I remember reading Gay Talese’s “Thy Neighbor’s Wife,” for the first time, in a coffee shop in New York City’s Meatpacking district, in 2010. I was single and dating and talking to my friends about dating. It wasn’t even dating. It was something lonelier and more exhausting.
In that coffee shop, unmoored by whatever recent indignity I’d suffered at my own hand — the hand of caring, of ceding control to someone who was not me — I realized that it had been 30 years since Talese wrote a book about sex, and from a very male perspective. Nobody since had written so immersively about the complicated plains of desire.
As I began to write “Three Women,” I wanted to approach that same level of immersion but very quickly found that I wasn’t terribly interested in the acts of sex. When speaking with friends about desire it was the physical acts that framed an interlude, but what stayed with us and tormented and invigorated us was the feverish reverie that followed. Between sex and desire there is an unspoken gulf. I wanted to explore the nuance that lived down there.
To that end, I began by looking for interview subjects who were willing to lay bare their most intimate secrets. Finding people who would open up about their very cores was not just difficult but close to impossible. Plenty of people had stories about sex they didn’t mind sharing. But I was looking for something inflamed.
I spent more than eight years and made multiple road trips across the country, some in an RV with a murmuring toilet. I posted signs on corkboards in barbecue joints in Mobile, Ala., on slot machines in New Orleans, at the City Hall in Marfa, Tex., in libraries and bookstores in San Francisco, at the post office in Pokomoke, Md., at so many of the truck stops and bars and salons and corner stores in between.
Over the course of those eight years, I spoke to hundreds of people, 30 or so at length, for weeks and months and even years. Of those 30, some dropped out on their own and others I let go. The most common hurdle was a subject’s fear of being found out, of being seen in the world as an X-ray. The ones I gradually stopped talking to had become less invested in their own narratives. I was looking for something immediate and raw, for someone who wanted something desperately and beautifully.
Early on, I moved from New York City to Indiana to get out of my tiny worldview and into someone else’s. There, in a rural town not far from the Kinsey Institute, I formed a small discussion group, a place where women could speak freely about their sexuality, and Lina’s voice rose above the rest. She had been in a dead marriage for more than a decade. Her husband at that point would not kiss her on the mouth, and the couple’s therapist said that was okay, that the sensation offended him and that Lina needed to accept it. On the day I met her, Lina had just decided to embark upon the extramarital affair that would consume her for years to come.
I found Maggie while in Medora, N.D., where I’d gone to chase a lead that some immigrant women working as waitresses at a diner were being trucked to the nearby oil fields to work as prostitutes at night. After I read about a recent trial, in which Maggie accused her former high school English teacher of pursuing a sexual relationship with her when she was 17, I drove to Fargo the very next day. What struck me about her story was that she said the alleged relationship was consensual. (The teacher was acquitted of three charges, and two were later dismissed). It was the nuance of her pain and desire that struck me.
I’d heard about Sloane from multiple people I’d contacted. One of the rumors was that her husband wanted to have sex with her every day. What made the rumor more salacious was that she was said to be a willing participant. Another rumor was that her husband liked to watch her have sex with other people. Both rumors turned out to be true. But truer still was that she was at once in control of her narrative and confused by it. What I found captivating about Sloane was the way she navigated the extremes, the poles, of her life and still came up for air, commanding a business, managing a family, looking beautiful, feeling beautiful and wise or not feeling beautiful and wise, depending on the hour of the day. Like anyone else.
Beyond the exquisite inflammation of their experiences, I was struck by the nearness and relatability of these three women’s lives. Most remarkably, these women told me the truth, exposing the most vulnerable parts of their lives with nothing to gain by it. They told me the truth of their desire, which so many of us keep protected.
Andrea Dworkin wrote that, during sex, “the deepest emotions one has about life as a whole are expressed, even with a stranger, however random or impersonal the encounter. Rage, hatred, bitterness, joy, tenderness, even mercy, all have their home in this passion, in this act.”
I wanted this book to be about all of those emotions. The universality of those emotions. In the end, these women are not all women or all men or all people or all sexual proclivities. Their stories are three stories of three people. They are as important as anyone else’s, and they deserve to be heard.
Lisa Taddeo is the author of “Three Women.”