I meet Lisa Taddeo at the Central Park Zoo. The location is a rather ham-fisted allusion to the title of her new novel Animal, though the book has little to do with actual animals and everything to do with women and trauma and the animalistic responses trauma might trigger. But it serves as a cheery locale for the first interview either of us has done in-person for months. Taddeo is wearing a blue jumpsuit with her name stitched across the pocket, the kind that chefs wear in kitchens, and oversize sunglasses. Her husband and six-year-old daughter, carrying a stuffed fox, have tagged along.
Still, I realize that my gambit may have been ill-conceived as Taddeo and I try to seek out corners to talk about her book, which is not PG. We whisper words like “rape” and “murder-suicide” and “miscarriage” as toddlers waddle by us. Taddeo has built a reputation for taking on taboos. Her 2019 debut book, Three Women, explored the sex lives of three real women: a teenager who entered a relationship with her teacher and later reported him to the police; a housewife whose husband won’t kiss her who embarks on an illicit affair; a woman who has sex with other men in front of her husband to turn him on. The book, which debuted at number one on the New York Times nonfiction best-seller list, evoked pearl-clutching responses from certain critics unused to discussing women’s primal urges, particularly when those urges involve liaisons or threesomes. If there is a common theme to be found in Three Women, it’s that each woman’s desires are in some way defined and manipulated by the desires of the men around them—and often marked by pain.
Taddeo’s debut novel, written largely during the eight-year-span when she was reporting Three Women, is a logical extension of the nonfiction account. She believed that readers would consider her Three Women subjects unsympathetic if she included certain confessions they made in interviews. One experienced suicidal ideation, and when Taddeo mentioned that to friends they reacted in horror: “They’d say, ‘Oh, that’s despicable. She’s a mother,’” Taddeo says. “Animal was a holding ground for those stories. And it’s kind of the median of the trauma that I witnessed.”
If the experiences of Joan, the protagonist of Animal who suffers through several traumas both sexual and violent, can be called the median, then Taddeo, it seems, has heard a lot of horrific stories. “Median is maybe not the right word,” she concedes. “But I saw a lot worse, and I saw a lot better.”
The book is saturated with anguish—its marketing materials proudly tout the phrase, “I AM DEPRAVED.” Joan enters several bad and even dangerous relationships with men. After one of them kills himself in front of her, she packs up and moves from New York to Los Angeles in pursuit of a woman whom she believes holds a key to resolving some of her past trauma. In California, she faces oppressive heat and more controlling men, moving closer to snapping with each passing day. We know from the start that she will be driven to murder—it’s written on the book’s jacket. The only question is which jerk will fall victim.
In the years following the MeToo movement, the question of what happens to abusers remains murky—in real life, some have been jailed, others have made comebacks. Many faced no real consequences. And the question of what happens to survivors remains almost entirely unexplored. How a survivor, particularly if they haven’t seen restitution, moves on from the pain seems a ripe area of study for artists.
Animal is one of several recent works of fiction that explores the wronged-woman vengeance fantasy. Promising Young Woman, which won writer-director Emerald Fennell best original screenplay at the 2021 Oscars, posed its protagonist (Carrie Mulligan) as an avenging angel. Michaela Coel’s mesmerizing HBO series I May Destroy You did the hard work of exploring a woman’s life after she’s date raped: Coel’s character imagines how another encounter with her rapist might end, playing out the vengeful ending but also more empathetic versions.
Animal also indulges in killer fantasies, but the hero’s main quest is to connect with the woman in California who may hold a secret to mysteries from Joan’s early life. That friendship is the driving engine of the plot and, Taddeo poses, the place where women are most likely to heal. During the years she spent on the road reporting Three Women, the author noticed that the women she interviewed were often scared to share their true sexual desires with their female friends, fearing their judgment. “With #MeToo we finally told men what we didn’t want anymore,” she says. “But we are still afraid to tell other women, to tell our friends, what we do want.”
Figuring out what, exactly, women do desire—and how much of that desire is defined by pain—has been the driving force behind Taddeo’s recent work. It hasn’t been easy. When Taddeo got the publishing contract for Three Women a decade ago, she had pitched the nonfiction work as a modern update on the legendary Gay Talese’s book on sex and desire, Thy Neighbor’s Wife. Taddeo asked Talese for reporting advice and any tips on how to get her subjects to open up about the most intimate, embarrassing and at times painful parts of their lives. He agreed to meet several times.
“We met, we talked, and he was like, ‘If you don’t use real names, you’re a hack,’ and I’m going, ’Oh, sh-t,’” she says. So for the first two years of her reporting, Taddeo told people she would have to use their real names—changing her mind only when she realized the consequences for her subjects could be much greater than the consequences had been for Talese’s. When he published Thy Neighbor’s Wife in 1980, there was no internet. “You could say someone’s last name in Ohio, and you wouldn’t be able to look them up.” In an email, Talese writes that he advised Taddeo to “resist the temptation to allow subjects to present their views without standing behind what they were saying,” but that her decision to use pseudonyms was “no bother to me, and I was only pleased that her book became a big success.”
Taddeo took magazine and newspaper assignments while working on Three Women and Animal. For one story, a profile of a high-priced sex worker, she invited Talese out to dinner with the subject. “He was asking her questions like, ‘How much for a hand job?’ And she’s like, whatever her price was for an overnight—let’s say, $2,000,” Taddeo says. “It was just rapid-fire questions.” She left the dinner a bit deflated. “I went home thinking I’m not a good reporter, because I can’t talk to people like that,” she says. “It’ll take me three hours to get to ask them a question about their sex life.” Talese writes that he believed the purpose of his presence to be to ask questions and that he might have been more subtle if he were interviewing the woman himself.
While reporting, Taddeo was careful not to call her subjects too much, not to be too invasive. But she would follow in their footsteps, visiting a diner where one woman went on a date in the minutes after she left, taking in the ambiance for the book.
In the two years since Three Women came out and became a hit, Taddeo has checked in with her main subjects on a regular basis. In all three cases, she had documented moments when the women were victims, to varying degrees, of misogyny, whether they were preyed on by men, denied an identity independent of men or unfairly judged for their sexual desires in a way that a man would never be.
Unlike Joan in Animal, the real women in Three Women have not responded to pain with rage or vengeance. They’ve begun the hard work of forging new paths in life. Taddeo now says that “Maggie,” the woman who testified in a trial that her teacher preyed on her when she was a high schooler, is attending graduate school in Chicago and consulting on the Three Women adaptation for Showtime. “Lina” has moved on from both her ex-husband and the man she had an affair with to another relationship. “Sloane” has had a more difficult time with the book’s success. She lives in a small community where gossip travels quickly, and of Taddeo’s three main characters, she was most concerned about being identified. “We didn’t realize that the book was going to be widely read,” says Taddeo. “If I had, I probably wouldn’t have talked to Sloane.”
Though Taddeo most often cites the subjects of Three Women as the inspiration for Animal, she also draws much of the protagonist’s suffering from her own life. Joan is an orphan left adrift in the world after a great tragedy; Taddeo lost her parents in quick succession in her 20s—her mother to illness and her father in a car accident. And Joan struggles with the memory of her mother, an Italian immigrant who wasn’t much for public displays of affection; Taddeo is still reckoning with her immigrant mother’s “tough sh-t” parenting sensibility.
And then there’s Animal’s graphic scene of a miscarriage. True to the book’s title, it’s animalistic. The raw emotion in the scene was inspired by Taddeo’s own experience. She found out she was pregnant in an RV in Montana, while she and her now-husband were traveling across the country as she wrote Three Women. They hadn’t planned on a baby, but they welcomed the news.
And then she lost the pregnancy. The miscarriage lasted three days. “It was just awful. And I felt so alone because he couldn’t understand. I still think about that loss,” she says. It wasn’t until Taddeo opened up about the incident to other women that she discovered miscarriage is common. “The second you say, ‘I had a miscarriage,’ everyone else is like, ‘Oh my God, me too,’” she says. “We don’t talk about it enough.”
For Taddeo, that loss represented a larger problem that women face in their lives: feeling as if they are responding to trauma in all the wrong ways, when really there’s no correct way to cope. “A woman has to always try to wonder what the actual perfect, best, right thing to do is in order to be able to tell other women, ‘I did the right thing,’” she says. She starts to tell the story of a friend who miscarried and flushed the fetus down the toilet, then trails off.
Taddeo has no problem channeling this type of pain into her work. But she struggles with whether and how to talk about it with her daughter. She has found in her reporting that women’s lives, intimate and otherwise, seem to always be influenced by those of their mothers—what the mothers did and didn’t suffer, what the daughters do and do not know about it.
One day her daughter was throwing a tantrum, tossing popcorn in the back of the seat of their car, and threw a handful in Taddeo’s face, forcing her to swerve. “I pulled the car over and was like, ‘Do you want to know how my father died?’” she says. It wasn’t until later, cuddling in bed, that Taddeo’s daughter began to wonder aloud about the accident. “The only reason she knew that is because I am such a traumatized a–hole,” she says.
Taddeo’s women—fictional and real—seem doomed to not only experience trauma but also to inherit the traumas of their parents. The subjects of Three Women often think of their mothers’ happy or failed relationships before embarking on romances of their own. In Animal, Joan spends the entire book connecting her personal sexual trauma to memories of her parents’ marriage. Taddeo’s bold presentation of female trauma is utterly at odds with her maternal desire to protect her child from pain. And she’s trying to find a way to break the cycle. Recently, when her daughter called a playground mishap “the worst thing that’s ever happened to me,” Taddeo thought, “Thank God. I just don’t want to f-ck her up.”
If you or someone you know may be contemplating suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to 741741 to reach the Crisis Text Line. In emergencies, call 911, or seek care from a local hospital or mental health provider.