There are books that I’ve been avoiding lately, and others that I’ve stared down from across the room, unable to look away. There’s a compulsion to this avoidant-attached approach: I both want to be emotionally destroyed by a book and, simultaneously, want to feel nothing. These books I’ve been avoiding and courting—each details the effects of trauma, domestic abuse, and how the body holds memory.
Since first reading about Carmen Maria Machado’s in-progress memoir In the Dream House a couple of years ago, I’ve been waiting. When it arrived in the post a few months ago I pushed it to the top of my TBR pile. The book starts, ‘Sometimes stories are destroyed, and sometimes they are never uttered in the first place.’ Machado’s memoir details her life behind the curtain: the before, during, and after of an abusive relationship with her ex-girlfriend. This is a book about the stories society tells us don’t exist, the stories other people tell us don’t exist, the stories we don’t let ourselves believe exist. I have lived this life, people I love have lived this life, and yet we have collectively been shushed into forgetting. What happens when our bodies remember?
There’s a line in Claudia Rankine’s Citizen that I come back to every now and then: ‘Yes, and the body has a memory. The physical carriage hauls more than its weight. The body is the threshold across which each objectionable call passes into consciousness.’ I read Machado’s memoir and my entire body remembers: my shoulders remember tension, my shallow breath recalls raised voices, and my skin feels the sting of an ex-girlfriend’s hand. Sometimes we become so adept at burying trauma that we don’t see what is laid bare right in front of us until much later—usually after the fact.
I’ve been avoiding reading Jess Hill’s Stella Prize winner See What You Made Me Do; I’ve added this book to my online cart and removed it countless times since its publication. I avoid it because, like Machado’s memoir, I know I’m not ready to contend with its contents. When I was a child, my mum would often say that she preferred my father left the walls of the house and its possessions alone and instead focus his rage on her—and more often than not, he did. I knew what domestic abuse looked and sounded like from a young age, but I hadn’t learnt that this intergenerational inheritance of trauma could follow you into adulthood.
There’s a reason for that clichéd saying: ignorance is bliss. In many ways it was easier to live in the forgetting, because once memory takes hold you have no choice but to step forward into it, as Machado does in In the Dream House. It took me years to make the connection that my six-year relationship with an ex-girlfriend was shadowed by its own unique pattern of abuse. That I hadn’t known this at the time, despite the life I’d grown up into, speaks to the power of silencing, both from society and from within. And then, someone acts in a way that is so reprehensible that you have no choice but to untether yourself from them. Sometimes it is only in the after that you see this as dumb luck, a lucky break, a quick getaway, a lifeline.
Machado’s memoir is breathtaking in its transformation of form; there is no neat way to tell this story. Domestic abuse doesn’t follow a linear trajectory: one day life is the picture of bliss, the next you have no idea how you got here, how it got to this. Machado samples from every genre imaginable: ‘Dream House as Lesbian Pulp Novel’, ‘Dream House as Spy Thriller’, ‘Dream House as Chekhov’s Gun’, ‘Dream House as Choose Your Own Adventure’. One chapter, ‘Dream House as Epiphany’ bears just one sentence: ‘Most types of domestic abuse are legal.’
In her Stella Prize acceptance speech Jess Hill asks this question: ‘Why shouldn’t we talk openly about the entire spectrum of intimacy—power, control—even violence?’ As a society we are still only just coming to terms with domestic abuse in its physical iterations; the minute, insidious acts of domestic abuse don’t always look like violence to outsiders. Women have been trained to doubt themselves, to feel as if they are too much, as if feeling itself were too much. In the Dream House contends with these questions too: how do we account for the accumulation of trauma our bodies hold?
Sometimes life is easily split into the before and after. There’s the before: 30th birthday drinks with friends on a typically humid Brisbane evening, the everyday—and therefore seemingly unremarkable—bus ride home with my girlfriend, the man sitting at the front of the bus who makes an unfriendly but unheard remark. After a stop or two the man walks to the back of the bus—toward us—and I feel my body shrink as he passes me in the aisle. My girlfriend squeezes my hand tight and I move my hand away. This is still the everyday. The man sits a few seats back. His body is large, he smells of alcohol and he shouts abusive remarks in our direction. I stare forward the entire ride, my body both electric and rigid. I feel everything and I feel nothing. We get off the bus; the man does not follow us. My girlfriend asks, ‘Are you okay?’ I nod too convincingly. The next 48 hours are spent dissociating. This was the before.
In the before there had been telling moments of a life I’d buried: flashes of memory, pulling my body away from a partner in the brief remembering, the times where I’d leave my body, or shrink into myself at the sound of someone yelling. And yet there had never been concrete moments—no memories that lingered long enough to take hold of me.
And now, in this immediate after, I feel something fundamental has shifted: I’m not the same person who got on that bus. It’s not that this particular incident is even out of the ordinary; it isn’t about the bus ride, or the man. I can recall so many other instances in the before that might have triggered this remembering, and yet it’s this night, where life is ordinary, celebratory, and then suddenly it isn’t—it’s this moment that unhinges 30 years of deeply buried trauma.
In The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel van der Kolk writes, ‘After trauma the world is experienced with a different nervous system’—this is the body I occupy now, in the after. My body occupies a world where no immediate threat exists, but my signals keep misfiring. Sometimes a dog’s howl in the night sounds like a woman’s guttural cry and it takes a moment for my body to catch up. Sometimes men sound like they are shouting, even when they are laughing and jovial. I’m no good with sudden loud noises or leisurely walks after dark. All of this lives and breathes in my body now: I can’t forget, something has split inside me and it feels close as skin.
Last year I sought out The Body Keeps the Score because I had a compulsion to know what had happened to my body to make it feel so electric. Van der Kolk says ‘Traumatised people simultaneously remember too little and too much.’ In the past two years the threat of remembering has been ever-present, pushing at the edges of my consciousness.
It’s this after that Machado grapples with too. She writes, ‘My memory has something to say about the way trauma has altered my body’s DNA, like an ancient virus.’ I read the book deliberately quickly, marking page after page, unsure if I’ll return to them. I can’t look away from Machado’s pain, because I know that pain, because now we both have hindsight. One day you are a person who has forgotten, and the next day you are no longer that person.
I have to be careful with myself now in a way that I never used to be, in the before. I both avoid and seek out the things that make me remember, but on my own terms. Machado ends In the Dream House: ‘Sometimes you have to tell a story, and somewhere, you have to stop.’
Rebecca Jessen is a timeless boi. a linen daddy. a random shy poet. a sleeping body that remembers desire. a comet trail. a body that is a bridge. a moonstruck adolescent. an incomplete list poem. a lesbian but… Ask Me About the Future is her second book with University of Queensland Press.