Journalist Lisa Taddeo's Investigation Into Female Desire

Posted by Cybil on July 1, 2019
Lisa Taddeo crisscrossed the United States countless times, moved to six different places, and talked to hundreds of men and women to ultimately find three women whose lives tell the story of desire in America.

Three Women chronicles her findings through the lives of Sloane, Lina, and Maggie. The stories of these three women are not universal, but they are also not uncommon. Lina is an unhappily married woman, who leaves her husband and reignites with an old flame. Maggie is a young woman pursuing legal action against her high school teacher after their affair sours. And Sloane is a happily married restaurateur, whose husband’s desire is fueled by their open marriage.

Taddeo has given voice to unspoken activities fueled by lust and desire throughout her journalism career. She has examined, with precision, incidents by A-listers arising from lust and infidelity for New York magazine, Esquire, Elle, and Glamour.

With Three Women, Taddeo gives a voice to the girl next door, all grown up.

She spoke to Goodreads contributor April Umminger about writing, the longings and desires of the everyday American woman, and…tsundoku. Their conversation has been edited.

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Goodreads: I read your book Three Women, and I found it fascinating to explore the desire and lives of these three people. What inspired you to write this book?

Lisa Taddeo: It was a very long road.

It began with a piece I wrote for New York magazine called “The Half-Hooker Economy.” I wrote this story, and it was supposed to be about Rachel Uchitel after the Tiger Woods scandal. She was the ambassador, sort of. I started with her, but then I moved on to the other women who were part of that world. And in the way that piece evolved is the way this book evolved.

After that piece ran, my editor at Avid Reader Press got in touch with me and said, “Do you want to write a book?” He sent me a bunch of books, like Tracy Kidder, Janet Malcolm, Joan Didion.

One of the books he sent me was Thy Neighbor’s Wife, by Gay Talese, which I found very illuminating. Gay Talese wrote “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” which is one of the best celebrity profiles ever written, especially and mostly because he didn't have any access to Sinatra himself.

The immersion of Thy Neighbor’s Wife was very admirable to me. But I also thought that it was very male. And the way that men—the way that most men, I should say—talk and think about sex is very specific to the gender.

Whereas, when I read the way that women wrote about sex, specifically like Elena Ferrante, Lucia Berlin, it's more complex and charismatic. So I thought that it would be interesting to write a book about sex for the modern time.

That's the genesis of the idea.

GR: You talked about Tiger Woods and Frank Sinatra, but one of the things that is striking about Three Women is you’re writing about women in Indiana, North Dakota, and Rhode Island. Was that deliberate, or was that just the way the geography shook out?

LT: It was both.

GR: It seemed to normalize the experience that everyone feels with sex or infidelity or desire. It's not coastal, or urban, or Hollywood—it is something all women are dealing with.

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LT: Right. And that was my biggest hope for the book—to have it cut as wide of a swath as possible gender-wise, and sexual orientation–wise, and race-wise.

But the main thing I focused on was geography, because it is a book about desire in America. And in America, every state is so wildly different from each other. In America, we're so defined by our states, and the instant you say a state, it’s like you have this preconceived notion about somebody.

I've always wrestled with New Jersey, where I’m from. I used to be afraid to say I was from there because I was going to be pigeonholed in some weird way. It’s just like any preconceived notion and judgment about a race or a community or a gender or sexual orientation.

So that was why I drove across the country, like, six times. I was posting signs up, and I was looking for a real cross section that was diverse. Ultimately, I had 15 to 25 people that were in one of the final cuts. But these three stories had given me the most.

GR: You really became a permanent fixture with the people you were profiling.

LT: I moved to a lot of places to be near the people that I thought were going to make it into the final cut, and for various reasons they dropped off because they became nervous. I moved to D.C. I moved to Los Angeles. I moved to the towns of two of the women in the book for a year to three years in both cases. But I also spent two to three years talking to each of them even after I was no longer there.

GR: That is a lot of pressure to have a sort of permanent observer. Did you have many people back out or get cold feet? These are such intimate and personal experiences that you explore. How did you arrive at these three?

LT: One of the things Gay Talese said to me was something like, “If you don't use real names, then you're a hack,” basically. So I realized that I have to use real names. But when he was writing his book, it was a very different time. You couldn't just Google someone.

For me, that was the difficulty. People would talk to me for a month or two months, and then either get exhausted by someone wanting to follow them or constantly talk to them or just uncomfortable with certain things.

These three narratives were the longest, these three women had given me the most. These three were the most narratively propulsive. And they were infinitely relatable both to me and other people that I was speaking to.

GR: How many did you start out with, did you say?

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LT: I talked at length to probably 35 people. I moved to six places. And of the 35 people, I probably spoke to seven to ten of them on a fairly regular basis for over a year. There was a lot that got cut.

GR: Wow. Can you tell me about the process of writing the book? Finding the women, earning the trust, the logistics of following their lives? How do you do your research?

LT: It was varied! It was intensely varied.

What I was doing when I was finding people is I was driving across the country, and I was plotting stops based on either newspaper stories that I read about people or editors or lawyers or therapists that I emailed cold, out of the blue, and said, “Do you have any people that are willing to talk about desire, who perhaps have an interesting story?”

One of the first issues that I had was how to organize my life and time. I need routine, and this was the opposite of that. It had to be in order to happen. But I tried to inflict a strict strategy and organization onto something that is basically unorganizable.

I tried to organize my days, so I'd go, say, from 9 to noon I will be in Marfa, Texas, and I will be posting signs and talking to people in the town. From noon to 4 p.m., I will write about Lina or Maggie or whomever. And then from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m., I will hang out with this new person that I think might be the person. And so that was it.

GR: Can you talk about Maggie? Her story is very specific, but also so normal. Can you talk about the power dynamics with desire, with young girls and older men?

LT: The main thing I heard from so many people about Maggie’s story, specifically, was “Oh my God, that happened to me.”

Maggie's story was so nuanced, and whenever, women specifically, feel any sort of complicity on their end, they don't want to talk about it. I've had that same experience. If you are complicit, if you wanted something, but then it became something that you no longer wanted and became something that haunted you.

I was trying to tell the complexities of that and be honest about it. People just don't like nuance. And that's the issue I always have. It's like we're in this cancel culture, where if you say anything that's nuanced, you're a bad person.

I told Maggie from the start that I'm going to tell the truth and the truth involves things that you might not like. But if you don't tell the truth, then people will go and believe the worst, I think.

GR: Exactly.

LT: I think the biggest issue is women still don't feel like they can talk about how they feel without being called names. And that destroys a different part of our own desire and our own ability to communicate it.

What was going with Maggie, I was hoping to relate because I think she was terribly misused in the press. And it was shocking. No one listened or talked to her…acutely and totally listened.

GR: You said that you envision this book to be about desire. But when I was reading it, I felt like the women were very isolated. I expected it to be a little more lustful and a little less lonely.

LT: The main thing is that lust is cool, and it's interesting, and it's sexy. But lust has highs, and lust has lows. I tried to tell those, but the issue with the way that we look at anything is that the lows are what stick out. And I think the lows stick out because we project our own fears and pain onto the lows.

So yes, it's both lonely and not lonely.

I think at any given point in our lives, or any given point in our days, we are both the heroes and the victims of our own narratives in our own lives. I tried to tell both parts.

Many women who have read the book that I've since spoken to—I haven't met one human being, practically, who hasn't been assaulted, harassed, or defined by something grave that happened in their past.

It's also funny because the more I wrote about these women, the more I started remembering things that happened to me that I didn't access until recently. When you start remembering that, you start seeing the way that we are all shaped by our pain and our excitements, but pain really sticks with you.

GR: We touched on Maggie, and I also want to talk about Lina and Sloane. Sloane I found interesting because she seems completely in control.

LT: I've been surprised the most by the reaction to Sloane. People have been split in how they have seen her. Some will say what you just said, and another set will say that she is being used by her husband. It's surprising to me because I definitely think it's more of the “in control” part.

What I've always thought was so wild and interesting about Sloane is that her husband says to her every day that she is his fantasy.

It's sort of like, a marriage progresses and ennui sets in, and a lot of people will start to think about other people and fantasize. But with Sloane and her husband it was very, very much that he was—he is—obsessed with her on both a sexual and emotional level. And she finds him to be super sexy, and she loves his kindness.

There's a point at which she's looking in the mirror, and she's looking at her face and feeling like she's getting older, and he comes up behind her and tells her how beautiful she is. And he means it. And that's the thing, she knows that he means it, she knows that he doesn't want anybody more than her.

So even though they're doing this other stuff, it's very much united—I don't think they ever don’t feel united.

There's so much power to Sloane. The way she walks into a room, and the way that she knows everyone is looking at her. I think all these women are inspirational, but I think Sloane is very aspirational.

She was the last person who made it into the final cut. I was looking for someone who was a little bit more in control, and I think she was terrifically in control.

GR: Lina struck me as going from one impossible situation to another impossible situation of an entirely different flavor.

LT: Yes. That is totally true and totally accurate. There was a lot of cycling going on that, I think, happens in a lot of people.

People say things are healthy and unhealthy. I think that that's not the right word to use. It might be difficult, but to label something as healthy or unhealthy is unfair to the person experiencing it. If something's “unhealthy,” you have a different vision of who you are. I think that increases the unhealth rather than turns it around.

What somebody said about Lina was that they were impressed with Lina's agency and the fact that she made a decision to leave her husband. She stuck to the “if he doesn't kiss me or touch me in 30 days, I'm leaving.” She stuck to that, which is really difficult, especially with the community she was living in.

Then she was going to meet this man from her past at every opportunity. And she wanted to meet him. She was like, “There is nothing I want more in the world than to be intimate with this man right now.” She would pull babysitters out of hats and switch cars, and it was this mission, this impossible mission.

And she accomplished it almost every time. I think that's really strong.

GR: When you did this and followed these women, how much of you was able to be a social anthropologist versus giving advice? Could you separate yourself that way? I can only imagine the temptation.

LT: Lina, in particular, would ask me for advice because she really needed someone to listen. She had come from a very traditional family. Divorce was not OK. Certainly infidelity was not OK. So she needed someone to listen to her. But yes, she would ask me for advice.

And here's the issue with advice, period. Most of the time they're going to do what they want to do. And ultimately you never know what happens between two people. You can never know unless it's you and the person.

To that end, I didn’t feel comfortable giving advice in this instructive manner. Mostly I would say, “Whatever you do is fine. And you will live through whatever happens.”

GR: That is actually very helpful and kind. On an unrelated note, what books are you reading now?

LT: Oh, God. I can answer that easily because they're all around.

There's a Japanese word, tsundoku. And tsundoku is the acquiring of reading materials but letting them pile up in one’s home. When I read about that, I've never felt so heard and seen in my life. We have moved multiple times for the book since my husband's been a part of my life. Every time we've moved somewhere, I need to bring a certain number of books with me and we have to pack them in a suitcase all their own. He has limited it to, like, 30 books.

But I always slip in five more in a carry-on. So I have a serious problem. And it's not like “Oh, I'm such a reader.” I don't know, it's a thing.

Anyway, to answer your question...

GR: What books are you carrying?

LT: [Laughs] I’m carrying, currently, Shirley Hazzard, The Transit of Venus, which I have not yet read. William Trevor, The Selected Stories, he’s my favorite, one of my favorite short story writers. Joy Williams' The Visiting Privilege, Lucia Berlin's Evening in Paradise, the new Amy Hempel, Sing to It. And the book called Malina by Ingeborg Bachmann.

And also, Grieving Mindfully: A Compassionate and Spiritual Guide to Coping with Loss.

So that's the swath of books right now. But there's, like, 20 more.

GR: And last, what do you hope that people come away with after reading Three Women?

LT: I hope that people come away with an understanding that we shouldn't judge each other. These three stories I don't think tell the story of the female desire or desire in America, but they tell their three specific stories in a way that I think illuminates the rawest parts of us. And I think they're very relatable.

I just want to convey the universality of the nuance of desire. My hope would be that almost anyone from either gender or any sexual orientation or any race or any part of the country or any part of the world, ultimately, would be able to see some element of themselves. Because I found myself in all three.

Lisa Taddeo's Three Women will be available in the U.S. on July 9. Don't forget to add it to your Want to Read shelf. Be sure to also read more of our exclusive author interviews and get more great book recommendations.

Comments Showing 1-22 of 22 (22 new)

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message 1: by Davis. (new)

Davis. Zulu Iam looking forward to the day the book will be on my phone

message 2: by [deleted user] (new)

Seems an interesting read.

message 3: by Leigh-Zanne (new)

Leigh-Zanne Can't wait

message 4: by Karen (new)

Karen Levi This article said nothing, and it didn't make me want to read the book.

message 5: by Mehmet (new)

Mehmet Tsundoku, "the acquiring of reading materials but letting them pile up in one’s home", seems to be an interesting definition. I hope this definition does not cover acquiring electronic files for reading later, since they do not "pile up in one’s home".

message 6: by Byron (new)

Byron If I hadn't read the NYT review I wouldn't know from reading this interview what the book is about. But interview does make me want to hear more from the author.

message 7: by Altie (new)

Altie Given the subject matter, her choice of photos made me laugh!

message 8: by John (new)

John Long Yeah, I just published my book and it's really from the repressed male POV...

message 9: by Judy (new)

Judy Kirkwood I am going to read this book because I had a taste of lust and desire when I went on bio-identical hormones. I don't know if it was the testosterone (I had zero previously, and women need some) or progesterone w/estradiol, but my libido came out of hiding 6 years after a traumatic divorce from my husband of over 35 years and it landed on the first man I spent time with, who happened to be my next door neighbor's father whom I spent 7 hours with in the hospital when she had surgery. This was a man I had decided I did not like years ago: he drank too much, was totally self-centered and coarse. By the time I met him again he had stopped drinking, taken a low-paying but necessary job, and seemed humbled. He was completely the opposite of everything I wanted - yet I tumbled head over heels like a teenager but with an adult's desire. Which was fine. But then I married him, which was a disaster. We had nothing in common and he was a narcissist. We are divorced now, but I still fantasize about his body, and he was 75 and out of shape; yet a wonderful lover. That's where we connected. I cannot explain this to anyone who is aware of his behavior toward me. They don't understand my desire, which is still present, in a less compelling form, since I went off the hormones.

message 10: by Liberty (new)

Liberty Judy wrote: "I am going to read this book because I had a taste of lust and desire when I went on bio-identical hormones. I don't know if it was the testosterone (I had zero previously, and women need some) or ..."

Fascinating story! Thanks for sharing.

message 11: by Dywane (new)

Dywane That's Good Book?

message 12: by M.J. (new)

M.J. Payne What exactly is the "repressed male point of view"? Just curious John. I haven't found men to be very repressed. Ever. :-)

message 13: by Ariel (new)

Ariel Morales Reminds me of a guy I knew who firmly believed in the saying "Love thy neighbor", which he did, until her husband showed up.

message 14: by Bob (new)

Bob Croft This interview told me absolutely nothing about the book itself...bizarre

message 15: by Orbeenga (new)

Orbeenga Lisa Taddeo's way of expressing her "penis envy".

message 16: by Carmen (new)

Carmen Orbeenga wrote: "Lisa Taddeo's way of expressing her "penis envy"."

A “troll” like comment......if its how you really feel, then give it some weight and tell us just how it shows up as “penis envy”, eh?

message 17: by Ariel (new)

Ariel Morales What is desire and lust? It is said, yes, that love is all about chemistry, literally perhaps. Yet, overheard: There are three sequential stages, each fueled by specific biochemical compounds. The first stage is lust, a physical attraction driven by the hormones testosterone in men and estrogen in women. The second stage is attraction, sustained by the neurotransmitters norepinephrine, dopamine and serotonin - all of which makes us feel particularly good about the object of our affection. The third stage is attachment, which is sustained by the peptide hormones oxytocin and vasopressin.
After you explain all this to your new girlfriend or boyfriend, possibly, this should be followed by some flowers and chocolates. They might help.

message 19: by Cindy (new)

Cindy This was one of BOTM picks! Can't wait to get it in the mail!

message 20: by Stephen (new)

Stephen Koranteng I cant wait

message 21: by dhirendra (new)

dhirendra Mehmet wrote: "Tsundoku, "the acquiring of reading materials but letting them pile up in one’s home", seems to be an interesting definition. I hope this definition does not cover acquiring electronic files for re..."

i am also doing same but keep on reading as soon as possible now a days only e books

message 22: by Jan (new)

Jan Schroeder Very interesting interview I found. Have read different articles or books that relate to womans desires and experiences over the years but always wonder how true it really was. This seems more relational to the truth and yes I think males feel and write from a different perspective. Have read Gay Talese Bonanno family book and found it fascinating. Didn't realize what a wide range of topics he covers so well. Yes I will sometimes think this is male good or bad and visa versa.

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