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Francesca Giacco | Longreads | July 2019 | 16 minutes (4,341 words)
Who isn’t fascinated by desire? Who isn’t drawn to it, frightened by it? Who doesn’t want to know more?
Who we want and how and why is individual and intrinsic. We hold those proclivities close, share them rarely, and often struggle to understand them ourselves.
In Three Women, Lisa Taddeo works to inhabit the very concept of desire — female desire, in particular. And that work is significant. In reporting and writing this book, she spent eight years chronicling the sex lives of three American women, spending thousands of hours with them. She drove across the country six times, lived in their towns, read their local papers, listened to their neighbors’ conversations, and transformed her life to better understand theirs.
Like Truman Capote and Gay Talese before her, Taddeo immerses herself in her subject matter, writing almost entirely from the perspectives of the three women she’s chosen to follow, making herself known only through stylistic detail and turns of phrase. To write this book, she needed to know everything about these women: their wants, fears, embarrassments, traumas, victories, and disappointments. She required access, and they gave it to her, in the form of memories, correspondence, text messages, emails, diaries, and, in one case, court records.
While this process is rightfully described as a serious and consuming journalistic undertaking, I also see it as a quintessential example of close female friendship. Connection between women can be like that: quick, unquestioning, and without boundaries. We challenge, reassure, and understand each other. We say to one another, here is my whole life.
It’s easy to imagine Taddeo asking the right questions at cafes and kitchen tables, listening attentively over the phone, religiously texting back. These women’s stories must have fallen out of their mouths.
And why these women? Lina, an Indiana housewife in a passionless marriage, seeks out and begins an affair with her high school boyfriend. Sloane, glamorous and privileged, owns and runs a restaurant in Rhode Island with her chef husband, who likes to watch her have sex with other people. Maggie, a high school student in North Dakota, allegedly enters into an illicit, destructive relationship with her teacher. They are all white, straight, and under 45. While this is far from a broad or inclusive survey of female desire, can it still be revealing, even revelatory?
Taddeo herself appears only briefly in Three Women, in the beginning and at the end, and what she chooses to write in these few pages as herself is telling.
When setting out to write a book on desire, she initially gravitated towards men’s experiences, their pursuits and conquests, but ultimately found them repetitive and predictable, “drawn to their stories the way one is drawn to order the same entrée from a Chinese restaurant menu again and again.”
Once she started speaking only to women, something shifted. Complexity, beauty, and violence emerged. “And whereas the man’s throttle died in the closing salvo of the orgasm,” she writes, “I found that the woman’s was often just beginning.”
Like Taddeo, the world doesn’t seem to have much real interest in the specifics of a man’s desires, unless they offer an opportunity to tear him down or make him look foolish. While the same is certainly done to women, the mere fact of female desire is regarded as mysterious and complex. What drives a man is simplistic, bodily, a means to an end. The particulars of women’s sex lives inspire both captivation and derision.
When the woman’s desire was especially propulsive, and ultimately not on her terms, things got even more interesting.
But the stories wherein desire was something that could not be controlled, when the object of desire dictated the narrative, that was where I found the most magnificence, the most pain. It resembled pedaling a bicycle backwards, the agony and futility, and finally, the entry into another world altogether.
Is there transcendence to be found here, some nobility to wanting in this way? In describing her approach, Taddeo writes a line that has stayed with me. “We pretend to want things we don’t want so nobody can see us not getting what we need.”
Like the women in this book, I have been inspired, infuriated, understood, challenged, surprised, and changed by men I’ve known. I’ve been devastated and felt invincible, knocked sideways by both lust and rage, as I imagine most women have. While the characters and their circumstances were new, very little in Lina, Sloane, and Maggie’s stories surprised me. My copy’s pages are underlined and notated with recognition.
The novelty lies in the intensity of Taddeo’s attention, how she inhabits their histories, insecurities, and grief. The flickers of excitement they feel at being wanted and the dull pain that comes after. The picture she paints is undeniably riveting. Her commitment to these women and dedication to their voices is clear.
At a time when women’s accounts of and attitudes towards sex are at the center of wider reckoning, there is power in clarity, in simply stating what these women love and fear and want. But what, beyond satisfying a voyeuristic impulse to hear and to know, is the value in diving so deep into these women’s lives, their satisfactions and disappointments? The most direct answer would be encouraging the reader to grasp the depth of the empathy Taddeo has labored hard to feel for her subjects, and the trust she has earned from them in return.
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But beyond understanding, and in some cases commiserating with, their individual conflicts, Taddeo crafts her narrative around the idea that these women and their desires are indicative of much more. In the book’s acknowledgements, she addresses Lina, Maggie, and Sloane directly: “I am humbled by their truth, bravery, and hope. I believe that their stories conjure desire as it is right now, the beast of it, the glory and the brutality. They are blood and bone and love and pain. Birth and death. Everything at once.”
It’s important to note the men in this book are filtered entirely through Lina, Sloane, and Maggie’s memories and motivations. They’re seen obliquely and heard secondhand — as clueless husbands, perfunctory lovers, selfish partners, and occasional agents of cruelty and betrayal.
They may be all of these things, but what else? And how are we supposed to know?
Someone once asked me why I didn’t write happy stories. She posed this while we were floating in a pool. It was late in the day, the light was growing orange, and the skin on my shoulders was prickling the way it does before it burns. My impulse was to be annoyed by the question. Because happiness is fucking boring, I wanted to say. It’s just one note, nothing but surface.
But it’s an understandable impulse. Happiness is rare. We chase it all our lives. So why not devote our writing to it, smother ourselves with novels and stories that give us that feeling, even vicariously? We make it all up anyway. Why not make it happy?
I think I responded with something vague about how fiction is a reflection of life, and life is punctuated by happiness, not filled with it.
These are not happy stories. These women experience moments of bliss and power and realization, none of them sustainable. Their relationships to the men in their lives are tumultuous at best, in some cases thoroughly toxic. The ways they see and value themselves suffer in tandem. This “other world” Taddeo describes, the one beyond agony and futility, a landscape cloaked in uncertainty and desperation, is where they live.
In reporting this book, Taddeo could have gone another way, spoken to long-coupled women who go on regular date nights with partners who support and adore and listen to them, who have satisfying, if ordinary, sex, and asked them about desire.
But maybe drama and confusion and heartbreak are more revealing. They accelerate reckoning and bring epiphanies to the surface. When we are unsure or in crisis, we are laid bare, open wounds. We want to talk. In telling the stories of these women, the heat has been turned up, so to speak.
There’s so much we don’t say. For fear of scaring someone off, or to protect ourselves, or out of a desire to seem stronger or smarter or less vulnerable.
There’s also power in listening, in saying less. It’s always better to allow someone else to fill the space, let them hang themselves with their words. These are things I’ve been told.
When she was a junior in high school, there were many things Maggie didn’t say. She kept her alcoholic parents to herself, swallowed her longing for a different kind of life while working after-school shifts at Buffalo Wild Wings. Most of all, she refused to speak of how she lost her virginity to a much older man during a summer trip to Hawaii. But that was impossible to hide from the gossips at school, so she starts the year as a rumored slut, an outcast.
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But there was one person she could confide in, who was eager to know and wouldn’t judge. He was cool and young, for a teacher, and made her feel special, or at least not so alone. Aaron was Maggie’s speech and debate teacher, someone who seemed “revitalized and accessible in a new way — a gleaming, avuncular oyster.” She wrote everything, all her pain and doubt and secrets, down in a letter and handed it to him, “inducting him into her circle of trust, which isn’t exactly a circle but a dot.” Surrounded by people who know her too well or want to judge her too badly, Maggie sees him as the ideal confidant.
Maggie doesn’t remember exactly how she started to talk to him about her life in those after-school sessions. She’d linger after his class, or he would ask her a question when she was on her way out the door … If she hadn’t brought him a morsel in a while, he might prod her … He was a good teacher and he cared. Sometimes there’s nothing better on earth than someone asking you a question.
Aaron quickly, thoroughly takes over her life. They text and call each other constantly, kiss secretly between classes. He gives her orgasms in his basement while his children sleep upstairs.
“He is rendering everyone else in her life useless,” Taddeo writes. “Sammy is Maggie’s best friend, but in order for the title to mean anything, you have to tell your best friend everything. And Maggie can’t do that anymore. She learns there are things you can’t talk about. You cannot say, for example, that you are dating your teacher.”
Maggie’s favorite book is Twilight, and she lends her copy to Aaron, which he notates, comparing their relationship to the tortured love between a vampire and a human girl. “She could hardly believe that the teacher she so deeply admired had read the whole book, let alone taken the time to write such insightful commentary, as though he were conducting an advanced placement class on vampire lovers.” He sprays his cologne in the pages of her book, because she loves the way he smells. In Maggie’s mind, he is fitting seamlessly into how she dreams her life could be.
Their relationship is, by necessity, a secret. There are strict rules to follow, all set by him. He tells her to delete all their texts and emails and Maggie does as she’s told, effectively erasing all evidence for the eventual trial. How she keeps this secret, and then doesn’t, comes to mean everything.
In a perfect world, sex would be reciprocal and balanced, but one person always, inevitably has more power. In pressing charges, Maggie attempts to take some of that power back, and she is eviscerated for it. The community rallies around Aaron in the wake of her allegations. His lawyers call other former female students to the stand, thinner and prettier than Maggie, who proclaim his innocence. If he didn’t pursue these girls, the lawyers argue, what could he possibly want with her?
Aside from the indignity of losing in court, Maggie is branded a slut and a liar by nearly everyone around her. Girls younger than she is scream “cunt” at her from open car windows.
Female desire rarely exists explicitly out in the open, but Maggie’s is presented in court for everyone to see and hear and judge. It’s impossible to ignore the permanence of this experience, how her whole idea of men and sex and who she is within all of that is irreversibly, forever altered. It’s upsetting and unfair, but also predictable. While most young women don’t have to suffer through a trial or endure an entire town’s vitriol, almost all can relate to the person they loved not being the person they thought he was.
A few friends and I have a shared habit. Whenever our conversations steer towards past relationships or broken-off affairs, the same men always come up. If not first loves, then our defining loves, though for some of us, they’re one and the same. We all have them, and we all talk about them, even years after the fact.
The way we loved those people, our refrain goes, we’ll never love that way again. And thank god. It’s immature, overwhelming, embarrassing in hindsight. But still, we keep analyzing, returning to the scenes of those crimes, reliving and trying to learn from them.
The people who consume us the most, who inspire that kind of insane, untenable love, they’re never really people, not entirely. They’re ideas, aspirations, hurdles we’ll never clear, but at the same time we can touch them, talk to them, absorb them. They take in and appreciate our nakedness, literal and otherwise. They earn our nervous trust.
Maggie is in love with her teacher in that beautiful, shallow way we can be when we don’t really know someone. But maybe you know some clue, like their favorite song, and you listen to it, trying to imagine them, the untold riches of their life before you knew them, and summon some ghost.
Regardless of who really did what and how guilty or not Aaron is, the level of responsibility and culpability in situations like this has proved to be quite different for the men involved.
This divide is illustrated all too well by how Maggie and her teacher react when their connection falls apart. Maggie breaks the rules: she texts first one morning to wish Aaron a happy birthday. His wife discovers their conversation, and he tells Maggie that what they have has to end. He disengages entirely (as much as we can know, because his voice is never heard) and returns to his life. She’s tortured and demonized and changed.
To probably no one’s surprise, Aaron is reinstated in his position at the school not long after his acquittal. Taddeo ends her book describing a photo taken of him as the new coach of girl’s golf team, surrounded by fifteen teenage blondes, brunettes, and redheads.
We meet Lina through a fantasy, one she’s had since she was young. She wants to be kissed in a way that makes her feel perfect and light and hot, “the most romantic kiss in the history of the world.” And she was once, by her high school boyfriend Aidan. After years spent married to a man who never kisses her, who doesn’t like to kiss at all and wants sex only sporadically, Lina finds Aidan on Facebook, and, after some prodding on her part, they begin an affair, spent in motel rooms and pick-up trucks and hours of feverish text messages.
Lina has no one she can talk to about any of this, so she seeks out a sympathetic audience in a women’s discussion group that meets after hours in her doctor’s office every week. They question and judge her, expressing “frustration that Lina had a home, a husband who provided for her, and healthy children. Everything was clean and in working order. They were angry that she wanted more.” But mostly they listen. They listen to Lina say Aidan is a perfect kisser, lover, listener. That he looks at her in ways that make her feel she’s not alone.
There are specific ways Lina can and can’t express this desire, so as not to scare the man and his attention away. She’s forever treading a line between needing so desperately and pretending not to. At one point, Aidan gets spooked, tells Lina he doesn’t want to hurt her and they should probably stop. But “Lina knows the literal translation of I don’t want to hurt you is I want to have sex with you but I don’t love you.” So, she has to adjust. As she tells the women in the doctor’s office:
I’ve learned to act, to pretend I won’t be hurt whether we stop or not, because it’s one of the things that keeps him seeing me. Even if he knows I’m lying. And the real truth is I could never bear not seeing him again. If I see him on a Sunday I am in heaven and on Monday I am still feeling pretty good. But by Wednesday it hurts. By Thursday, a part of me has died.
Aside from being sexually frustrated and starved for affection, Lina’s pain and trauma are extensive. She suffers from fibromyalgia and contends with chronic pain, which abates, she says, when she’s talking to or having sex with or near Aidan in any way. Their high school relationship had ended when she was gang raped by three boys at a party. Taddeo doesn’t linger on these details or analyze or judge, but it’s hard to ignore how this combination of trauma and illness might affect or amplify Lina’s crushing need for love of any kind.
She thinks sex with Aidan literally heals her body. It’s not just curing her, it’s keeping her alive.
There were moments when Lina’s open, unapologetic need embarrassed, even angered me. I could see her there in that anonymous room, drinking pale, sweet white wine from a plastic cup in the middle of an Indiana winter, snug in her belief that what she wanted would be hers. I picked her apart, just as the other women did. As Taddeo describes, “when Lina came to the room happy, when she came from just having seen Aidan, those were the nights when the other women drummed their fingers and tried to drown out her glee.” Maybe it’s tribal or biological, this rejection of someone who believes she has everything she needs, who’s unapologetically euphoric.
Lina openly admits she’s unsure if Aidan will ever leave his wife, but knows she will keep chasing this feeling, even when he leaves her waiting for hours or says things that gut her or threatens to stop seeing her entirely.
As Taddeo puts it, “doing this stretches the same muscles that heroin does.”
There is no doubt — knowing someone wants you is narcotic.
Neural pathways appear rearranged. You wake up and fall asleep to clear, gorgeous affirmation. Life is simply easier, more pleasurable, flush with possibility.
The reverse is equally addictive. Wanting so badly messes with your head, how you experience time, and conceive of disappointment. Somehow not hearing from someone you want for two days becomes infinitely better than three. Two days could mean he’s busy with work. Three ensures he’s forgotten you.
Sloane is the kind of woman who is accustomed to winning, no matter the stakes or the prize. She was born into a wealthy family, has always been beautiful and able to do as she pleased, and inspires envy and curiosity wherever she goes. “She’s in her early forties, but her face is like a sorority girl’s; it has the look of making out.” She’s excused for things, rarely held accountable. And she works to be as sexily unknowable as possible, an enigma. Despite reading so many pages devoted to Sloane, her life, and her marriage, I closed this book knowing very little about who she is, far less than Maggie or Lina. I think that’s how she likes it.
Her life is one of plenty, and also of profound lack. Like many seemingly perfect people, her surface belies real weakness and pain. She runs a restaurant with her chef husband Richard, is constantly surrounded by fresh and delectable food, shopping at farmer’s markets that sell “the butter lettuces and the mustard greens and the baby kale from the individual farms. Creamy lobster salad made with lobes of claw meat, larger than fists.” After years of bulimia and always wanting to feel as empty as possible, her obsession with food still lingers. At one point, Taddeo narrates Sloane’s extensive internal struggle surrounding whether or not she can or should eat an almond croissant. She’s desired by new people constantly, appealing in her mystery and seemingly unattainable. But she can’t possess or even appreciate her own power.
Sloane transforms to be a product of her environment, over and over again. Whether it’s at a waspy family cocktail party, in the kitchen of a restaurant, or recording herself having sex so her husband can watch it later, she adapts. And her husband’s desire, so strong that he not only wants her for himself but also to watch her effect on others, obscures her own.
The first time it happens, “Sloane considered what it meant that she had been willing. That beyond feeling sexually excited, she had also been charmed and experienced moments of tenderness and love, between herself and her husband, between herself and the other woman. That she felt warmth even at watching her husband with the other woman — except of course for the several moments when she felt she might die.”
Who’s to say if she wants this or doesn’t? It’s clear that Sloane herself isn’t even sure. “She didn’t always like the men he’d chosen for her,” Taddeo writes. “She did like the idea of being naughty and different.”
Before long, Sloane is forced to truly look at this choice, her participation in her husband’s fantasy, beyond how it makes her feel. She and Richard bring Wes, a chef at their restaurant, into their arrangement. This goes on for months, unbeknownst to Wes’s wife Jenny, who inevitably finds out and confronts Sloane in a grocery store.
The conversation between the two women is difficult to read: one woman so hurt and raw, the other robotic and refusing to accept any responsibility. “Sloane felt cold though the heat was on. She heard Jenny say some things about sisterhood, about women not doing terrible things to one another. It made Sloane feel like a puff of dryer lint. She couldn’t say she didn’t initiate it. That it was Richard and Wes, always. That it wasn’t her desire, but mostly theirs, that she was serving.”
Sloane isn’t used to being loathed and blamed. She finds it impossible to shift or change to satisfy Jenny, so she barely tries.
Taddeo writes in the prologue: “one inheritance of living under the male gaze for centuries is that heterosexual women often look at other women the way a man would.” Jenny may have said that Sloane, as a woman, should know better than to tempt and fuck another woman’s husband, but she’s infuriated by it, not surprised. She sees Sloane as many probably do: as perfect, as a temptress, as someone above the rules.
Richard’s control over her is very real, but Sloane also uses his fantasy for her own purposes, to exert control over her own life, even her own identity. “I have a cool existence, she thought, and this is the role that I play and that is all right.”
In trying to be so perfect, she’s completely detached, with no idea what she wants if it’s not shown to her through someone else’s lens.
A man once described me as desirous. I clung to the word.
I worked backwards, looking for ways in which I fit that description, instead of the other way around.
Three Women’s epigraph comes from Baudelaire, the patron saint of writing about private lives.
There is nothing more profound, more mysterious, more pregnant, more insidious, more dazzling than a window lighted by a single candle. What one can see out in the sunlight is always less interesting than what goes on behind a windowpane. In that black or luminous square life lives, life dreams, life suffers.
Instead of placing women’s experiences behind some gauzy curtain, Three Women tries to bring those stories out into the open, even if they are, by definition, one half of the narrative.
And what does it say about these women’s stories that they don’t account for the men’s experience? Sex isn’t one-sided, after all, and while so many men take what they want from women with little to no thought, that’s not always true. For all their purported thoughtlessness or selfishness, there is some key within their behavior, some clue or detail towards understanding.
Telling these stories in this way suggests a divide that can’t be bridged, that maybe men’s and women’s stories can’t stand side by side, complement one another, or even coexist on equal planes. In a book where so much attention is given to physical connection, all three women navigate their desires from a place of profound loneliness — whether it’s Maggie hoping Aaron can offer her a way out of her small-town life or Sloane performing for Richard over and over or Lina wanting to crawl inside Aidan’s skin so as never to be away from him.
While men may act recklessly in their pursuit, seduction, love, and rejection of women, they exude at least the illusion of control. The ways in which they want are exposed and understood. A woman’s desire begins and ends within herself.
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Francesca Giacco is a writer living in New York. She is currently at work on a novel.
Editor: Dana Snitzky