An honest account of sexual relationships

The Guardian
By Emily Witt

A painstaking study of the sex and love lives of three women confirms grim truths about desire and power.

n the introduction to Three Women, Lisa Taddeo writes that to find the three characters whose sexual lives she portrays in detail she drove across the country six times. The country is the United States, the time the second decade of the new century. It is an era of new language and technology in American sexuality, but this is not a book that tries to map higher order narratives. Instead it is a minute journalistic account of the defining sexual relationships in three people’s lives. Taddeo chose her subjects for their honesty and openness, and perhaps for what she perceives as their ordinariness.

Their names are Maggie, Lina and Sloane. Maggie is in her early 20s and suffering from the after-effects of a relationship with a married teacher when she was in high school. Lina is in her 30s and lives in Indiana and has rekindled a school romance after the end of her first marriage. Sloane and her husband are middle-aged swingers who have threesomes. If the three women represent a synecdoche of some overarching truth, it’s a somewhat grim one, about the female struggle to achieve sexual choice and bodily autonomy, and to find physical and emotional connection. Sloane has a history of bulimia, Lina was sexually assaulted in high school, Maggie earns the hatred of her neighbours for telling her story. The women’s accounts seem to combine into a narrative of trying to please, to attract, to be believed, to not get hurt, to not get scolded. Taddeo is pessimistic about the promise of sexual equality. Despite their best efforts to learn what makes them happy, all three seem to experience punishment anyway.

“Throughout history, men have broken women’s hearts in a particular way,” Taddeo writes in her prologue. “They love and then grow weary and spend weeks and months extricating themselves soundlessly, pulling their tails back into the doorways, drying themselves off, and never calling again.”

The most compelling of the narratives is that of Maggie. When the reader meets her, Maggie is 23 and going to court to confront the teacher named Aaron Knodel with whom she had a relationship as his 17-year-old student in Fargo, North Dakota.

“Men come to insert themselves, they turn a girl into a city,” Taddeo writes of Knodel’s act of seduction. “When they leave, their residue remains, the discoloration on the wood where the sun came through every day for many days, until one day it didn’t.” Taddeo has a habit of mixing metaphors and using similes that don’t always work. At one point Knodel is described as an “avuncular oyster”; in another scene, women sit “pitched forward, like soup tureens in an earthquake”. “The train is moving out of view, its tail slipping like a sword into the trees,” she writes, referring not to a literal train but to the passage of time. She haphazardly switches between tenses – Maggie’s story is told mostly in the present tense; Sloane’s mostly in the past – and the third and second person. There are long lists of evocative details, and full stops where there would traditionally be question marks or commas. In Maggie’s case, at least, the unfairness at the heart of the story is potent despite these attempts at lyricism.

Taddeo documents how Maggie first confided in her teacher about a brief relationship with another older man. (This is later used against her as evidence in court.) At first Knodel plays the role of a concerned adult. He asks Maggie why her family decided not to press charges. She confides in him about her parents’ alcohol use. Over the winter holidays, Knodel starts texting her more frequently, texts that soon turn more sexual in nature, and then into meetings. He invites Maggie over when his wife is out of town, his children asleep upstairs. When his wife finds evidence of his texting after several months, he abruptly cuts Maggie off, leaving her deeply depressed. It’s only later that she realises that what happened was a kind of exploitation.

Maggie had once given Knodel a paperback of the novel Twilight, comparing their relationship to the impossible romance of a vampire and a human. He gives the book back to her, full of notes encouraging the fantasy. “Imagine a child, who has idealised a fairytale love story, reading notes from a teacher, who is saying, Yes, yes, I am your vampire lover and you are my forbidden fruit,” writes Taddeo. “We are your favourite love story. For the rest your life, nothing will taste like this. Can you imagine.”

Taddeo reveals how, when a man is popular and well liked, married with children and good at his job, an accusation by a woman against him is perceived as slander, and all of the mistrust directed at the accuser. The relationship and its aftermath have left Maggie stalled in her life. After school, she drops out of college and works as a waitress. She presses charges after Knodel is named North Dakota Teacher of the Year. In court, the jury chooses not to believe her. He prevails, not only getting a not-guilty verdict but also keeping his job. The integrity of the charismatic male must be preserved; the hurting woman in his wake is taken as a given. Taddeo is certain of the injustice. “There are men and there are women,” she writes. “And one still rules the other in the pockets of the country that are not televised.”

Lina’s story is a more hopeful one. After years in an all but sexless marriage, she leaves her husband and pursues Aidan, her high school sweetheart, now married with children of his own. In hotel rooms and the backs of cars they carry on an entirely physical affair. Lina knows that for her it means sexual liberation and for Aidan it’s a noncommittal distraction. She laments how hard she tries for him. Despite this imbalance, the physical pleasure she finds in their encounters is heartening. One senses that, having found sexual connection, Lina will not settle for a lesser affection again.

The third woman is Sloane, a self-controlled figure whom Taddeo describes as thin, accomplished and aware of how beauty gives her power. Sloane runs a restaurant with her husband Richard, a chef. Since early on in their marriage they have openly communicated about their sexual encounters with third parties, some of whom Richard chooses for his wife. “If you were to liken their sexual life to a dinner table,” Taddeo writes, “the table itself would be long and thick, decorated with antlers and other bones and flowers.” Years into this arrangement, Sloane realises that a favourite extramarital partner has not been as open with his wife about what he is doing. When the wife finds out, the blame falls on Sloane. “You’re the woman,” she tells her. “And you let this happen.” Richard had encouraged the liaison, and it bothers her that she takes most of the blame. “What [Sloane] really wanted was for Richard to explain to Jenny that he’d pushed her to do it, which was the truth,” Taddeo writes. “This is something we both did as a couple. It wasn’t Sloane. She’s not what you think.” This take is confusing – was Sloane only acting for her husband? Of the three characters, however, it is Sloane who has something closest to a happy marriage. “She knows that at the end of the day, aside from the health of their family and dearest friends,” Taddeo writes, “there is nothing more important than the fact that she wants her husband above all others, and he wants her above all else.”

Taddeo spent many hours with her subjects to better recount their family histories, sexual histories, motivations and insecurities. The result is three detailed stories, without a clear sense of why she chose these women, and why right now. This book does not reveal a secret history, or even describe a contemporary sexual dynamic with such specificity that one cringes in pained recognition (as happened with Kristen Roupenian’s short story “Cat Person”). Three Women simply confirms, once again, the hypocrisies of the heterosexual marriage, the psychological scars that sexual coercion and violence can leave on a person, and the persistence of gender inequality.

Lisa Taddeo
Culture
Three Women