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Lisa Taddeo.

Three Women author Lisa Taddeo talks frankly about female desire

Lisa Taddeo’s book on the sex lives of three Middle American women is a global sensation but is it empowering or merely voyeuristic?

Lisa Taddeo is enjoying, if that’s quite the word, the sort of overnight success that is a decade in the making. “I did not know it was going to be like this,” she says of the pitiless peregrinations that literary celebrity entails. “I’m a quiet person. I like to be at home writing in my mole hole. I’m afraid of flying.”

Fear of Flying, Erica Jong’s 1973 novel marketing that fantasy “the zipless f---”, chucked a grenade into the discourse around women and sex. Three Women, Taddeo’s first book, traverses in non-fiction, for a new millennium, that still strangely under-addressed territory: female desire. The book’s granular, graphic, novelistic account of the intimate lives of three ordinary women – if “ordinary” is ever quite the word when it comes to people – became an instant bestseller. “I really thought it was going to be a quiet event,” Taddeo says modestly. The ruthless imperative of women’s passion struck a nerve. “I am grateful, but I’m also, like, what is going on?”

It’s fitting that my call finds her on the road, travelling from one literary event to another. She’s smart, amiable and committed – even on the hop. Halfway through our chat the car stops – “I was about to lose reception” – and she gets out and finishes the interview on the side of the road. Hectic? “In a way that I have never been hectic,” says Taddeo. “I’ve always had all the time in the world to talk to people.”

All the time in the world: that’s pretty much what it took to write Three Women. Taddeo spent eight years listening to the stories of hundreds of women and thousands of hours talking to, texting and emailing the book’s final three subjects. “In two cases,” she writes, sounding as gobsmacked as her reader, “I moved to the towns where they lived and settled in as a resident so I could better understand their day-to-day lives.”

Incredible. “It is, in retrospect, but in the middle of it I was just flailing a lot. I was posting flyers up across the country. Finding people who wanted to talk was the hardest part.”

Taddeo began by talking to men but soon found women’s experience of desire more compelling – the stories, she writes, “when the object of desire dictated the narrative, that was where I found the most magnificence, the most pain.” Three Women is about what might drive you to compulsively dial an indifferently unanswered number, or risk all for some wild thing that isn’t quite love. Who can’t relate?

Taddeo drove across America six times. One move was to Indiana, to be near that famous facility for research into sexuality, the Kinsey Institute. She set up a discussion group and found Lina: Catholic, locked in a marriage with a man who won’t kiss her and having an affair with a handsome, cloddish, now-married high school lover. Glamorous Sloane lives in New England and is happily married to a chef who likes to watch her have sex with other men and, sometimes, women. It’s complicated. “Sometimes it felt,” writes Taddeo, of Sloane’s experience of sex with two men, “as if she were the only player on a badminton court, trying to keep the shuttlecock in the air on both sides of the net.”

Both of these women’s stories are told under assumed names because, well, people can be judgmental. “I’m not at liberty to say what details, exactly, I changed, but they were minimal. I would say 95%, 98% is the truth of everything.”

The name of the third woman, Maggie, wasn’t changed. That story had already played out in court. She fell in love with her high school teacher, whose sympathetic interest segued, allegedly – he was acquitted – into a sexual relationship when she was 17.

Before Three Women, Taddeo had attracted attention for such works of journalism as a fictionalised account of Heath Ledger’s last days for Esquire and a profile of Rachel Uchitel, caught up in the Tiger Woods scandal, in New York magazine. “Historically,” Taddeo wrote, “powerful men with slavering appetites have mainly acquired their girlfriends the way a pair of pants gathers lint – rather incidentally.”

Taddeo’s aversion to cliché produces some creative similes. See Sloane’s sex triangle with a family friend go awry: “The situation with Wes resolved itself the way a bullet in the brain resolves a tumour there.” Her style lends an arresting originality to tales as old as time.

The book started as a sort of update of legendary American journalist Gay Talese’s 1981 anatomy of the sexual revolution, Thy Neighbor’s Wife. Talese did stints at a nudist swingers’ commune and as a manager of a massage parlour as research. “I was very struck by the immersive quality of it,” says Taddeo, “but I will say that it felt extraordinarily from a male perspective. I really wanted to pursue telling a story of desire from a more female perspective.”

Talese became something of a mentor. “When I left his house that first time, I was, like, ‘Maybe I’m not a good journalist’ because I’m not willing to be ruthless and ask ruthless questions. He told me if I changed names, I was a hack.” This isn’t the 70s; there’s the internet. “I had to change names. But I spent a good year and a half telling people I wasn’t going to change names because of that rather misguided advice.”

There is a strong undertow of tragedy in the stories. Lina was a victim of gang rape while at high school. Maggie was preyed upon even before the involvement with her teacher. Sloane suffered adolescent eating disorders, which were ignored by her family. All experienced the judgment of others, including other women. These stories brought up things from Taddeo’s own past. “I’ve been objectified by men for my entire life, even as a child. I’ve realised the ways that I’ve been judged by women for being in an apparent situation like Sloane, not exactly that, things like that.”

She’s less inclined, post Three Women, to internalise others’ judgments. Has that been liberating? “In a sense. But I have so much anxiety that the notion of liberation is anathema to me.”

The book’s epilogue recounts the death of Taddeo’s mother. Before that, her father was killed in a car accident. “I had a lot of loss in my twenties. I lost my parents, my grandparents, my uncle, my aunt, my dog. My entire family was decimated. I have a lot of PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] from that. So, in terms of being liberated in a desire sense, I definitely think it has helped me. In other senses there’s a lot for me to get through, just to get to the other parts of me that are not my fear.”

She travels, always, with her husband, screenwriter Jackson Waite, and her four-year-old daughter, Fox Buttercup, whose name possibly reflects the combination of fierceness and vulnerability Taddeo finds in her subjects. Lina longs to be kissed like Buttercup in The Princess Bride.

Immersive journalism: it’s hard. You might not ask such a question of a male writer but you ask it anyway, not out of judgment (Three Women will make you think twice about casting the first stone) but out of admiration: does her writing process balance with family life? “No. I am bringing my daughter everywhere I go because of many of my issues,” she says. “I see her for an hour at night when I come home and put her to bed at the hotel. I do not have a life outside what I’m doing right now.”

She does have a supportive partner. “He’s been basically subverting his life for this book for many years now and continues to do so to take care of our daughter. We both work at 3 o’clock in the morning and get up at 6.00am to work. It’s exhausting.” She can see the funny side. “We’ve been emailing each other even though we’re in the same room. Because of our lack of access to one another our fights have been limited to text message.” Not a bad idea, possibly. “It’s liberating, but it also hurts your fingers.” Yes. Angry thumb syndrome. “I started by sending him voice messages and he said, ‘I’m not listening to that’, so I had to go back to text.”

A book such as Three Women forges other close relationships. “I talk to them every week,” says Taddeo of her subjects. “I talk to Maggie on an almost hourly basis.” Have those dynamics changed with the success of the book? “Maggie is happy with a lot of it because her story is finally being heard across the country when, in her own state, in her own community, amongst her own friends, even, she had so much disbelief.”

Sloane has had validation, too. “I sent her a picture of an old man who I saw reading the book outside a coffee shop. I asked him how he was liking it and he said he was only skipping to the Sloane parts because he identified. He’d had the same marriage and his wife had passed away, but it made him feel seen. He was excited by it. So, that was beautiful.”

There have been criticisms of the stories as being about women who have no agency. See Maggie obeying the rules of engagement set by her teacher and alleged lover, a married man with a secret to keep. No perfume, never text first. “They think I’m trying to comment on the state of desire across the country, which I am not,” Taddeo says. “It’s strange that a lot of people, women specifically, have had problems with the idea that I’ve portrayed these victims. I think that they have agency. They’ve pulled themselves out of situations that they didn’t want. They have fallen on the swords of their own passion, but that was their choice. That is the epitome of agency, not victimhood.” It has also been noted that there is no mention of Me Too, or Donald Trump. “I reported it and wrote [the book] before that even came up. Do I think Maggie’s trial might have gone differently post Me Too? After having off-the-record conversations with people very close to the trial, I don’t know about that. Lina had never heard of Me Too.” But, of course, when you look at Maggie’s story of trying to get justice for what happened to her, it’s all about Me Too. “The book didn’t predate the feelings of Me Too. The feelings of it are there.”

Three Women took her into a different America. “Especially in the middle of the country, which nobody really talks about. Me Too is not heard out there. People have not heard of Harvey Weinstein to this day; forget about Jeffrey Epstein. That is not part of the lexicon. I wanted to focus on the middle of the country because, in case nobody has noticed, having no focus on the middle of the country has gotten us into a little bit of trouble.” Indeed. So, these women simply – and, sometimes, not so simply – want what they want. “Exactly. I wrote a book about three people. It’s not called 100 Women.” As a review in Slate put it, “None of the narratives in Three Women are inspirational or empowering, but they are what the best long-form journalism should be, which is truthful.”

When your book is about desire, there’s the danger of ending up in some catalogue of bad sex writing. Was that a worry? “Yes and no. I was using their descriptions to such an extent. I was also recreating things from their actual Facebook messages and text messages, so that was a concern, too. But I really wanted to maintain a line between the profane and the clinical. And so I didn’t want to call, you know, a penis a member.” No. She carries it off, capturing the erotic power of another’s full attention. When her teacher stops the car and turns and just looks at her, writes Taddeo, Maggie feels as if ‘‘every bad thing she has ever thought about herself is erased, and she feels like a supermodel’’.

There are insights into the infinite ways of compensating for needs unmet. “Lina told me her mother, when she wouldn’t get something from her husband emotionally, would ask him to go do something, like clean the garage. I think that we do that so much, women particularly. We make these emotional interior compensations. We don’t feel loved, we don’t feel wanted, so can you change those lightbulbs right now.” The book is not without humour.

Digging into personal lives for public purposes has always been fraught. Gay Talese once wrote, “Most journalists are restless voyeurs who see the warts on the world, the imperfections in people and places.” With all that driving across the country, Taddeo sounds a bit restless. Is she a voyeur? “Um, no,” she says. “I’m a voyeur to the extent that I love to hear about other people’s lives, to listen.” She puts this down to those losses.

“When you have loss, you want people to feel unalone. I have felt very alone in my loss. So, when I saw these women, the ones who had given me the most, they were giving me so much because they were either in pain or in thrall and that’s when you want to talk.

“You want to shout it from the rooftops if you’re in passion and you want to talk to someone who cares about you when you’re dealing with pain. I wanted them to feel that I was listening.”

Now others are listening. Maybe just being truthful about the paradoxes of desire and three women’s experience of it can be a little empowering after all. “Maggie has had hundreds of responses from young women who have said, ‘Thank you, you have allowed me the fearlessness to come forward with my own story. Thank you, you have made me feel unalone.’”

This article was first published in the August 17, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.