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.” 

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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. 

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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. 


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