American author and journalist Lisa Taddeo has been gearing up for 2019 since 2010. Over the past nine years, she has embarked on one of the most ambitious projects in modern reportage: travelling across the United States six times to embed herself in the lives of ordinary women, understand what really turns them on and figure out why we struggle so much as women to vocalise our wants and desires.
On each occasion, she has packed up her life, moved to these women’s towns for months or, in some cases, years – and lived as their confidante, counsellor and friend as they slowly shared “thousands of hours” of intimate conversations.
There’s Lina; a homemaker and mother of two from Indiana who reconnects with her childhood sweetheart via Facebook Messenger after her marriage loses its passion. Former North Dakota high school student, Maggie, who spoke out after allegedly being groomed by her teacher and has watched her community turn against her following a harrowing court case. And “gorgeous, successful, and refined restaurant owner” Sloane, whose husband likes to watch her having sex with other men.
Lina, Maggie and Sloane’s stories form the backbone of Taddeo’s groundbreaking book, Three Women, which has been hailed the deepest non-fiction portrait of female desire ever written. Book clubs and critics have devoured Taddeo’s work, making Three Women a mainstay on the bestseller lists this year.
“We have spent so much time, thousands of years, being sort of okay with male desire. Even when men screw up, we go, ‘Oh it’s normal, it’s a man’ whereas with women it’s not okay, it’s ugly.”
When I meet Taddeo in a London hotel, I’m keen to know where the idea for such an ambitious project came from. She says a 2010 article she was researching for New York Magazine, initially on Tiger Woods’ alleged affairs with a string of different women, was the jumping-off point.
“One of [Woods’ women] was allegedly Rachel Uchitel, who was this club promoter,” she explains. “[She’s] an ambassador of the bottle girl world which is all kinds of women, predominately young women who, when a man or whomever goes to a club and pays between $3,000 and $10,000 for a table, these women go and serve them.
“What happened was even though I was interviewing Rachel Uchitel, and I went out to Vegas to meet her, she introduced me to a lot of these women that I started talking to and I became more interested in the [bottle girl] world than I did [in] the relationship.” The result was a fascinating deep dive into the women and men who frequent this world, which – long story short – an editor at publisher Simon and Schuster read, resulting in a deal for Taddeo to write a book on a similar topic.
At that point, Taddeo had no idea what the focus would be.
“[The book] started out very differently, once again like my article,” she says. “I drove across the country about six times, I posted signs up, I did so many things looking to find people. And one of the first things I did that actually stuck was moving to Indiana. Starting a discussion group and having Lina come in and say her husband no longer wanted to kiss her on the mouth, it offends him and she begins this relationship with her high school lover. And it was just so deep, and there was so much passion to it, that I realised that’s what I wanted to focus on.”
She then found Maggie while researching another story.
“I was reading the local paper,” she explains. “The trial had just ended, she had reported the alleged crime and the teacher had been exonerated. I was so struck by the fact that her story had not been told; that it had been told without nuance, and without real attention to what she felt. I wanted to tell her story.”
Sloane was the third woman who “ended up in the final cut of the book”. She says she found her, in the same way to Lina, by moving into her town in the north-east of the US.
Given the intimate nature of the subject matter, that Taddeo spoke to “multiple women” who later decided not to precede was no doubt inevitable (“I wanted them to feel comfortable telling me as much as they wanted to and not editing themselves because I said they could edit themselves later”). But Three Women fans may be surprised to know that she also spoke to men. In fact, the final draft encompassed four women and a man, which may well have been an entirely different book.
“I became more interested in female desire from an early point, but there were men up until the end,” Taddeo explains. “It’s just that when it came down to the men and the women who were in the final drafts, which was about 15-20 people, the men were just not as telling… Of the five people that then became the totality of the book; the woman dropped out and the man just didn’t feel as raw and honest as the women did. I don’t know if that was because a heterosexual man was talking to a heterosexual woman… but the women were so much more compelling.”
Winning the women’s trust was integral to giving their stories the nuance they deserved: “I think it was a matter of spending a lot of time with someone, moving into their community in a sense, listening without judgement. With Maggie, for instance, she was very nervous about talking to someone in the ‘press’. But as I was writing a book, I said I don’t know what I’m writing about. I don’t know if there will be a chapter or a sentence at all. I think just saying, ‘I want to hear your story’ and I’m going to to tell you what I’m going to write about afterwards.”
“The woman is the object and objects aren’t supposed to want in the world.”
But, just how did Taddeo’s nomadic lifestyle impact her own life and relationships at that time, I wonder? “I had lost my parents and much of my family, so it wasn’t like I was running away but movement felt safe,” she says. “I felt like I was a moving target; I couldn’t be screwed with again, so it felt kind of good and scary at times. I miss Indiana the most, it was so different and not different. I wasn’t with my friends, I made friends, but I was there for work and I was following Lina around so she was really my focus. It was weird but it was also freeing to not be in New York.”
Part of the reason the book has been so successful is because the stories resonate. We may not be living these women’s exact lives, but their struggles, frustrations and obsessions feel somewhat universal. Especially Lina’s, as Taddeo echoes when I ask her which woman she identifies with most: “I think with Lina, I might not have done those exact same things, but I think that fear of losing something, that excitement and that huge obsession, I have felt that and I have abandoned things for that. Most of us have, admitting it is scary.”
Taddeo’s take on our hesitance to own our desires is enlightening.
“I think it’s a number of things. We have spent so much time, thousands of years, being sort of okay with male desire. Even when men screw up, we go, ‘Oh it’s normal, it’s a man’ whereas with women it’s not okay, it’s ugly.
“Women have been feeling bad about themselves for centuries, they have been feeling that they’re not wanted enough. Men don’t want to feel that way, they don’t even want to know that exists. For example, with sex for so many of the women I spoke to, the first time, maybe even the first 10 times, it’s largely performative. It’s about the men, it’s about the way the man is seeing them; the woman is the object and objects aren’t supposed to want in the world. That’s something that’s changing in a sense, but I also think it’s not entirely because with #MeToo we’re like, ‘This is what we don’t want, we’re not doing this anymore’ but the talking about what we do want is almost more difficult.”
Taddeo believes judgement from other women has played a huge part in silencing us. “That was what I saw more than anything else,” she explains. “That and the way that our mothers factored on us, but mainly the way other women in general factor on our desire, and I went back and looked at that. My own life, I looked at the ways I had sort of edited my desire, not talked about it with other women. I always felt more comfortable talking about my desires with men; it didn’t feel competitive, it didn’t feel shamed, it just didn’t feel bad.”
The author still stays in touch with Lina, Maggie and Sloane. They talk regularly, and of the three women, Maggie’s life appears to have been impacted by the book’s publication the most.
“I think with Maggie, certainly, because it’s her real name. She’s the only one who’s not anonymous [because the court case is on the public record], so I think that’s a lot,” Taddeo says. “She’s also felt the best about the book. Maggie says it has given her closure which I think is amazing and that was my grandest hope, but also my biggest fear, that it wouldn’t go that way. She has gotten so many letters and notes on Instagram, and I’ve got them to pass along to her, saying ‘I believe you and you’ve helped me’.”
When it comes to women looking for a fulfilling relationship, or being comfortable voicing their desires, Taddeo is quick to state she’s “not an expert in what to tell people”. She adds that Lina would often ask for her take and she “never wanted to affect her trajectory so would demure and say, ‘This is what I have done, I don’t know what’s right for you, we are all different’.”
That said, she thinks Lina’s love affair wasn’t necessarily with her high school lover. “I think it was this part of herself that she hadn’t seen,” she explains. “I think that sometimes the man, or the person you’re obsessed with, is interchangeable in a sense.
“I think that when we see that, we have affairs and we say, ‘This is what I want now’, and I’m not saying this is the case for everybody, but for a large part, you are your best version of yourself. Recognise when you’re looking for the best version of yourself, versus when you’re looking for someone to engage that.”
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