The landmark non-fiction debut
Three Women by Lisa Taddeo,
now in paperback.
"An immersive, revelatory study of the sex lives of three women, told in fascinating but never salacious detail, shot through with longing, loneliness, pleasure and shame... As compelling as true crime and as heartbreaking as anything I've read, this book will be talked about for years to come."
Heather, Campaigns Manager
Three Women is the groundbreaking debut from journalist Lisa Taddeo, which is now published in paperback, and was voted the Foyles Non-Fiction Book of the Year 2019.
Taddeo spent countless hours over the last eight years becoming part of the lives of three American women to create a masterwork of true-life storytelling that chronicles the sexual lives of her subjects. Told with a sense of clarity and with great empathy, Three Women examines the deeper truths of female desire and the interplay between gender and power. Below, Taddeo talks exclusively to Foyles about how and why she wrote Three Women, followed by an extract from Lina’s story.
- Can you tell us a little about Three Women and what motivated you to write it?
The genesis was to take the pulse of sexuality and desire in America today. A sort of updating of Gay Talese’s Thy Neighbor’s Wife, but from a female perspective. Desire is at once all we think about and talk about, and at the same time our most slippery secret. I wanted to explore the nuance of that intersection.
I began by talking to both men and women, but the men’s stories, though intriguing, began to bleed together. The throttle of their desire often ended once a conquest was achieved, whereas for the women, it was utterly the opposite. Of course, this is not to generalize. But the three individuals who ended up sticking out to me, who were the most willing to tell their stories in ways that revealed their desire, happened to be three women. These specific three women. There were several subjects who dropped out, the most notable one about seven months into my research, when she began to fear her new relationship would suffer if her past were found out.
- How did you research and gather the material for your book?
Reporting the book was intensely and maddeningly different day to day, hour to hour. There was no formula, no set of questions or group of people. It was somewhat haunting in that I thought of it every second. There wasn’t a day that went by that I didn’t feel like I was failing.
I would make lists of tenuous things to do: in the morning, post signs on coffee shop and supermarket bulletin boards. On the windows of cars2go. On slot machines in casinos. On the fence outside the Prada Marfa art installation. In the afternoon, write whatever I’d observed the day before, or transcribe tape, or write out pages of notes. In the early evening, either go to dive bars and nice restaurants and libraries and mechanics and talk to people and ask around, trying to isolate a town or a human being that would make me feel like I’d found it. Or hang out with whichever person or group of people I’d found the day or week before. In the late evening, eat dinner while posting things on the internet. Read and write. Panic.
In sum the actual process was like trying to attack a kernel in the fog with hundreds of different swords. But when I found Lina it felt right. The idea of “Finding Lina” a second or third time was the same haunting process all over again. By then, though, I’d gotten a little better at cataloguing the potential risks for a subject while also not frightening them away. Giving them the full scope of what I wanted to do while also taking it easy. I’d gotten better at knowing which people wouldn’t be likely to get spooked and drop out. It was also an important factor that the motivation for someone being open to letting me into their lives in such an intimate manner wouldn’t be for any purpose other than expunging and hoping their stories would help others.
It was hard for me to look for people, to speak for months to subjects who would end up dropping out. It was hard for me to place myself in an invasive position in other people’s lives. It was hard to have so many instances of pure aimlessness and fear. I have a lot of anxiety and I had a lot of panic attacks throughout the course of this research (which continue today.) Being embedded in people’s lives was extraordinarily uncomfortable. Especially when it felt like I was an imposition. I spent a long time with people because I wanted to do everything slowly and carefully. I knew that if I pushed too much, too soon, it would be off-putting. More than wanting to “get the story,” I wanted all the subjects of this book to feel heard and not used.
The instances I most loved came when I was observing people from a distance, quietly writing, taking notes, taking in the environment while not being a part of the action. For example, after Lina was intimate with Aidan in their sacred spot, I would travel there right after, to take in the smells and sounds and sights of the river at dusk. So I could best describe the milieu, so I could best layer onto what Lina had just told me.
- Did the women’s stories throw up unexpected elements or were they more familiar in their depiction of contemporary female experience?
There were some but not many. I was often more surprised that I wasn't surprised; that so many of the people I spoke to mirrored one another within the core of desire, even if the window dressing changed from subject to subject. That said, I was thrilled about finding Sloane's story because she was the epitome of that which I'd been looking for at various points—a "swinger" who did not participate in the cliched swinger lifestyle. A woman in possession of a great deal of elegance and the ideal meshing of power and subjugation—an identity with which she was both at peace, but also questioning. So finding Sloane was very gratifying—that this type of person, about whom I wondered existed at all—did, in fact, exist, and in such a complex and nearly aspirational manner.
For some women, preparing to meet a lover is nearly as hallowed a time as the actual meeting. In some cases, it’s better, because at length the lover leaves, or someone loses interest, but the tender moments of anticipation remain. Like the way Lina can more easily remember the beauty of snow falling than the gray slush that lingers.
Lina stands naked and pale behind a yolk-colored curtain in a recessed rectangular shower stall, holding her mouth open to the stream, pushing her wet hair back the way that girls in movies do—one thumb over each ear and both palms at the top of the head, then smoothing the wet hair back. She shaves her legs and her pubic area, leaving what she’d heard some older girls call a landing strip. She soaps herself with Camay, taking care to deeply clean the areas his mouth might kiss, scrubbing these areas harder, perhaps, than she should.
She times it perfectly so that her sister would be heading for the bathroom just as Lina is on her way back to their shared room, so she could be alone. Naked on her bed, on top of her towel, she caresses pink lotion into her skin, not missing a single spot. Then she applies makeup but not too much because he had once made a comment about overly made-up girls, how they were trying to look older but they succeeded only in looking whorish.
She blows her hair out in large sections so that it will lie straight but full of body, so that it might bounce across her back and shoulders as she walks.
She applies perfume behind her ears, at the backs of the knees, and on the insides of her wrists. It’s a lemony floral scent evocative of beach house afternoons, of iced tea with mint leaves, and clean breezes.
The perfume is the final thing to go on, so that it lasts. Lina will be silently pissed if she passes a smoker along the way. Aidan is a smoker and yet she wants to come to him clean, not smelling of cigarettes, even though the chances he’ll be smoking when she approaches him are high.
There is a nervous, weightless feeling in her bowels, as if she hasn’t eaten in days. She has, in fact, been eating less, because that is what love does, Lina has begun to see. It feeds and eviscerates you at once, so that you’re full but you are also empty. You don’t want food or the company of others. You want only the one you love, and your thoughts of him. Everything else is a waste of energy, money, breath.
The secret place is a river, but it is more than a river. Even now, nearly two decades later, Lina thinks of the word river when she thinks of the secret place but it doesn’t fit. The problem is, there’s no better word for it. Like even the most perfect things in life, it is what it is.
It wasn’t that either of them had ever called it the secret place. Never aloud. It was just what Lina called it in her head. In fact, it had a much simpler name, simpler even than river.
I’ll meet you there.
See you there at ten.
Get off the bus, and there it was, only a quarter mile away, into the woods not too deep, off the two-lane highway that ran through the flatland.
There was a sort of path into the woods, not a real path but demarcated enough, a narrow clearing where the twigs and leaves were crushed by Keds and Timberlands.
Lina in her white sneakers wondered how much of the path she’d created, and about all the people before her who’d made the first dents.
There it was. There in a clearing where the wheatgrasses overgrew, a thin, snaking river in the half mist. The greatest part was seeing his pickup, old and beat-up and so gray as to be invisible, which made Lina’s heart thump like a bounced ball.
It was fall when they started meeting there but winter would come soon, so he said they should invest in blankets because it would be too expensive to keep the car running. That he had said this in September, when winter was so many weeks away, made Lina’s eyes water, that he foresaw his future with her in it. For a very long time, that was enough, that the object of her love even considered her a beating heart, a living thing, in his orbit.
Seeing his car already there, hearing the birds in the branches and the crunch of twigs underfoot. Smelling the wet earth and the exhaust and getting lost in a hologram of mist. Tucking her hair behind her ears the way she had practiced in front of the mirror, the precise way she looked the prettiest. All these sounds, smells, routines. It was her foreplay.
And there, in his car, staring straight ahead into the trees and ringed by a halo of his own smoke was this mythological man who was going to be hers, who was right at this moment waiting for her, so that the very entirety of her being was validated. He was the whole point of her existence, her mother and her sisters and the posterior side of her father be damned. There he was.
Lisa Taddeo has contributed to New York magazine, Esquire, Elle, Glamour and many other publications. Her short stories have won two Pushcart Prizes. She lives with her husband and daughter in Connecticut.