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

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOK REVIEWS - Becky Long

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.

Ut­terly vul­ner­a­ble

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

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