A Best Book of the Year: The Washington Post * NPR * The Atlantic * New York Public Library * Vanity Fair * PBS * Time * Economist * Entertainment Weekly * Financial Times * Shelf Awareness * Guardian * Sunday Times * BBC * Esquire * Good Housekeeping * Elle * Real Simple
“THIS IS THE BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR. This is it. This is the one...It blew the top of my head off and I haven’t been able to stop thinking or talking about it since.” —Elizabeth Gilbert
“Taddeo spent eight years reporting this groundbreaking book...Breathtaking...Staggeringly intimate.” —Entertainment Weekly
“A breathtaking and important book...What a fine thing it is to be enthralled by another writer’s sentences. To be stunned by her intellect and heart.” —Cheryl Strayed
A riveting true story about the sex lives of three real American women, based on nearly a decade of reporting.
Hailed as “a dazzling achievement” (Los Angeles Times) and “riveting page-turner that explores desire, heartbreak, and infatuation in all its messy, complicated nuance” (The Washington Post), Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women has captivated readers, booksellers, and critics—and topped bestseller lists—worldwide.
In suburban Indiana we meet Lina, a homemaker and mother of two whose marriage, after a decade, has lost its passion. Starved for affection, Lina battles daily panic attacks and, after reconnecting with an old flame through social media, embarks on an affair that quickly becomes all-consuming. In North Dakota we meet Maggie, a seventeen-year-old high school student who allegedly has a clandestine physical relationship with her handsome, married English teacher; the ensuing criminal trial will turn their quiet community upside down. Finally, in an exclusive enclave of the Northeast, we meet Sloane—a gorgeous, successful, and refined restaurant owner—who is happily married to a man who likes to watch her have sex with other men and women.
Based on years of immersive reporting and told with astonishing frankness and immediacy, Three Women is both a feat of journalism and a triumph of storytelling, brimming with nuance and empathy. “A work of deep observation, long conversations, and a kind of journalistic alchemy” (Kate Tuttle, NPR), Three Women introduces us to three unforgettable women—and one remarkable writer—whose experiences remind us that we are not alone.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
When my mother was a young woman a man used to follow her to work every morning and masturbate, in step behind her.
My mother had only a fifth-grade education and a dowry of medium-grade linen dish towels, but she was beautiful. It’s still the first way I think of to describe her. Her hair was the color of the chocolates you get in the Tirolean Alps and she always wore it the same way—short curls piled high. Her skin was not olive like her family’s but something all its own, the light rose of inexpensive gold. Her eyes were sarcastic, flirtatious, brown.
She worked as the main cashier at a fruit and vegetable stand in the center of Bologna. This was on the Via San Felice, a long thoroughfare in the fashion district. There were many shoe stores, goldsmiths, perfumeries, tobacconists, and clothing stores for women who did not work. My mother would pass these boutiques on the way to her job. She would look into the windows at the fine leather of the boots and the burnished necklaces.
But before she came into this commercial zone she would have a quiet walk from her apartment, down little carless streets and alleys, past the locksmith and the goat butcher, through lonely porticoes filled with the high scent of urine and the dark scent of old water pooling in stone. It was through these streets that the man followed her.
Where had he first seen her? I imagine it was at the fruit stand. This beautiful woman surrounded by a cornucopia of fresh produce—plump figs, hills of horse chestnuts, sunny peaches, bright white heads of fennel, green cauliflower, tomatoes on the vine and still dusty from the ground, pyramids of deep purple eggplant, small but glorious strawberries, glistening cherries, wine grapes, persimmons—plus a random selection of grains and breads, taralli, friselle, baguettes, some copper pots for sale, bars of cooking chocolate.
He was in his sixties, large-nosed and balding, with a white pepper growth across his sunken cheeks. He wore a newsboy cap like all the other old men who walked the streets with their canes on their daily camminata.
One day he must have followed her home because on a clear morning in May my mother walked out the heavy door of her apartment building from darkness into sudden light—in Italy nearly every apartment house has dark hallways, the lights dimmed and timed to cut costs, the sun blocked by the thick, cool stone walls—and there was this old man she had never seen, waiting for her.
He smiled and she smiled back. Then she began her walk to work, carrying an inexpensive handbag and wearing a calf-length skirt. Her legs, even in her old age, were absurdly feminine. I can imagine being inside this man’s head and seeing my mother’s legs and following them. One inheritance of living under the male gaze for centuries is that heterosexual women often look at other women the way a man would.
She could sense his presence behind her for many blocks, past the olive seller and the purveyor of ports and sherries. But he didn’t merely follow. At a certain corner, when she turned, she caught a movement out of the side of her eye. The stone streets were naked at that hour, in the toothache of dawn, and she turned to see he had his penis, long, thin, and erect, out of his pants, and that he was rapidly exercising it, up and down, with his eyes on her in such a steady manner that it seemed possible that what was happening below his waist was managed by an entirely different brain.
She was frightened then, but years after the fact the fear of that first morning was bleached into sardonic amusement. For the months that followed, he would appear outside her apartment several mornings a week, and eventually he began to accompany her from the stand back to her home as well. At the height of their relationship, he was coming twice a day behind her.
My mother is dead now, so I can’t ask her why she allowed it, day after day. I asked my older brother, instead, why she didn’t do something, tell someone.
It was Italy, the 1960s. The police officers would have said, Ma lascialo perdere, è un povero vecchio. È una meraviglia che ha il cazzo duro a sua età.
Leave it alone, he’s a poor old man. It’s a miracle he can get it up at his age.
My mother let this man masturbate to her body, her face, on her walk to work and on her walk back. She was not the type of woman to take pleasure in this. But I can’t know for sure. My mother never spoke about what she wanted. About what turned her on or off. Sometimes it seemed that she didn’t have any desires of her own. That her sexuality was merely a trail in the woods, the unmarked kind that is made by boots trampling tall grass. And the boots belonged to my father.
My father loved women in a way that used to be considered charming. He was a doctor who called the nurses sugar if he liked them and sweetheart if he did not. Above all, he loved my mother. His attraction to her was evident in a way that still makes me uncomfortable to recall.
While I never had occasion to wonder about my father’s desire, something in the force of it, in the force of all male desire, captivated me. Men did not merely want. Men needed. The man who followed my mother to and from work every day needed to do so. Presidents forfeit glory for blow jobs. Everything a man takes a lifetime to build he may gamble for a moment. I have never entirely subscribed to the theory that powerful men have such outsize egos that they cannot suppose they will ever be caught; rather, I think that the desire is so strong in the instant that everything else—family, home, career—melts down into a little liquid cooler and thinner than semen. Into nothing.
As I began to write this book, a book about human desire, I thought I’d be drawn to the stories of men. Their yearnings. The way they could overturn an empire for a girl on bended knee. So I began by talking to men: to a philosopher in Los Angeles, a schoolteacher in New Jersey, a politician in Washington, D.C. I was indeed drawn to their stories the way one is drawn to order the same entrée from a Chinese restaurant menu again and again.
The philosopher’s story, which began as the story of a good-looking man whose less beautiful wife did not want to sleep with him, with all the attendant miserly agonies of dwindling passion and love, turned into the story of a man who wanted to sleep with the tattooed masseuse he saw for his back pain. She says she wants to run away with me to Big Sur, he texted early one bright morning. The next time we met I sat across from him at a coffee shop as he described the hips of the masseuse. His passion didn’t seem dignified in the wake of what he had lost in his marriage; rather, it seemed perfunctory.
The men’s stories began to bleed together. In some cases, there was prolonged courting; sometimes the courting was closer to grooming; but mostly, the stories ended in the stammering pulses of orgasm. And whereas the man’s throttle died in the closing salvo of the orgasm, I found that the woman’s was often just beginning. There was complexity and beauty and violence, even, in the way the women experienced the same event. In these ways and more, it was the female parts of an interlude that, in my eyes, came to stand for the whole of what longing in America looks like.
Of course, female desire can be just as bullish as male desire, and when desire was propulsive, when it was looking for an end it could control, my interest waned. 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 backward, the agony and futility and, finally, the entry into another world altogether.
To find these stories, I drove across the country six times. I loosely plotted my stops. Mostly I would land somewhere like Medora, North Dakota. I would order toast and coffee and read the local paper. I found Maggie this way. A young woman being called whore and fat cunt by women even younger than herself. There had been an alleged relationship with her married high school teacher. The fascinating thing, in her account, was the absence of intercourse. As she related it, he’d performed oral sex on her and didn’t let her unzip his jeans. But he’d placed manila-yellow Post-it notes in her favorite book, Twilight. Next to passages about an enduring bond between two star-crossed lovers, he’d drawn parallels to their own relationship. What moved this young woman, what made her feel exalted, was the sheer number of the notes and how detailed they were. 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 had, too, she recounted, sprayed the pages with his cologne, knowing she loved the way he smelled. To receive such notes, to experience such a relationship, and then to have it abruptly end: I could easily imagine the gaping hole that would leave.
I came across Maggie’s story when things were going from bad to worse. She struck me as a woman whose sexuality and sexual experiences were being denied in a horrific way. I will be telling the narrative as seen through her eyes; meanwhile a version of this story was put before a jury who saw it very differently. Part of her narrative poses for the reader the all-too-familiar question of when and why and by whom women’s stories are believed—and when and why and by whom they are not.
Throughout history, men have broken women’s hearts in a particular way. They love them or half-love them and then grow weary and spend weeks and months extricating themselves soundlessly, pulling their tails back into their doorways, drying themselves off, and never calling again. Meanwhile, women wait. The more in love they are and the fewer options they have, the longer they wait, hoping that he will return with a smashed phone, with a smashed face, and say, I’m sorry, I was buried alive and the only thing I thought of was you, and feared that you would think I’d forsaken you when the truth is only that I lost your number, it was stolen from me by the men who buried me alive, and I’ve spent three years looking in phone books and now I have found you. I didn’t disappear, everything I felt didn’t just leave. You were right to know that would be cruel, unconscionable, impossible. Marry me.
Maggie was, by her account, ruined by her teacher’s alleged crime, but she had something that the women who are left rarely have. A certain power, dictated by her age and her former lover’s occupation. Maggie’s power, she believed, was ordained by the law of the land. Ultimately, however, it wasn’t.
Some women wait because if they don’t, there’s a threat of evanescence. He is the only one, in the moment, whom she believes she will ever desire. The problem can be economic. Revolutions take a long time to reach places where people share more Country Living recipes than articles about ending female subjugation.
Lina, a housewife in Indiana who hadn’t been kissed in years, waited to leave her husband because she didn’t have the money to exist apart from him. The spousal support laws in Indiana were not a reality that was available to her. Then she waited for another man to leave his wife. Then she waited some more.
The way the wind blows in our country can make us question who we are in our own lives. Often the type of waiting women do is to make sure other women approve, so that they may also approve of themselves.
Sloane, a poised restaurant owner, lets her husband watch her fuck other men. Occasionally there are two couples on a bed, but mostly it’s him watching her, on video or in person, with another man. Sloane is beautiful. While her husband watches her fuck other men, a coveted stretch of ocean froths outside the bedroom window. Down the road, Cotswold sheep the color of oatmeal roam. A friend of mine who thought ménage à trois squalid and nearly despicable in the context of a group of swingers I met in Cleveland found Sloane’s story illuminating, raw, relatable. And it’s relatability that moves us to empathize.
I think about the fact that I come from a mother who let a man masturbate to her daily, and I think about all the things I have allowed to be done to me, not quite so egregious, perhaps, but not so different in the grand scheme. Then I think about how much I have wanted from men. How much of that wanting was what I wanted from myself, from other women, even; how much of what I thought I wanted from a lover came from what I needed from my own mother. Because it’s women, in many of the stories I’ve heard, who have greater hold over other women than men have. We can make each other feel dowdy, whorish, unclean, unloved, not beautiful. In the end, it all comes down to fear. Men can frighten us, other women can frighten us, and sometimes we worry so much about what frightens us that we wait to have an orgasm until we are alone. We pretend to want things we don’t want so nobody can see us not getting what we need.
Men did not frighten my mother. Poverty did. She told me another story; though I don’t recall the precise circumstances of the telling, I know she didn’t sit me down. The story wasn’t dispensed over water crackers and rosé. More likely it was Marlboros at the kitchen table, zero windows open, the dog blinking through the smoke at our knees. She would have been Windexing the glass table.
The story was about a cruel man she was seeing right before she met my father. My mother had a number of words that intrigued and scared me. Cruel was among them.
She grew up very poor, peeing in pots, dotting her freckles with the urine because it was said to diminish the pigment. There was a single room for her, two sisters, and their parents. Rainwater came through the ceiling and dripped onto her face as she slept. She spent nearly two years in a sanatorium with tuberculosis. Nobody visited her, because no one could afford to make the trip. Her father was an alcoholic who worked in the vineyards. A baby brother died before his first birthday.
She eventually got out, made it to the city, but just before she did, in the maw of February, her mother fell ill. Stomach cancer. She was admitted to the local hospital, from which there was no coming back. One night there was a snowstorm, sleet smashing against cobblestones, and my mother was with this cruel man when she got word that her mother was dying and would be gone by morning. The cruel man was driving my mother to the hospital through the storm when they got into a terrible fight. My mother didn’t provide details but said it ended with her on the gravel shoulder, in the heavy snow and darkening night. She watched the taillights disappear, no other cars on the frozen road. She didn’t get to be with her mother at the end.
To this day I’m not sure what cruel meant, in that context. I don’t know if the man beat my mother, if he sexually assaulted her. I’ve always assumed that cruelty, in her world, involved some sexual threat. In my most gothic imaginings, I picture him trying to get laid the night that her mother was dying. I picture him trying to take a bite out of her side. But it was the fear of poverty and not the cruel man that stayed with her. That she could not call a taxi to get to the hospital. That she lacked agency. Lacked her own means.
A year or so after my father died, when we could get through a day without crying, she asked me to show her how to use the internet. She’d never used a computer in her life. Typing one sentence took a painful few minutes.
Just tell me what you want, I said, at the end of a day spent in front of the screen. We were both frustrated.
I can’t, she said. It’s something I need to do alone.
What? I asked. I’d seen everything of hers, all her bills, notes, even the handwritten one she meant for me to find in the event of her sudden death.
I want to see about a man, she said quietly. A man I knew before your father.
I was stunned, and even hurt. I wanted my mother to be my father’s widow for all time. I wanted the notion of my parents to remain intact, even after death, even at the cost of my mother’s own happiness. I didn’t want to know about my mother’s desire.
This third man, the owner of a vast jewelry empire, loved her so much he’d gone to the church to try to stop my parents’ wedding while it was under way. A long time ago, she’d given me a ruby-and-diamond necklace, something she seemed to be giving away to belie how much it was cherished. I told her she could try to figure the computer out herself, but before she could, she got sick.
I think about my mother’s sexuality and how she occasionally used it. The little things, the way she made her face up before she left the house or opened the door. To me, it always seemed a strength or a weakness, but never its own pounding heart. How wrong I was.
Still, I wonder how a woman could have let a man masturbate behind her back for so many days. I wonder if she cried at night. Perhaps she even cried for the lonely old man. It’s the nuances of desire that hold the truth of who we are at our rawest moments. I set out to register the heat and sting of female want so that men and other women might more easily comprehend before they condemn. Because it’s the quotidian minutes of our lives that will go on forever, that will tell us who we were, who our neighbors and our mothers were, when we were too diligent in thinking they were nothing like us. This is the story of three women.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Three Women includes an introduction, discussion questions, and a Q&A with author Lisa Taddeo. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
For nearly a decade, Lisa Taddeo, an award-winning journalist and longtime contributor to New York magazine and Esquire, embedded herself with three ordinary women to write this deeply immersive account of their erotic lives and longings. The result—Three Women—is a shocking, powerful, and timely interrogation of female desire in contemporary America.
Lina, a homemaker in suburban Indiana, is a decade into a passionless marriage when she embarks on an affair that quickly becomes all-consuming and transforms her life. Sloane, a glamorous entrepreneur in the northeast, is married to a man who likes to watch her have sex with other people. Maggie, a high school student in North Dakota, begins an alleged affair with her married English teacher that will have extraordinary consequences for them both—as well as the community in which they live.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. In the author’s note, Taddeo explains the mechanics of her reporting and writing process for Three Women. How did knowing this information affect the way you read the book? Did it help to know how the book was researched before you started reading?
2. Why do you think we have such a difficult—or uncomfortable—time talking about women’s desire and women’s bodies, even in today’s otherwise open cultural discussions?
3. In the prologue, the author writes, “One inheritance of living under the male gaze for centuries is that heterosexual women often look at other women the way a man would” (page 2). Discuss this statement. In your experience, have you found this to be true or false? Assuming you believe this statement to be true or at least partially true, how does the notion of the inherited male gaze affect Lina, Sloane, and Maggie’s desire and the actions they take to seize their desire?
4. The author spent a considerable amount of time speaking with men about desire before becoming so intrigued by the “complexity and beauty and violence” of female desire that she turned her focus exclusively to women. How would the book be different if men’s voices were included? Did you find yourself wondering what Lina or Sloane’s husbands were thinking, or what Maggie’s teacher taught? Discuss with your group whether men and women will read and respond to Three Women differently and, if so, how?
5. After years of research, interviews, and embedding, the author made the decision to narrate much of Three Women in the third person and uses only the first person in the prologue and epilogue. At times during Maggie’s sections, she even switches to the second person (“you”), directly addressing the readers as if they are involved. How did the author’s decisions about point of view enhance or alter your understanding of these women and their stories? How would the book have been different if the author had chosen to insert herself into the women’s stories?
6. One thing that Lina, Sloane, and Maggie have in common is the way they modify their behavior to fit the needs and desires of the partners they desire. How did it make you feel that these women had to change parts of themselves to try to gain love and acceptance from the ones they are with or the ones they desire? What does this say about power in relationships and the dynamics between men and women that we inherit and invent for ourselves? Have you ever experienced this in a relationship?
7. While Lina and Sloane are adults when they realize and act on their desires, Maggie is a high school student involved in an alleged relationship with a married teacher. Did you view Maggie’s story differently from those of her counterparts? What struck you most about her experience?
8. Maggie’s experiences not only upend her own life but also that of her entire community. Were you surprised by the outcome of the trial and the varying ways in which Maggie and her teacher each have to deal with the fallout from it? How did you feel about how strongly the community supported Maggie’s teacher?
9. At one point in her narrative, Lina explains that she fears being alone more than she fears death, which seems to inform a lot of her decisions. Do you agree with her? Why do you think that loneliness and not experiencing love frighten us so much?
10. Something that seems to follow Sloane are the expectations that others put upon her when it comes to her job, life partner, appearance, status, and so on, which create a line she has to straddle. How does accommodating other people interfere with Sloane’s own needs and desires? Is there an overlap between her accommodation and her desires?
11. To some extent, the author’s goal in Three Women is to restore agency and power to women as they tell their stories. Do you think she succeeds? Why is it important that women feel empowered to tell their truths?
12. In your opinion, what shapes our views of sex and relationships most? Is it environment, past experience, the media, our families, our friends, or something else? How does each of the three women’s lives influence her mind-set? How have experiences from your past informed your adult life?
13. In the beginning and at the end of the book, the author recounts a story about her Italian mother and the man who used to follow her inappropriately. How does that anecdote set the tone for the book and carry throughout? What is the legacy of mothers and daughters when it comes to relationships, sex, and desire, both in this book and in your own experiences?
14. In the prologue of Three Women, the author explains, “It’s relatability that moves us to empathize” (page 7). After reading the book, do you agree? How did you relate, or not, to Lina, Sloane, and Maggie’s stories? Discuss as a group whether you empathize more or less with people you can relate to. Was your reading of the book affected by an ability to connect with Lina, Sloane, or Maggie?
A Conversation with Lisa Taddeo
Though you summarize in your author’s note and prologue why you wanted to write Three Women and how you went about it, what was the actual process of reporting this book like? How did it challenge you? Was it difficult to be so close to these people and so embedded in their lives?
Reporting the book was intensely and maddeningly different day-to-day, hour-to-hour. There was no formula, no set of questions, no group of people. It was somewhat haunting in that I thought of it every second. There wasn’t a day that went by that I didn’t feel like I was failing.
I would make lists of tenuous things to do:
In the morning, post signs on coffee shop and supermarket bulletin boards. On the windows of car2go. On slot machines in casinos. On the fence outside the Prada Marfa art installation.
In the afternoon, write whatever I’d observed the day before, transcribe tape, or write pages out of notes.
In the early evening, go to dive bars, nice restaurants, libraries, and mechanics; talk to people; and ask around. Trying to isolate a town or a human being that would make me feel like I’d found it. Or hang out with whomever I’d found the day or week before.
In the late evening, eat dinner while posting things on the internet. Read and write. Panic.
In sum, the actual process was like trying to attack a kernel in the fog with hundreds of different swords. But when I found Lina it felt right. The idea of “Finding Lina” a second or third time was the same daunting process all over. By then, though, I’d gotten a little better at cataloging the potential risks for a subject while also not frightening them away. Giving them the full scope of what I wanted to do while also taking it easy. I’d gotten better at knowing which people wouldn’t be likely to get spooked and drop. It was also an important factor that the motivation for someone being open to letting me into their lives in such an intimate manner wouldn’t be for any purpose other than sharing and hoping their stories would help others.
It was hard for me to look for people and to speak to subjects for months, when they would end up dropping out. It was hard for me to place myself in an invasive position in other people’s lives. It was hard to have so many instances of pure aimlessness and fear. I have a lot of anxiety and I had a lot of panic attacks throughout the course of this research (which continue to this day). Being embedded in people’s lives was extraordinarily uncomfortable. Especially when it felt like I was an imposition. I spent a long time with people because I wanted to do everything slowly and carefully. I knew that if I pushed too much, too soon, it would be off-putting. More than wanting to “get the story,” I wanted all the subjects of this book to feel heard and not used.
The instances I loved most came when I was watching people from a distance, quietly writing, taking notes, observing the environment while not being a part of the action. For example, after Lina was intimate with Aidan in their sacred spot, I would travel there right after, to take in the smells and sounds and sights of the river at dusk. So I could best describe the milieu, so I could best layer on to what Lina had told me.
Were there any books, writers, or approaches that you used as inspiration or guidance before and during your interviewing and writing process?
I admired the breadth of George Packer’s The Unwinding, the immersion of Gay Talese’s Thy Neighbor’s Wife, the distance of Joan Didion, the nearness of Elena Ferrante, the patience and nonjudgmental nature of Tracy Kidder, the pierce of Janet Malcolm, the eye for absurdity of Renata Adler, the throttle of Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, the incisive language of Joy Williams, and the empathy and humility and love of Grace Paley.
Each woman’s story has a particular kind of intensity attached to it, but Maggie’s seems to differ, in that her story is public and she was a minor when the events in her story transpired. How did you approach writing her story as opposed to Lina or Sloane’s?
The approaches to each story were very different. They are all different people. It’s about perpetual temperature-taking, waiting, listening, waiting. The major difference with Maggie’s story was that it was already recorded. It was easier, in that way, to have a skeleton to start with. It was easier to take the skeleton and graft the flesh of her truth onto it.
Even in the #MeToo era, why do you think we still have such a hard—or uncomfortable—time talking about women’s desire and women’s bodies? Why do some women—the women in Lina’s discussion group, for example—become angry or jealous when another woman freely expresses her desire?
It’s been centuries of living under the male gaze, of believing men’s desire to be pulsing animal fact, and women’s desire to be a log in the wood. That’s begun to change, but unfortunately it will take a long time to really see that change. I believe the best starting point is for women to stop judging other women, to not compete with one another, to not be cruel. To stand together as sisters and not as beasts in the wild.
Still, it never ceases to amaze me the way we try to cauterize the forward-thinking, passion-filled brains of women, to beat them down until (maybe) we finally see their worth. And sometimes it’s too late. We are afraid of women rising out of their boxes. We are afraid of anyone beneath rising above. It confuses our own place in the world. We are afraid is the main reason for anything we do to stifle another human being.
There are moments in the book where you choose to switch your narrative point of view into the second person (“you”) or break the fourth wall entirely (mostly in Maggie’s sections, to provide context to her court case). What was your thought process behind that choice?
I imagined the person least likely to believe Maggie’s version of events. I tried to envisage all the things that person would think or say to deny her story—which wasn’t difficult considering what I’d seen in the papers and heard from other people in the town—then I asked her the questions about each particular instance, scores of times. I wanted to have as many of her past and retrospective thoughts as possible. Once I felt that I did, I chose to use the second person as a means by which to insert that nonbeliever immediately into Maggie’s position, so that person would have to work to climb out of it. I wanted it to be hard to not listen and comprehend. To not hear her.
A theme that emerges throughout the book are the legacies passed down from mothers to daughters, sexual and otherwise. Was that an intentional choice you made to highlight, or do you think it’s a natural element of women’s lives?
As the prologue mentions, it’s most often other women who impress upon one another the most. Who can make us feel bad or good about ourselves. Through talking to these hundreds of people, I found that mothers are the wildest, most affecting forces in many of our lives. Our national lexicon has always maintained the notion of “daddy issues,” which I think is, in itself, a very masculine take on the way a woman walks through the world. With most of the women I spoke with, it was the influence of the mother that weighed the most heavily on their life decisions.
When you look at this trio of women, you realize that they overlap with one another in some ways—each seems to have something the other desires for herself. Did you look for commonalities among the women as you wrote about them, or do you think that that’s just part of the female experience?
I didn’t really look for commonalities. Those themes—pain, passion, heartbreak, fear, feeling ugly, feeling guilty, feeling lost, taking life-altering risks for a moment of fire—are part of the human experience. The largest commonality among these three women is that they were, largely, the ones being judged by others. They were “other.” When really, everyone is “other” to everyone else.
Do you think men and women will read and respond to Three Women differently? Is it possible for one gender to fully understand the experience of another, and the role that they play in that experience?
I don’t think it’s so much men versus women in terms of response, but the alpha person in a relationship versus the one who is not. One man did say to me that, before reading the book, he’d had no idea how much the indifference of men could be wounding. I was happy to hear that takeaway. That was one I (and Lina, I’m pretty sure) wanted the world to have.
I think it’s possible for any human to begin to understand the experience of another, if they listen and empathize. Of course, it’s impossible to fully understand anyone, including ourselves. But listening is the first step. Not judging is the second.
Each woman in the book has had an experience in her early life that has fundamentally shaped her view on sex, relationships, and love. To what extent is Three Women a study in trauma? Was that something you identified and realized early on, or did it emerge as you wrote? Do you think our formative experiences necessarily determine who we will become, or can we change the course of our lives on our own?
I don’t think formative experiences determine who we will become, but I think it’s impossible to divorce ourselves from things that happened when we were five, nine, eleven, fifteen.
Three Women is a study of trauma to the extent that life is a study of trauma. Trauma is a part of passion, even if the passion endures. At length someone dies, or someone will die. It’s all a part of the human experience. In Donald Antrim’s The Verificationist, the narrator says, “The simple question ‘What color do you want to paint that upstairs room?’ might, if we follow things to their logical conclusions, be stated: ‘How do I live, knowing that I will one day die and leave you?’”
The three women in this book—indeed all people in the world—are either the heroes or the victims of their own narratives, depending on the day—oftentimes depending on the hour. Looking at just the pain is not the point. We suffer pain when we take risks. We suffer even when we don’t. But these women did take big risks. They also have remarkable depth of feeling. Where there is depth, there is always a storehouse of pain.
Someone asked me why I didn’t believe there were happy marriages, and why I didn’t write about one. For starters, happy marriages without risk are many wonderful things, but they are not immediately compelling stories. Second, Sloane’s marriage is a happy one. A very happy one. But it does have qualities that make it aberrant from the traditional (accepted) type of marriage. Those qualities are what made it intriguing enough (to me) to be examined at length.
What was the most surprising or interesting thing you learned about female desire over the course of reporting and writing the book? What did the women teach you about your own perception of desire?
Reporting and writing this book caused me to remember things from my past, not just terrible things, but marking things. Talking to these people made me remember how little I’d asked of my own mother. Regarding who she was before she was my mother. Who she was, even after, in her own brain. Who she was after my father died. I didn’t ask, because I didn’t even think to.
What do you hope readers will take away from the book?
One lofty hope for this book is that it will inspire at least a few people to stop judging their neighbors and inspire some others to tell their own stories. And in an even broader sense, to not let people go through their lives unseen and unheard. Even if you have stopped loving someone in the world, it’s cruel to not say, “I see you. I know you exist.”