Lina, a lonely housewife from Indiana, was having an affair. She would meet Aidan, an old high school boyfriend, for sex – usually in his car down a quiet back road – and afterwards she would call up Lisa Taddeo and tell her everything.
A Boston-based journalist, Taddeo has spent the last eight years embedded in the lives of three different women. As well as Lina, there’s Maggie, who took her former high school teacher to court alleging that the pair had an affair when she was 17 (he was acquitted on three counts, but a mistrial was declared on the other two). Then, there’s Sloane – a glamorous restaurant owner who has sex with other men while her husband watches.
Taddeo lived near them, worked out with them and drank with them. After Lina called her, she would even drive to the spot where Aidan had parked his car and sit there, taking in the surroundings. Now, their stories are documented in Three Women – Taddeo's latest book that presents female desire in intense detail.
Already "the most talked about book of the year" in the US, Three Women is striking for its utter honestly. Taddeo told NPR that while we have a renewed focus on what women don’t want and don’t consent to in sex and dating, “we're still not talking about what we do want.” What if we want to sleep with someone else’s husband while our own husband watches? Or desire someone so much that we ignore their unkind and even brutal behaviour towards us? These desires may be hidden and even unpalatable, but in Three Women, they are shown as valid all the same.
After nearly a decade of work, Taddeo is in London – jet-lagged and yawning as we meet for coffee, but charged with energy when she talks about Maggie, Lina and Sloan. But why would someone agree to put their deepest desires in someone else’s book? And what can a decade of researching female desire teach you about ghosting?
VICE: Where did the idea for the book initially come from?
Lisa Taddeo: My current editor sent me a number of books by creative non-fiction writers, like Tracy Kidder, Joan Didion, Janet Malcolm – one of them was Thy Neighbour’s Wife, a 1981 book on American sexuality by Gay Talese. I was very interested by how he had immersed himself with his subjects. He went to swingers parties, had sex with the women, etc – but it was written from a very male perspective, and I was interested in looking at desire from a female perspective.
How did you even get started writing a book like this?
I had planned that it would be about a hundred people, or at least a large swathe of people. I moved to Indiana to be near the Kinsey Institute – which researches sex, gender, and reproduction – and to get out of the worldview I had in New York City. A doctor there who was performing hormone treatments on women introduced me to some of them, so I started a women's discussion group. That's how I found Lina, who was about to leave her husband and begin this illicit relationship with her high school lover. It was a perfect storm of her wanting to talk about it, and having no one to talk about it with.
You spent about two years with Lina, right?
Yeah, but during that time I was looking for other subjects too. I would take trips and put these signs up saying “'Does anyone have a story?” or “Do you have a story of unrequited love?” The hardest thing was finding people who wanted to be honest. It’s a little like looking for love – where do you go, what is the right place to find this person?
Presumably there were a lot of people who didn’t work out as subjects – was it frustrating when you realised they had some kind of agenda, or pulled out?
It was awful. There were two people I spent six months with, then it didn’t work out. And there were many, many shorter ones. Some of their narratives were not as… I don't want to say they weren't as compelling, because these are people's lives, but they were a dead end. Lina didn't much vacillate from her obsession, but the intensity of it was so wild and I couldn't find that intensity again easily. And intensity is one thing, but communicating it to another person and letting them get in your life… Those two things dovetailing is rare.
Did you find that the women you wrote about have anything in common?
They were all so vehemently judged by their community, and I’m awed by how they were all so honest and self-aware. It’s exceedingly hard to face certain parts of yourself, but I think when somebody judges you that much you look at yourself in a new way. You dissect the ways you feel these people are right, and the ways in which they’re not.
Lina’s sex scenes with Aidan feel very immediate. How did you write them?
She would literally call or message me afterwards to recount them to me. Then I would go to the place where it had just happened and sit there, taking in the smells and sounds and so I could accurately describe it. One time I transcribed verbatim what Lina told me. It was real, it was passionate, there was both love and complete lust attached to each act. I’ve never heard someone tell me about sex in that level of detail – there was nothing she felt uncomfortable about telling me. It was remarkable.
At what point in Maggie’s court process did you contact her?
The trial had just ended. I read the newspaper while I was in North Dakota and I was taken with the story, because there had been a mistrial, but nobody believed her. And I was so struck by the hours of phone calls with her teacher past 11PM.
Of the three, North Dakota was the one place I didn’t move to. When I was interviewing Maggie we would talk on the phone but predominantly we would text, because it was the mode of communication she allegedly used with her teacher, so it made sense to talk to her that way.
What about Sloane, how did you find her?
I moved to Newport, Rhode Island, because I was looking for something coastal that was also aspirational – a sort of beautiful place. I was talking to two other people and then I started hearing rumours about Sloane. Swinging was one, but the other rumour was that her husband wanted to have sex with her every day – and not only did she acquiesce, she liked it. It was painted as this shocking, “can you believe it?” story, so I was drawn to speak to her.
How did she react when you contacted her?
Of the three women it was most difficult for Sloane, because she wanted to talk to someone but she also didn't need to, in a sense. A lot of people have said “Why didn't you show a happy marriage in the book?” – and one of the reasons is that I don't think happy marriages are compelling narratives. At the same time, I do think that Sloane's is an incredibly happy marriage. Obviously there is confusion there because it's nontraditional, but the confusion was interesting to me, and the happiness was too.
A theme of the book is indifference in romantic relationships. It’s such a feature of modern dating, maybe increasingly so – like ghosting, for example.
I’ve always said that Lina just wanted Aidan to write one word in reply. When she said “Can you see me this week?” If he had just said “no”, I think that would have saved her, but instead she was always left hanging. It was torturous. Indifference is the most terrible thing we can do to each other.
We’ve all done it, to an extent. Some people consciously don’t respond, but I think a lot of people – and this is a harder pill to swallow – don’t respond because they’re genuinely compartmentalising. With Aiden, it wasn’t like “oh god, I gotta deal with this”, it was just “yeah, whatever”. And that’s a terrible feeling, that you are not existing in the world to the person that is most important to you in that moment.
The three main relationships in the book are between men and women. How do these themes map on to non-straight relationships?
I wasn’t trying to tell a story about all straight women. There was a gay man I was talking to for a while, for example. And these women don’t speak for all women, either, but the three people who gave me the most of their lives happened to be three women. They spoke so powerfully of themselves and my hope was that, because I was able to achieve that level of intimacy, it would move other people to empathise and relate to one, two or all three of them in the way that I did.
Three Women is out in the UK now via Bloomsbury.