“Okay, we’ll just chalk it up to the lag. Anything I say that is stupid is due to the lag.” Lisa Taddeo laughs from my laptop, her mouth moving out of sync with the words she’s saying. Because of course this has happened. It’s only been one year and three months since we started relying on Zoom for just about everything and yet here we are, still dealing with basic tech issues.
I’m in London, talking to Taddeo from her house in Connecticut, and once the internet gods decide to grace me with a non-blurry picture, it’s easy to see she’s just as rad as I’d always imagined: oversized tie-dye T-shirt, shaggy black hair and as quick-witted and sarcastic as she is eloquent and nurturing.
Two years ago, Taddeo, a writer and journalist, released Three Women, a groundbreaking work of nonfiction that was almost a decade in the making. Telling the stories of three real-life women and their relationships with men, the book became a way for women to articulate the millions of nuances and experiences that we face every day. Experiences so normalised, they didn’t seem worth vocalising – until these three women did.
Now, Taddeo is back with her second book, a work of fiction about a woman on the run from her married lover’s suicide while in search of a piece of her past that she hopes will give her a future.
Animal is a dirty, gritty book, from its setting in the stifling heat atop Topanga Canyon in Los Angeles to its messy narrator, Joan. It’s not a comfortable read; be prepared to feel sticky while reading but compelled to continue because, when a book’s written like this, how can you not?
Main character Joan is the most jarring element of all. A complicated woman with a traumatic past, I tried to feel sympathy for her despite the unforgivable transgressions she makes in the present day. It’s hard not to judge her for her chaotic decisions, the damage she causes others. Yet as the book goes on I realise, with a sour taste in my mouth, that it’s a type of judgement to which I’d never subject a man. “I think that the MeToo movement has created a sort of flip,” Taddeo tells me when I mention this freshly rediscovered, ugly side of me which her main character brought to light. “It’s been great obviously, but one of the negatives to it has been that it has created this sort of ‘sameness’ … We all have to be on the same side in the exact same way.”
She says that she sees it a lot, women judging other women for not behaving in the ‘right’ way. “People fall into the same patterns that have been laid out for them by their formative years and yet we act as though we’re all able to turn our lives around like that.”
But as she explains, turning your life around isn’t as easy as reading a motivational Instagram post. “You have to make money, take care of families… If you’re working 10-hour days, you come home, you’re dead tired, you’re probably not going to be able to, like, read or go to therapy or do yoga or all the things that so many of us have the luxury to do. And this ‘get your shit together or get out of my face’ mentality – like, who is that serving? It’s just brutal.”
Taddeo lost both of her parents fairly young. Fans of Three Women will remember the conversations she has with her mother towards the end of her life outlined in the epilogue. And it’s clear, from both Animal and Taddeo’s choice to write her next book on grief, that she’s got plenty more to say about the complicated relationships we have with our parents; relationships where unconditional love is inextricably linked with the inescapable fallibility of being human. In Animal, over two decades on from her parents’ deaths, narrator Joan is still grieving, her actions still influenced by her difficult childhood years. Growing older doesn’t seem to dampen her parents’ influence on her – it only becomes more poignant.
Millennials especially, the first generation to readily adopt therapy-speak into our vocabulary, love to talk about how much our parents messed us up. What we don’t do is talk enough about the good things they did to ready us for the world. Three months away from having a daughter of my own, I wonder what parenting skills Taddeo, who has spent a decade listening to tales from women about toxic masculinity, employs to protect her 6-year-old daughter from what is a terrifying world for girls.
“I am very conscious about things like not putting on makeup in front of [her] too much,” she begins, before switching tack and explaining that she places more importance on how she interacts with other people and the way she lets other people talk to her. “If my husband and I ever argue in front of [my daughter], I’m always very careful to make him apologise to me in front of her. I don’t always do the same to him because, whatever, but because… We’re so much stacked in the other direction. I don’t want her to know the world is already stacked against her in that sense.” Was this something she learned from her own parents? “My father never misspoke to my mother but he was a macho man and so for me it was the same sort of thing, making sure that all the relationships [my daughter] sees me having with men, I am more aggressive. With men in, like, stores and restaurants if someone is not being nice. I worry less about the sexualisation for right now and more about power and showing her that we are all equal.”
There’s one scene in the book which has deeply affected readers, and with good reason. Avoiding spoilers, it involves a character suffering a miscarriage but the circumstances are so shocking, so beautifully, gruesomely written that it’s impossible to continue reading without taking some time out to breathe. I ask Taddeo if she faced any pushback from people about including the scene. “Yes,” she says immediately. “But it was a scene that was important to me… I mean, I’ve had a miscarriage and I’ve talked to so many people about what they’ve done when the miscarriage has happened in their own home or in my experience, it was a Starbucks bathroom.” She pauses. “It’s like, what do you do with this thing that is no longer?” She says she wasn’t trying to shock, more normalise. “We all do different things in these private hellish moments.” Recognising that her own miscarriage was a hugely important moment in her life meant it was integral to the story. Indeed, she says, a lot of things in Animal are personal experiences or experiences that others have told her about, amped up. “And the reason I’ve amped them up is to show how much they really do cut.”
Telling stories of what so many women consider everyday occurrences while demonstrating the long-term damage they may cause is what Taddeo does best. Going back to Three Women, I think particularly of Maggie Wilken, the subject who bravely waived her anonymity in order to talk further about her teacher who was tried for her statutory rape, found not guilty and went straight back to teaching. So many elements of Maggie’s story ring alarm bells about the familiar experiences all teenage girls have and about the cruel judgement they’re subjected to. Taddeo says she considers Maggie’s journey the crowning achievement of Three Women. “I mean, it’s her bravery in doing it but that made me feel like I had done it for a reason.”
These days, women are falling over themselves to relay their experiences to Taddeo. “It’s funny because I spent so long begging people to tell me their stories but now to be in this other space, I’m like, ‘Where were you a decade ago!'” She’s heard all sorts of personal anecdotes about how the book impacted different women. “I’ve had a couple of people tell me that they left their relationships, like in a good way, after reading and that felt really cool.”
Up next, Taddeo is working on the TV version of Three Women, which she’s adapting for Showtime, something she’s really enjoying. “Because [the book] was such a collaboration to begin with, it feels like a natural progression to have to collaborate with other women to make it into a show.”
After that, she’s back to talking to real people again for her next nonfiction book about grief. “It’s what I’m about really. I’ve always been so interested in talking to people about their love lives, I’m just curious and it’s exciting when you find someone who’s willing to be open with you about that stuff. It’s something that makes me feel happy.”
Animal by Lisa Taddeo is out now on Bloomsbury Publishing.
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