Lisa Taddeo, author of Three Women, tells a story of female pleasure and pain—of three women’s search for sexual fulfillment and the different ways society punished them for achieving it. She spent nearly a decade with these women, embedding herself in their lives to paint an intimate, breathtakingly reported portrait of desire.
Lina is a homemaker and mother in suburban Indiana, languishing in a passionless marriage to a man who won’t even kiss her on the mouth. Starved for affection, she reconnects with an old high school boyfriend and embarks on a life-changing affair. In North Dakota, we meet Maggie, a 17-year-old high school student who begins a romantic relationship with her married English teacher. A few years afterward, with no degree, no career and no dreams to live for, she steps forward with her story—and is met with disbelief by her community and the jury that hears her case. Finally, we meet Sloane, a gorgeous, successful restaurant owner in the Northeast who is happily married to a man who likes to watch her have sex with other men and women. For years, Sloane has been asking herself where her husband’s desire ends and hers begins.
We asked Lisa Taddeo some questions about the reporting process for this provocative, unparalleled book.
In the book, you talk about how the process of selecting your three subjects was somewhat organic, with some subjects taking themselves out of the running or dropping off for various reasons. Among the three women whom you ultimately wrote about, there’s a fair cross-section represented of socio-economic status. Maggie comes from a working-class family, Lina seems solidly middle class, and Sloane comes from money and is upper class—and it obviously colors their experiences. Was this cross-section intentional?
To an extent, yes, the cross-section was intentional. One of my many hopes for the book was that it would be geographically and socioeconomically and racially variegated. I also wanted there to be a wide range of sexual orientations. I was also still looking for male subjects, in some capacity. One of the first drafts I turned in to my editor had a wide range of subjects, satisfying most, if not all, of that range. But it was these three women whose stories were the most infinitely relatable and also the longest of the segments, because they had given me the most, told me the most. They were the most trenchant and clear and raw. The ways their communities reacted to them were the most indicative of the way society treats the marginalized, the disenfranchised. While the other smaller segments were interesting, they were not anywhere near as powerful as these three final subjects. And it felt that including anything more would have watered down their narratives.
One of the best things about the book is that it’s narrative journalism that reads like fiction. There’s rich internal monologue supplied for each woman. Are these detailed, private thoughts things they explicitly spoke to you about? Or were they things you extrapolated from the intimacy of your time together and the things you did talk about?
The depth of the internal monologues came from my asking the same questions multiple times and spending a great deal of time with them. It also came from being open about myself, from rendering myself as vulnerable to them as they were with me.
Obviously some considerable intimacy was achieved between you and the women you profiled. Can you talk a little bit about that process of earning their trust?
It was slightly different for each. Maggie was difficult because she had felt so terribly misused by the press in her state. Sloane is a very private person in a small community and was concerned about her reputation and that her children might find out. Overall it was a matter of spending a lot of time with each of them; of making the commitment, in two of the cases, to move into their communities; to assure them of my goals and hopes, that I would not sensationalize their stories but speak their truths in the best way that I could. As I mentioned earlier, I also gave a good deal of myself, when appropriate. I told them my own stories, talked about my own pain and passion. I believe a two-way street is the only honorable way to interview someone about their innermost thoughts.
Do you remain in touch with any of the women?
Yes, with all three of them. I hope we will always remain in touch.
As I read the book, I found that there were some parts that troubled me. Like the women in the accounts you present, there were aspects of female desire that I hadn’t considered very deeply, and the ones that hewed too close to home left a sense of discomfort. Was that any part of your experience, as you explored this sometimes unexpected territory?
Certainly, at times. Though mostly I felt comforted that others had experienced the same difficulties and tragedies. I felt united by having felt the same sort of passion, of having sacrificed for it.
Were you present during any of the events you describe? Or did the bulk of your descriptions come from interviews after the fact?
I was present for a number of them. In the cases when I wasn’t, I would try my best to re-create the milieu of the experience. For example, with Lina, I would often drive to the spot by the river or the clearing where she had just come from seeing Aidan, and I would sit there and take in the smells and sounds of the surroundings. For Maggie’s part, after asking her multiple questions about not just the interlude with the teacher but about everything she saw and heard, I would visit the locations where she had described being with the teacher. I would look at the same things she had described looking at. I would sit in the parking lot where she told me she’d sat, waiting for him, outside the restaurant. I drove through the streets she named. I did the same thing with Sloane’s story.
How did you find each of the women who would ultimately make up the narrative of the book?
I was in Medora, North Dakota, checking out a lead about a group of women who were working as waitresses by day and then, at night, being trucked into the local oil fields to have sex with the men who worked there and lived in trailers. In a coffee shop, I read about Maggie’s trial. I called her mother’s house and introduced myself, and the next day I was driving to Fargo.
I found Lina after moving to Indiana, somewhat to be close to the Kinsey Institute but also to get out of New York City, where I felt I was too much inside my own world. Far from where Lina lived but close to where her doctor practiced, I started a women’s discussion group, of which Lina was a part. She was right in the middle of wanting to leave her husband and of embarking on this all-consuming affair with her high school boyfriend.
With the third woman, Sloane, I had already been talking to several other people who lived in her community and had fascinating stories. I began by speaking to those other people first, but then I heard about Sloane through the grapevine. Gossip, mostly.
Maggie’s family in particular was extremely traumatized by the events she went through and how much the fallout shook them. Was it difficult to speak to them about subjects that had resulted in so much pain?
Yes, very much so. That was one of the hardest parts.
Though one of the women had occasional female partners, the book overwhelmingly focuses on female desire in the male/female dyad. Was this intentional? Or was it simply because of the women who ended up being in the book?
Not at all. It was purely because the final subjects made up the largest and rawest and most revealing segments of the book. Plenty of other subjects (included in the first drafts) covered the wide range of sexual proclivities, genders, races. But ultimately these three were the most comfortable with my presence in their lives at length and across poignant moments. And as a triad woven together, they told the most arresting—individual and yet cohesive—narrative.
You began and ended the book with your mother. Tell us a little bit about her and why you made that particular choice.
I thought it was important to give of myself at least 1% of what the subjects in the book gave to me and to the world. I also found, through my research, and as I say in the prologue, that it is most often other women who impress upon each other the most—who can make us feel bad or good about ourselves. Moreover, I found that mothers are such a powerful and lasting force in our lives. Part of the societal-social lexicon has always been the notion of “daddy issues,” which I think is, in and of itself, a very male take on the way a woman walks through the world. With most of the women I spoke with, I found it was, rather, the influence of the mother that weighed the most heavily on their life decisions.
My own mother was very quiet about her past, as I think women have historically felt they needed to be. She was wise and omnipresent but also removed. Her removal—the way that I could never really grasp her beyond what she presented to me—was fascinating and horrifying to me. She had a life in her brain that wasn’t meant for anyone but her. I think women are more reticent to speak of that inner life, those inner fears and desires, and that was something I wanted to show.
Did you meet any resistance from the men who were involved in the women’s narratives? To what extent are they aware of their place in the narrative?
I did meet resistance. I tried speaking with most of them. In some cases, the women I was speaking to didn’t want me to speak to the men in their lives. They were worried. I knew that if I pushed on that, I wouldn’t be able to tell the stories of the women.
But that resistance also pushed me into a new clarity, which was that these women’s stories deserved to be heard without echo. I did confirm the facts and feelings of some ancillary subjects of the book, but ultimately I was very satisfied with telling the stories from these women’s perspectives, as though they were writing their own histories.
As a woman writing for Esquire (a men’s magazine), did you find that those professional experiences colored the direction of the book?
In the beginning, to the extent that I had been on a male “beat” for a long while, yes. But that quickly changed.
With each woman, there were elements of their story left unresolved. How did you decide where to wrap up each thread?
With Maggie I was fairly set that her story would begin with the alleged relationship and stretch through the trial and beyond into the immediate aftermath. It was a clear beginning, middle and end. With Sloane, it was after she told me about certain events that transpired when she was a child, which brought her own realizations about herself to a sort of “conclusion.” Though of course life goes on for all of us, and for these women, I had to find an end for each of them. That said, I remain so very interested in all of their trajectories. I find the way Sloane navigates her life to be very strong and self-assured. Maggie’s trajectory, meanwhile, has changed the most; she is now an incredibly empathic and strong social worker. She has alchemized her pain into being a succor for others. With Lina, I think I could have gone on reporting forever, but I stopped myself because it had been nearly a decade.
What do you hope for male and female readers to take from this book?
I hope that all people realize we are all together in this—that hearing about someone’s heartache in depth is, unfortunately, very often the only way to stop condemning them. These three women have had moments of pure passion and of feeling exalted and utterly seen and lusted after and loved; they have, in turn, given up a lot for those moments. They have faced public and private scrutiny. They have been in agony at the hand of their choices but also at the hand of the experiences that were chosen for them, against their will. They were the heroes and the victims of their own stories, which often changed by the hour of the day.
Finally I hope that readers take away the truth that judgment is brutal, that nuance is vital to understanding one another, that we are all afraid, and we shouldn’t project our fears onto someone else’s choices.
What are you working on next?
I am thrilled to say that Avid Reader Press is publishing my first novel sometime next year and my collection of stories to follow.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Three Women.