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Three Women makes true stories of women, sex, and desire read like a novel

It took author Lisa Taddeo a decade to write it.

Lisa Taddeo, author of Three Women (Simon & Schuster, 2019).
Lisa Taddeo, author of Three Women (Simon & Schuster, 2019).
J. Waite
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women is the kind of book that makes you miss your subway stop. The chapters weave together the stories of three women from across the US. Lina is a Midwestern mother of two in her 30s whose husband refuses physical affection, even a kiss on the mouth; she leaves her marriage and takes up with her high school boyfriend. Maggie’s teacher pursued her for a sexual relationship when she was a 17-year-old high school senior, and when she’s 23, she reports it. And Sloane runs a restaurant with her husband and has sex with women and men, sometimes in front of him, at his request.

What unites them all is that these are stories of female desire and its many manifestations — and they’re all true. Three Women is a work of nonfiction, meticulously researched and reported over many years by Taddeo, who in some cases moved to the same town as her subjects in order to fully understand their stories. They talked and emailed. She checked their facts, read text messages and court transcripts, and talked to their friends.

The resulting meticulously researched prose is lucid and descriptive, and a portrait of a slice of life of three American women, who are both unique and easy to relate to. Three Women gets at something universal and primal while also infusing Lina, Maggie, and Sloane’s stories with respect and dignity.

I talked to Taddeo by phone about her process, how she found her subjects, and what she learned over the nearly 10 years she spent on the book. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Alissa Wilkinson

Your book is remarkably intimate, and the women you’re writing about gave you amazing access to their lives over a period of many years. How did you locate them, and how did you know you wanted to tell their stories?

Lisa Taddeo

I started by going to San Francisco. I went to a couple of places that felt like they might be the nucleus of sex. I went to the “porn castle” in San Francisco, which is now defunct, but it was this wild place. I was profiling a young woman who was having sex with men while being filmed and directed by her girlfriend. I was really intrigued by how it must feel to watch your partner have sex with men in front of you. The fact that it was men was particularly striking to me.

Anyway, so I started there. Then I drove across the country six times. I posted these flyers that were looking for people who would have compelling stories and would be amenable to letting me follow them around and hang out with them.

I was traveling from New York City to all these places, but I was always coming back home, and it just felt like I couldn’t get out of my worldview. I’d be hanging with my friends and then I’d leave town, and it just didn’t feel solid or grounded.

So I decided to move to Indiana. It was kind of a random decision, but it was also not — the Kinsey Institute was there. I met a woman in a discussion group; her name was Lina. And she was just so ... when you ask me how I “knew,” it was [through] the immediacy of her story unfolding: her husband not wanting to kiss her on the mouth, and her embarking on this relationship with her high school lover. All of that was so wild to me because it was happening right then. And as much as I wanted to listen to someone’s story, she wanted to talk about her own story.

The two things intersected. Nobody since and nobody prior had given me as much as she gave me. It wasn’t like I was trying to make her talk.

So that’s how I knew she was going to be definitely a person [in the book]. I had no doubt.

Alissa Wilkinson

When you undertake a project like this, it does seem like you’re signing up to go on a lot of wild goose chases. People agree to participate, and then back out. Or they think they want to tell you their story, and then a couple years down the line, their life changes and they decide they want privacy. Sex is a private thing. Did people back out?

Lisa Taddeo

Yes. Many people. Many people who were really perfect in their own ways. Honestly, nobody as perfect as Lina, and Maggie to an obviously great extent. I was looking for any story that was compelling and relatable, though, and ultimately, the hardest thing to do was to find people who were going to talk to me at length.

The worst losses were in two cases: people who I’d been talking to for six months and had moved to be near them. That was really difficult.

So yes, many wild goose chases. Looking around for weeks. Spending time in towns. I had to stay in a town for five days and try to figure out if there was anyone who would talk to me.

Alissa Wilkinson

Part of what you’re looking for is someone who has a good story and will talk. But there must be elements of their stories that made your ears perk up, right?

Lisa Taddeo

Yeah. One of the ideas in my proposal was to find a family and branch out with each member: a mother and a father, two mothers, grandparents, a family or something interconnected. I did — I had a family, and then I had a second family.

But the issue with a lot of people, specifically in the first family, was that I got the feeling that the people wanted to talk for reasons that were different than what I was looking for. It wasn’t because they wanted to get their stories out. And it wasn’t like talking with Maggie, who wanted to get her story heard because nobody had listened to it the first time and also wanted to help other people learn from it.

There were just people who kind of wanted to hear their own words, I guess. I couldn’t write about that honestly without that coming through. But that was just intuition. I would realize when somebody was holding back. Or embellishing — a lot of people embellish things, and I would find out when I did initial light fact-checking. As I got more into the project, I started to feel more confident about who I talked to; I’d know within an hour whether or not somebody was going to be right.

Alissa Wilkinson

And you were asking them specifically about sex, right? Which, when you read the book, feels sort of like it was the subject, but that there was a bigger subject, too: what women want and desire, which is sex and also more than sex. They want more out of life than what they’ve been presented with. Did you go in thinking about that, or did it emerge as you wrote and reported?

Lisa Taddeo

Well, it’s a little bit of both. [Gay Talese’s seminal 1981 exploration of sexuality in America] Thy Neighbor’s Wife was one of my impetuses to do this from a female perspective rather than a male one. I was very interested in the immersive qualities of it. And there was a lot of sex. It was cool. Obviously, we’re all intrigued by sex.

But what I found myself wishing for was more of the interior feelings of the people, especially the women who were being intimate with these men that Talese was observing. I knew I wanted to get deeper than that.

I think the initial book title was “Untitled Book About Sex.” After I found Lena, I knew it was about desire. Desire is linked to sex, but it has almost nothing to do with it. They can be completely separate from each other, and they can also be completely interwoven. And sometimes sex is just sex — when that was [the case], I wasn’t interested.

With the porn castle in San Francisco, it was just sex. I spoke to the women at length who were working there, and they were like, “It’s just a job. It’s just sex.” Either they were holding something back or it was just sex, a job.

Either way, it didn’t matter. That would’ve been a chapter. That would’ve been cool. But for me to write about that at book length was not compelling to me.

Alissa Wilkinson

What you ended up with was this complicated portrait of three women that reads more like a novel about three characters who are mostly unrelated to one another, except in some key ways. It’s really hard to turn nonfiction into something that truly feels like fiction — and with this book, if I hadn’t known going in that it was nonfiction, I don’t think I would necessarily have caught on.

As a writer, what do you have to do to pull that off? Are you emulating anyone, or thinking about telling their stories from a specific perspective?

Lisa Taddeo

I wanted to tell each woman’s story in her own voice, as much as possible. What was helpful with that, beyond talking to them at length, was texting, emailing, and Facebook messaging with them — “seeing” their voices in print. I didn’t want to mimic them, but I also wanted their chapters to feel like them. Maggie’s voice, I hope, is a little bit more young, and Lena’s a little bit more middle-of-America. There’s a lot of “gee” and “golly,” and I love that. I didn’t want that to be sanitized into something that was not her. Sloane had more of an almost trans-Atlantic quality, and I wanted to maintain that.

But ultimately, I also wanted the book to have a uniform voice. It’s three separate women, but it’s also me telling the story, so I wanted it to be uniform in that sense — both multifaceted and uniform. The prologue and the epilogue is very much my voice. I was trying to be as faithful to each person as possible.

Alissa Wilkinson

It’s clear that each of their stories are told completely from their own perspective, which gives the sense of privileging their own perspectives on their own lives. But you clearly also did some background research and verified facts. How often did you have to reconcile their memories and the facts you were checking on?

Lisa Taddeo

Not often. I had a professional fact-checker go through it, and I have to say, he and I didn’t really find anything that was big and needed changing. I checked up on multiple things. Maggie would say that the color of her shirt that she borrowed from a friend was turquoise, and I would ask a friend if it was turquoise, and it was turquoise. Or I would say to her friend, “What’s the color?” And she would say, “Turquoise.” I wasn’t trying to catch anybody out — I was just trying to make sure that everything was in order. I didn’t want anybody who was connected to them to say, “Oh, that’s not true.” They might still say that, and I think it’s possible that something’s been missed, but I did my utmost to make sure it wasn’t.

Alissa Wilkinson

That’s such a challenge in writing nonfiction, because reality gets filtered through memory, and memories are faulty by nature. In this case, you write about the content of their text messages, but you say sometimes those text messages were subsequently deleted.

Lisa Taddeo

Right. And with Maggie in particular, with the text messages, we would talk about the same text message many, many, many, many times. I would say, “How long was the wait time? What were you doing while you were waiting?” And she would be like, “I put my phone down.” Then I would ask her the same question a week later: “Then what happened?” Not to call her out, but just to make sure it was authentic.

Lina would physically show me her text messages, since her story was unfolding as I was with her. Maggie’s trial provided a skeleton for her story, so I was able to just go line by line through the deposition and the trial, and then get her version of it. Sloane’s story was also, for the most part, happening in real time. It was difficult, but it required more spending time than strategizing.

Alissa Wilkinson

What kinds of ethical quandaries did you worry about while writing?

Lisa Taddeo

With Maggie, I worried — and continue to worry — that people are going to do the same things to her [after reading the book] that they did during and in the aftermath of the trial. [Maggie is disbelieved, dismissed, and accused of trying to get attention during the trial against her teacher.]

Lina wanted to talk so badly to someone, and I would constantly remind her — at least once every two days — that I was going to write about what she said. She was like, “I know. I know.” It was always very clear that I was the interviewer and she was the interviewee.

But there were times that she would ask me for advice, and I didn’t want to affect her trajectory, so I would say, “Well, this is what I’ve done in the past, but I don’t know what you should do.” I didn’t want to affect her story, but also, I really don’t know what she should do. None of us know. We’ll give our friends all this sometimes-misplaced advice. We’ll tell them not to do that and not to do this. But ultimately, it’s every human being’s decision.

So to that extent, I didn’t have ethical quandaries about Lina. And I didn’t about Sloane [either], because I would always say to her, “At any point, if you want to stop, you can.” I wanted the women to be free in talking to me. So I said at one point, “If you say something that you don’t want me to write about, or you spend two weeks thinking about it and decide you don’t want me to write about it — literally at any point until the book is printed, you can do that.” I also let them read it beforehand.

My quandaries now are about how the book will affect them. Maggie in particular has told me that the book gave her closure. She’s been hearing from so many people that her story has saved them. She sends me the texts and Instagram messages and Facebook posts that she gets, and it’s just shocking. It’s literally 50 a day. It’s insane.

Alissa Wilkinson

Oh, wow. From people who’ve read it?

Lisa Taddeo

Yes. They’ve reached out to me too, but when they reach out they’re like, “Can you pass this on to Maggie?” And I do. But there are people who just go straight to her, and it’s just amazing.

Alissa Wilkinson

That’s wild. Hers is such a common story, in some ways. It’s almost an unremarkable story because it happens so often, and that’s remarkable in and of itself.

Lisa Taddeo

Yeah. It’s truly amazing.

Alissa Wilkinson

You spent a ton of time thinking and writing and talking about these women’s stories and about sex and desire. Did that change you?

Lisa Taddeo

I didn’t really start with any hypotheses or conclusions. So the main thing I learned is that we want to be seen. Indifference is horrific.

The second thing is that a lot of women are sisterly and amazing, but a lot of women I met were so judgmental, in their faces and their words, when they were talking to me or to others. I think that’s shocking. The #MeToo movement is all about talking about things we don’t want to talk about, which is fucking amazing and incredible. But then when some of us do talk, others say, “Oh, no, no. You don’t want that. That’s not good for you.” That’s hubris, wanting to dictate what somebody else says or feels, or tell them that their thinking is backward. That’s perpetuating the patriarchy — by taking it upon ourselves to continue to police other women.

Alissa Wilkinson

The book is somewhat remarkable for never even appearing to pass judgment on any of them — I didn’t realize till I read it how rare that is.

Lisa Taddeo

Yeah, and that’s the thing. It’s not my place to do so. I have self-judgment, but I don’t have judgment of others. The notion of telling someone else what to do with their own body is ridiculous. I feel the same way about infidelity and all that. It’s like, is it wrong? Yeah, I guess. I don’t know. To make these giant proclamations, as though any of us are the arbiters of someone else’s life, to me doesn’t make sense.

So no, I didn’t want to make any judgments. I just wanted to tell these people’s stories in a way that was faithful to what they felt. I am interested in hearing about people and relating their stories to others.

When I was in the middle of researching Lina, one of my friends asked me why I was so compelled by Lina, by her story about chasing after this man. My friend said that she was pathetic. That was very shocking to me, because my friend had done the same thing, just with different window dressing.

It’s not like I was setting out to change the world; my friend was in the back of my mind. I was like, I want to change her opinion, or show her that these women are not pathetic; they’re normal. I wanted the most nonbelieving person to just take a step back and go, “Wait, I haven’t listened to everything. I’ve listened to what I’ve wanted to listen to.”

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