Article Thumbnail

What This Journalist Learned About Female Desire by Following Ordinary Women for Almost a Decade

Lisa Taddeo on her debut, ‘Three Women,’ a radical work of reportage that’s sure to get people talking

The description of Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women makes it sound like literary fiction, the kind aimed firmly at female readers: a lyrical, intimate exploration of the emotional and sexual lives of ordinary women. But Taddeo, a contributor to the New Yorker and Esquire, isn’t inventing her characters’ stories. They’re the result of a decade of immersive journalism, research and countless interviews in pursuit of an elusive subject that she calls “longing in America.” Rather than representing a broad range of demographics and experiences — the women are all white and primarily straight — the book aims for depth, complexity, and above all, honesty.

The women in question are Lina, Sloane and Maggie: a lonely wife and mother who begins an affair with her high-school boyfriend; a glamorous, happily married restaurateur whose husband likes to watch her have sex with other men and women; and a high school student who has a sexual relationship with her teacher. Of the three, only Maggie’s story exists in the public record, dragged out in a courtroom trial and widely reported in newspapers — correspondingly, it’s the only one for which most names haven’t been changed.

The bulk of the reporting predates the emergence of the #MeToo movement, but it’s difficult to read Maggie’s story, in particular, without thinking of the flood of similar stories that have emerged in the past year and a half, and what it means to really listen to, and believe, women. In all these cases, it means exploring far beyond the limits of a single relationship to understand how childhood, family, grief and love (in all its forms) influence our adult desires. Although these are women’s stories, they grapple with universal emotional challenges, of how difficult it is to be vulnerable with other people, to say what we want and to get it.

Recently, I caught up with Taddeo about how she went about finding Lina, Sloane and Maggie (and got them to be so open with her); why she kept the book focused primarily on the three of them (and dismissed men altogether); and how her own mother’s desires factored into what she wrote (and ultimately gave the manuscript its final shape).

I was so fascinated by your methodology in this book. Can you talk a little about how you found these women?
It was utterly bumbling, for the most part. I drove across the country several times, and I hung signs looking for stories of unrequited love or powerful desire. I moved to Indiana, where there was a group of women that a doctor had been giving hormones to, so that they were losing weight and feeling different — that’s how I found Lina. I found Maggie by reading about her story in a local newspaper when I was in Medora, North Dakota, and I learned about Sloane after moving into her community to talk to other people there. The process of finding the women was hanging signs, emailing people, just walking into bars sometimes and saying, “Does anyone here have an interesting story about sex and desire?” Which was very hard for me to do because I’m an incredibly non-invasive person.

That’s quite an opening line.
Sometimes I said, “When was the last time you had sex?” just to get myself into a groove. It was very difficult.

You had this long process of research and interviewing, but the book is coming out in the midst of an ongoing conversation about consent and #MeToo, and obviously, Maggie’s story is the one that most speaks to that. How did you balance her story with Sloane’s and Lina’s — did you find it threatening to take over, pushing the book in a different direction?
For me, it didn’t because I was equally interested in the other two stories  — and multiple other stories, too, that I either lost because the person dropped out or because they weren’t long enough compared to the other three. I think Maggie’s story, for a lot of readers, does take over, but I didn’t think of it that way because I was so deeply connected to all three of them. In fact, I was most aligned with the Lina story: one, because she was the first person I found, and two, because she was the most forthcoming. Just vitally honest and raw.

The relationship between a girl and her teacher might seem to be a different kind of story, but what’s so interesting about it is how it connects with the other stories — Lina’s story is also a high school story in some ways. Did you find that that was something you had to dig for, or did people often end up telling you about their first love or their first kiss?
Whether we realize it or not, those are the moments that form the way that we come into our current desire. For all three women, I wasn’t entirely looking for their formative stories, but they gradually came out to me in a way that was remarkable, and took over the way I viewed their present. It wasn’t conscious on my part, but it became very apparent.

So much ends up being about how we tell our stories to ourselves and to other people. In Maggie’s case, the Twilight novels literally become part of her teacher’s trial, but they’re also so much a part of her love story. [Maggie’s copy of Twilight is full of Post-It notes written by her teacher, comparing the book’s love story to theirs — at the trial, the defense disputes whether he really wrote these notes.] That dovetails in a really unpredictable, interesting way with Sloane’s story and her use of her Fifty Shades of Grey to explain herself as a submissive. What did you feel like these women needed or were getting from these stories?
You know, for all the women in the book and most of the people I spoke to, there was a movie or a book that they saw or read as a kid or a teenager that affected the way that they saw love. For Lina, it was The Princess Bride, and for me, it also was The Princess Bride. I wanted that love story. For Sloane, Fifty Shades of Grey helped to normalize her life and her lifestyle. Books and movies are highly important to the way that we conduct our present.

I don’t know if it’s a counternarrative or if it’s part of the same thing, but I was also curious about the part religion played into these women’s lives. Both Maggie and Lina have a strong religious upbringing, and that’s a big part of how they think about desire, and their guilt around desire. The conversations with Lina start in a church environment, right?
It started in a doctor’s office, but I also used to go with her to church seminars. So yes, religion played a large part in both those women’s lives — more so in Lina’s, and it continues to. In Maggie’s, I think it started like that, but it’s gotten a little less so after the things that happened to her. Wait, no, that’s not fair to say. Religion plays a large part in both their lives and to a lesser extent in Sloane’s, at least from what we talked about when we were together.

Did you get the sense that made it harder for them to talk about desire, or was it something they were able to find a way to reconcile?
Not for the Lina in the slightest. Lina’s feelings for spirituality existed on their own plane outside of her feelings about sex. Her feelings about desire were very self-reflective and she was very connected to those feelings. She was also connected to God. I think that she didn’t view those things as mutually exclusive, but nearly the opposite.

A lot of what you dig into is the way that people can tell themselves so many different things about desire and sex at the same time. And you don’t get to a conclusion with these stories, they don’t have that fairytale ending. They’re obviously going to continue at the end of the book. Did you want to have a clear ending, or did you set out to leave the stories open?
I wanted to leave the stories very open. At the same time, the editorial director of nonfiction at Simon & Schuster, who is a very intelligent and astute reader and publisher, was like, “I love this, it’s fantastic, but I think she needs to have a prologue and an epilogue.” He said it in a way that was pretty clear that he wanted it to be done. So that’s where that came from.

The story that bookends the women’s stories ends up being about your mother, and about you. How did that become part of the book?
I didn’t know I was going to write about my mother until I started talking about the prologue. The desire of my mother was interesting to me because I’d never considered it, and neither had many of the women that I spoke to. Mothers are so important. I have my own daughter, and I think every day about what I’m doing to fuck her up — and how I might try not to do that.

It also gets at the idea that a particular relationship might end, but it doesn’t end the story. That’s something that you talk about at the beginning of the book, when you’re explaining your decision to focus on women rather than men: the idea of women’s desire being more open-ended.
They began to bleed together, the men’s stories. I talked to probably 70 men. Of those 70 men, there were, like, five — one of whom I moved to another state for, and four of which either dropped off or whose stories didn’t evolve. And with men speaking to a female journalist, I think it’s difficult to not have this desire to make sure that their ego is [served], it’s just a sort of biological thing. When I interviewed queer men, it wasn’t there so much, but there’s still a male urge to be seen as a sort of swashbuckling lover. That wasn’t an issue with the women. I also think female desire is more complex.

Did you consciously decide to keep the focus on heterosexual women when you were narrowing subjects down? Did you speak to queer women at all, or was it always women with men that interested you?
I spoke to all sexual orientations and predilections. There was a bisexual woman who was in the final cut who didn’t want me to print her story. One of the first people I spoke to was a queer woman who was being directed by her queer girlfriend in pornographic movies in which the queer woman was having sex with men. I was very intrigued by that. It was at the Porn Castle in San Francisco. Ultimately, though, there was a depth we weren’t getting to. I don’t know if it was because they didn’t want to or it wasn’t really there. Either way, the three people I ended up being left with were the ones who were the most honest and the ones who let me in — and in the most trenchant and not-careful ways.

What are you hoping readers will get from this book, and is that different if they’re men or women?
One of the things that I’d love for women to realize is that we often judge each other in a way that’s unkind and we often project our own fears into other women. One early male reader said to me that he didn’t know how much indifference could be wounding to another human, and that’s something that I’d hope for men to take away, or whomever is the sort of alpha in a relationship.

To that end, I’m curious about the sort of conversations you think this book might start between couples, because I can see some openings for some interesting discussions but some difficult ones, as well. Were you thinking about that as you were writing?
Not really. I didn’t think about anything while I was writing except for writing the truth of these women in a way that was just very honest.

What about you personally, though? Has it made you think about continuing with these kinds of questions?
I don’t know, I guess. There’s a lot of things that I’m doing right now, so I don’t know what the next thing that comes out is going to be. Along the way to this book, I had a miscarriage, I got married, I had a baby, I had a lot of things happen. I’ve been giving myself completely to this book and to these stories. It’s been a long road, and I think I’ve grown as a human. Not just through the book, but just because over 10 years, if you don’t grow as human, what the fuck are you doing?