Once in awhile, a book comes along that redefines what a genre can do and be. Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women is that book—a singular work of narrative journalism that reads like fiction, owing to its intimate access to the emotional and erotic lives of its subjects. In these thorny stories of secrecy, rejection, and missed connections, Taddeo seeks a richer understanding of female sexuality and desire, and the joy and grief they often bring.
Almost a decade of immersive reporting on the front lines of female desire gave Taddeo exhaustive access to three complicated women, two of whom are given pseudonyms. Those women are “Lina,” an Indiana homemaker exploring a transformational affair outside her loveless marriage; “Sloane,” a New England restaurateur experiencing consequences for her husband’s desire to watch her sleep with other men; and Maggie, a North Dakota woman coming forward with the story about her relationship with a high school teacher. A heartbreaking masterpiece that grips you from page one and never lets go, Three Women is destined to join the canon both of journalistic excellence and feminist literature. I spoke with Taddeo, a former Esquire contributor, to discuss the book’s path to fruition, Taddeo’s reporting methodology, and the ways in which these stories of intimacy and unspeakable despair still keep her up at night.
Esquire: You’ve mentioned that Three Women began as a companion to Gay Talese’s Thy Neighbor’s Wife. What about Thy Neighbor’s Wife resonated with you, and in what ways did you want to depart from it or expand on it?
Lisa Taddeo: I read Thy Neighbor’s Wife a few times. The first time I read it, I was really impressed, and, the second or the third time I read it, I started to feel a little bit like it was almost exceedingly male. There’s obviously nothing wrong with that; I just noticed there was a lack of female voice. Of course, that book was written in 1980, a time when we were even less willing to listen to women. But I saw the male perspective of it. What I was still impressed with on the second and third read was the immersion that Mr. Talese undertook. I wanted to do something immersive in the same manner, but the thing that I wanted to do most to depart from his book, in the biggest way, was to keep myself out of it. I wanted to tell these women’s stories without being a part of their lives, in a certain way.
ESQ: Did you contact Talese at any point? Did he have suggestions or guidance about this undertaking?
LT: I contacted him pretty much as soon as I got the contract for the book. I sent him a bottle of some Italian liqueur with a note that said, “I’d love to meet you, I have this book that I’m writing,” et-cetera. He invited me to his home, and we had tea or coffee. It was very cool to talk to him because, beyond Thy Neighbor’s Wife, I was, as all people who read magazine stories are, obsessed with, Frank Sinatra Has A Cold. I was very excited to meet him and talk to him. He did say something that I’m not going to repeat, but it was very interesting, and it made me think about what I should be doing. Ultimately, I didn’t take his advice in that regard, but the main thing that I took from him is the hard work, persistence, and immersion into another world.
ESQ: As for immersing yourself in these women’s stories while also keeping out of their lives, how did you go about that in a practical sense? How do you stay out of their lives and avoid becoming too friendly?
LT: I wouldn’t say that we did not become friends. I still talk to all three of them on a fairly regular basis. The main thing I wanted to do was to not factor into any of their decision-making. I think that was the hardest with Lina because she was very open with me, and she didn’t have many other people to speak to, so I was her biggest confidante. She was telling me all the things that were happening almost as they were happening—or it was as close to that as possible—and often she would ask me for advice the way you would with any friend about any kind of situation with someone that you’re interested in. I was very careful to not give her any advice. I would often say, “Well, what do you think you should do?” And she would tell me, and I would just listen, because I did not want to have any bearing on her decision-making. I would often just tell her about my own experiences, and we would talk about those. I didn’t do it with any sort of strategy in mind; it was just the natural progression of having a close relationship with someone, even though I was doing 80 percent of the listening. It’s interesting, because I would say that, looking back on it, everyone was aware that I was talking to them for this book. At the same time, my interest was so high in all of their stories and their thoughts and feelings that it exceeded the needs for the book, which I think helped serve the book. But, at the same time, I continued to ask some questions. I wish I could write about them forever, or, at least, hear about them forever—which I hope I’ll be able to do.
ESQ: How did you seek out potential subjects, and how did you come to settle on these three women?
LT: Well, it was an exhaustive process. I started by going to places like the so-called porn capital in the Mission District of San Francisco, which I’m pretty sure is not there anymore. I was going to places that I thought were the mouth of sex. At first, it was more about sex than about desire. I didn’t know what the book was going to be. And, often, when you’re looking at those sorts of sex, it’s raw sex. The people who are the most open to talking about that are people who work in some sort of sex industry, whether it’s pornography or prostitution. It’s sex-positive, but also, people are open about it because it’s what they do. While I was there, I met this really interesting young women who was homosexual, and her partner, who was also homosexual. The partner was a director, and the other woman was an actress in pornography, and the director would direct her partner having sex with men, which I thought was really interesting. I really wanted to get at how that felt, and what I found with those two and several other people in those professions is that they really just turned off, the way that I hear that actors do in love scenes in movies. But I wasn’t interested in people who just turned off. I didn’t 100 percent believe that you could possibly turn off. That doesn’t mean I think they were lying; I just think there was some element of burying some stuff so that you can get on with your job and your life. I realized then that I was looking for stories that were behind the act, and I needed to find that, but I realized very quickly how difficult it was going to be. I didn’t want people who were wanting to talk, in a sense.
From that point on, I drove across the country. I think I drove across the country a total of six times, but I did it two times before I found my first person. I posted signs at gas stations and casinos and restaurants hoping I’d find someone in a sort of analog matter. But I also emailed people that I knew. I posted on message boards at universities. I found several people who emailed me after seeing my signs, and I kept in touch with them, and I called them. I moved to be near some of the people because I thought they were interesting, but I needed to be close to them in order to see what their stories would be. The first thing I did was move to Indiana. One, because the Kinsey Institute was there, and I thought, “This is sort of the beginning of sex in a different place—the way that the porn capital was.” While I was in Indiana, I started this discussion group, and this woman named Lina, who is the first person I found who would remain in the book, was in the middle of asking her husband for a separation. She had not made the actual decision. She was going to ask him for a separation, and the reason was because he had not kissed her on the mouth; he said that the sensation offended him. I was so impressed with her coming into the room and having this really sad story. At the same time, she was embarking on this affair with her high school lover, who she had just reconnected with on Facebook. That was really poignant for me, so I lived in Indiana for several years, just profiling her and following her.
The second woman I found was Maggie, who I found by reading a newspaper article about the trial [during which the teacher was acquitted of all charges], which had just ended while I was researching a group of women in a coffee shop in North Dakota. I heard that these women were prostitutes by night for the men in the local oil fields. I went to Fargo the next day because I was so taken with Maggie’s story. The third woman, Simone, I found by moving into her town because I was talking to other people, among them a homosexual young man who was a life coach with a very interesting story. I moved to Los Angeles, Boston, Indiana, Sloane’s town in the northeast… so, I moved to many places. After Maggie and Lina, I was looking for someone who was in a more slightly upbeat situation, because there was a lot of pain to their stories. By the time I found Sloane, it was the perfect thing.
ESQ: All these years of driving and moving—how did that affect you personally? What were the costs of that nomadic lifestyle, and how did your life change as a result of giving your time so fully to other people?
LT: It was really difficult. I got married and had a child basically in the middle of all of the research, so, for the latter part of it, my husband and baby went with me to all of these places. I uprooted my family multiple times, and I spent many, many hours writing and researching the book, but I also wanted to not forget my daughter. I wanted to be there every day and sleep there every night. That was the rule that I made. I remember at night, I would be nursing her and texting with Maggie. I remember doing that for hours, because Maggie would be awake late at night like a young woman would be, and I was breast-feeding my daughter. It was incredibly difficult. It remains difficult, because now there’s all of this book tour stuff going on. It’s been a whirlwind of not feeling emotionally present in my home life, and I hope that will change soon. I’ve done it to myself, of course. But, in a way, it’s like the ball keeps rolling and you don’t know how to stop it.
ESQ: What motivated these women to share their stories with you?
LT: Lina did not want to talk for a book. Lina wanted to talk because she had no one else to talk to. Also, I was outside of her community and wasn’t somebody who would judge her. I wasn’t a friend or a family member at the time that we started talking. I was kind of like a therapist that you didn’t have to pay. So, that was a perfect storm. Maggie wanted her story told. Her story, not his story. The teacher’s story has been told definitively in the press, and even in the community. When I was there, it was just so shocking. I talked to supermarket cashiers and people everywhere, and they just didn’t know her story, so I think Maggie was interested in telling her story and telling her truth. As far as Sloane was concerned, she was the one who really didn’t want to talk the most, which was difficult, because I was so sure that her story was so interesting and vital and had so much complexity to it. But she didn’t need to talk to someone, necessarily. I think it was enjoyable on some level to her and cathartic on some others, but Sloane was definitely the hardest. I still remain intrigued with all of the stories, but Sloane was the most outside of my own experience, so I was really drawn to understanding it.
ESQ: How did you gain the trust of these women?
LT: I guess I’m a pretty genuine person, and I genuinely do not like to be emotionally or physically invasive in someone’s life. Yet at the same time, there I was trying to immerse myself in their lives. I had this real inner conflict about that, and I really stood at a distance to make sure that they were okay with me doing that before I did it. I was very honest. I would say, “Look, I’m writing this book about desire. I don’t know what it’s going to look like. I don’t know how many people are going to be in it. I don’t know if you will be one chapter or 100 pages. I have no idea. All I know is that I want to be with you as much as you’ll allow me to be, and I’ll keep you updated about what I’m doing at any point. If at any point you want to drop out, you can.” That happened to me with multiple people. In fact, it happened with about 20 people. I hadn’t moved for all 20 of them, but I had moved for some of them. I had spent at least six months with seven of them. It was devastating on a work level and an energy level to have six months or more of your life washed down the drain.
ESQ: What did the immersion process look like logistically? Would you go over to their houses and spend time with them? Did you follow them to work? What was the day-to-day like?
LT: It was everything. Lina is probably the best example because it was so different day to day. It was just so multi-faceted. Some days we would work out together; some days we would go shopping together. Many times, we went to the river where she most often met with Aidan, and she was taking selfies of herself for Facebook. I would be there and watch her. She would change into multiple sets of clothes in the back of the car, and I would sit and look at the river. Then, when I saw the selfies, I would say, “Oh that’s a good one.” There was a lot of going to restaurants and bars with her, watching her interact with the bartender and other people. One time I followed her when she went to go meet Aiden. I didn’t watch, but I wanted to be present, and as close as possible. I went to all the places that she was at. I went to her house. With Maggie, I went to her feminist talk. I went to the places that she had allegedly went to with the teacher, the place where she picked him up, the Barnes & Noble where she met him for their first quote-unquote, “date.” Mostly with Sloane it was coffee shops and driving around the whole town where I’d moved to. I thought I was going to write about the whole town, because I was talking to ten people, but I didn’t know how to work that in with these other two women. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I was confused, but trying to figure it out.
ESQ: How much responsibility did you feel to protect these people, and did that weigh on the reporting process?
LT: It weighed on the process monumentally, but it’s weighing even more so now. I’m worried about how people will react to their stories, and I’m worried that people will call Maggie the same names they called her before. I don’t want the other two women to be discovered, and I did a lot to ensure that hopefully that wouldn’t happen, but that doesn’t mean that it won’t. I think about that every day. I think about it all the time. Literally, it keeps me up at night, every night.
ESQ: Unlike with Sloane and Lina, you don’t obscure Maggie’s identity—Maggie Wilken is her real name. Walk me through that choice.
LT: It was a choice, and it was a choice that all of us at Simon & Schuster talked about a lot. For me, the main reason I wanted to keep her name was because not saying her name would be denying her truth. The other two women were not the subjects of public ridicule. To not name Maggie would be to keep the public ridicule where it was without trying to give her the voice that she so desperately deserved, in my opinion.
ESQ: Did reporting her story without that anonymity change the day-to-day logistics of the reporting or the sense of pressure you felt?
LT: It didn’t change the logistics of the reporting. It just changed the feeling of the aftermath. The other thing that I’m very careful about is that it’s not my job to comment on the teacher’s guilt or innocence. That is what it is in the world, and it’s not my job. My only desire in this was to tell the story that Maggie told me, and to tell it with the fullness of everything she felt and thought during the time that this alleged relationship was happening. It wasn’t that I wanted to tell what really happened. It was that I wanted to tell Maggie’s story. But to tell Maggie’s story and leave out Maggie’s name further hides a woman’s desire and denies the way in which she had not been heard prior. Whereas with the other two women, there wasn’t any of that. With them, I think their stories are more about illuminating other people who have had similar feelings and relate to them. Whereas with Maggie, it’s about relatability, but it’s also about giving her story a voice.
ESQ: Did you feel any differently toward the people in her orbit—her parents, her friends, her coworkers—in the sense that you’re also telling their unmasked truth, not just Maggie’s?
LT: Yes, I do, and I did. I contacted everyone that I mentioned. I did change the names of the people who were minors at the time of the trial. I thought about that often. I have tried to contact [the teacher] multiple times, including sending a fax to his lawyer. There were many attempts to make sure everything was correct, but on top of that, I also spoke to the people who were involved in the trial: the lawyers, the investigator, and the judge. I wanted to make sure that I had all the court documents. I had a fact checker really exhaustively check the case. Yes, of course I care, but I also think I did everything in my power as a journalist to make sure that everything was taken care of.
ESQ: In what way was the insight you gained through the reporting not what you expected? How did this project surprise you?
LT: I don’t know that I was surprised. Obviously, I was surprised in many little ways, but there was no grand way in which I was surprised. The reason I set out to write the book that I ended up writing was because I knew going into it that women were terrifically, violently organized about the way they hid their desire. The reason I found Sloane, for example, was because there were rumors about her and what she did with her husband. But the first “rumor”—which was shocking to me that it was a rumor at all—was that her husband wanted to have sex with her every day, and not only did she allow it, but she wanted to do it too. The way that this was imparted to me by multiple people was shockingly negative in their minds. It was so indicative to me of the larger response of other people—women and men—to a woman’s desire and its place in the world, and the fact that sometimes it has no place at all.
ESQ: I love that expression, that they’re “violently organized” about hiding their desire. It brings to mind a moment in the book when Lina goes to a support group for women, where the other women almost punish her for her desires, and for her ability to plainly express them. They say things to the effect of, “She has the husband, the house, the kid. How dare she want more?” That was just staggering.
LT: I think that happens all the time. Before I started writing the book, I saw that happen. But it’s very rare that somebody will question a man’s desire. That’s what I talk about in the prologue. As a child, I was very aware of my father’s desire for my mother, which was very kind, and it made me feel happy that my parents loved each other in this fashion. But it was also my father’s desire that seemed to drive it, and my mother’s desire was kind of unknown to me. I almost didn’t think she had one. Women talk about their crushes, but they can be staggeringly afraid of admitting their desire to other women. This reminds me of a woman I write about in the epilogue, who I called Mallory. She was this beautiful woman from Dominica, and she had grown up with this very traditional mindset, which she had completely left in every way. But she was very afraid of anyone from her past or her present knowing that. The people from her present, she didn’t want to know about her past, and the people from her past, she didn’t want to know about her present. She was like two people, and she was split in that way. The fact that she couldn’t talk about either her desire or the history of why her desire was stifled because she would be mocked in either direction was so interesting to me.
ESQ: The level of detail in this book is just tremendous. You give us such a wealth of information not only about the facts of the day-to-day environments of these women, but also the facts of their interior lives. In that sense, it reads like fiction, which was enthralling, but at the same time, it’s disarming when you know that everything is fact. How did you cultivate that sense of intimacy and vulnerability?
LT: I would say the main thing is that I asked the same question multiple times. I also asked the deeper question, and it took me awhile to get to the deeper one. For example, the way that [the teacher] allegedly texted Maggie—that brought to mind how I’m so interested in the point at which a relationship begins. Or, if you’re talking about infidelity, the point at which someone is unfaithful to someone else. When is the actual starting point for that? Is it a kiss? For some people, infidelity is the first kiss. For some people, it’s not unfaithful until they have sex with someone else. And, for some people, if you send a weird email to someone, that’s the beginning. What if it’s just the desire in your brain, and that is the beginning? At what point does it start? With Maggie, for example, I wanted to know exactly how the texting began, and how many minutes were left between the texts, and who was responding first. These are the things you think about a lot when you’re in a relationship. I wanted to really isolate every moment, and I would spend multiple hours across months on each moment.
ESQ: One of the revelatory things about the book is how luscious the prose is. I found it very sensuous, yet at the same time, there’s this undercurrent of melancholy and yearning. To what degree were you stylizing each woman’s perspective or trying to create a distinct narrative voice?
LT: I was trying to a large extent, but in a way, it came naturally, because I really wanted each of their voices to be their own. Even though I was writing it and I was the conduit, I wanted them to be the voices of themselves. At the same time, I wanted there to be a cohesion to the prose that wouldn’t feel stilted when you went from one to the other. I thought about it a lot, and I wanted Maggie’s story to be told in a more youthful manner that would lend a genuine tone to when she was talking about texting. I wanted it to be younger, in a way. With Lina, Lina’s is the most sexually explicit of the group, because I think that she was finding herself in those moments more than any of the other women were in the actual intimate act. I really wanted to explore that with her. She also gave me great detail, often right after it had happened, so I felt very close to that aspect of her story. I probably told her story the most sensually because I think that’s what it was. With Sloane, she’s very graceful, and her manner of speaking is elegant, so I wanted hers to be the most detached, because that’s who she is. It’s not that she’s not a warm, kind person, because she is, but she compartmentalizes, in a way, like a man, and so I wanted it to read that way.
ESQ: In parts of Maggie’s story, you dip into second person perspective. The very nature of that technique invites the reader to impose his or her own experiences and perceptions onto the narrative. What was the appeal of shifting into that mode?
LT: This is what I did with Maggie. I imagined the most non-believing person, the person who would be the most likely to disbelieve her and to call her the names that she was called. I wanted that person to get inside of her head in a way that would make it impossible for them not to at least try to comprehend what she went through.
ESQ: How has this project changed you?
LT: It’s been a decade, so I’ve obviously changed as a human being. I’ve had a child. I’ve moved multiple times. I’ve talked to multiple people. I’ve gone and gotten an MFA in fiction. I’ve done a lot of things, but there’s also not been one day in those eight to ten years that I haven’t worked on the book. I’ve changed as a person, so it’s hard to say how the book has changed me, but talking to as many people as I’ve talked to, I think I’ve learned a great deal about why we do the things we do. The main thing I learned, which, I kind of learned before but the book hammered home, was that we most project our fears onto other people. That’s what causes the judgment. That’s what causes the pain.