It's revealed late in Sloane's story, and it's foregrounded of course in Maggie's, but then was also very much present in Lina's story as well. Were you surprised to find that thread of sexual trauma throughout these stories? Or did that just confirm the suspicion that it's a unifying theme across so many women's lives? It was a unifying theme in a lot of women's lives.
I don't want to generalize, but I definitely feel like so many of our pasts shape our present and our desire. When you talk to somebody for two years about just their sex lives, you will hear everything. The things that you'll keep hearing are the things that are the most shaping. That's what I found just from having so much access and having their truths being put on this chopping block every day.
Things came out. Yes, I do think we're very unified by that, but I also think that if you talk to anybody for a certain amount of time, you'll get the things that are the most painful or exciting or trenchant. You've been working on this book in some form for about a decade.
Now it's come out, as we like to say, in the wake of MeToo. For a while there we were just inundated with powerful stories of how men have enacted their sexual desires, and desire for control and power over women, over and over and over. Where were you in the process of writing the book when that started, and did that affect or make you think about how you were shaping the book? It didn't. I was mostly done with the book by the time the MeToo stuff was happening. I did go back and talk to each of the women.
Sloane, I had not finished her story yet, and some things did happen to her that she treated differently post- MeToo, which I thought was very interesting.
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Maggie, I think Maggie's case would have gone very differently post- MeToo. My whole point for writing the book was to show that women don't talk about their desire enough. MeToo was like, this is what we don't want. My book was this is what we do want, and this is what these three women want. It wasn't about all women. I just wanted to open up the window into different people's desires. People have been saying "ordinary women.
We're all just human beings. That's what I was looking to do. In terms of MeToo, I think it's a vital movement.
I’ll Have What She’s Having
I wasn't trying to make a statement about it in my book mostly because my book came before. I don't think that's the point of the book. There's a zeitgeist going on and that's great, and hopefully it will change the way that we look at what men and people in positions of power can do. I really do think that we're moving in that direction. That said, there's still this hangover of the patriarchy that a lot of women, and people in general, want to pretend that it's not still there.
Like, after this many years of feminism, aren't we past that?
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Honestly, I spoke to hundreds of people and I don't think we're past that. Beyond that, I spoke to a lot of people in the middle of the country. I think when it comes to the coasts and the big cities, we can sort of look at the world in a certain way. Lina and all of her friends in Indiana did not, when I went back to talk to them, they didn't know about it. They had heard something about a guy named Harvey Weinstein. Too much is happening that has nothing to do with the rest of the country. It both epitomizes the country and is the opposite of it at the same time.
That's why I wanted to get out of there. Did you know that you were going to write in this very close third person point of view? I found it so effective — you are telling their stories almost as if you were recounting exactly how they told them to you, and yet there's always that third-person remove, in which their names are written over and over, as if to remind us, this is not [the author's] story, this is her story.
I wanted it to be their voices.
I wanted the whole book to have a unified voice, which was mine, but I also wanted each of their stories to very much speak for themselves and in their voices as much as I could. For example, I texted so much with Maggie. When Sloane emailed, her voice was very much in email. Lina would send me Facebook messages that were verbatim what had just happened with her and [her lover] Aiden.
I wouldn't have been able to do it for myself. I was there for a lot of the things that I described, so I removed myself from the narrative because I thought that my presence was distracting. There's obviously a wealth of reporting and research in this book, but the storytelling doesn't foreground the men's accounts in their words. Is that just woven in into the background of it? Or did you consciously set out to only speak to the women and get their perspective on these stories?
A little bit of both. I tried to contact Aaron Knodel [Maggie's teacher] multiple times because that was an important thing to do because it was a case and a child. He did not respond. I spoke to a lot of the people, some of the men who are mentioned. There were some men, like Aiden for example, who I would not even have considered asking because Lina would have stopped talking to me. It would have ruined her relationship, and it would have affected her trajectory, too. The book wouldn't have happened if I did that. That's one part of of one of the reasons I didn't talk to Aiden for example.
It was about the women. It wasn't like this he said, she said. It's not like I was interested in nailing down everything: OK, when Lina was here, where were you standing, Aiden? This is Lina's version of the story. This is the way Lina experienced this. We're used to listening to men's stories and the way that men experience things. Come the text, Lina drops everything and engages in a bout of mind-blowing sex in a truck and next to no conversation.
Maggie has never got over being sexually abused though we only have her account by a teacher at school; subsequently, she lost the case she brought against him. Sloane is rich and self-assured but controlled by her husband, who likes watching her have sex with other men. Lina has as much self-control as a bonobo chimpanzee. You want them to stop thinking endlessly about sex and self-pity, and take up needlepoint, communism or amateur dramatics. Half a century of feminism and this is American womanhood?
The story of Maggie, the teenager who likened her love affair with her teacher to the vampire story in Twilight and then prosecuted him was bad and sad, but also pathetic and puerile. Where Taddeo does succeed, however, is in giving her characters a novelistic voice. All that dialogue, feelings, all so microscopically detailed! A highly proficient one — the first of its kind, perhaps? Taddeo believes it, absolutely. They love then grow weary and spend months extricating themselves soundlessly, pulling their tails back into doorways, drying themselves off and never calling again.
Free indirect speech is pushed here into illegitimacy. Taddeo claims to be reporting, and she may be doing that accurately enough in specifics, but these three stories nonetheless remain her choice and her expression. Why three? Tails back. Look away. Breaking news! There is an art to writing about sex — for examples of how not to do it, look at the fiercely competitive Bad Sex Award. Chronicling the inner lives of these women is a mighty undertaking, and Taddeo has for the most part pulled it off, laying bare the emotional fallout of sex.
It is engrossingly told, more like a novel than non-fiction. Taddeo has a creative turn of phrase, which is ambitious if occasionally baffling. You what? Is Three Women empowering?
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It took me back to girly teenage sleepovers, where we pored over sex columns. Abolishing the orgasm is basically the most fascist thing Big Brother ever did in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Our desires — and having them fulfilled — are a big part of what makes us feel like we exist. So it is that in Three Women, Maggie, Sloane and Lina are not just looking to have a massive Meg Ryan but real, please , they are also looking to be seen. As intensely readable as it is, there are intellectual questions. How can Maggie understand the very real pleasure she gained from an affair with her teacher alongside the growing knowledge that he abused her?
And does swinging Sloane really have an appetite for the unconventional, or is she performing for her husband? If the latter is even possible in a male-gaze-driven world is one of the debates the book looks set to provoke. Two elements immediately impress in Three Women. For the rest of your life, nothing will taste like this. Can you imagine. Even when women fight back, they must do so correctly. They must cry the right amount and look pretty but not hot. Yet despite my misgivings, I must confess that I found this book almost impossibly compelling.
The psychological realism with which Taddeo brings these women to life on the page is uncanny.
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It feels more like an act of literary seance than reportage.