Today I’m excited to discuss Three Women by Lisa Taddeo. This book popped up all over my Instagram feed sometime around May and continued to be a consistent sighting. The book was featured as a July Book of the Month option, so I selected it as my choice and I’m glad I did. Initially, I disliked the book. I felt it was a bit overdone, overhyped, and too flowery at times. While I have reservations (discussed below), I’m thankful I read this book.
Three Women is the first book published by Avid Reader Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, and is touted as “an extraordinary study of female desire” and an expose on what it means for women to desire in our world right now. Three Women tracks three stories from real women who shared extensive details about their sex lives with Taddeo during the eight years she researched this book. Maggie is a woman in her early twenties who is in a legal battle with a former English teacher, a man she alleges engaged in an inappropriate relationship with her. Lina is a thirty-two-year-old woman stuck in a loveless marriage with a man who refuses to kiss her and so she proceeds to engage in an affair with her high school boyfriend. Sloane is a woman in her forties who is in a loving marriage—a marriage, however, that involves her husband watching her sleep with other people. The novel is graphic and hides no details of the women’s sex lives, background, and other experiences that inform their decisions.
An aspect of the publishing world that I’m not loving right now is the “this is it!” tendency we have to claim a single book as the single important read on a particular topic. Last summer I read The Female Persuasion and lamented that under the all or nothing proclamations made by early readers the novel fell short. Similarly, I struggled to love Three Women when I measured it against the classification it received as the single most important narrative on female desire right now. For one thing, the book only features white American women. Taddeo spent roughly eight years researching this book, and the lack of diversity was palpable. I had a moment where I thought, eight years of researching and these are the three stories chosen. *insert confused look* However, the more I read, the more I tried to discern why the three stories included were the chosen few and what they said about desire. This quest, of trying to understand the hype, actually made a more rewarding reading experience. My appreciation for the book grew exponentially when I discarded others’ opinions and proclamations that it was the best and most authoritative text on female desire.
Maggie’s story arguably is the most important and covers more of the actual pages than the other stories. Maggie’s story stands out because it is, perhaps, the most relatable to a vast majority of women in this country. In the era of #MeToo, there is a resounding acknowledgment that nearly every single woman has experienced some variation of sexual harassment or at least inappropriate comments from her peers. This book comes at a pivotal time because Taddeo’s research and exploration predated the #MeToo movement, and Maggie’s story is a highlight in a reel of women who shall not be believed. At the risk of spoiling this piece of the story, Maggie loses her court case. Her teacher goes on with nothing but a small smear on his otherwise stellar reputation while her daily life is consumed by memories of what he did to her at the age of seventeen.
Maggie’s story struck a nerve. Currently, I am home in California going through my childhood bedroom because my parents are relocating to the east coast. So, after years of allowing my belongings to slowly accumulate in my childhood bedroom, shoved in crevices of my closet, I am tasked with clearing out the things I don’t want and labeling neat boxes of my memories to be stored until a later date. As I was going through my bedroom, a day after starting Three Women, I found a stack of cards—birthday cards, cards slipped to me during English class by friends, drawings friends gave me in high school, and somewhere in the middle was a Christmas card from one of my high school teachers. The card immediately brought back memories I’ve repressed for reasons that Three Women helped me understand. Maggie’s court case occurred in 2009. In 2009, a rumor started about me sleeping with my teacher. So, I will tell you the story that for many years, I hated telling purely because it brings me the perverted sense of shame that results from enduring the wrath of people who don’t believe you.
My sophomore year of high school consisted of whispers behind my back, one brave friend confronting me about a rumor she’d heard, my family becoming enraged like I’d never seen, and the quarterback of the football team apologizing to me for beginning said rumor. To backtrack: when I started high school, my boyfriend at the time, who was a few years older, told me that a certain teacher at the school had a reputation. I place this word in italics because he said it in italics. He said it with a voice that translated the word automatically into “you know the kind,” and then, to clarify, he said, “just wear a short skirt and you’ll get an A.” Well, I had the teacher every afternoon of my freshman year and I picked up on nuances that would lead a teacher to have that reputation. During my freshman year, the teacher asked me and a close friend to do basketball stats for the JV and Varsity men’s basketball teams. We agreed because we’d be together. Both of us agreed we wouldn’t do it individually.
I distinctly remember a game at the end of the season where my mom dropped me off at the school so the team could carpool to an away game. I arrived, and as soon as my mom had turned the corner and was on her way home, I was informed that my friend was sick and wouldn’t be attending. As people started deciding which car to take like people choose pick up basketball teams, I realized that I was going to be alone with that teacher. A lump in my throat formed because while he’d never been directly inappropriate with me, women know that men who have a reputation are not men with whom you ride alone in cars. I somehow managed to convince the quarterback of the football team, who was also on the basketball team (naturally), to ride with us. Three was better than two. After the game, however, the quarterback’s family joined him at the game and informed us they were giving him a ride home. I was annoyed with myself for not checking with my friend and annoyed she didn’t give me a warning that she wasn’t coming. As we got in the car together, just that teacher and me, I got nervous. He could likely sense my nerves because he ended up calling his wife about ten minutes into the ride and talked to her until we pulled up to the curb of the high school. I thanked him for the ride and left. The rest of the season we never rode to any game alone again. As the season ended, the holiday season approached.
This teacher was notorious for giving out Christmas cards to his female students. My card, the same one I kept all these years hidden within a stack of cards from my 14th, 15th, and 16th birthdays, said a few lines about me doing stats and then said: “You aren’t hard to look at (don’t blush).” It felt creepy when I read it, which he had me do in front of him because he got me a bracelet with a heart charm and my name on it as a token of gratitude for doing stats. A bracelet that his wife might have picked out. I showed my mom the card and she thought it was inappropriate. We agreed I wouldn’t do stats my sophomore year. I returned to school my sophomore year to a normal setting… until a few weeks into the year when suddenly everyone was whispering around me and no one was really talking to me.
Each day, I would arrive at school and the members of the men’s basketball team would shout things and girls who I thought were friends told others that they definitely believed the rumor they’d heard about me. Meanwhile, I was mostly oblivious to what the rumor was. This wasn’t the first time rumors had gone around. I transferred to a very small school in seventh grade… let’s just say I was not an insider. However, on a Friday where I didn’t have to rush to volleyball practice, my best friend pulled me aside after school. We stood near a vending machine and she said (paraphrasing): “There’s a rumor about you. People are saying you had a sexual relationship with Mr. X.” I went pale. At least, I imagine I went pale because I suddenly felt simultaneously extremely angry and in utter disbelief. Oddly, my first response was “who believes it?” because I needed to know who I could trust. As she rattled off names, I realized the only people I could trust was the person standing in front of me and my family. I immediately went to the principle’s office to report the rumor. He had stepped out for the day, but his secretary was there. She was highly respected, from a good Christian family, and seen as a wonderfully compassionate woman. When I looked at her, tears bubbling in my eyes, and said “People are saying I slept with Mr. X. I didn’t (for some reason I felt this was important to state), but this needs to stop now.” She took a breath and said, “Look, he has a family. This could destroy his family. I haven’t heard this rumor and usually, if a rumor is going to stick, we hear it.” Countless parental calls to the principal later, I sat in his office as he told me that rumors blow over and the school was waiting for it to blow over before commenting or taking action.
One day in world history, a guy asked me if someone in our class was my type. I responded I had a boyfriend. I didn’t want to answer. What didn’t help was that my boyfriend was a few years older, so the guy said, “oh, right, you like ’em older” then winked and all his friends laughed like he was a stand up comic filming a Netflix special. I felt ill the moment my mom’s car pulled into the school lot each morning. I rushed from class to class with my head down. I felt as if I had a scarlet A on my chest for… doing nothing. I knew I didn’t do what I was rumored to have done, and yet I was riddled with shame. Finally, my own personal redemption came in chemistry class one afternoon. I got a note to come to the counselor’s office. I walked into an office with the quarterback, the same one who left me alone in a car with that teacher, his mother who was a teacher at the school, the principal and the guidance counselor. My parents were not called. I do not recall if the school offered to call them. However, I do not believe a 15-year-old girl should be responsible for asking to delay a meeting and wait for her parents to arrive, especially when everyone is staring at her and she’d been suffering public scorning for months. I was intimidated and said I was fine.
The quarterback admitted that he had overheard a phone call between his mother and a member of the school where she discussed how that teacher was asked to leave because of an inappropriate relationship with a student. When she hung up, the quarterback asked who the girl was because, obviously, that mattered. She said, “I’m not sure a name, but she’s tall and has brown hair.” Standing a foot above the rest of my volleyball team, I fit the bill. He guessed my name, she shrugged and said maybe, and with that, a rumor that impacted the rest of my life was born. He told his girlfriend, who promptly told all her friends, who promptly told their friends and anyone who would listen in a damaging game of telephone. As punishment for starting the rumor, the quarterback gave me an apology and then had to tell people he made it up. I said, “it’s okay,” because that’s what young women say when men apologize to them. The guidance counselor interjected, “it’s not okay.” I started crying, in part because of the sadness and isolation I felt but mostly because if it wasn’t okay, why had no one stepped in to help me? Her words were too late. I watched the quarterback, a mere two periods later, walk up to some older guys in our P.E. class and whisper to them. Their eyes digested his words, traced the room to me, looked apologetic and awkward, and then fell to the floor. My nightmare ended and things returned to normal and we moved on. I was homecoming queen my senior year. I ended high school with fond memories and didn’t hold any ill will toward the people involved in the rumor. If anything, it allowed me to focus all my energy on getting out. My story has a happy ending, but most do not.
Years later my mom ran into someone who still worked at the school and the person admitted that the teacher had been asked to leave and that if I ever needed to closure they would tell me who the girl was (you know, because they knew all along that it wasn’t me, but were too busy protecting him to tell anyone different). Additonally, the teacher went on to another school where he became the girl’s basketball coach.
Maggie’s story struck a nerve. I tiptoed and clawed my way through sophomore year of high school—channeling an intense need to preserve my dignity and own pride—and attempted to convince everyone that while he was that teacher, I was not that girl. What I realized reading Maggie’s story, and subconsciously realized in college, is that the notion that women are not to be believed is created and perpetuated by the same people who are often eager to convince everyone that a rumor should be believed. Maggie’s call logs indicated that she and her teacher exchanged 93 calls, many that took place after 10 p.m. The prosecution in her case focused on this fact alone, convinced that a jury of her peers would see that call log and think “this is inappropriate. Clearly more than dedicated teaching was going on.” The jury did not see it that way and much of the news coverage was Team Teacher.
I felt the disbelief Maggie felt like a punch in the gut because my experience was a foil of hers. She wanted so badly to be believed. I wanted so badly to be believed but, as I realized while reading, for the wrong reasons. I didn’t want people to believe I was the girl. She wanted people to realize that the Teacher of the Year was the same man who took advantage of her, convinced her that he loved her, then left her. While I’ve buried my memories because I knew in the long run that people would forget, I overlooked that a woman, somewhere, is still dealing with the fact that she was the girl. Moreover, because the teacher left on his own he became the coach at another high school, where young girls were served up to him season after season. I remember being apalled when a girl on my volleyball team was communciating with him after he left and mentioned that he wanted to know how I was doing ‘with everyhing.’ “Why are you even talking to him?” I asked, angry. I sometimes revisit this question when I remember that while it wasn’t me, it was someone. It raises other questions: why did she have his cell phone number? Why did she tell him I was being crucified in the halls of the schools he was asked to leave? Why did she feel a repsonibility to befriend me in a time when everyone else abandoned me? Was he telling her “everything would be alright” for my benefit or hers or his own? I was too self-invovled, writhing in my own hurt, to think about who could have been hurting at the time because she was his survivior.
The girl is a Maggie, and there are, frankly, too many Maggies. And yet, we don’t believe them. Even when we rake their stories over embers of judgment and dissect the details, looking for holes in their stories, and ultimately decide we believe them, it is a process. A quote in this book reads: “We don’t remember what we want to remember. We remember what we can’t forget.” I remember the details of my sophomore year, a time I often try to forget… and I wasn’t a survivor. Imagine if I was. Imagine if I was a Maggie. But wait, we don’t need to imagine this because we have Maggie, a real-life survivor. We have hundreds and thousands of women who remember things they can’t forget.
You know I love the Bad on Paper Podcast, and while I do not feel this was malicious or conscious, Becca and Grace both referred to the intimate letter that Maggie writes her teacher as “bait.” The term is likely a holdover from a phrase I heard growing up, you know the one: jailbait. I take issue with this. Maggie may have given her teacher something that causes most readers to scream “NOOOOOO,” but ultimately, her teacher texted her inappropriate things and made her feel loved in a way she desperately longed to feel. He abused a position of power.
We’ve been here before. Many times. We will be here again unless we continue to stand up, speak out, and believe. When women are scorned with the same veracity regardless of whether they are or are not survivors, we lose our empathy and compassion. We become a society without distinctions that matter. If women are ridiculed regardless of the truth then one resounding fact remains: the men are not and they skip forward into their next phase, unscathed. Maggie’s story is important to the dialogue surrounding how we approach sexual harassment and assault. Maggie’s story took place years ago and the way women who come forward are treated has barely changed. I wondered, initially, why Maggie’s story was included. It felt too familiar, whereas the other two stories did not. The thing is, though, time is important in evaluating progress. Maggie’s story was compelling in 2003 when the events occurred, in 2009 when she brought suit, and now. So, all of this to say: Maggie’s story was by far the most compelling and opened a vessel for my own self-reflection and allowed me to make peace with something I’ve never truly dealt with.
As for Lina, the woman having an affair with her high school boyfriend, I was deeply uncomfortable while reading her chapters. I wondered, again, why this story. However, I think it was included to show a story in which someone craves desire so badly that they accept terrible treatment and construct a much greater love story than the one they live.
Sloane was fascinating in that she felt very passive even though her story was the most liberally sexual. Her husband watches her have sex with men he chooses for her. While her narrative is crafted to indicate she enjoys this, it’s clear her husband has the power.
Rejecting some of the popular opinions about this book, I believe this book is much more about how men’s desire is reflected through women. How women internalize men’s perceptions of desire and sexuality and then project it in ways they feel will keep men interested. In this book, Taddeo writes: “One inheritance of living under the male gaze for centuries is that heterosexual women often look at other women the way a man would.” This, in a sentence, is the essence of the book. It is present in Lina’s, Maggie’s, and Sloane’s stories. They are unified by a need to please the man—allow the man control in some way, big or small. If this appeals to you, read this book! If not, there are plenty of other great books to read. This book is certainly not for everyone.
This post is so long, but I felt compelled to make this more than my normal review because this book spoke to me by the end. It dredged up feelings I didn’t expect, and that is a reading experience I enjoy.