• Her Kind: A Reaction to Lisa Taddeo's Three Women

    Stephanie Danler

    Summer 2019

    I finished reading Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women, set it down, and looked at my fiancé. On the baby monitor my son slept. I’m safe, I reminded myself.

    The book had stirred up some dormant feeling in me that I didn’t want to wake. A tremor. Deep-seated, familiar, titillating. Three Women—strictly speaking, a work of nonfiction, although it pushes the boundaries of the genre as Taddeo explores the inner lives of three individualsis going to be called a book about women and desire. That’s the beginning of it, but far from the end. Its subject is also sexual trauma, in its micro and macro forms, and how some women have tried to define themselves through sex. Its main characters are women who mistook Thanatos for Eros, whose stories are a mixture of success, failure, and punishment. Reading it, I was constantly reminded of Anne Sexton’s poem “Her Kind”:

    I have gone out, a possessed witch,
    haunting black air, braver at night;
    dreaming evil, I have done my hitch
    over the plain houses, light by light:
    lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind.
    A woman like that is not a woman, quite.
    I have been her kind.

    A woman like that is not a woman, quite. The spaces in which women exist have always been strictly delineated (the domestic, the maternal), their behavior circumscribed (mannered, likeable): Sexton knows that to step out of bounds is to risk ostracism or even exile from womankind. Taddeo’s three subjects are Maggie, Lina, and Sloane. Maggie: the girl-woman, a high school student, pursued by her teacher into a sexual relationship, the victim and prey, the heartbroken. Lina: the adulteress, the dissatisfied suburban wife, out of her mind with loneliness and sexual neglect. Sloane: thin, nonchalant and elegant, the restaurateur wife and submissive. I have been her kind. And by that I mean all three of them.

    Three Women unfolds as a series of interwoven narratives. Sloane, whose story is perhaps the most alluring, is given the least amount of real estate—was she, perhaps, the most reticent?—while Maggie and Lina dominate the book. It’s as propulsive as any literary hybrid thriller, by a writer who exhibits a nearly supernatural and supremely novelistic capacity to inhabit her subjects’ consciousnesses—I started to recall things about my girlhood I hadn’t thought about in decades. There was a feeling—as Maggie isolated herself from family and friends with her secret, or as Sloane mastered removing herself from her feelings, or as Lina frantically replayed each conversation looking for one kind word from her lover—of communion and contamination. As I looked up from its pages to consider my fiancé, I realized that he was not, to use Sexton’s formulation, her kind. And not because of his gender but rather this: he didn’t know the first thing about stringing himself up for love. He hadn’t felt his mind like quicksand, or risked his life for a desire that can only express itself in darkness. I think, suddenly, that in addition to all the things we don’t have in common, this one might be the most threatening to the moment of domestic bliss we’ve landed on. Those women are still in me and could reclaim me at any moment.

    He looks up. What?

    Nothing, I say.

    I first encountered Taddeo through her short story “Beautiful People,” published in the summer 2018 issue of this magazine. The piece made me uncomfortable in the most stimulating sense—that is, in the fashion of all great art. The female narrator, Jane, a prop master on a feature film set, is ugly, not physically but spiritually—completely broken by a culture that prioritizes beauty over virtue. What is remarkable about the character is how Taddeo nails a greedy, greasy female lust that feels daring. Here is Jane after she finally beds the movie star she’s been stalking on social media and on set for months:

    In the morning, the men at work were back at work. She was naked, but did not feel stretched or gross. Only completely empty, in love. It was worse this way. Still, she was changed for the better. She looked at the men squeegeeing the windows, painting cornices. Not only were they poor like her, but their wives had never fucked a movie star. There was room for hope.

    Taddeo’s singular talent is prose that’s an amalgam of the sacred (“room for hope”) and the profane (“fucked a movie star”), the poetic (“squeegeeing the windows, painting the cornices”) and the vernacular (“stretched or gross”), the sum of which is darkly humorous but still sincere. Her artistic signature is the interior monologue of the post-coital woman. In Three Women Lina achieves an orgasm “but it didn’t feel like herself. It felt like some other woman. A woman who wasn’t scared or lonely.” And Sloane: “She felt that her desire and Richard’s had finally dovetailed in a way she hadn’t felt possible. Most of all, she felt present.” And finally Maggie: “She fears she may never actually enjoy sex. That she may forever be too worried over its blithe end. Her orgasm and his will be the death knell of her week, month, life.”  Here is the emptiness, the victory, the pessimism and hope. What kind of power is a woman’s sexual power? If we’re told it’s the sum of our value, but some of us eagerly give that value away, what are we left with? What does that orgasm mean to a woman, and not just any orgasm, but the orgasm, with the one? Is it a death? An epiphany? A resolution? An arrival? Are women in that moment empty or full? In control or out of their minds?

    Three Women is Taddeo’s debut, and it falls on the more truthful side of her fiction, though it’s a book that dazzles by shimmying out of genre constraints. It will probably disturb those who like their fiction neatly invented and their nonfiction born of bulletproof fact. But for the reader experienced in ambiguity, and for humans that find their lives mired in it, Three Women will thrill them. Joan Didion wrote that “aerialists know that to look down is to fall. Writers know it too.” Three Women is a tightrope walk, and Lisa Taddeo does not look down.

    The book is ostensibly a work of journalism. Taddeo searched for true stories of women’s sex lives. She trawled the United States, spending nearly a decade interviewing, recording, and studying these women. It seems a decade is enough time to make the speculative leap into someone else’s psyche, as the book unfolds almost entirely from their points of view. There is an introduction and afterword by the author, a frame that illuminates Taddeo’s project. Consider the image with which the introduction opens: “When my mother was a young woman a man used to follow her to work every morning and masturbate, in step behind her.” Her mother grew up in Bologna, Italy during the 1960s, at a time when “the police officers would have said: Leave it alone, he’s a poor old man. It’s a miracle he can still get it up.” Though Taddeo’s mother recalls being scared at first, she comes to accept the act. “At the height of their relationship, he was coming twice a day behind her.”

    Fifty years later we’re still living through the era of assault through masturbation and women’s acceptance of this behavior as the price of admission into society—be it the workplace, the sexual marketplace, or the institution of marriage. But Taddeo’s point is the less sensational and more quotidian ways in which we accept what should be unacceptable. In contrast to the masturbator’s public act in which he assumes the entire world is there to pleasure him, what follows is the account of the intensely private, and largely silenced, desires of women. As a high school student, Maggie pretends to be at church while sneaking around town with her teacher. Stuck in a depressing, sexless marriage, Lina sneaks down to the river to fuck her long-lost love. While maintaining a flawless professional persona, Sloane invites men and women into her marital bed and performs sexual acts on them to gratify her husband. What a man does blatantly in the street, a woman does in secret, and only safely in the privacy of her own head.

    In Jill Soloway’s television adaptation of I Love Dick, Chris Kraus’s cult classic of unabashed female desire, episode five is titled “A Short History of Weird Girls.” Written by Annie Baker and Heidi Schreck and directed by Soloway, it’s a capsule episode that doesn’t advance the plot, but acts as a footnote to the female gaze-driven themes of the show. Four women offer a glimpse into their sexual histories and moments that defined them: learning to masturbate with a stuffed animal, being erased by a first love, seeing their mother’s tampon string, viewing their first hardcore pornography. All these stories have led them to Dick, an Übermensch/artist/cowboy, who summarily dismisses each of them. It causes Chris (played by Kathryn Hahn) to think: “Sometimes when I walk down the street, I look into the faces of every woman I pass, and I wonder what she sees. I wonder about the history of her desire.”

    If Three Women is answering that call—the making of a distinctly feminine history of desire—then our history begins with our girlhood. The lanky years before puberty where one quietly investigates adults. The onset of breasts and the beginning of the male gaze. The first hints of lust, the first touches. This is a collective journey, recognizing that we are female, and that we are—in essence—sex. We have a literature rife with men going to war and colonizing foreign lands, but for us, we come of age and test the boundaries of ourselves through our sexuality. I recalled Elizabeth Hardwick’s wry comment on her own hero’s journey: “It certainly hasn’t the drama of: I saw the old, white-bearded frigate master on the dock and signed up for the journey. But after all, ‘I’ am a woman.”

    I’ve always thought that a woman’s great love story is her Moby Dick, and the man she pursues her white whale. It’s through these encounters, especially as an adolescent, that we not only begin to construct ourselves as women but also—sadly, tragically—to think in terms of absolutes. I am a good girl. I am a slut. I am lovable. I am dangerous. In her introduction, Taddeo says, “I think about how much I have wanted from men,” and I don’t believe she’s alone. But what happens when those first forays into selfhood are met with trauma? For these three women, the loss of virginity, the inattention of parents, the spectacle of high school, is an open wound. Maggie loses her virginity to a man twice her age, setting in motion a pattern that will be her undoing. Lina is drugged then gang raped at a high school party, only to be met by slut-shaming that causes her to silence her desire for the next fifteen years. Sloane’s apparent ease and mastery over sex—even as a teenager—is belied by an eating disorder she uses to control emotions she’d rather not have, especially regarding her own emotionally and physically remote mother. These foundational experiences prescribe their adult sex lives, set them on vectors. How they experience the entire drama of intercourse sets them on their life’s course. For Maggie, sex is inextricably intertwined with being cared for in a paternal way: “Sex, for Maggie, is in the way he noticed the cut on her arm from the rock.” For Lina, it’s mostly fantasy: “Preparing to meet a lover is nearly as hallowed a time as the actual meeting. In some cases, it’s better, because at length the lover leaves.” For Sloane, post-coital joy manifests as power and control: “She began to move through her house with new authority over her own body.”

    As I read, I realized that I don’t know a single woman who’d made it through high school unscathed by some sort of verbal or physical assault that calcified within her as shame. I started to recall things that had happened to my friends—the roofies unwittingly ingested and the missing hours of an evening vaguely and humiliatingly recalled; the whistles and name-calling on the streets, at football games, and in hallways; the body of a nearly unconscious freshman girl, marked up with Sharpie, every filthy word imaginable written on her skin. I suddenly remembered something I hadn’t ever told my partner: when I was fourteen years old I was assaulted by a twenty-seven-year-old professional surfer while I pretended to be passed out at a party. The only way I got him to stop was by vomiting all over the couch. I remember how embarrassed I was by the smell, but for the sake of my protection, I forced myself to sleep in the mess. I remember that around six a.m. I walked home three miles on the Pacific Coast Highway because I was scared to see him again. Why do I never think about it? Why did I never talk about it, let alone write about it? Somewhere along the line I filed it into events that were “commonplace.” Recalling it now I remember—more than the dread as he unbuttoned my pants—how the older girls were so proud of me afterwards. He was a pro surfer. Wasn’t I lucky? Sex became something that made me lucky and made me ill.  

    When early generative sexual impulses are met with shame, or are nonconsensual and thus met with resistance, women grow silent. We haven’t been taught a suitable language for these experiences—only “slut” or “prude” or “victim.” Watching Taddeo’s three women grow up, I recognized a kind of Freudian death drive. Creating repetition with a hope of finding meaning. This time I’ll say no. I’ll be prettier, softer, more engaging. I’ll get out alive.

    As a survey of desire, Three Women is bedfellows with infidelity. Maggie, Lina, and Sloane are connoisseurs of the narcotic highs and hollowed-out lows of illicit sex, and they are all, interestingly, other women. Reading about the betrayal, the secret missions, the middle-of-the-night drives, the lies and excuses, I wondered if Taddeo had a choice in this curation. Is this the lens through which she decided to view sex? Or are these the women who most desperately wanted to speak? The mistresses’ side of the story is often the least consequential, if it’s heard at all. Perhaps these are stand-ins for every woman ostracized by her love story. Or perhaps these women who’ve strayed have an extramarital orgasm that has left a mark on them like a scar.

    While there’s no shortage of writing about the spiritual significance of affairs, especially for women, those stories tend to be written by men. In our literature, sex outside of marriage often means shame that drives one to suicide (see Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary). At the same time, great love affairs are often liberation from the shackles of a bad marriage. We’re taught that by following love—or lust—we find our doom and our freedom, and Taddeo’s stories follow the same pattern. Cheating follows a very boring script that can feel reinvigorated by the right actors.

    Lina’s rekindling of an extremely one-sided romance with her high school sweetheart (the relationship was truncated by the gang rape that was passed off as Lina’s responsibility) is evidence of how stunted she’s been by her trauma. Within a loveless—and most importantly to her, kissless marriage—this affair is her eject button. Lina is monomaniacal, horny, defensive, and ecclesiastical as she brings back reports of Aidan’s manliness, his lovemaking prowess, his sensual mouth, to her women’s group each week. She’s desperate to take control of the narrative and somehow rewrite their history (and by that I mean, her own history). The drive to revision, the forcefulness of her love for him, is heartbreaking. In scarily accurate fashion, Lina has just enough self-awareness to see how poorly she’s being treated, but she has zero capacity for self-preservation. Her situation inspires one of Taddeo’s most empathetic passages, one in which the author herself can’t help but make an appearance:

    The next morning it’s raining so hard that rain is shelling sideways against the window. The new development in which Lina lives seems to go on forever, metastasizing in soaked greens and grays in the distance.

    Lina says, Did I turn the oven on?

    And looks at the oven and says, I did. Okay.

    If you have a husband who barely touches you. If you have a husband who touches you too much, who grabs your hand and puts it on his penis when you’re trying to read about electric fences for golden retrievers. If you have a husband who plays video games more than he touches your arm. If you have a husband who eats the bun off your plate when you’ve left it but you aren’t one hundred percent done with it. If you don’t have a husband at all. If your husband died. If your wife died. If your wife looks at your penis like a leftover piece of meat loaf she doesn’t want to eat but also refuses to throw out. If your wife miscarried late into her term and isn’t the same person and she turns her back to you, or she turns her emails to someone else. It’s impossible to be with Lina and not think about everything in your own life that is missing, or whatever you think is missing because you don’t feel whole on your own.

    Aidan, Lina’s lover, is her only respite from the roles she has to play as a wife, mother, daughter: “When he slides in, she feels every single need of hers is met.” And “I’m not in any pain when I’m with that man.” That he rarely speaks to her during their “meetings,” only reaches out when it’s convenient, and tries to end things with her any time she tries to talk about her feelings, are just tiny hurdles in this marathon Lina’s running toward fulfillment. What is fascinating is watching how similar her storytelling is to a drug addict’s charismatic amnesia—I’m only using a little, I’m totally in control, I’ll quit soon. It’s humbling to see how a grown woman can become a girl again over one “passionate non-dismissive kiss.”

    Lina’s story hit too close to home on many occasions, but the most surprising reaction I had to her was disdain. I found myself involuntarily siding with the women at her group, who are fascinated but also repulsed. I found myself nodding with her mother, who thinks Lina shouldn’t complain. I found myself remembering my own affairs when I was married, and how they suddenly seemed grossly immature. Maybe I did have a little too much time on my hands if I was writing ten thousand-word sexting manifestos so that my lover could jerk off in the bathroom stall at work. Perhaps I should have applied that energy towards a book instead? And at the same time, recalling the extramarital relationships that split my life apart, I’m still in awe of the purity of that desire. Of its single-mindedness, and of how small it made the rest of the world’s demands. I like to think those massively painful periods of time were catalysts toward growth. But the affairs themselves, in the end, seem cloying—sentimental and petty. I can’t tell if this means I’ve grown up or died a little.

    Three Women lives intimately with Maggie. Not that the rest of the book isn’t real, but Maggie’s story is real. You can Google her right now and see her bleached blonde hair, downcast eyes, and hunched shoulders. You can read the news stories from when the twenty-three-year-old Maggie brought her teacher, Aaron Knodel, to trial for statutory rape. You can Google images of Aaron Knodel and see that he still teaches. You can guess the results of that trial.

    I have no doubt—zero—that Mr. Knodel, North Dakota’s Teacher of the Year, performed, as Maggie claimed, cunnilingus on her in his house, and digitally penetrated her in his classroom and in his car. That he made promises to her that he had no intention of keeping. I believe every word of Maggie’s story. I doubt she was the first student he romanced, though she may have been the last. I believe he broke Maggie’s heart so thoroughly that it will take decades of therapy to repair. Mr. Knodel is not atypical. He used his position of power to seduce and manipulate a young girl. And here is the problem that keeps arising for me as I stare at Maggie Wilken’s distraught face: I don’t believe that Mr. Knodel should spend thirty years in jail.

    The gray matter of this love story (and I’m naming it that because I do believe it to be the central love story of Maggie’s life so far, even if it was illegal) encapsulates so much of the nuance and complexity that the #metoo and #timesup movements haven’t always been able to make space for. Can we hold these two opposing facts in our minds and allow them both to be true: Maggie was a minor when she had sexual relations with her teacher, which North Dakota law unambiguously and unequivocally considers to be statutory rape. And: their relationship was completely consensual. I couldn’t get this passage out of my head as I watched her try to scavenge scraps of justice from this nightmare:

    Anyway, a small part of you wanted him here. You might even say one of the reasons you went to the police was to get him to show you his face again. Because most people will agree—when a lover shuts down, refuses to meet you, doesn’t want his Oral-B back, doesn’t need his trail shoes, doesn’t return an email, goes out to buy another pair of trail shoes, for example, because that’s better than dealing with your mousetrap pain, it’s as though someone is freezing your organs. . . . But he will come today, and he will come also to the trial, so in a way, it can be said that one of the reasons you’re doing this is because it means you’ll see him about six more times. This is an outlandish notion only if you don’t know how a person can destroy you by the simple act of disappearing.

    Maggie is the only woman with whom Taddeo uses the second person. Maggie is written the way one writes to a diary: too close, and gloriously unashamed. It seems that the trust between Taddeo and Maggie is enough that any kind of taboo feeling is safe, even the one above which feels to me too tender, and could undermine Maggie’s moral position in a trial. Therein lies my issue with Maggie Wilken’s story: Taddeo does such a masterful job writing her that I couldn’t believe that she was a victim. The reader loses sight of Maggie’s age and its legal ramifications because she had too much agency. She was too human, as evidenced by her simple, all-encompassing desire just to see her lover’s face again. “Your psychiatrist has been telling you that what happened means you are a victim and not a spurned lover.” But aren’t we always both when we’re betrayed? When we’re taken advantage of? Is it really an age limit that makes it illegal one year, and a sad story the next? Somewhere during my reading, I wanted bad things to happen to Aaron Knodel—I wanted his wife to leave him, and his students to turn on him. More than anything I wanted one person—an adult, an authority figure—to believe Maggie’s story and restore some of her trust in the world. Which was, it bears repeating, shattered by an adult.

    I tell this story often when I talk about my history, but I tell it incompletely. Like Maggie, I was a troubled adolescent with troubled parents. At sixteen I failed out of one school and was on my way to failing out of the second. I had a thirty-hour-a-week job as a barista. My father was so absent that I bought my own tampons, my own shampoo, my own Chinese food for dinner. I was feral, lonely, and young. My English teacher held me back after class early in the semester. I was new at the school. I assumed I had fucked something up. He gave me back a short story I had written. He said to me (said to me sadly, there is always something sad in the way I remember it), “So. You’re a writer.” It’s not an overstatement to say that my life hinged on that moment of being seen, recognized, supported. I wrote more. He made that writing better. He helped me apply to colleges—almost all of which rejected me, one wait-listed me—and helped me get accepted by the skin of my teeth.

    That I was completely, seriously in love with him feels almost beside the point. I would have done anything for him. I still might. That I know he had complex feelings for me is also beside the point. That our relationship ended badly, with hurt and anger, is beside the point. That it ended with a conversation with his wife that I can never forget, and that he and I never spoke again, is also beside the point. Ages of consent vary state to state, country to country—does that make it an issue of geography? I was eighteen for most of that relationship—does that make it more appropriate? That we never verged on a physical relationship—does that make it less confusing? Not for me, and I’m sure not for him. I’m still a writer. That’s the point.

    Great literature can do this. It can have you sleepless and searching your history for what you believe and why. It can have you reassessing all the stories you’ve told yourself. I couldn’t bring myself to label Aaron Knodel as a criminal, though I acknowledge that what he did was a crime. The negative space between those two is a hard sentiment to live with when we’re programmed to judge the world into opposing black and white corners. And while there’s nothing wrong with that impulse (it makes the world easier to understand), those moral binaries, since the beginning of time, refuse to stay put. I believe he was a dangerous and irresponsible teacher. And I believe that Maggie deserved better from the adults around her. More than punishment for him, I wanted to her to be believed and for her words to have weight. To simplify her story—predator and prey, a victim with daddy issues—is to take away her agency, and any strength she might be able to salvage from finally having her story told. As one of the spectators of the trial observes: “Maggie’s been told she makes it difficult for people to feel sorry for her.” I came to prefer her that way.

    This is where catchall terms like “feminism” and “empowerment” water down the conversation. Distilling what’s “emboldening” and what’s “degrading” becomes impossible amidst the tumult of what some women want to believe and how they actually feel. Over and over as I read Three Women, I couldn’t stop thinking of how often we believe we’re asserting our taste when in fact we’re regurgitating an inherited and damaging norm and calling it power.

    Take Sloane, for example, who has found some relief in the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy.  She finally feels like her open marriage and the performative sex for her husband Richard’s benefit—twosomes with men and women she lets him watch, as well as three-ways in which he’s a participant—has a name: she’s a “submissive.” Never mind that Sloane mostly feels nothing during these encounters, or considers herself “the only player on a badminton court, trying to keep the shuttlecock in the air on both sides of the net” (hands down the best description of a threesome I’ve ever read). Sloane as a case study is particularly confusing. She professes to love her lifestyle, yet she seems to enjoy little gratification from it:

    Sloane had been often put off by fucking strangers. By their grunts and idiosyncrasies. The way that, when a man was behind her, he might hold her hip with the one commandeering hand while the other would be daintily moving his dress shirt behind his rear, pinning it there. Things like that turned her off. The measure of violence in some men, the stink of others.

    And later: “It was Richard who drove all of these events. It was his predilection she was serving, though she enjoyed it as well. She would rarely do something exclusively for herself when it came to sex.”

    Sloane’s blind loyalty to her husband (even as he gets her into a thorny situation with the wife of one of their lovers and lets her take the blame), and her seeming lack of self-awareness make her, for me, the hardest woman to empathize with. Her reserve makes more sense in light of a memory that surfaces of her brother coming into her room and making sexual advances when they were both in high school. Upon being rejected, he shuts down to her completely. Sloane has the impenetrable guard of a survivor, yet she won’t go as far to accuse the men of her life of wrongdoing. She swallows it and keeps performing, finding relief in the Fifty Shades of Grey series and calling herself a “submissive.” It’s not hard to see why she loved the book: it perpetuates a female fantasy of violence and non-consent with men who are dangerous but might be cured of that if the woman perseveres and loves them well enough. Its core is a rescue fantasy, wherein the innocence of the woman is preserved by the omnipotence (and wealth) of a man. Men like this know how to hurt us just the right amount—they suffocate us to the very last possible second then allow us one deep inhalation. They are the men at the center of the stratospherically successful Fifty Shades of Grey and Twilight series, and judging by the resounding popularity of these books, it is hard not to think that, on some level, this truly is what many women want: the right amount of subjugation, the right amount of pain. It also seems that we don’t want to have to articulate our desires, or even spend the time getting to know them. We want our minds read and our mouths taped up.

    Some might diagnose this as textbook self-loathing. Many of us learned to want what men want because it makes us feel nice to make men happy. Many of us learned it from our mothers. We augment our thoughts and bodies to get there. Our sense of what we authentically desire hasn’t even had a chance to blossom, because from the moment we are sexual, we’re in danger. And from the moment we speak as sexual beings, we’re punished—like Maggie Wilken, or the Emily Doe of the Brock Turner case, or Christine Ford, or Anita Hill. And the list goes on, tragically, forever.

    Given these circumstances, it’s not surprising to know Taddeo’s three women need the validation of men in order to feel any modicum of self-worth. What is surprising is how embarrassing it strikes me in 2019. From my vantage point, we seem to spend a lot of time talking about self-worth. We have our voices, our platforms, whether on social media or in our workplace, and we use them to air the abuses we’ve suffered at the hands of a patriarchal web from which we can never seem to fully extricate ourselves. We the entangled, the caught, also use those voices to tell each other how we’ve healed, to hashtag self-care and a photo of our bathtub, to curate an appearance of wholeness while we’re obsessing over every single online dating rejection. We mean well—fake it till you make it!—as we try to wrangle back the self-respect we’ve given away to any man who tells us that we’re fuckable. But I believe we’re lying to ourselves when we tell incomplete stories, when we spin the narrative and leave out the shameful parts. We create an echo chamber that isn’t edifying, nor is it saving us from our low self-esteem.

    Besides the passages in which the women are brought—forcefully—to orgasm, perhaps what is most remarkable to me about Taddeo’s Three Women is that there is precious little space in their lives for joy. It’s only in being so thoroughly seen, required to be present, almost unconscious in pleasure, that they release the anxiety that scores their days. When that moment ends, they sit with a spectacular lack, a gaping hole, a feeling of incompleteness. And in that way, maybe Fifty Shades of Grey is correct that many women are most comfortable being submissive. It’s certainly what Taddeo’s subjects know. It’s the burden of self-actualizing, of saying no, of not compromising, that seems to be unbearable.

    Three Women will be read widely—it’s a topical book published in a heated social and political moment. But I would venture that this book will be read beyond the stir it will cause, the arguments it will spark, the positions it will spur the opinion class to take. In part it’s because of the shadow that lingers over it, one I’ve known personally—the specter of PTSD from surviving my girlhood—as well as through my friendships with other women, and with so many others who’ve come forward to tell their own stories of repression and oppression and invisibility and silence these past two years. What will ensure it endures is Taddeo’s method: she has reported on the secret lives of these women not only with radical empathy but also with a journalist’s reserve. There is no clear messaging in Three Women—are Maggie, Lina, and Sloane strong or weak? Heroines or victims? Most likely they’re all things, human most of all, or whatever you need them to be in a given moment. The book’s content is not revolutionary—even its bluest moments describe pretty staid, heteronormative sex. But Taddeo has given these women voices and let them be flawed and inconsistent. Occasionally we get so focused on having the “right” people speak that we forget that the most salient aspect of this historical moment is of more being more. More women. More stories. More accountability for the men who profess to love us. Most people do not have the privilege of being a writer, of being able to sublimate their pain into art. That’s where this book turns into a powerful chorus, a radically generous gift from Taddeo to the women who trusted her with their lives. By reading, we can respond to them: I’m listening. I believe you. I have been your kind.

    Stephanie Danler is a novelist, memoirist, and screenwriter. She is the author of Sweetbitter and Stray. She is based in Los Angeles and currently at work on a novel.

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