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Editor’s Note: This piece discusses family and intimate partner violence and abuse. 

covers of In The Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado, See What You Made Me Do by Jess Hill, and Throat by Ellen van Neerven

If you are silent about your pain, they’ll
kill you and say you enjoyed it.
—Zora Neale Hurston

Growing up, my father was often angry at my taste for macabre and morbid entertainment. Whether it was Stephen King films or the stories of Edgar Allan Poe, he would tell me: ‘Real life is scary enough, bud.’

Simple, really—as simple as reminding your kids that the sky is blue. Or not to talk to strangers on the way home.

This idea (‘real life is scary enough, bud!’) is the subject of Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House (Serpents Tail), an artfully arranged memoir about living with—and surviving—an abusive partner. Working as a lawyer for both applicants and respondents to family violence intervention orders, I have seen the accumulating cruelties and complications of our system. I have seen police misidentify the victims of family violence. The interests of children compromised. I have seen a number of Aboriginal women who would not apply for restraining orders because of the system’s potential for racism—the fear that they would lose their children to government welfare departments, sometimes forever.

Every day, applicants had to go through the horror of trying to convince themselves that the sky was blue, even as they were being told that it was not.

Machado’s ‘Dream House’ motif is built upon this kind of paralysed unease. The theme recurs in seemingly infinite variations: Dream House as Unreliable Narrator. Dream House as American Gothic. Dream House as Choose Your Own Adventure. Dream House as Thanks, Obama. Often no more than two or three pages long, each variation attempts to give form and shape to the author’s experience. As Machado describes in a chapter entitled ‘Exercise in Style’ (after Queneau), it is the act of ‘searching for a kind of aggregate meaning’ that helps us to make sense of our lives:

You will spend the next few years of your career coming up with elaborate justifications for the structure of the stories you were writing at the time—telling them to young readers in classrooms and audiences at bookstores; once, to a tenure-track job search committee. You say, ‘Telling stories in just one way misses the point of stories.’ You can’t bring yourself to say what you really think: I broke the stories down because I was breaking down and didn’t know what else to do.

In See What You Made Me Do (Black Inc), Jess Hill’s study of domestic violence in Australia, chronic abuse is depicted as a world in which ‘incidents are just fragments: they rarely give precise shape to the whole. It’s the atmosphere victims live in that keeps them in a state of high alert.’

Machado knows how reluctant the pen becomes when trying to trace trauma’s outline.

The horror, in other words, is not that the dream house is just a dream: it is that the dream house is a reality. Like a bad dream intent on staying bad, you pinch yourself to wake up, but register only the pinch; the dull realisation that you are already awake, and perhaps have been the whole time.

But for every nightmare there is the hope—the possibility—of waking up. One of Machado’s fears in reporting her abuse is that, by doing so, she might sever the unity of queer solidarity. After all, she reasons, there is more than enough violence in the everyday prejudices faced by the community. Homophobia and transphobia can result in the denial of access to everything from jobs to housing, domestic-violence counselling to health care. Machado wrestles with the idea of writing about her abuser, a person whose abuse risks playing into the same cultural motifs and stereotypes that have been employed to dehumanise and humiliate people like her: the queer as villainous, scheming Cruella De Vil caricature, the deviant and wayward villain of homophobic fantasy.

Machado knows how reluctant the pen becomes when trying to trace trauma’s outline.

In Hill’s book, a similar discomfort marks the ‘Dadirri’ chapter, which surveys the violence faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. To her credit, rather than serve this violence up as intellectual tourism for a settler readership, Hill generally focuses instead on the institutions that perpetuate and enable it. She details the ghoulish carnival ride of bureaucratic incompetence—that often overwhelming combination of condescension and apathy which confronts those marginalised by top-down and paternalistic systems of government and policing on a daily basis. Indeed, it is visible across a range of contexts: most recently, in the Victorian government’s failure to be of any meaningful assistance to those Flemington and North Melbourne housing block residents confined to their homes during COVID (the community themselves having stepped up to provide for one another). Alda Ambert depicted the issue eloquently in her 1995 novel A Perfect Silence, the story of a Puerto Rican woman brought up in the South Bronx, struggling to break the cycle of poverty and oppression which has plagued her family for generations:

Blanca was taken to live with Conchita, her new guardian, inspected and licenced by the city to care for children in crises. She took antibiotics provided by the city for stubborn infection and wore clothes provided by the city. Blanca, whose life was continually regimented by municipal fiat, perceived that an omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient being must surely reside in the mayor’s office, sitting in front of a great city map and pushing pins with coloured heads. One of those little heads, red maybe because it was her favorite colour, represented Blanca. She felt calmer knowing she was taken care of by this faceless, amorphous being.

Hill’s combination of deep listening and considered investment, her marshalling of the relevant scholarship and activist work, provides due respect to subject matter that, without such care, risks being lost in translation. You can watch it being whittled away in the soulless number-crunching of statistical abstraction; in the hypotheses of amateur sociology and the haunted trauma eviscerations of hack journalism, where gratuitousness often works to undercut empathy. We are always at risk of having our words start to repulse us; every dull grinding attempt to communicate one’s humanity—or that of another—seeming only to fossilise feeling itself. As Hill writes:

For four years I’ve squinted hard at the phenomenon of domestic abuse, grasping for the perfect combination of words to make you feel it so acutely, with such fresh horror, that you will demand—and keep demanding—drastic action from our leaders. [… ] But always I have had the crushing sense of futility. The thought of penning yet another ‘call for action’—one more on the teetering pile—is nauseating.

Hill’s combination of deep listening and considered investment provides due respect to subject matter that, without such care, risks being lost in translation.

Ellen van Neerven, too, knows something of this nausea. Like Machado, they chronicle aspects of domestic abuse in LGBTQI communities, with a focus on Indigenous perspectives. In their latest collection Throat (UQP), van Neerven reminds us that invasion and colonisation imposed a gender binary upon our continent: one that undermined the plural gender formations and fluid sexualities of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. These lay outside the frameworks of hetero-nuclear familyhood introduced by white Christian society. Like the land itself, the bodies of Aboriginal women, girls, Brotherboys, Sistergirls, trans and nonbinary folk became subject to violation:

I think about those murdered and missing

counted, described and spoken about

in courts and in tabloids

without their true gender identities

dissected, violated, robbed and autopsied

no affirmation

no justice

continuing violence

every night and in every silence

I watch and listen out for you

Here, in ‘Silenced identity’, van Neerven draws on the work of communities and activists in global settler-colonial contexts. They look to places like Canada, where activists have documented thousands of cases since the 1970s in which Indigenous women, girls, trans, non-binary and Two-Spirit people have been murdered—disappeared.


Toward the end of In the Dream House, Machado attempts to give definition to her experience by considering the meaning of the word ‘nostalgia’:

Nostalgia (noun)

1. The unsettling sensation that you are never able to fully access the past; that once you are departed from an event, some essential quality of it is lost forever.
2. A reminder to remember: just because the sharpness of the sadness has faded does not mean that it was not, once, terrible. It means only that time and space, creatures of infinite girth and tenderness, have stepped between the two of you, and they are keeping you safe as they were once unable to.

Nostalgia: a sense of unfulfilled expectation and yearning. That feeling of being both too much and never enough.

Van Neerven reminds us that invasion and colonisation undermined the plural gender formations and fluid sexualities of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

For communities subject to regular profiling—colonial, racial, sexual, gendered, religious—there is strength in reminding oneself daily of the reality of one’s experience. Of the brute fact you are alive.

Words are, in the end, a blunt instrument. They cannot always commemorate the place where a human life once stood—proud, recognised, seen. As Anna Wise sang on Kendrick Lamar’s 2012 song ‘Real’:

I’m real, I’m real, I’m really really real.

I’m real, I’m real, I’m really really real.

I’m real, I’m real, I’m really really real.

Because, sometimes, society tells you that you are not. That your experience, the living, breathing fact of it, isn’t really real.

Even externalised pain, Machado and Hill point out, is often about filling a lack within oneself. Abuse of others as control; as narcissism, abject need: I need you to know that I am real and the proof is that I have the power to hurt you.

There is an additional violence here, too: the sense of having been made complicit in one’s own suffering. Machado blames herself for her abuse. It is part of how her abuser gaslights her. She becomes the victim of both external violence and the corrosive self-talk that comes from internalising it. As Hill writes, ‘domestic abuse is a terrifying language that develops slowly and is spoken only by the people involved.’


‘Real life is scary enough, bud.’

My dad had a point. Perhaps the most frightening question Machado poses to her readers is this: Can we distinguish a dream from a nightmare? And if so, how?

Because if dreams come true, nightmares simply come. They offer no resolution—just the stark force of the terror that they might never end.

And sometimes even that may be asking too much. As Jess Hill remarks of ‘Brendan’, one of her interviewees: ‘by the time he was planning to murder his wife, he was also planning to kill himself.’

These are works which speak to the seismic pain of physical and emotional trauma. They attempt to do justice to tough subjects; to the vagaries of relaying one’s story for an audience that has often—in media reporting, in courtrooms, in national conversations—had difficulty engaging with the subject of domestic abuse (to say nothing of the ongoing legacies of patriarchy and colonisation). In their own way, each author addresses the hurt of admitting that what has happened could have happened at all—of coming, in the dull remains of the dream house we build our relationships on, to acknowledge the truths we cannot live with, as well as those we will have to.

In the Dream House, See What You Made Me Do and Throat are available now from your local independent bookseller.