Falling under a dangerous spell
Carmen Maria Machado’s searingly honest memoir uses the familiar, sinister language of fairy tales to tell a remarkable story of love and abuse
In the Dream House: A Memoir By Carmen Maria Machado
Serpent’s Tail, 272pp, £14.99
Amemoir utterly unlike most, Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House uses the familiar and sinister language and tropes of fairy tales and ancient folklore to recount and explore her experience of an abusive relationship that shut her off from what she had once believed was the real world.
In many ways, a memoir like this, excruciatingly honest and yet vibrantly creative, has no beginning. But if this one did, it would be the moment Machado became involved with “the woman in the Dream House”, as the author refers to her throughout the course of the book. Unsophisticated in love, painfully self-conscious of her body and afraid of her own developing identity, Machado was unused to being desired, much less to having her desire reciprocated. This, she reasons in hindsight, is probably the reason she fell under the spell. And there is always a spell.
It is ironic then that having fallen under a dark spell, that is precisely what she weaves for her readers. With images gleaned from fairy tales that have told us for centuries how to operate within the bounds of our various societies, Machado draws us into an intricately crafted web of emotion, betrayal, sensuality and revelation.
But perhaps the most striking and disconcerting aspect of Machado’s story of her life is that it’s written in the second person. Revealing herself in searing honesty, she is utterly vulnerable in the prose she creates, and yet, because that second person prose addresses her reader directly, we are utterly immersed in her world, so much so that her world becomes ours.
There is bravery in her endeavour, in honestly questioning how much an intimate, romantic and traumatic story can be told; how she herself can be trusted to tell a tale that has been told so many times before but that changes with every retelling. This leads to a literal and literary rummage through a toolbox of techniques and perspectives as Machado attempts with each chapter to find the right way to tell the story of her enchantment. Chapter titles such as “Dream House as Lesbian Pulp Novel”, “Dream House as Stone Comedy”, “Dream House as Myth” and others document those attempts, which in turn becomes insights into the meta narrative of her doomed relationship.
None can ultimately tell the tale in its entirety but this is what Machado revels in; her knowledge allows her to break the rules, to bend those literary conventions. Over and over again she asks, how can a story like this be told? How can any story be told?
It is rich and detailed but this reader longed for more insight into the connection between the Machado speaking this retelling and the younger, besotted, enchanted girl to whom she is speaking. The spell she fell under was predicated on a dream she could not reveal even to herself; the possibility of a happiness that could only lie in a connection to another person and the vulnerability that resonates within that.
Wit and wisdom
In the beginning, Machado believes that no one has ever told a story like this, a story of abuse in a queer relationship, when in fact, feminists have been articulating the realities of relationships like these for decades. Machado’s extensive and revelatory research and reading into this dark and essential history is documented within the Dream House in an exhaustive bibliography. Even as she marks every fairy tale trope, illusion and image with a footnote, she evokes Angela Carter’s capacity to articulate the sensuality in the darkness, believing as she does that every culture should explore its sins as well as its achievements.
But the darkness is suffused with light, wit and wisdom as Machado uses the fragments of her own trauma as lens through which to see and interrogate the culture that has made her who she is, despite and because of her experiences. As a queer woman writing about the abusive relationship that fundamentally influenced her queer identity, she takes a risk that goes to the heart of who she is as an author and a woman.
In the recounting of the trauma of an abusive relationship, In the Dream House becomes a meditation on the human need to belong, and the price we as individuals are prepared to pay for that belonging. Innovative and haunting, compelling and jarring, Machado has created what is essentially a new form of memoir, a creative non-fiction story of her own life, her own thoughts, and her own nightmares.
Last Stop Auschwitz: My Story of Survival By Eddy de Wind
Doubleday, 272pp, £15.99
It could be asked: do we really need to read more Holocaust memoirs? And the answer is, we need them now more than ever. At their best, they lay bare the inner workings of our European societies, and reveal truths about crowds, power and the human capacity for evil which are still all too germane.
This English translation of Eddy de Wind’s book is timely. First published in Dutch in 1946, it was written in Auschwitz itself by the Dutch doctor and psychoanalyst, immediately after the camp’s liberation in January 1945. Scribbled down furiously in breaks between his work with the Red Army who had taken control of the camp, sitting on the edge of a wooden bunk in an Auschwitz barracks, it has an urgency and intensity which makes it unique.
As he says himself, he didn’t find it easy to write about his experiences, but he declares, with some optimism, “I have to let everyone know what happened here. If I record it now and everyone finds out about it, it will never happen again.” Unable to face first-person descriptions, he uses the name Hans to tell the story in the third person. But de Wind is a remarkable narrator. He turns a trained scientific eye on the society around him, being adamant that Auschwitz can best be understood as a society, and he tries to explain how it worked.
Born into a secular, middle-class Dutch family of Jewish descent, his route to Auschwitz was somewhat unusual, as he had volunteered to work as a doctor at the Dutch transit camp of Westerbork, where he married a nurse, Friedel. Westerbork gave many of its inhabitants a false sense of security, but as de Wind relentlessly points out, by 1943, when he was put on the train to Auschwitz, everyone knew what to expect, though few would say it openly.
In a later, famous essay, Confrontation with Death, de Wind would revisit his experiences in psychoanalytic terms, exploring how repression of the unbearable truth continued to operate even in those circumstances. He tells how, as his train arrived in Auschwitz and was surrounded by shaven-headed men in striped uniforms carrying sticks and cudgels, “a doctor who had made the journey in the same wagon as me with his wife and child remarked, ‘Look, they’re prisoners from a concentration camp. They have to help us with our baggage.’”
Set to work as a doctor in the main camp, he had more chance of survival. However, his wife Friedel was sent to Block 10, where the SS doctors were carrying out their notorious medical experiments, the nature of which was common knowledge in the camp, and his will to survive was also motivated by his need to rescue her from that particular horror. Hans is not portrayed as a saint, or even a hero: he is clever, tough, manipulative and determined to survive, even if that means occasionally falling short of his own ethical code.
Nor is he averse to grim humour. Describing the barbers who sheared off the prisoners’ hair before they were tattooed with their number, he remarks: “They didn’t ask if Sir would care for some powder or a scalp massage.”
De Wind has an eye for the telling detail, and is constantly striving to decode the power structures around him. He observes the intricate, feudal chains of command which keep the huge camp functioning, and in particular the psychological purpose of the constant verbal abuse, the shouting and blows. “The Führer shouted at his Generals... they in turn got to shout at their officers. And the officers shouted at the soldiers... the soldiers calmed down again after beating the prisoners and shouting at them. The Blockalteste (block senior prisoner) hit the Poles and the Poles hit Hans. The Führer’s blow had reached Hans...”
The camp brings together a diverse group of people from central and eastern Europe, and de Wind is matter-of-fact on the role s played by some of the prisoners in running the camp. Sitting on his wooden bed in Auschwitz, he has no hesitation in describing it as a Polish camp – something which would get him into hot water in present-day Poland.
Like many in that war who were encountering the Bolshevik Beast in the flesh for the first time, he is impressed by the Russians, describing their sense of comradeship, solidarity and courage, which he finds all too rare in the other nationalities. He also talks about the emotion which sometimes trumped fear, rage, and exhaustion: boredom.
After being caught making a reckless, illicit visit to Friedel in Block 10, he is removed from the relative safety of the hospital, and sent on a punishment commando to Birkenau, another section of the camp, where the four crematoriums are located. His descriptions of the time he spent there, near “the eternal flame” from the crematorium chimney, are among the most harrowing pages in the book. “Sometimes the weather is damp and
doctor), show through their minor acts that they still harbour a remnant of their upbringing. They didn’t learn this inhumanity from an early age and had no need to embrace it. That’s why they’re guiltier than the young Nazi sheep, who have never known better.”
After the war, de Wind specialised in treating survivors, and introduced the concept of concentration camp syndrome. He also studied the way trauma could be passed down through the generations, the so-called Second Generation Syndrome. A remarkable aspect of the book, however, is that despite the fact that de Wind is in the camp because he’s Jewish, like many Dutch Jews of his background, this means little to him. It is of a piece with his survival strategy, refusing to allow an identity to be imposed upon him from outside.
In a late-night conversation in his bunk with a Dutch Zionist leader, de Wind says: “There is no special Jewish issue, just general social issues, general social contradictions that are taken out on Jews. If those problems were thrashed out once and for all, the Jewish question would automatically cease to exist.”
Alas, in these troubled times, that day seems as far off as ever.
De Wind has an eye for the telling detail, and is constantly striving to decode the power structures around him. He observes the intricate, feudal chains of command which keep the huge camp functioning
Michael O’Loughlin’s most recent publication is Poems 1980-2015