For her debut book, Three Women, Lisa Taddeo listened to her subjects’ stories over a period of eight years. She recorded their histories of sex, love, loss, abuse. The book’s brilliance is in making new the very oldest universal experiences: falling in love for the first time, mourning the end of a marriage, how wanting the one you can’t have will almost kill you. Three Women is a reminder, or perhaps a warning: desire is a thing you can question, deny, chase—but rarely catch.
I spoke to Taddeo about the book and its reception. Our interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
You write, “It’s the nuances of desire that hold the truth of who we are at our rawest moments.” And yet desire is so hard to talk about. And perhaps even harder to write about. Why is this?
Desire is the deepest kernel. It includes lust but lies beneath it. Lust is easy. Lust is untoward or exciting or invigorating, but desire is the unnamed thing that exists even when lust is taking a nap. I think desire is scary because it represents the core of us all. If we are truthful about our desire, then we are putting our souls on an examination table. That’s why the women in this book are so inspirational. They did something I don’t know that most people can do.
And let’s distinguish desire from sex. As you write, for many men desire ends at orgasm whereas for many women that’s the starting line.
Yes. With many men, after sex, you find an utterly different person. Like mere milliseconds after an orgasm. Even if they are in love. Whereas for a woman, especially in the earlier stages of a relationship, that moment after the orgasm is when something often switches on. Even if prior she didn’t like the man as much as he liked her. It’s not lust but that deeper need, that holier want. I often think of that line Cameron Diaz’s Julie character says in Vanilla Sky: “When you sleep with someone your body makes a promise, whether you do or not.” Julie is somewhat a bad dream of a character, or that’s how I think people often view her, but really she has just been brought to her knees by this desire, and she is speaking up about it. The man she loves doesn’t owe her his love in return, but it is his indifference and his sightlessness that is the cruel, unraveling thing.
How did writing about these women’s lives change your view of the relationship between sex and desire?
Before starting this book, I read many books about sex, and where there was no desire, no beating heart, I was engaged with the material but I understood it wasn’t a topic about which I wanted to write at length. So I knew pretty early on that without desire there would be no reason for me to write about sex. That’s one reason why finding these women was so difficult. Plenty of people had stories about sex they didn’t mind sharing. But I was looking for this underlying, more terrifying thing. The way Lina described Aidan, who he was during the day—she made it clear she knew he wasn’t the greatest thing in the world. But who he was in bed, who he was with his body, was quite near to godlike for her. It wasn’t about the mechanics of it, but something that passed between them. It happened, often, during the actual lovemaking, but it also transcended the stilted mechanics of intercourse. I could tell by the way she spoke of it, of her and him, how enormously it loomed above all other things. I was so attracted to her isolation of the aspect of desire. Her story, for me, is the epitome of both the convergence and the difference between sex and desire.
You mentioned this idea that “#metoo doesn’t exist in the dark;” can you talk a bit about that and about having started the book before the #MeToo moment and now bringing it into the world.
I think that on Twitter, on television, et al, most people are fairly cognizant of how to speak politically. In private, there is more nuance, more tolerance. Most of the time I prefer nuance to almost anything else. Nuance is where the truth lies, in my experience. That said, it’s also troubling, of course, when you find that the loudest voices on Twitter can be suddenly and alarmingly unsupportive in the evening of the very thing they champion during the day. Throughout most of the research and writing of Three Women, #metoo had not yet surfaced. The things I wanted to write about—the people I found the most compelling—were all feminists in their own right. They all demanded desire, and were not afraid to describe what they wanted, or not afraid to figure out what they wanted. Bringing the book into the world after #metoo had gotten underway has been satisfying because I think it speaks to the movement and to what the movement is accomplishing and hopes to accomplish further, while also staying true to desire, which exists on its own plane.
What’s the first thing you think of when you think of each woman.
Maggie, who fell in love with her high school teacher.
A wonderful daughter. Unapologetically fierce and loving. There are people who are hurt by things in life that are easy to name and be pitied for. A number of things happened to her that were neither. And so little to no room was made for her suffering.
Lina, who starts an affair with her high school sweetheart.
To date, the most singularly honest person I have met, the most in touch with her needs, the most unafraid of what she knows she deserves, as simply a human being in the world.
Sloane, who sleeps with other men while her husband watches.
Erotic capital. She is frank and kind and wise and plugged-in and so very remarkably put together yet has this thrumming sensuality.
Did you feel your presence in their lives freed them to put language around their experiences?
I think so, yes. But I wouldn’t want to presume. At some point each of them said something to that effect, and that, of course, makes me happy. More than anything I want this book to have a positive effect on their lives. Beyond how it might have freed them, I would love for them to see the way their stories are freeing others.
How has female desire changed, if at all, in America?
I believe desire is always evolving, on both a micro and a macro level. I think in some ways we are becoming freer and in other ways we will become less free. Every powerful movement brings with it some necessary but still unfortunate fallout. The main goal of Three Women, for me, is to get people of all genders thinking about the ways in which we should not judge our neighbors. That we all want to be able to want freely. But that what we want should not cause someone else fear or discomfort.
Why is it that the thing we think we most want is the thing that will tear us apart if we actually do it? (I am thinking of Sloane and the threesome.)
I think like anything in life, be careful what you wish for. But that said, I don’t know if Sloane and the threesome is the thing that was most wanted or the thing that tore her apart. It’s the randomness of life that fells us. The most innocuous thing in the world might break us, as much as the riskiest thing might save us. We can’t really know. All we can do is listen to one other, and remember we have each been in pain, and in love, and in lust, and in fear. Just because today we are more concerned with the color of the bathroom paint doesn’t mean we should forget that five years ago we waited in agony for a phone call.
What did you expect to find when you set out on this project?
I certainly didn’t expect to spend nearly a decade of my life on it. I don’t think I really expected anything. Although when I first began I definitely was leaning more towards the sex aspect of desire. I started, for example, at the Porn Castle in San Francisco. People copulating with machines. Enema rooms. I thought the book was going to be more voyeuristic. But I very quickly tired of the acts of sex, and realized I had to go into the emotions behind them.
What was one thing that shocked you or surprised you or upset your expectations?
Finding Lina. Her immediacy. Her need. Her raw truth. She was the epitome of want, in so many ways. She was eminently relatable. Living in a traditional, restrictive situation and yet deeply in touch with her sexuality and her heart. She knew what she wanted and she wasn’t going to die without getting it.
Has anything about the book’s reception surprised you?
Yes, the polarity of the reactions is surprising. The amount of people who have told me how the book has saved them, has made them feel seen and vindicated their troubles and fears and shame, by showing the depth of the fear and shame and passion experienced by others. That has made me feel a thing I never knew I was going to feel. I have a problem thinking that I can be a succor in any way, maybe because I am so anxious and fragile at times that I can’t imagine being in any position but the forever frightened. I’m surprised by the positivity, by the amount of people passing it around. It doesn’t feel like bookselling but like a strange and lovely wash of kindness.
The other side of the coin has been the people who frankly don’t get it. I don’t mind that, but I am confused by it. I’m confused by anyone who thinks the book should have a message. I am not in a position to offer a message. I am as confused about the state of passion as anyone else. I wanted to tell stories, to delve deeply into these stories, to find people who would let me plumb their depths. The book is not a message but a story. There are plenty of books with messages and I didn’t want to write one. I wrote the book largely before #metoo. But even if I had written it after, it wouldn’t have changed much the trajectory of my narrative. The book is about what we do want (or what these women want) and not what we don’t want. We are speaking well and publicly of what we don’t want. That’s vital and forward-moving. A corollary to that, these women’s stories are not antiquated. They are not about women being victims at the hands of men. They are about deep passion, and where there is deep passion, there is pain. The men are not the point. The women are finding themselves. They are falling in and out of love with themselves. They are the heroes and victims of their own narratives at any given point in the day.
Have you spoken to your subjects since the book was published; can you say how they feel about it?
I speak to each of them fairly regularly, and Maggie daily. Sloane has said I made her sound cooler than she is (which is patently absurd; she is cooler than I could possibly convey). At first, for Maggie, the book was hard. But the other day she told me it gave her closure. That finally her story was out in the world, her story. Young women have been writing to her telling her how she made them feel unalone. That they felt less broken after reading about what she endured.
Having lived so intimately with these women do you worry about them, will you stay in touch?
I hope they will let me stay in touch forever. I care very much about them. I want them to be happy. It was my greatest hope that the book would not only light the window of several lives, so that others could relate and feel safe and seen, but also that the subjects in particular might feel seen, that their lives might be elevated, as they should. So that it would be possible to see how each of our stories are just as important as a president’s or a major league baseball player.
Worrying about the book having any sort of a negative effect on them keeps me up at night.