“Three Women feels like an erotic version of a Netflix true crime doc…”
Author Lisa Taddeo on her decade of research on desire and writing the year’s most talked-about book.
What is desire? Where does it exist? Does desire live in our hearts, our heads or our, erm, loins? Or is that all too analogue? Perhaps nowadays it’s more accurate to say that desire is stored in the cloud. In the ones and zeros that make-up the letters which make-up the words that we Facebook message to our (now married) ex-boyfriend with whom we have hot, profound sex on secluded riverbanks.
That’s where we find the nub of Lina’s desire:
“…you slide your tongue into my mouth and we taste one another for a long time,” she writes to her lover, Aidan as her husband sits in their nearby living room. “…as you are coming up from undressing me you stop at my breasts and suck on them… Staring into my eyes you enter me and repeat the wonderful rhythm you did the first night: three shallow and then thrust deep…”
For months Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women has been gathering the kind of press attention that rarely gets bestowed on a book. The Guardian called it “a painstaking study of sex and love”. The New Statesman characterised it as “a bold and timely portrait of female sexual desire”. Op-ed pieces and ‘state of the world today’ essays have been written about it and Taddeo herself has become a minor celebrity (mainly among journalists who just want to know about her sex life).
But it’s not the carefully crafted prose or the even the subject matter (although, other people’s sex lives are, by default, quite interesting).
It’s the fact that her book is entirely a work of non-fiction. Every word is based on the eight years of in-depth reporting; thousands of hours of interviews with the three women in question, as well as their friends and family. In some instances she even moved to the towns where the women lived. She had access to their desires, as laid out in their diaries, their dirtiest texts and even their (most intimate) Facebook messages. The power of Lina’s message, then, isn’t just in its erotic content but in the fact that it really is a message a married woman sent to her married lover.
“I interviewed a lot of people who might have worked for the book,” says Taddeo, speaking from her home in New York. “There were 15 narratives in my first draft. But the reason I whittled it down to these three women is because they let me into their stories. They explained the most. They were the most open with me.”
In 2011, Taddeo started driving across the country, posting low-key signs in bathrooms, asking for volunteer interviewees. Taddeo’s quest to write about desire would take her to swingers communities and into the lives of people she would never otherwise have met (“the man who was having sex with a different woman every day, behind his girlfriend’s back made me feel most…uncomfortable,” says Taddeo – more on this below). Finally she settled on Maggie, a 23-year-old who was lured into an affair by her high school teacher. In the book Maggie is the only woman who uses her real name (the teacher, who Maggie later takes to court, is also named). Lina, an unhappily married housewife and Sloane, a restaurateur whose husband likes to watch her have sex with other men.
Written like a novel, Three Women feels, at times, like an erotic version of a Netflix true crime doc. You want to know what happens while simultaneously feeling guilty that you’re taking pleasure from someone else’s real-life pain. But this also gives us a clue as to why Three Women has so captured the public imagination. In a world where we have become used to narrativising our own lives for social media, where the line between fact and fiction is ever flimsier, a book which writes fact like fiction and imposes tangible narratives on the mess of life is bound to feel right somehow.
Not that Taddeo set out to do that: “I don’t know if it’s part of a zeitgeist,” she says. “But I don’t like reading non-fiction so I wanted to write non-fiction that I would enjoy reading. I wanted to write non-fiction which plumbed the depths of a subject’s emotions rather than just talked about facts, where someone was born and buried; you know, the Charles Dickens of it all.”
Whether she meant to or not, though, Taddeo has written one of the year’s most talked-about books. Here she explains what it’s been like since, how the three women have felt seeing their lives in print, and what almost a decade of research has taught her about desire.
How’s the book tour going?
It’s going good; the reception has been amazing… I’m very grateful but I don’t like flying…
How do you feel the fact that it has become a phenomenon?
It’s strange to me. I’m happy about it, but I definitely thought I was writing a quiet book. I was not expecting it to be like this. I mean, I don’t know what ‘this’ means yet. It’s just come out. But it’s been a little bit more than I expected… so it’s been great but strange, I guess.
What have been the most surprising reactions?
Well, the three women I wrote about worried a lot – in their day to day lives – that others would judge them. It comes up a lot in each narrative; how painful, how limiting it can be to be judged by others. So I’ve been surprised when people have judged the women from reading the book.
Like, I guess there’s been one reaction which is ‘these women have saved my life’ but there’s also ‘oh, I can’t believe that we’re still stuck in the 1950s.’ So yeah… I’ve been very… I don’t know, it’s been strange to see how polarising the book has been. I think that’s cool, I guess that’s what people want when they write a book. But I am surprised by it because I would have thought that, given where we are as women right now that we would not be still judging others. There’s a lot of cattiness still going on and I’m surprised by it.
Is there one story in particular that has become a lightning rod for that cattiness?
All three in different ways. I think Sloane because she has this aberrant relationship people want to say that she’s only doing it for her husband, which is not true. And their marriage is incredibly happy.
People don’t want to say she’s doing it because she and her husband have this loving relationship and [having sex with other men] is just something that she does for him, and then he does X, Y and Z for her. People want to read that in a different way.
I also think that Lina, the housewife, people calling her situation ‘pathetic’, which they have been doing, is really interesting to me. I think people call it pathetic because they see themselves in her.
Yeah, it’s just surprising to me… I’m sorry, I’ve been thinking about it a lot because I’ve been very protective of the way that these women are seen in the world. And despite the message of the book, they’re still being judged in this backwards way.
How did the women react to their narratives?
They reacted well. I think at first it was very difficult for Maggie. I think telling someone something – a reporter – and then reading it three years later in a book there’s always a sense of like, ‘Oh my god, I didn’t realise she had asked me that…’ That happened a lot. But even in the past day, she said that the book has given her the sense of closure that she didn’t realise was possible.
Sloane said something similar. She said I made her sound cooler than she was – which was nice to hear. So I’ve been really heartened by their reactions.
You interviewed multiple people in each woman’s life. Did you ever find inconsistencies in what they said versus what the women themselves said?
Not really, but you know, I tried to interview the teacher and he did not want to speak. That would have been somewhere – obviously and clearly – where I’d have expected instances of ‘that didn’t happen’. But I did speak to many of the other people and there was never anything… I also didn’t speak to Aidan, Lina’s lover because I couldn’t have. If I’d spoken to Aidan, she’d have stopped talking to me. The trajectory would have changed. But it’s not the kind of thing where you can get to it from all sides. It doesn’t work like that when talking about desire.
But, you know, talking to Aidan wasn’t the point. The point was to get Lina’s story. With Maggie’s story it was important to get the facts right, it was all legally vetted, I had a professional fact checker go through it… so it wasn’t just shooting ideas in the dark.
I read that you immersed yourself in different communities and tried different experiences while researching the book – like you spent time in a swingers community. How was that?
There were several different ones. I went to a place called ‘the porn castle’ in San Francisco [a former armoury owned by kink.com]. And then there were a group of swingers in Cleveland, Ohio that I was hanging out with for a while. It was very… it was not as exciting as I would have expected. Which is why, by the time I found Sloane’s story I was really taken because, you know, her story had so many more layers. She was technically doing what swingers do but there was a lot going on in her mind… whereas a lot of the other swingers that I spoke to were more like… I don’t know, they weren’t as in-tune with what they were doing and how they were feeling.
Were you just getting that same response like, ‘yeah this is great, I’m totally into it’?
Yeah, exactly. Which is fine. It’s like ‘ok, I’m totally into the fact that you’re totally into that’ but I want to talk about something else. The emotionality of it, I suppose.
What was the weirdest or most intense experience you had?
You know it was someone who didn’t end up in the book. It was one young man I was profiling who was having sex with a different woman every day when he was working the tourist season in the city where he lived.
And just hearing about his exploits… one day I was writing about him and he told me that the night before his long term girlfriend had come home and found him on the beach having anal sex with one of her best friends. So that was a shocking moment.
It wasn’t the act, it was the way that he reacted to that, as if it wasn’t such a big deal. It made me stop being interested – as I say at the opening – in a lot of the males in the book. I just kind of began to feel like they felt less than the women did.
There’s this passage at the beginning about the pain when people withdraw from relationships. I felt that was so true and also something that really permeates the book…
Totally. It’s what Lina and Maggie felt. Less so Sloane, but I think it happens so often. As women we don’t want to believe that it can happen to us.
So yes, it’s very central to the book. Although, it’s not just men withdrawing. It’s whomever has the ability to say ‘I’m not talking to you today’ in a relationship. Or whomever can say ‘I’m done with you’ and not think twice about it. I mean, look, it’s anyone’s prerogative to end something but it can happen in a kind way. It doesn’t have to be the way that I often saw it happening across the country.
I guess it plays a lot into the power dynamics of a relationship because that’s a real big power move, someone just saying ‘I don’t need you anymore.’
Yes – and you having to deal with it. It can be really destroying.
So you’ve spent almost a decade writing about desire – what do you think you’ve learned about desire?
That we are all united in how painful it can be. And that also, when we are not in the middle of it, we can forget or stop understanding how painful it can be. So I think we’re all united by it and we judge each other when we’re not in the middle of it and someone else is. It’s like, we judge people who’re in the grips of desire.
So I think there’s a lot of pain and judgement in desire – sometimes we don’t even realise we’re doing it.