Carmen Maria Machado Is Using The Word 'Abusive'
Hey, this is Anna. I want to let you know this episode is about, and includes descriptions of, intimate partner abuse. If you need them, we have resources at our website—deathsexmoney.org.
CARMEN MARIA MACHADO: I think, you know, it's created a sense of skepticism in me that I didn't have before. I can identify sort of certain patterns and things like I think that I couldn't before. It's sort of rubbed a little bit of the sheen off of the world. And I don’t, for better or for worse, like it's the person that I've become.
This is Death, Sex & Money.
The show from WNYC about the things we think about a lot…
...and need to talk about more.
I’m Anna Sale.
Writer Carmen Maria Machado’s latest book is a memoir of a relationship in her twenties. One that she now calls abusive.
CMM: When you say like, I was abused or like my ex abused me, people get very nervous. Like there's just a weird, the word creates a lot of anxiety in people, in all kinds of directions. But it's much, it's like a useful shorthand when it, in sit-, you’re like, do you have four hours, or do you have one second? Like I can say to you, I can tell you the whole thing. Or I could just say to you like, I was in an abusive relationship. And like, it sort of encompasses a lot of different experiences. And I think it, I, I believe that my experiences fit into that category.
Landing on that word, though, was not easy. Carmen’s relationship, she writes in her book In the Dream House, didn’t fit into the images of what comes up when you say "abusive relationship." She was with a woman, and for the most part, their fights were verbal attacks: the wounds didn’t leave marks.
“Dream House as Epiphany,” she writes at one point. “Most types of domestic abuse…are completely legal.”
Carmen is 33 now and has been with her wife for seven years.
The relationship Carmen documents in her book happened years ago, in her mid-20s, when she was a grad student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. It was her first relationship with a woman.
She’d dated men before that, but had thought about being with women since she was a teenager.
CMM: And I remember once having this fantasy so far back that it was before I identified as queer, where I basically was like, if I never meet a man and marry him, I would like to like live in a big house with a bunch of women and we just like garden, and cook, and like have a million animals. Um, what it looked like was this like weird, beautiful, queer utopia, um, scenario. So I feel like maybe when I rolled into this relationship, like what was in my brain was like obviously a slightly more sophisticated version of that, with the understanding that I was queer, um, but having not lost any of that idealism? Um -
ANNA SALE: Yeah.
CMM: - which is a super, super bad combination as it turns out. Um, cause I knew nothing, and I had this really, really rosy view of what it could be.
AS: Oh. When you first were noticing that you were attracted to her and she was attracted to you, what did you like about the way you felt when you were with her?
CMM: I liked - I mean she looked at me. You know, I was like a weird awkward fat girl, woman, young woman. And like... I had sort of watched a lot of people in my life, like, have relationships and have people be really into them. And like, I just didn't know what that looked like. Um, and there was something, and I felt like I was always doing the chasing. I was always sort of pursuing people and I was always the one who was sort of trying to, had to initiate things. And I just wanted somebody to like, look at me and be like, I want you, you know? And that's exactly what she did. I mean, I - I don't know. It feels so silly to say it out loud cause it feels so minor and so simple and like, like, could it possibly that, be that easy?
AS: No, it’s huge. Are you kidding?
CMM: But like, you know? Like, I mean I think when I look back on it, I mean I was writing this memoir, like I kept thinking like how embarrassing it was, how easy that was. You know, and how I just sort of like, you know, I imagine it's like, you know how the dodos, like when the men landed on those islands and the dodos just like waddle right up to them cause they were like, what the fuck are you, you know?
AS: So you're the dodo in this metaphor?
AS: But she walked up to you. Like she, you're describing that she like saw you, she looked at you, and you weren't having to work for it.
CMM: Yeah, well like I guess I also think that, um, you know, I, I didn't have a great sense of - like at the time I felt like, like, uh, you could look at that scenario and be like, oh, then she, you know, how could you be the dodo? Because she's, you know, she's the one who’s sort of putting her heart out there. But like the fact is actually that's not what was happening at all. Um because in re - in retrospect like what was actually happening was like part of a, it's part of like a like fairly identifiable pattern. Um, I don't know if you're familiar with the idea of like love bombing. Um -
AS: Tell me about love bombing. I don't know what that means.
CMM: It's this idea, and it doesn't just apply to abusive relationships, but it just applies to like like where there's, where sort of part of the process of being sort of prepared for this like cycle of like worship and sort of devastation, um, is this sort of like walking up to somebody and being like, you are perfect, you are everything, you are a flawless human being. Like, and and sort of creating this sense of like, like putting them up on this massive, massive pedestal for the purpose of them being sort of knocked down. And I say this, I don't mean to say it as if like, that's like part of a calculating plan because I feel like it's a lot more complicated than that, but it's sort of this like first step. So this first step was somebody saying to me like, I want you, like I'm obsessed with you. Everything about you is perfect, which was just a thing that no one had ever said to me before.
Their connection was intense, enveloping even. And so too, Carmen learned early on, were their fights. She says her ex — that’s what she calls her in the book — would scream at her, say demeaning things to her.
CMM: I remember like when my ex would yell at me, there was just this, I mean I feel like I, the only way to describe it, it's like your esophagus getting kind of yanked to the side. There's like this sort of brief kind of nausea that would happen.
AS: Was there a pattern that developed, like when she would become angry and curse at you, how would you respond and then how would she respond? What became the pattern?
CMM: Sometimes I would cry. Sometimes I would get angry and I would be angry at her and I would say like, that was really horrible, that was a horrible thing to say to me. Um, sometimes I would just kind of shut down and be like, I don't, I don't want to talk about this. I don't want to deal, deal with this right now, and then she we get angry that I wasn't speaking. I mean it was sort of like this, like endless cycle you know, couldn’t, like I couldn't really, I couldn't really escape it cause yeah, if I, if I said something, then she would, you know, we would sort of yell and there would be more yelling. And if I didn't say anything she would be like, I hate it how you, you just like, you just like don't respond to me. It was like nothing I could do was like correct or right. Um you know, and as the relationship progressed, I mean, her emotional response, I - I mean certain things became triggers that, you know, were like recognizable. Like she was very jealous and so anything that could be perceived as me expressing you know ha-, like happiness about the presence or existence of another person of any kind became like a kind of trigger.
AS: So did you learn to avoid talking about other people who were making you happy?
CMM: I did, I did, yeah. Anytime I mentioned anybody, I mean, if I was like, I have a student who did really great on a paper, or on a story, she'd be like, you want to, do you wanna have sex with that, what that student? And I'd be like, no, what the hell is wrong with you? I mean in the beginning I feel like I felt very exasperated a lot, you know? 'Cause I was like, what, what are you, I was like, I don't even know how to respond to this. But then by the end I feel like I was just like, um, sorry, I don't, no, I don't want to sleep with that person. I'm sorry for bringing it up. Um or I just wouldn't bring people up at all.
AS: When this was just starting in your relationship, when these angry outbursts were happening, when these fights were taking on this intensity, did you think it was normal?
CMM: I think I thought, I mean it was sort of a combination of things. I knew that people, I mean obviously I had seen my parents fight, and I knew that like that was a thing that some people did. And I also remember her saying to me this thing that I didn't, have never forgotten, which is like, she was like, you know, lesbian - this is just what it's like to date a woman. Like women are more intense. Like these relationships are more intense. And I guess I had no reason not to believe her because I was like, I mean, you would be the expert. Because she had dated lots of women and like she was my first girlfriend and I was like, okay, well, I mean, I guess I believe you if you say to me that like, lesbians are just different in this way. [Sighs] I don't know, and and I think it just seems like I was like, well, you know, I, I guess I have intense emotions. Like I guess that makes sense. Um, I mean, it just, it just seemed to me like it just seemed like it made sense in the moment. And I was like, okay, well, I guess you would know. But also I was, you know 24 I think?
CMM: Like I was so little.
Their relationship lasted about a year. For a lot of it, they didn’t live in the same town. Carmen would drive from the apartment she shared with roommates to the house her ex lived in a few hours away. That was the site of a lot of these fights. Including the one when Carmen says her ex threw things at her, came after her, and Carmen barricaded herself in the bathroom.
CMM: She just kept hurling her body against the door over and over and screaming and screaming and screaming and I - I just didn't know. I was so scared and just, I mean I was hysterical. I mean I was like so beside myself, I didn't even know what to do. And, and then later when it stopped and I opened the door, she was just like sitting there being like, what, what happened? What happened? Why are you so upset?
AS: What did you think was happening?
CMM: I truly had no idea. You know, I Googled a lot of stuff. Because I was like, what could possibly cause somebody - ? You know, it's funny cause I, I mean now I know the language for, or for that, which is a dissociative episode, but I I didn't actually even know - . So I just was like Googling like you know uh "memory lapse," you know I was just trying to, I was just Googling like whatever word I could think of. And it's like if you don't have the right words, if you don't know what you're looking at or you can't look at it, like there's so much you can miss. And I really wanted there to be an explanation that in, was like, it is not her fault, you know? Um, if I'm like, "Oh I threw up this morning," and then I, you know, you're like, okay, that's an inf, piece of information. And then I'm like, "Oh, it's cause I drank really a lot last night." You'd be like, "Ugh God, like that's gross and irresponsible". Or I could be like, "Oh, I had the flu." And you're like, "Oh, poor baby". You know? And it's like one of those like invites judgment and the other one is just like, "Oh you can't help yourself. You were sick". You know? And I feel like I wanted there to be an explanation where I could be, if, you gotta be like poor baby, like I know you did something really scary. It was really scary and awful, but like it wasn't your fault and I don't blame you. And I needed that to be true. Like I needed that to be a fact. Thinking the alternative meant that like, I was, it meant like looking at what was actually happening and I didn't want to do that.
Coming up… what happens after Carmen’s relationship with her ex finally ended, and she talked to other people in her life about whether they knew.
CMM: I do know that some people feel guilty that they didn't notice or they didn't know it was that bad. But I do feel like just somebody being like, you seem different. Like you've changed, like acknowledging that was like, yeah, like it was something, there was something, I dunno. It's just good. It's like, it's like when it it becomes about the burdens being carried by another person a little bit.
Since our collaboration with NPR’s Code Switch podcast about race and friendship came out, we’ve been hearing from many of you about what you’re still reflecting on from these episodes.
SHEENA: Probably the thing that resonated with me the most from the episode is when Antoinette was talking about the hierarchy of feelings.
This is Sheena, a listener from Atlanta. She reached out to us while we were putting together these episodes, and again after listening. And Sheena said, hearing Antoinette’s story about how she’s felt obligated to take care of a white colleague’s feelings at work sounded really familiar.
S: A white boss would talk to me about personal things that were going on in her life, and would seek emotional comfort from me. And when I work for you, it's not my job to emotionally comfort you. I'm not your friend, I'm your report. And so, um, the fact that she felt so comfortable to act like that with me in the workplace made me feel that she was taking advantage of the power dynamic between us of her being a white woman and me being a black woman, and that I would feel obligated to be there for her and to support her out of fear of what would happen if I didn't.
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And stick around at the end of this episode, to hear something entirely different. Last week, I interviewed my colleague Andrea Bernstein, the co-host of the Trump, Inc. podcast, about her new book “American Oligarchs: The Kushners, the Trumps, and the Marriage of Money and Power.” We’re sharing a bit of that conversation with you at the end of this episode.
On our next episode… Twyla Tharp. The legendary dancer and choreographer talks with me about aging, and how she sees her body and its limitations.
TWYLA THARP: You can feel very sorry for yourself. You can definitely feel yourself as victimized. Oh, I have lost so much. Oh, I used to be able to run so much faster, so much further. Well, yes. Uh, but did every step mean as much to you as these do?
This is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC. I’m Anna Sale.
Carmen Maria Machado writes in In The Dream House about how her relationship with her ex ended. Her ex wanted to be with someone else and broke it off.
Carmen didn’t think of their relationship as abusive, until she was talking to friends about the breakup in the months afterward.
CMM: Somewhere in that conversation, like in that whole sort of summer where I was like talking to people and kind, sort of doing like kind of an autopsy of what had happened, that that word begin to make sense to me. Um, as a, as a way of describing what had happened.
AS: And can you tell me about that? Like what were the things when you were trying to decide if that word fit or not, what, what are the things that you would think about?
CMM: I mean, I had only ever really thought of the word as meaning the sort of the way that we all talk about it, or that people generally think of it. Like, like a man beating up on his wife. So to think of abuse as either a thing that could happen between any other sort of combination of folks in any gender or sexual identity or thinking of it as a thing that doesn't require somebody to give you a black eye I think took a lot of sort of reading. It's funny cause I, for the, for the tour I've been doing for the book, um they had this awesome um advocate do this like really lovely sort of fact sheet so that people can pick it up and it has like resources and things, but also she’s sort of written this little bit about what is abuse. She's like, you know, I could give you like a list of things to look for. But like, really what, the way, a way to think about it is like, whose life is diminished and whose fears, concerns, mo, you know, motivations, et cetera, like animate the relationship. Which again, like I didn't have that language back then, but like I feel like reading that I felt this real sense of just like, yeah, like, like somebody, there was somebody who ran things and somebody who became less than themselves, you know? And I was the person who became less than herself and felt like unrecognizable at the end of it.
AS: As this relationship was ending, how important was it to have people in your life who had been sort of witnesses to different moments of - of some of these fights, who could help say, like, no, your memory is - is right?
CMM: The fact that I had anybody was really helpful because I didn't have many folks. And the people that I did have, it was mostly kind of incidental. Like for example, my roommates knew just because I lived with them and they just overheard a lot of stuff, you know? And that's something that she couldn't really avoid. There was a time when I was crying every night. Every night I'd cry for like four hours because she would be like yelling at me on the phone and then I would like come out of my room just like dehydrated and like puffy faced and looking like I'd been run over by a truck and they would just be like, "Hey..." you know? [Laughs] Like -
AS: You wouldn't talk about it? They just would see it.
CMM: They would just, well they would hear it, you know? And I think for a while they didn't quite know like what to do or what to say. And it was only when sort of like it ended, that they, they really were like, we always hated that bitch. [laughs.] Like you know, like you know after it was over they were just like, they were like, you know, and they were amazing the whole time, but I think they sort of didn't want to say like, "Well fuck her!" Like while we were still dating, you know, like that was I think a very complicated thing for them. Um, but then as soon as it was actually over for good, they were like very comfortable like telling me all the thoughts that they had had, you know, while we were dating. And I'm really grateful to them that they exist as these people who like, you know, in the face of, in the face of folks saying like, "I don't think it was that bad," or like, "It probably didn't happen," or whatever people say, um, there are people who are like, "Oh my God. Like I saw, I saw the worst of it". Like I saw how, I mean not, not the worst worst because the worst worst happened like in her home and was private. But I saw a lot of it and it was very bad, you know? And that was actually something that was really comforting to me and I think ultimately like kept me from feeling like I was completely going off the rails because I, because even when I was like, maybe like even when I would sort of be like, 'Maybe it wasn't that..', You know, like I would have these like doubts, they'd be like, "Do you remember this? Do you remember when like she screamed at you for so long and then she broke up with you and then she kept calling you and calling you. I had to take the battery, we had to take the battery out of your phone. Like, do you remember that?" It was just useful to have somebody sort of saying that to me.
Now, I mean I feel like, [sighs] I was trying so hard to do it right. I really was. And I feel like also, you know, I'm sure that I did things that were not perf-, like, I'm not a perfect person. And you know, I am currently in like a really wonderful, stable, healthy, loving relationship. You know, sometimes I fuck up, sometimes she fucks up, like you know, we’re human beings and like relationships are complicated. But I feel like to be in a scenario now where I feel like everybody's operating in good faith, you know, and even when we're at our most hurt or our most scared, like everyone's still just sort of like trying their best and there's this sense of like care. I mean it's funny 'cause only now being in it and it seems so wonderful that I'm like, oh God, I can't believe I thought that anything different was okay. You know, I can't believe I ever thought that any other way of thinking about this made sense to me cause this, this seemed, this is like, this is how it should look. Um, but I didn't know.
Even after her ex was out of her life, their relationship was woven into who Carmen is. For starters, Carmen met her wife, Val, because of that relationship. Val dated Carmen’s ex before she did, and was an important support after the breakup.
And Carmen says, the cruel things that her ex said to her during some of their fights are still present, rattling around in her head.
CMM: There's still things that I do, that I catch myself doing, that are like artifacts of that relationship. I always want to like tell my spouse like I was here, here are all the things that I did, here are all the people I saw, here's a text from my friend about our plans that we made together. Like I'm always trying to like establish my - my alibi, which is so horrible because like there's no reason for me to do that with my wife. She's never asked that of me. She's never ,like, been suspicious. And I still do it. And I catch myself doing it. And then I get very angry at myself, you know, I'll be like, what the hell are you doing? Like why - why are you doing that still?
AS: Something I noticed reading your book is there's a few different places where you talk about all the time that you spent, implying that it was sort of wasted time during your, during your MFA program, during this relationship, whether it was fighting or traveling back and forth to be with one another. Um, and I wonder if now that you have this book in your hands, you can see that you were working through something important.
CMM: Yeah, I think I can see that. I mean, I still think, I guess none of it's wasted time if like it's just part of your life, you know, it's like, yeah, it, it, it made me, I mean not, not, I'm not, it's funny cause it's like this sense of should I be grateful for this experience? I'm not grateful for it. I think it was horrible, but it also like brought me to like the person I'm married to and it brought me a really like, I think healthy sense of perspective on a lot of things. I feel like I had my half of the conversation, I wrote the book and now people get to have their own half of the conversation, whatever that is. I mean I really wish I hadn't spent the second year of my MFA being yelled at and traveling all over creation and like just having myself kind of broken apart in this way. But also I did and I wrote a book and I mean, you know, it's funny, people keep asking me like why this book right now? And I - I keep being like, well, the true answer is that I kind of had to get it out of my system. 'Cause I feel like it just defined so much of that part of my life and I just needed to like pass it like a kidney stone, you know? Um, and now I have for better or for worse, and I did turn it into something and she's real sad, but she's pretty good. I mean, she being the book.
AS: I was struck by how you said, this is my half of the conversation and other people are having another, another half of the conversation. Like, um, it makes me think about like how - how - how challenging it can be to tell stories about a relationship because, um, both after the fact and while you're in it, when you're trying to figure out whether you're in a healthy relationship or an unhealthy relationship, like it can be confusing to, to figure out who are the reliable narrators and who aren’t.
CMM: Sure. Yeah of course.
AS: Um and I just like, um, after being in this relationship where for so long you - you felt, um, you didn't have the words for what was happening and now you've written this book about what was happening, what has that been like to say this happened to me and this is how I experienced it?
CMM: I mean, I guess I wish I could say it was like empowering, which I feel like is like the natural answer to that question. I don't know if it was. But I, I dunno, I guess there's something strange about having it sort of fixed in time, you know? And like I will keep probably meditating on this relationship and on this book and it's possible that in like five years I'll have like a different feeling about who I was back then and who I am now. 'Cause you know, whenever you write a book, you're always like fixing something in time. Right? You're like stopping the clock and being like, here is like Carmen in two thousand you know, 18, 2019 meditating on Carmen from 2011 and like it will always be that relationship. You know, it's never, you know, unless I write about, I write like ano—another chapter when I'm like, you know, in my forties like it's always going to be that like, those two like sort of versions of myself looking, looking at each other. And I don't know, it's just strange. I mean I don't know if I found it cathartic. Like I found writing the book very painful. Um, it's strange to just have it in book form. I don't know. It's like this, 'cause I felt, it used to feel so like weird and messy and it was just like trying to wrestle like a Kraken and now it's just like this little book that you can hold in your hand.
That’s Carmen Maria Machado. Her memoir In the Dream House. It was included on many best-of the year lists in 2019.
And we’ve got a link to that abuse factsheet Carmen mentioned up on our website. It was put together by Hyejin Shim and Graywolf Press specifically for queer survivors of abuse, but it offers insights and resources that are useful for everyone. That’s at deathsexmoney.org.
Death, Sex & Money is a listener-supported production of WNYC Studios in New York. I’m based at the studios of the investigative podcast Reveal in Emeryville, California. Our team includes Katie Bishop, Anabel Bacon, Afi Yellow-Duke, Emily Botein, and Andrew Dunn. Our intern is Ayo Osobamiro.
The Reverend John Delore and Steve Lewis wrote our theme music.
I’m on twitter @annasale, the show is @deathsexmoney on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
Carmen told me she's proud that her book is complicating ideas about who abuse happens to in relationships. And she hopes it makes more people feel like they can share what they’ve been through.
CMM: I've said the thing I have to say, you know, I passed the kidney stone. Now someone else gets to - see the metaphor breaks down if we talk about it as a kidney stone, cause then I'm like, then somebody else gets to pass the kidn-, no, somebody else gets to hold it? I don't know.
AS: A kidney stone that becomes a baton.
CMM: I know, right? That’s horrible. That’s so gross. Oh, that's super disgusting.
I’m Anna Sale, and this is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC.
And before you go, I want to share some of my conversation with Andrea Bernstein, the co-host of the Trump, Inc. podcast, which is also put out by WNYC Studios and produced with ProPublica.
Andrea has written a new book about the Trump family—and Jared Kushner’s family—called “American Oligarchs: The Kushners, the Trumps, and the Marriage of Money and Power.” And let me tell you, it’s chock full of death, sex and money.
I talked to Andrea on-stage last week at The Commonwealth Club in San Francisco about the intermingling of money and politics for the two families, including for Donald Trump’s father, Fred Trump.
AS: Something else you document thoroughly in the book is for Fred Trump, he knew that real estate was not just about location, location, location, it was about political donation, donation, donation. And I wondered, do you have a sense of how he learned how to maneuver around New York city politics at that point in city history?
ANDREA BERNSTEIN: Yes, I mean, he was a really entrepreneurial guy and he-I mean, he worked really hard. His father died, his father, Frederick Trump, died in the Spanish influence epidemic, and he, when he was a teenager. And he had a job where he would pull carts on icy roads because the mules would slip. So he was a hardworking guy, and he was in real estate. And what he figured out in the mid thirties is he wanted to get a piece of a bankruptcy. A company that was in bankruptcy court was being divided up and the judge really had wide discretion about who was going to get the pieces and he really wanted to get a piece. So he figured out at that moment who controlled the judges and who controlled the judges in Brooklyn was the Brooklyn democratic political machine. And he understood that he had to cultivate ties with that Brooklyn political machine because they were doling out: they control the judges, they control the contracts. So he starts to create these ties and he gets a piece of the contract, but then his huge break comes when he realizes that the federal housing administrator was also a tool of the Brooklyn machine, and he starts to curry favor with this person, a guy named Tommy Grace. And he gets this outsize portion of federal housing administration loans, which enables him to build these huge projects in Brooklyn and Queens.
And before World War II is over, he becomes a millionaire in 1940's dollars and that's what launches him. The ability to see that it's government support of real estate that is going to lift it all up. And he had to get to the decision makers to make sure that when they had discretion, things are going to go his way.
And I mean, that is so defines the Trump business model through the decades currying favor with whoever. Figuring out where is the person who is going to be able to deliver the thing you want, and then figuring out how to curry favor with that person, whether it's through a donation, whether it's through giving to their favorite charity, whether it's through charming them and taking them on his helicopter there are a variety of ways. But, Fred Trump and then Donald Trump's sort of used, went through all of them.
AS: And you talk about the Kushner family also figuring out how to pull those leavers as well. How old was Jared Kushner when he made his first political donation?
AB: Eleven. This was one of the donations that his father had orchestrated. Uh, and so if you, you can go and look it up in the federal elections, it says, uh, records. It says Jared Kushner, student.
AS: And it was like $1,200?
AB: $2,000. And it was two separate contributions of $1,000, I think.
You can hear more of my conversation with Andrea over in the Trump, Inc. podcast feed. And while you’re there, dig back into their archives. It’s an incredible show with meticulous investigative reporting that’s also really fun to listen to. Another recent episode I loved is called "Turning Politics into Money." That’s Trump, Inc. Inc, like "Incorporated." Find it wherever you listen to podcasts.