Lisa Taddeo: ...that we are not alone
Laura: Welcome to Nobody Told Me! I'm Laura Owens.
Jan: And I'm Jan Black.
Laura: Joining us on this episode is Lisa Taddeo, the New York Times bestselling author of the book, Three Women, which is a nearly decade long investigation into the sex lives and desires of three American women.
Jan: Three Women is one of the most talked about books this year, and we can't wait to talk about it with Lisa. Lisa, thank you so much for joining us.
Lisa: Thanks for having me.
Jan: Tell us how this book came about because it's a fascinating story.
Lisa: I was reading Gay Talese's, Thy Neighbor's Wife, which was published in 1980. Mr. Talese, who is right now about an 80, I think, 85-year-old man, a journalist, he is a long-celebrated journalist. He has spent about a decade researching his book about desire in America. It was incredibly immersive in the sense that he was at a swingers colony in California, and he participated in the swinging to be able to report about it more in depth.
Jan: So to speak.
Lisa: So to speak, exactly. I read the book, I admired the immersive aspect of it, I admired the amount of time spent, and so much of the detail and the reporting. But ultimately, I felt like it was told from an incredibly male perspective. I was wondering what the same subject of desire would look like told from a female perspective. That was kind of the genesis of the idea.
Laura: You went on a big journey to find the three women that you focused on in the book. How did that all come about?
Lisa: I was living in New York, I didn't really know what to do, where to begin. I had an editor who believed in me, but no real guidance. It was kind of like, “Do whatever you think is best.” That was kind, but also, I didn't know what I thought was best.
The first thing I did for the book was to fly to San Francisco to profile these women at this place called, The Porn Castle, which is now defunct, but it was in the Mission District of San Francisco. It was basically a warren of room where they were videotaping pornographic films. Also, women would be in a room masturbating while people on the other end of the computer line paid by the 15-30 minute interval.
There were these two women there, a gay couple; a young woman, probably in her early 20’s, who was performing in the films and having sex with men and the director of the films was her girlfriend. I was so intrigued by that and what it might feel like to direct, not only direct your partner in a pornographic film, but direct your partner in a pornographic film in which she has sex with the opposite gender, which is not her proclivity. I was really intrigued by that.
I spent a number of weeks with them and at The Porn Castle. But it was not really affecting to them in a certain way. It was very much a job for them, which was very great and cool, but it wasn't what I was looking for. That's when I decided that, while the sex in that Porn Castle that I saw, there were women hogtied from the ceiling and being penetrated by machines. It was nuts. While that aspect of it was wild, it wasn't what I was looking for. I wanted to get at the emotions behind sex. Desire became, to me, the code word for what I was looking for.
By the end of the 10 years, I would have driven across the country six times. The first time I did it, I drove across the country posting up signs like, "Looking for stories" with business cards, and all these weird ways that I thought I was going to be able to get subjects. While I'm in the middle of that drive, I stopped in Indiana to see the Kinsey Institute. I met a doctor there who introduced me to a number of women in his practice who were undergoing these hormone treatments and they were feeling newly sensual in their thinner bodies. They're just feeling really good about themselves.
I got back to New York and I just felt like those women were so interesting to me, they were so willing to talk to me. Indiana was not New York in so many ways that was necessary, I decided for the book. I was too much in New York and in my life. I felt like I needed to get out of it in order to write the book that I'd been struggling to understand what the point of it was.
I moved to Indiana rather blindly. I didn't really tell anybody, I just kind of uprooted and went because I figured if I made a big deal out of it, it wouldn't happen. The lease was almost up at my apartment. I literally just packed my stuff up in a POD and went. That's where I met the first woman, Lina. I started this discussion group in the back room of that doctor's office and Lina's the housewife in Indiana who came into that room. One of the first things she said was that her husband no longer wanted to kiss her on the mouth, that the sensation offended him.
Jan: How did you get her to take part in this project?
Lisa: It started by my saying, "I'm writing this book." I was very honest, I was like, "I don't know what it's about, it's about desire. I don't know what I'm looking for. I don't know if you're going to be a chapter, or the whole thing, or one line, or if I would even use it at all. In the beginning, I started by saying I wanted to use real names. That was a real detractor from what I was trying to do. I told all the women in that group that I was writing a book, that I didn't exactly know what the book was going to be.
I just wanted them to just talk to me, to tell me your stories, and if at the end of this night, or this week, or this month, you want to stop talking to me, or you want me to strike everything that you said from the record, that's fine too. That was the way that I got people to talk with, by telling them that they could do whatever they wanted and I wasn't going tell. And that happened. I lost people after many months and that was fine. I knew that that was the only way to get what I needed, was to make sure that people really wanted to talk and also that they were okay with their lives going out into the world in a certain way.
Laura: Did you have to become friends with these women? I shouldn't say 'have to.' Did you become friends with these women in order for them to open up and tell you their stories?
Lisa: Absolutely. I still talk to each of them. I talk to Maggie, the woman in North Dakota who has an alleged affair with her teacher. I talk to her daily, sometimes hourly, because it's her real name out there. There's a lot going on, and that continues to go on, so I want to keep her abreast of it and I want her to be able to ask me whatever questions that pop up.
In general, I think I would be a sociopath if I didn't care about people. Basically, either I lived amongst, or talked to them every day. I went to the mall with them, I went to coffee, and I worked out with them. There was a lot of things that we did together like you would do with a friend. The conversation went both ways, but it was probably 98% my asking questions. While it was always basically clear that I was the interviewer, that's kind of my natural mode as a friend because I have such high anxiety that I prefer to listen to other people talk. For me, it was kind of a natural way to be friends with somebody, was just listening instead of doing all this sort of interview stuff. I'm like, "I am not used to talking, I'm used to asking questions." The other way around is really, really awkward for me.
Jan: You touched on two of the women, you touched on Maggie from North Dakota and Lina from Indiana. The third woman, Sloane, tell us about her, the third of the three women you profiled.
Lisa: I had moved to Newport, Rhode Island. I moved for a couple of reasons. One of the reasons I moved was because there were a number of people I was talking to already that I had been introduced to through some of my calls of actions; I posted these signs on cars, to-go windows, in bathrooms, and just across the whole country. I found a couple of people in Newport. I also wanted Newport, or something like it, because I loved the idea that, being a seasonal place, where in the summer all the tourists would descend, then in the fall and winter it would just be the locals in this very tight knit community. So I moved there.
I was talking to this young man, this gay man who was, I think about 21 or 20 at the time, and he was a professional life coach. I remember when I heard about him, I was like, "Oh, my God, a professional life coach?" I was just very intrigued, and he was wonderful. While I was there talking to him, another woman, and another man, I heard these rumors about this other woman whose name was Sloane. The things I kept hearing was, "Gorgeous," "Amazing," "Oh, my God, have you talked to Sloane yet?" That was the way that it was going and I didn't know why.
I heard two rumors about her. The first one was that her husband liked to watch her have sex with other men in front of him or, she would do it down the street and send it to him over video. The second rumor that was delivered was almost more alarm than the first, was that her husband wanted to have sex with her every day, and not only did she allow it, but she enjoyed it. When I heard that, I was like, "Wow."
For me, Sloane's story, and all of their stories in a sense, their narratives were very compelling. But almost as compelling was the idea that the judgment around them was so great and so dire. The way that that affected them, and desire in the country, and what it meant to the way that women express their desire, it kind of felt like one of the themes. I wasn't even looking for it, but it sort of materialized on the page.
Laura: Another theme that came up was assault, that came up in Maggie and Lina's lives. Were their stories only about what happened to them? Or were they able to move on in a way and become better people and sexual in a different way after that?
Lisa: One of the things that I found about speaking with so many women was that after you speak to somebody for a couple of weeks, or a month, or three months, you're going to hear almost everything and you're going to hear about assault. I heard about assault with, I would say, 90% of the women I spoke to whether it was large assaults, that we would deem large, or relatively smaller assaults. There were always a number of them that shaped the way that the woman dressed or sexuality, whether the woman became gay after it, or whether the woman became more aggressive with men after. There were many ways that they were affected. It was not the same way, but they were affected the same way that one would be affected by a great passion and a great love story and not being able to find the same thing. All of that was very shaping.
Jan: Did that surprise you that 90% had had some kind of an assault in their lives?
Lisa: Yes, and no. One of the things that it made me do was go back and sift through my own memory. There was one memory, one of the many that I wrote about for a magazine was that, when I was 14, or 13 actually, I took a walk on the beach. My parents were on their towels outside the hotel. I was looking for some small slice of independence with helicopter parents. I walked down the beach, I was slathered in baby oil because I was trying to get a tan, and I fell asleep on this stretch of sand. I woke up to a man in his 40's, probably, licking my shoulder.
Laura: Oh, my God.
Lisa: I know, it was crazy. Nothing else happened, to the best of my recollection.
Laura: It's so weird.
Lisa: Yeah, it was super weird.
Lisa: Creepy. And strange. I don't remember what happened. I definitely didn't say, "What the hell are you doing?" I was probably scared. But also, something I found myself doing that I've found a lot of women doing, is not wanting the man, or whomever, to feel like you didn't like them. That was kind of an early emotion that I felt.
I walked back to my parents. I also had a second-degree sunburn from falling asleep with baby oil. I remember that night feeling like I was sunburnt and also like I had done something wrong. I just thought that I was wrong in all these ways. I got a sunburn because I fell asleep. It was because I fell asleep, because I was wearing a bikini and not a one-piece, who was I to do that? As a young girl, I just felt like I had done something wrong so I didn't tell my parents what had happened.
I bring that up just to say that it's creepy, and it's weird. I wasn't raped. I mean, I was licked. I don't know. It's crazy. It's not the first time I was licked by a stranger in a weird situation, which is also weird.
Laura: Also creepy.
Lisa: It just brought up so many things. For example, just another one now that I'm talking, I went on this match.com date when I was in my 20's. The guy that I was on the date with tweaked my nipple out of nowhere, we weren't in that space. There are so many things like that, that they just add up and you either forget them, or you push them down. Or you might have one large thing happen, and all the other ones just disappear.
I found that, like I said, it was 90%. Like I said, it's not like Lina, for example, who was raped by three boys. It wasn't to that extent all the time, or much of the time, but there were a lot like that and there were just a lot of multiple little ones.
Laura: What was the most surprising thing that you learned that women do like that maybe they don't talk about amongst friends?
Lisa: That's an interesting question that I haven't been asked. It varied. That's the thing that surprised me the most, was the things that women wanted, women that I knew, I was surprised that they had that kind of desire. Some of them were a little strange, the word strange is unfair, but they were not what I would have expected that woman to want. I feel like one of the biggest things that I took away from it was that I was more prudish than everybody that I met and spoke to.
Lisa: For somebody who loves to talk about sex, write about sex, hear about sex, I was just like, “Oh. Oh.” I was never-endingly intrigued and also surprised that there was so much more sex going on then I expected there to be. Everywhere, almost everywhere, even in a situation where it was a marriage that seemed quiet, even in the quiet situations. After a couple of weeks, all this stuff comes out. It's all the stuff that bleeds up and over Instagram and Facebook. It's just remarkable. I think that it's just interesting.
Jan: How did these women change parts of themselves to try to gain love and acceptance from the ones they were with or the ones they desired?
Lisa: I think with Maggie, the young woman in North Dakota who has the alleged relationship with her teacher, she was feeling so good that this authority figure, this man that she respected, this pillar of the community who ended up being awarded North Dakota's Teacher of the Year, that this man saw so much value and worth in her that he validated her. She was, in a sense, living up to this new charge. At the same time, she had to be very, very careful not to upset the relationship. It was a balance. She had to be girlish, but she couldn't be too girlish because then it would be scary. She had to be mature, but not too much. There was that balance that she had. The balance is something I saw a lot. I think women balance a lot in general just in friendships and careers, they do a lot of balancing acts.
With Lina in Indiana, she starts up this affair with her high school lover who she had always been obsessed with. For her, he's married, she's married even though she told her husband who didn't want to kiss her that she wanted to have a divorce. She's in this new relationship with this man who's married. He's working on a construction site four hours away from her, he's telling her where he is, she's running off to go meet him, she's doing everything she can to see him. At the same time, when she gets there, even though she wonders why he hasn't called or written for two weeks, she can't seem too needy or wondering why he didn't. He says at one point, "Look, I think you're too into this kind of a thing," In a way, there's nothing worse you can say to someone then, "You're too into this so let's stop."
Lisa: That's the thing that always surprises me when people say that. I'll never forget, I had a boyfriend in high school who I liked, but I also started feeling a little bit like, "I'm in high school. Why am I with this guy? Why is it getting serious?" But I still liked him. He came to this pool party I was at with my friends, he just came up and he said, "I have to tell you something." I thought he was going to breakup with me. Part of me was sad, part of me was relieved. He said, "I just want to see more of you and spend more time with you. I was like, "Uh." I just think that if he had said the opposite, "I want to break up," I probably would have spent the next year of my life mourning that relationship.
Jan: Yeah, interesting.
Lisa: That's just normal, right? But I saw that. To know that for yourself and to know it psychologically speaking, but to see it hundreds of times, it really wires your brain to see things in a different way.
Laura: What was your own life like as you were doing this research over the eight years?
Lisa: I got married and had a child in the course of it, my daughter's four years old now. It was very difficult towards the end. She moved to a lot of the places with me, she did a lot of the ends of the research with me. I had pictures of myself in bars in North Dakota with her in a sling on me. It was difficult. It was difficult in the beginning without anybody, and then it was difficult with people. From the point that I started writing the book, I kind of stopped dating only because I had moved out of New York and in Indiana, I wasn't looking for people, I was doing this stuff. I would go to bars with these women and just listen to them, I had no friends outside of that. My life was lonely, then it was full.
The book has just been the last decade of my life. Now it's the only thing my daughter has known. The other day I was talking to this writer who is really great. He said to my daughter, "You know, your mom's book is really great." And she goes, "Why are we talking about Three Women again?" It was so amazing. I didn't even know she knew the title because she's four years old. When she said that, I was like, "Oh, my God, this is crazy. This is part of her life." It's been weird.
Jan: In the beginning and at the end of the book, you recount a story about your Italian mother and the man who used to follow her inappropriately. Since we are a mother-daughter duo, I'm wondering in your view, what is the legacy of mothers and daughters when it comes to relationships, sex, and desire?
Lisa: What I've found, and that's the thing, that prologue and the epilogue came very much after all of the reporting and all of the writing of the rest of the book was done. I had seen so much of the way mothers are inspiring to their daughters, or fearful, the daughters are fearful of their moms. Sons have that with dads but it's different because there's the gender aspect. The mother-daughter aspect for me, it was just very personal because I saw that a lot.
When I thought about my own mom who had passed away, I had not gotten to ask her the sort of adult questions, I just had these snippets of memories. For me, it was just these little things, like I never saw my mom really without makeup until she got sick. All these things had shaped the way that I live, like I don't leave the house without mascara. My clothes are terrible though. I'll take my daughter to school in rags basically. "Please, you have to stop. I can't handle you." It gets so bad that someone who normally wouldn't care about that has to say something about it. But I won't not wear mascara, that's my mom's influence. Those little, tiny things that have to do with beauty, perception of beauty, and desire are so ingrained by our moms.
One of the other things for me, we talked so much about daddy issues, I don't really have daddy issues. I very much had mommy issues and continue to have mommy issues. I was just texting with my brother and I talk about it all the time, it's like an obsession. Obviously the missing is its own thing, but just talking about specific little things. I'm sure you guys might feel the same, but I just think it's really big, we know it's big, but to see it in the form of desire and the way that women see their own and the way that they're willing to talk about it or not talk about it.
I was brought up very Catholic in a Catholic household. When I got an apartment with my then-boyfriend who I had been with for four years, we got two bedrooms even though that was more money. I needed my parents to think that we were sleeping in separate bedrooms. I don't think that they really thought that, but it was like this construct that had to be there. It was unspoken but very much present.
Laura: I'm wondering how Maggie, Lina, and Sloane's lives have changed since the book came out and what their reactions have been.
Lisa: I gave them all the book when it was just approved. I asked them to tell me whatever changes, or additions, or subtractions. They, interestingly enough, did not want to take away anything, which was amazing to me. They did have a lot of additions, Sloane and Maggie did, which was really great because it added layers and stuff.
Since the book's been out, the one thing that nobody knew, least of all me, is that it was going to be as widely read as it's been. I really thought I was writing a quiet book. I think that the women that I was talking to thought the same thing. At one point, Maggie's mom said to me, "You've been talking to us for three years." Basically, she was like, "Is there even a book or are you just a crazy person?" Nobody really knew.
For Maggie, she has said it's given her closure, which is one of the finest things I could have heard, specifically because I get notes every day. She gets hundreds, I think, of notes from women, young women mostly, who say, "Thank you for making me feel seen." "I'm in this situation, or in this situation, now I feel..." There have been people from her town who have said, "I always believed you," or, "I'm sorry I didn't believe you." It's been insane in a great way. Her hero, Abby Wambach, the soccer star who'd she'd had plastered all over her bedroom wall as a kid, posted the book on Instagram, she was reading the book. I wrote, "You're Maggie's hero." And she wrote, "Maggie's my hero."
Jan: Oh, how neat.
Lisa: That was just insane. Stuff like that has just been great. As for Lina and Sloane, I think the biggest hope of this point is that people don't find out who they are. They're proud of their stories, but at this point, I think that if it had been quieter, they wouldn't have minded. But now that it's where it is, it's a different story.
Jan: Lisa, our show is called Nobody Told Me! We always ask our guests, "What is your nobody told me lesson?" For you, what is your nobody told me lesson? What did you learn about taking on a project like this, or about desire, or sex, or relationships in general, or women, take it anywhere you want. What did you learn that you were kind of surprised by and maybe you wish somebody had warned you about before?
Lisa: Nobody told me that the writer had to hire their own fact checker. No, I'm just kidding. Nobody told me that you really don't know when something is over. You don't know when a story is over. At a certain point you have to just finish a story somewhere when it's nonfiction. Nobody told me that it's this scary too. I knew it was going to be scary to write about real people because I had written articles for multiple magazines, Esquire, New York, etc. But writing about real people at book length and their desire is probably one of the craziest subjects and endeavors to take on. I'm not saying that to retroactively pat myself on the back, but nobody told me that it was going to be this hard. At the same time, how could I not have known?
Laura: I think that's great. How can people connect with you and learn more about the book?
Lisa: My website is, let me just check to make sure I have it right because I'm very new, I've been living underground for some time, lisataddeo.com goes to my book stuff, and also threewomenbook.com is about the book itself. My Instagram, which a lot of people have been connecting with me on, which is cool, @lisadtaddeo, that's my handle.
Jan: All right, all right. Great. Lisa, thank you so much for joining us.
Lisa: Thank you guys for having me. It was an absolute pleasure.
Jan: It was. Our thanks to Lisa Taddeo. Again, her book is called, Three Women. I'm Jan Black.
Laura: And I'm Laura Owens.
Jan: You're listening to Nobody Told Me! Thank you so much for joining us.