Artwork courtesy of Emma Currie
The Secret Sex Lives of Three American Women
For Three Women, her first (highly anticipated) book, journalist Lisa Taddeo immersed herself in the lives of three American women for the better part of ten years.
In North Dakota, there’s Maggie, a young woman who’s fighting a court case over an alleged relationship with her high school English teacher. In suburban Indiana, we meet Lina, a homemaker and mother of two, whose husband has just told her that he doesn’t want to kiss her on the mouth anymore. And in a wealthy Northeast town, there’s Sloane, a successful woman married to a man who likes to watch her have sex with other people.
In North Dakota, there’s Maggie, a young woman who’s fighting a court case over an alleged relationship with her high
school English teacher. In suburban Indiana, we meet Lina, a homemaker and mother of two, whose husband has just told her that he doesn’t want to kiss her on the mouth anymore. And in a wealthy Northeast town, there’s Sloane, a successful woman married to a man who likes to watch her have sex with other people.
Three Women is a story of sex and desire, trauma and longing, power and vulnerability, all explored in an unflinching, honest way. In each narrative, it examines the invisible forces that shape our sexuality. The writing is so poetic, it’s easy to forget it’s nonfiction. But we fell for Three Women because of the ordinary in it. We see ourselves in these women. Taddeo so gracefully reminds us that of course we’re normal. We’re all normal.
Here’s an excerpt from Three Women. Then go pick up the book—and see if you can put it down.
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.
Excerpted from Three Women by Lisa Taddeo, published July 2019 by Avid Reader Press/Simon & Schuster. Copyright 2019 by Simon & Schuster. All rights reserved.
Lisa Taddeo is a journalist and contributing writer at New York, Esquire, Elle, Glamour, and many other publications. Her nonfiction has been included in the anthologies Best American Sports Writing and Best American Political Writing. She has won two Pushcart Prizes for her short stories.