To know women is to understand that they suffer and to understand their strength. To understand the guarded way they walk, their ability to create life from nothing and art from life. To know women, to read women writers, women characters, means you’re being allowed a glimpse of our experience of a world that was not made for us. Sometimes, it feels like everything I know flows from that understanding. The way I handle myself, the books I choose, the way I raise my son, the way I get angry, the way I drink so much water.
Then I read Three Women.
Lisa Taddeo follows three different women through stories of awakening to desire, their washing down the current of desire, and their harnessing of desire for some kind of control of their lives. Lena, Maggie, and Sloane. What I hadn’t known, and Taddeo found, and what these women did know, was that desire can control. Desire is propulsive as a narrative conceit. As I read Three Women, I was awakening to its power. I hadn’t thought that the current becomes rougher when women realize they wanted something they weren’t supposed to have. I had accepted, like the frog in slowly boiling water, something Taddeo mentioned in an interview:
“Women often pretend to want things they don’t actually want so that nobody can see them failing to get what they need - that or they teach themselves to stop wanting altogether (not wanting is the safest thing in the world).”
I began to discover the hole in my understanding of the world. Sometimes you ignore the things you don’t want to see. I’d ignored the way women’s wanting shaped their existences. Eventually, those things become impossible to ignore. And I saw I was like the three women; I had a complex relationship with wanting too.
I recently revisited a favorite album of my youth, The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most by Dashboard Confessional. The lyrics are dramatic and beseeching, and I sang along remembering the way the singer’s hitching voice used to make my heart ache. Now, I only ached with nostalgia.
Well, this is incredible.
Yes, this is love for the first time.
-The Brilliant Dance
I remembered singing those words when they were all just signifiers to me. Either I had known everything then, or nothing.
The world wasn’t built for us, the world wasn’t meant to be ours to want—this is the case Taddeo makes with the testimonies of her three women. But they wanted something anyway: they wanted to feel wanted, they wanted to have orgasms, they wanted to be kissed, they wanted the love that is dangled in front of women like an unobtainable prize.
My lens, taste, and life had been mirroring society’s erasure of women’s desire. It was alarming to realize it had meant so little to me, as a subject, that I hadn’t seen it anywhere. I knew I wasn’t supposed to, but that didn’t matter to me. I blamed myself for my blindness to the desire of women and its force. But now my eyes were open, and it was all I saw; women’s desire shapes more than stories, it shapes days and choices.
My stomach had jumped when I heard those lines of “The Brilliant Dance” again. My body remembered how it used to feel listening to that song. I had been an anxious teenager, emotionally immature, and I always felt a general sense of longing, for a future in which I would be safely loved. But if asked, I wouldn’t have been able to be specific, to complete the sentence “I want.”
The fundamental idea of first love felt absurd to me, then- how could there be a second? I have a feeling whenever I look back, I’ll think, I knew nothing then.
Three Women made me sad because it made me realize how much I had always repressed. Even when it came to some of my favorite art, the stuff I’d read and talked about and thought about the most. Like Elena Ferrante’s work.
The Neapolitan Novels and Days of Abandonment can be viewed exclusively through the lens of women and their desires. Taddeo writes about her Italian mother at the beginning of her narrative, her Italian mother walking through Italian streets suffering at the hands of the grotesque Italian patriarchy. It was an easy jump from Taddeo to Ferrante, and suddenly seeing their closeness in theme made me feel dense. I felt like an idiot. When it dawned on me that Ferrante’s currency was following women’s wants, I almost reeled. How unfamiliar was I with the honesty of wanting that I had only seen the anger and intensity of Ferrante’s characters, the punishment and violence? It was like Taddeo and I were exploring my own bedroom, and she was drawing a curtain and showing me a secret door. It’s right here, she was saying to me, this huge opening, this significant thing, why can’t you see it?
I read the three stories braided throughout Three Women voraciously. I thought I understood each one. I understood, too, what drew Taddeo to them. I understood that Taddeo was giving herself up to understand them. She wanted to sublimate her understanding of the world through the stories she found and told. That was the kind of women’s motivation I had always understood. It was what fascinated me about a lot of my favorite non-fiction, the idea that the self isn’t as important as the story it’s capable of telling. But how often had we, as a culture, allowed women to be the sole focus of this unselfish kind of journalism? It was a question that began to haunt me as I implicitly began to compare Taddeo’s book to my favorite book of narrative non-fiction, Adrien Nicole Leblanc’s Random Family. Leblanc had contextualized the struggle of people of color living in poverty in the Bronx by following one of its families, movingly, simply, and with a feeling of completeness. Taddeo had followed the thread of desire through three women’s lives, showing us its ugly consequences. How had Taddeo and Leblanc done it? Their wants as authors felt focused and outside themselves. I was impressed that they knew themselves and their desire so well; they seemed so generous.
Lisa Taddeo somehow found three women whose experiences were emblematic, and yet vastly different, of the spectrum of sexuality. Their attitudes toward themselves, the poles of effacement and empowerment, and the way their desire manifested in their everyday lives felt real and extrapolatable. In a book about white women and their lives as seen through the lens of desire, she somehow managed to capture a subtle grayscale. But even so, I began to defray their desiring out of the realm of sexuality. I began to see the way these women were wanters in general. They did want for themselves, yes, but Maggie, Lena, and Sloane also extended the same generosity Taddeo and Leblanc had for their subjects to the people around them.
One of the reasons that women aren’t socially conditioned to allow themselves to want is because it’s perceived as selfish. But even these three women, wanters all, were feminine in their wanting. They became vessels for giving. Lena, she gave to her husband, gave to her children, and even when she took something for herself, an affair that made her happy, she did so at the whims of the man she loved, she gave him what he wanted, when he wanted it. Maggie played her teacher’s game until he didn’t want to play anymore. And when she finally wanted to name him as an abuser, her want for justice, to warn other girls, was erased as everyone she knew wanted to believe he was innocent. Sloane never knew what she wanted, even though it seemed she could probably have it, not exactly, but when she did, she hesitated to name it.
These women stand for more than themselves. Maggie, a very young woman whose encounters with older men haunted her, shaped her sexuality, Lena, a middle-aged women whose sexual reawakening rearranged her life, and Sloane, who seemed disaffected and ageless, who realized something about herself a little too late in life to fully embrace it as part of her identity.
Maybe we haven’t lived enough to see these women as relatable. Maybe we expect perfection from the subjects and writers of non-fiction. Maybe we already knew that women’s desire is this vicious ruiner. But I’m in my thirties, a mom, and I am starting to look back on a life that’s begun to feel long; I try to be forgiving and open-minded because I know I can be judgmental; and the idea of women’s desire as a force was new to me.
And so, this book became a revelation.
Three Women, like Random Family, and like another stunning piece of narrative journalism, Our Guys by Bernard Lefkowitz, is presenting us with people, their problems, their lives, and letting the reader make their judgements, realize their own epiphanies. In Our Guys, Lefkowitz writes about the explicit danger of raising callous boys through the lens of one especially heinous assault of a girl by a group of boys. He dives deeply, into their schools, their churches, their sports teams, and it all shows us the harm boys cause girls. Even the ones they don’t assault. In a way, Our Guys is negative image of Three Women, the darkest shades looking light. But Lefkowitz also shows us, explicitly, how it’s not just the boys, it’s their towns and their families that conspire to make girls and women suffer. Read both Random Family and Our Guys and you might think racial and sexual injustice is a big conspiracy. That’s how bad reading them feels, like these writers have exposed a malignant force with so much momentum it’s unstoppable.
One of the big differences between these books and Three Women is that we see Taddeo on some pages. In the prologue, she writes: “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.” She teaches us how to read her book. But Leblanc and Lefkowitz are absent from their work, and we teach ourselves how to read it. Is that stark divide completely necessary? Would we need Taddeo to divorce herself from her subjects for her ideas to land? Cut the parts about her mom? Are Leblanc and Lefkowitz better at writing the human condition simply because they’ve relegated themselves to observation, have created the ultimate inferences?
Seeing Taddeo direct the gaze means you don’t leave Three Women thinking all problems are systemic. “Throughout history, men have broken women’s hearts in a particular way,” she tells us, as she begins to describe the way women wait for men, the way their fates are tied up with their household budgets, with hoping for other women’s approval. It’s an impressive, though perhaps oblique, reduction of the heterosexual woman’s paradox. But she makes sure we understand that people by themselves can be evil, too. She continues, connecting the idea of cruelty to that dilemma of heartbreak as a way of setting up Maggie, Lena, and Sloane’s struggles, through an anecdote of her mother’s. She’s bracing us.
Taddeo dedicated ten years of her life to Three Women. She opened herself to the women she wrote about, and it shows in her prose. At times, Three Women felt like an oral history. It’s almost like she’s a conduit for Lena, Maggie, and Sloane. I found myself easily steered into the mindset of each woman, as Taddeo takes on their voices, each so different, as she cycles through their perspectives. As the book continued, I got more comfortable sitting with these women; not just more familiar with their lives. Being a conduit means losing control. It means your subjects must speak for themselves. What they say could be clumsy, or awkward, and it must stand. It’s poignant that she saw herself and her mother in each of her subjects. It’s poignant, what she wanted to show us, and even more poignant that she trusted their power enough to relinquish her own.
When I read Lean In, a long time ago, “for fun,” there was a sentence in it that seemed like a throwaway. I don’t remember it exactly, but it was along the lines of, “and of course, you first need to find a good supportive partner before you can kill it in the board room!” I remember laughing, thinking that idea, on its own, could be its own whole book. Of course women need good partners, that’s the whole point, I thought, there are none. Three Women isn’t the book I envisioned about the importance of good partnership, but maybe it’s the first in a trilogy.
It feels like, some evenings, every tweet I see is a RT with something insane a white woman has done, or, the statistics of who white women voted for in 2016, with the phrase, “White women, you OK?” Three Women is about two straight and one bi, white women, the most privileged women in our society. They don’t have good partners, they’re abused, and they’re paralyzed by their circumstances- meaning, when it comes down to it, their overwhelming alignment with the white supremacist patriarchy is instrinsic to their need and love for men. No, straight white women aren’t OK. Going to couple’s therapy to hear a therapist agree that asking to be kissed is too much? No, they’re not OK. Do they open their marriages to explore their sexuality, dealing with the judgemental social shame that accompanies non-traditional relationships? Not OK. Do they go to court, face their abusers, and hear “not guilty?” Have they ever been OK? Isn’t that the fucking point? When women want to give, and men want to take, they will take what is offered. They will take presumption of innocence. They will take protection. They will take time. They will take the credit. They’ll take affection. They’ll get it.
It’s like heterosexual relationships are to rectangles what good ones are to squares. Exceptional versions of the same.
I didn’t think Taddeo was being subtle about what these three women are emblematic of. Three Women is a whole book showing us the gritty disgusting complex ways the hierarchy has been internalized within white women’s quotidians.
The point is the husbands and boyfriends are the ones who built the world, and so it will serve them. In the system we have, what the husband or boyfriend wants is what matters, whether they’re good partners or rapists, by default. This cognitive dissonance is a dangerous force. And as always, what’s bad for women is worse for women of color. The force compounds. Taddeo’s writing feels aware the cake of the world is carnal and unfair. She’s showing us a slice of it, the slice most people probably think tastes fine even though the thing has been sat on.
I recently rewatched Dirty Dancing with my mother and husband. My husband had never seen it, but I’d already watched it several times with my mother. It was weird, watching this way. I had just finished Three Women, and from the first moments Baby got to the upstate resort, I was watching Dirty Dancing in a new way. My god, I thought, it’s all about Baby trying to get what she wants.
I’ve never been a Lena, Sloane, Maggie, or even Baby. My husband kisses me, and does the other things I want, I wasn’t preyed upon as a teenager, and in general, I’ve had the words to describe how I feel, even if sometimes I don’t want to say. But I understand them. There are glimmers in each of them I understand deeply. Their openness with their experience of desire showed me I had been walling myself off from want. Now I could at least see over the wall.
I listened to The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most on repeat with my husband and we sang. Finally he said he’d had enough. But I hadn’t. I wanted to keep listening. Some of the lyrics started to run through my mind on its rare quiet moments.
But your taste still lingers on my lips
Like I just placed them upon yours
And I starve, I starve for you.
“I starve for you,” is growled, sounding so desperate. I could only achieve a sorry facsimile when I sang along. And I joked to my husband, I don’t believe it, I don’t think a man has ever actually starved for a woman. When the album ended I slyly started it from the beginning and he sighed, but by the time I sang “nobody leads at all” for the second time in The Brilliant Dance, he was singing with me.
We see the themes Three Women explores in lyrical prose, in fiction, and in memoir. But it seems to me, until now, that dedicating this much time, attention, air, to three real women’s lives, three women who aren’t famous or notable or unusual, would have been nearly impossible. People are hungry for it now. I hope someone publishes another book called Three Women, with three new women, every five years. Taddeo’s book was timed to feed us, to let us learn about our appetites.