In Three Women (2019), author Lisa Taddeo takes as her subject the sexual lives of three women living in the USA. Their desires, affairs and traumas are excavated in granular detail. Each story was painstakingly assembled over eight years in an exhaustive investigative process, which saw the author cross the country numerous times, and relocate to live nearer her subjects. The three tales weave across each other creating a thriller-like tension as they unfold.
Taddeo reconstructs each meticulously through language that is closer to literary fiction than non-fiction; the stylistic decision renders the context and interiority of each protagonist with raw intimacy. Lina is a housewife in Indiana whose husband refuses to kiss her and is driven to rekindle a teenage affair. Sloane is a privileged Newport restaurant owner whose husband likes her to have sex with people of his choosing. Maggie is in her twenties and coming to terms with the abusive sexual relationship she had with her secondary school teacher, whose recent announcement as ‘teacher of the year’ provokes her to finally seek justice. Each woman’s relationship to sex and desire has been shaped by trauma, and they bravely navigate the determining force of these past events on the present. The courage with which Lina, Sloane and Maggie relate their personal lives through the book negates the shame, stigma and disbelief they encounter societally.
Natasha Hoare: Sex and desire have a long lineage as discourse in cultural theory and sociology. How did the idea of the book develop, and what did you see was missing from that canon?
Lisa Taddeo: I had read the book Thy Neighbor’s Wife (1981) by Gay Talese. I really liked the idea of someone immer-sing themselves in a subject for a decade, and of course, it’s interesting if it’s about sex, but it was so very male. At the end of it, he was talking about himself in the third person, gazing out across the vast ocean and stating how he felt. It was a little aggressive. People, and women specifically, have written about sex in a million different ways, but I hadn’t seen a book that was a deep dive into the lives of one or two regular women – a living, breathing, human, just as special as the next person.
Natasha: Was the was the starting point an investigation into swinging culture?
Lisa: I started looking at sex clubs and strip bars; the whole underbelly of sex. I even went to a porn castle in San Francisco, where I watched sex being filmed. It was all interesting, but I wasn’t writing an encyclopaedia of sex. I decided then that I wanted to focus on the emotions behind sex because sex isn’t interesting when it’s not tied to any actual longing.
Natasha: How did you find and select the subjects for the book?
Lisa: The process was not exactly scientific. It was very harrowing. I drove across the US several times, posting up signs that said things like, ‘Do you have an unrequited love you want to talk about?’ I went into bars, restaurants, game stores – every single kind of place. It got to a certain point where I was just looking for somebody with a heartbeat who was willing to tell me anything. Then people did start to tell me things. A lot of the men just liked hearing themselves talk – including my own brother, who I interviewed. It didn’t feel real. So, between people not wanting to talk, and people who wanted to talk for the wrong reasons, it took a long time. The first woman I found that ended up sticking in the book was Lina, the housewife in rural Indiana. I found her after I moved there because I was not getting anywhere while living in New York.
Natasha: Did you feel any responsibility to create a sample of American society that crossed gender, sexual orientation and race?
Lisa: Yes, I did. My first draft of the book included about fifteen or twenty people, and gradually it whittled down as people almost self-selected. I went back to everybody I’d interviewed, which included some men, to fact check the book, and when they heard the things that I wanted to include, a lot of them didn’t want to be in it anymore, even if I had talked to them for six months. Or they wanted giant sections excised, which would have left me with a nice story about someone getting up in the morning and going to work. In the end, it was those three women that I had the most word count on, quite honestly, and who were the most willing to tell me everything, and then after me repeating it back to them for them to say, ‘Ok, I said that and I’m willing to let you keep it.’ I had high hopes for it to be broader. I always thought it was going be more than three people, but in end, it just felt right to just have those three.
Natasha: Did your perception of sexuality and desire in the US change over the course of the writing and research? Was there anything that surprised you?
Lisa: I didn’t set out with a hypothesis. I didn’t come back with one either. The thing that surprised me the most was that everybody is having a more interesting sex life than you might know. It was that that shocked me.
Natasha: Did having a daughter and getting married, change your attitude towards sex and desire?
Lisa: I worked on the book for a decade, so it’s hard to know what parts of me were influenced by the book, versus having a child, versus just ageing ten years. It changed me, but it didn’t change that much. Having had a daughter, I’m pretty much like I thought I was going to be, in terms of wanting her to not think that women are less powerful than men. Even if it should all be equal, I’m trying to stack the deck. I don’t know if the book intensified my wish for her to avoid having the same experiences that I, my mother, my friends and the women I spoke to, lived through. If it changed, it deepened my wish for her to not have the same stumbling blocks.
Natasha: What was your code of ethics when dealing with the women who are in the book? Would you give them advice, or do you try and keep yourself quite separate from that? What were the ground rules?
Lisa: One of my ground rules was to not give advice, but at the same time when you’ve known somebody for over a year, and you are in touch with them sometimes almost every other day, it’s hard to draw that line. I was asking questions for a book, but of course, we formed relationships; I would be a sociopath if we hadn’t. But I was conscious of affecting the trajectory of their lives. Ultimately what worked in my favour is that when it comes to matters of the heart, people rarely take advice. In general what I’m more comfortable doing is saying what had happened to me in the past and how I had handled a similar situation. I worked from the perspective of wanting the person to feel less alone. Sometimes, just saying ‘I get it’ is all you need to do.
Natasha: I was wondering where you came in in Lina’s story because there is something interesting about the way she needed witnesses to her passion. Is there a sense in which you became part of the dynamic of her relationship?
Lisa: It’s funny, I don’t think anyone’s ever said that. That word ‘witness’ is really true. I think whenever you have something powerful and passionate going on in your life, you don’t want to keep it a secret, because it doesn’t feel real until you start shouting it from the rooftops. Even though in the beginning, the secret of it is exciting, eventually you need to give it a name, or it feels like it’s not happening. I was that person for Lina. I’m sure that if it hadn’t been me, it would have been someone else. But yes, that’s definitely something that I’ve thought about. I was a witness, and she was looking for a witness.
…I think that what was new was that I was writing about regular women and giving them specificity…
Natasha: The book is a really complex genre-defying piece of non-fiction, that reads like a novel in its interiority. At what point did you decide on that style?
Lisa: I’d been writing articles for Esquire in New York, and several other publications, but I had never thought I was going to write a non-fiction book. I always thought I was going to write novels. When my editor commissioned me, I was excited about the idea of writing about sex, but I didn’t want to write it in a way that I wouldn’t want to read. I wanted to bring the tools of fiction to it. Creative non-fiction, for example, Tom Wolfe, is rare, but I wouldn’t say it’s new. I think that what was new was that I was writing about regular women and giving them specificity – like the specific colours of their clothing, specific feelings – and really caring about every single moment in a way that you normally wouldn’t for a female character.
Natasha: The stories of each woman are so compelling in their granular detail, which makes them very specific stories. But amongst women that I’ve talked to, there are so many feelings of recognition. Certainly, the feeling of being ghosted, or left dangling. Also, the sweet anticipation of getting ready to meet a lover. Did you seek to highlight those areas of experience that have a feeling of universality?
Lisa: Yes, I absolutely lingered longer on those things. One of the reasons I did that was because about halfway through my having moved to Indiana, I was talking to a friend back in New York. I told her about Lina, and how absolutely fascinating she was, not even because she was doing anything wild, but because she was so in tune with what she wanted, so honest and raw, and so willing to tell me everything. I mentioned how Lina would drive for four hours to meet this man for just half an hour. And my friend said, ‘My God, that’s so pathetic.’ But my friend had done the same thing, travelling miles on the subway to see a guy who worked at Goldman Sachs, waiting outside his door and being stood up. My friend couldn’t see that, because she couldn’t conceive of someone being obsessed with a crane operator in Indiana. I wanted to write about Lina’s experiences in both as specific and as broad a manner as possible with that friend’s reaction in mind.
Natasha: You started off interviewing men as well as women. What do you judge to be so different about women’s desire?
Lisa: I never really stopped talking to men, I just spoke to more women than men. I felt that pound for pound, I was getting more value talking to women. When I was short on time in a certain town, I would definitely concentrate on women. I think part of the issue is that I’m a female interviewer. They certainly were bringing their ego to it. I don’t know if they would have been different with a male interviewer. The women’s desire was so much more complex. It was caught up in itself in a really beautiful way. They were so much bigger, brighter points of contact for their desire, than the men that I spoke to. I’m not saying that’s true of all men.
Natasha: Was there a temptation to speak directly to some of the male characters who appear in these women’s stories?
Lisa: Yes, I spoke to several of them, it helped me to contextualise some of the narratives by speaking to partners or friends. But ultimately, I thought women should be able to speak for themselves. Men have been having their stories told for thousands of years. In the end, I decided the only one that I would have included would have been Maggie’s teacher Aaron Knodel, who did not respond to multiple attempts at contact. I felt it was only fair to have him defend himself. I would have included his story in exactly the same way as I did Maggie’s. I was relieved in a sense that he didn’t get in touch, because that would have been difficult.
All of our sexual experiences are such big parts of who we are because they are the building block of our biological selves…
Natasha: In terms of this question of women’s desire, it brings me back to some of the lines you wrote about Sloane losing her virginity: ‘she had the feeling then when she would not remember to have, again for many years, that it was not the boy who himself who was unique, but the way she herself had evolved, the boy who was merely a developer.’ This seems to suggest that the effect of sex and desire for women is a transformation of the self, that performativity is at the heart of desire.
Lisa: I think that when a woman moves from the performative to just doing whatever it is for herself, it’s the greatest evolution of a relationship. Whereas the man often starts out the other way and then ends up trying to please the woman towards the end when the woman gets bored – because women get bored much quicker than men do.
All of our sexual experiences are such big parts of who we are because they are the building block of our biological selves. When you’re in the middle of one of those passionate feelings, whether it’s excitement or despair, or the lack of any at all, you’re so coloured by that. All your nerves are tuned into whatever it is, whether it’s a person or the way you feel about yourself, or feeling lonely. So, I don’t think that these women in particular were mapped out by their sexual experiences, but that they were talking to me from times in their lives that were very coloured by them. If you were having a very normal time in your marriage you probably aren’t going to talk to a writer about your sex life. If you’re going to talk to a reporter or a writer you’re probably going to be in a certain place where you feel like you want to talk.
Natasha: The men in the book often seem to be in positions of power over the women in their ability to hold back access, and their sexual demands. And a lot of the time the women are regulating their behaviour and communication in ways that won’t scare their various partners. And yet there are constant shifts in terms of who is in control. Is it your perception that the nature of women’s desire places them in a somehow submissive and vulnerable position, but that that position can conversely become one of power?
Lisa: I don’t think that it’s necessarily the word submissive. I think that because of the way that society has been for so long, we are living under this patriarchal hangover, even if we are realising our equality and our power, that is still ingrained in us. I don’t think it’s that women are submissive, so much as their sexuality is in relation to a man’s. Many of the lesbians that I spoke with were still looking at themselves through the lens of the way that a man had once seen them. I think that with our daughters’ generations it’s very different. We’re going into a very equal space. Of course, things always regress, but it feels good right now. Part of it is the same as the performative aspect of desire. We are performing because we know who the viewers are. If we change our understanding of who the viewers should be then you’re going to perform for yourself and not another.
Natasha: There are some amazing sections in the book where your voice swims back into view. I’m particularly thinking of a few chapters into Lina’s story, you break her narrative and talk about how it’s impossible to be with Lina and not be thinking about everything in your own life that is missing, or whatever you think is missing, because you don’t feel whole on your own.
Lisa: I think that nothing and everything is always missing, just as with Lina, Aiden was the stand-in for what she wanted and needed for herself. Aiden was, much like in the Sloane section you quoted, the catalyst or the developer. We’re all constantly reinventing ourselves. Not to be all Zen or Buddhist, but we aren’t ever missing anything, even if we’re always feeling like we are. Where does that feeling come from? It was impossible to be with Lina and not think about what heartaches you’ve suffered because her heartaches were so on the surface.
Natasha: The book ends with your mother being in hospital and passing, how much is this book an expression of your grief?
Lisa: Every single thing I write is an expression of grief. I’ve lost a lot of people and things. I think that one of the reasons why people spoke to me as honestly as they did was because I was an open wound, and had a lot of sadness of my own.
People say these women are sad – no, they’re not sad, they just were very honest about their sad feelings. We’re often not honest. Grief and sex are such a giant part of who we are, and we pretend those two things don’t exist. We walk through the world like normal people, going to our job or taking the train, but we’re wearing a mask. We’re thinking about these things, but we’re not talking about them, because you’re not supposed to. I cannot imagine having written anything in my life without having the idea of grief behind it.
Natasha: With Lina, the landscape of Indiana looms really large. These expansive vistas echo and frame her desperation. Was hers the story that you physically followed most closely?
Lisa: I lived where Sloane lived longer than I lived in Indiana, but I found Lina to associate place so much with her mood. The river was such an important place to her, and the streets she drove down because he had, were haunted. Lina’s sense of place, and sense of body, and sense of her tangible personhood in the world was so grounded in wherever she was. I just followed whatever the woman seemed to be led by. For Sloane it was food. Maggie was led by her phone. Everything in her relationship had happened through her phone. So, we talked a lot about text messages; her story was steeped in the written word.
Natasha: Maggie’s story is the only one to be partly grounded in the second person. Was this to foster a closeness?
Lisa: With Maggie’s story I wanted to show that she was like all of us because at the time I was talking to her, many people did not believe her. I needed to talk directly to the person who would be the most disbelieving. To start her narrative with ‘you,’ instantly puts someone in her world in a way in which they have to actively climb out if they want to see it from a different perspective.
Natasha: Did you feel you had a different responsibility to Maggie?
Lisa: I think my responsibility to all of them felt like writing their truth. For Maggie, it felt like I needed to make sure the book got published. For the other women, I felt I did my part, in that they’ve now been listened to, and they enjoyed that. I think whether or not the book got published did not matter to them, and maybe it would be better if it didn’t. But with Maggie, I had to finish the book because her story had to be told.
Natasha: You have a beautiful literary style, with amazing concrete details that draw on details of the women’s own lives, or their perceptions of the world. And in the case of Maggie, you have invented some compound words like ‘loveflush’ and ‘deathcall.’
Lisa: I was trying to convey Maggie’s inner life as genuinely close to her words as possible, while also being very cynical about what the outside was like looking in. I told her that she would see the texts before I’d sent the book to anyone, but that there would be things in there that would make her feel slightly betrayed. She did want to see Aaron, and we had to be honest about that, because it’s the truth, and people would only believe it if they could feel it was the truth. I gave her the option that if she didn’t want to do this then she should let me know. I was very conscious of being as letter-perfect as possible to what she was feeling.
Natasha: How did you approach their trauma? Were you conscious that re-telling is a therapeutic model? And how did you do that in a way that protected yourself, and preserved yourself, but was not damaging for them?
Lisa: Everything was really slow and careful, especially with Maggie because she was triggered easily. Before we talked, I would always send her a text and ask if she could talk about certain topics that day. If she said no, I would often call her and just talk about nothing. It was a matter of being caring.
Natasha: What impact do you think the book has had culturally?
Lisa: The best thing to have come from it has been that Maggie has heard from so many hundreds of young women, and some young men also, across the world from Nigeria to England, who have thanked her for telling her story, and that it made them feel that they could tell theirs. On a cellular level, for Maggie to have been believed by a wider swath of the population, and after that for a more general hope that other people who are reading the book would feel safe in telling their stories because people had listened to these others.
Natasha: How are these women now and how has the publication of the book affected them?
Lisa: Maggie’s doing wonderfully. She’s got an amazing position as a social worker, helping young women in similar situations. Lina is in a new relationship, and she’s completely separated from her husband. And Sloane is still with her husband and doing very well. They’ve always been quite happy, which I think is difficult for many people who have read the book to understand because their sex life is a deviation from the norm. Of course, non-monogamy has problems, and I was interested in those problems, but theirs is one of the happier relationships I’ve ever seen.
Natasha: I think we’re all hoping that the success of the book might mean that Maggie’s case is reopened and that Aaron might face conviction.
Lisa: I think he’s emotionally convicted, and she’s been vindicated in so many different places. So, I think that that’s the best that can happen.