queer, and how I relate to Machado’s story is somewhat limited.
But still, her story spoke to my own.
Like Machado’s, the perpetrator of the abuse I experienced as a child did not fit a common narrative. My abuser was a female peer, close to my own age, and both of us were still children. My suffering was prolonged for months, woven into the fabric of my day-to-day life. As time went on I felt something was wrong, but I blamed myself — partly because I’d never heard of somebody like them hurting somebody like me. The face of her identity — young, female — made it harder for me to identify what was happening, to get out, and to get help.
I — and my parents, and the therapist they sent me to — failed to call what happened to me abuse. Though I became silent, withdrew from friends, was prone to panic attacks and outbursts of rage, nobody connected the dots: to say that she abused me, and I was in pain because of it. I began to believe the world was contaminated and became obsessed with scrubbing myself clean. I washed my hands and possessions so much that I lost my fingerprints. The evidence of my pain was ample and clear, but still nobody named what happened.
My abuser’s identity meant my abuse was not real. It was written off as “developmentally appropriate child’s play,” though the corollary for these actions between adults would clearly be rape: One person said no to sexual advances, another person ignored them and violated them anyways. Abuse that happens over an extended period of time can be particularly damaging, because it slowly breaks us down and makes us question our realities. Can we trust our perception of the world if our abuser feeds us a false narrative, and on top of that, other people outside the abusive situation don’t recognize what’s happening as abuse, either?
An avid reader growing up, I searched the shelves of libraries and bookshops for reassurance that what happened in my childhood was wrong. The few relevant books I could find always described a male perpetrator, usually much older than the victim, abusing a young, usually white, girl. It went without saying that the characters were cis and straight. I closed the books, invalidated.
A decade after my childhood abuse stopped, I experienced rape at the hands of a stranger. When I told others what had happened, they quickly recognized it for the violation it was. Not a single person questioned me — in fact, they empathized with me. My pain, my PTSD, was validated because of the circumstances of the assault — it was dark, it was an alleyway — and the identity of the attacker: an older male stranger. Their easy belief in that particular story, though, is not necessarily a good thing, because the flipside of it means that other stories, stories that break away from what we have been told violation looks like, are less easily believed. I experienced this firsthand, all those times I tried to talk about the abuse in my childhood.
Every abuse survivor narrative is also a story about being believed. And we are less likely to believe stories we do not have a framework to understand. When we do not have a model to discuss a particular abusive scenario, when our experiences of violation do not fit the stories we have been told about what perpetrators look like, victims who have been violated in situations outside the norm are often silenced.
After the rape I went to therapy, which reopened a discussion about my childhood abuse. Through those conversations, I learned about traumatic stress, about crossed boundaries, about bodily autonomy, and I learned to name what had happened in my childhood as a series of assaults. In the years since that realization, I’ve still shied away from talking about it. But Machado’s story of an “atypical” abuser gives me the words to speak. To others yes, and maybe more importantly, to myself.
I have been searching for a book that describes my childhood abuse and its impact on me for nearly 20 years now. In Machado’s pages, I’ve finally found it. “In the Dream House” is the first book in which I recognized something similar to my own experience. By shining a light on her own “atypical” experience, Machado makes us realize that maybe, it’s not so “atypical” after all. It is in reading books like Machado’s that I find the strength to say, “my story is valid because it is one of many.”
I hope that Machado’s book is the first fallen stone of an avalanche. I hope that more people start speaking, start filling in the gaps in the narratives of how we talk about abuse, fitting our once uncategorizable experiences into a bigger picture. I hope that we make space for stories that need to be heard, stories in which the perpetrator and the victim do not look how we might expect. Machado set out to create an archive of abuse in queer relationships — a necessary, world-altering goal, which she has surely achieved in these pages. But her book has done more than that: “In the Dream House” has also created an archive for victims of any form of abuse outside our current cultural conversation.
It is an archive that somebody like me can look to as I finally tell my own story, because I know I can now say — here is proof. Here is evidence. There are more of us. And my abuser’s identity does not make my pain any less real.