Lisa Taddeo: "We don’t like it when women want things"

·5-min read
Photo credit: Courtesy
Photo credit: Courtesy

Lisa Taddeo isn’t at all what I expected her to be. She had become to take shape in my mind, reading her staggering debut book Three Women and her equally impactful first novel Animal, as some sort of sultry, serious, perhaps even mildly terrifying person.

What greets me instead is a cheery, smiling woman who instantly apologises for having “the worst haircut of my life” and who yawns continually because her young daughter kept her up all night, scared of thunderstorms.

The whole disconnection between my imagined Taddeo, and the real woman, feels like something she may have written herself. Her work thrives on toying with, and challenging, our ingrained judgements about women, sex and desire. It proved one of the backbones of her astonishing Three Women, which offered an unparalleled immersion into the sex lives of three real women and invited its readers to reframe their own assumptions. It was a best-selling feat of journalism that read like fiction, reporting on real events and shared intimacies with a novelistic level of detail. The mammoth undertaking took her eight years to write and research, following these titular three women in their daily lives, during which time she also worked on Animal, her debut novel, released this month.

Its narrator is Joan, a woman who, very early on, reveals some rather shocking facts about herself, not least the assertion that the events she is about to relate, lead her to murder a man. “I am depraved,” Joan admits. “I hope you like me.” I reveal that, for the first 100 pages, I did not, actually, like Joan.

Photo credit: Courtesy
Photo credit: Courtesy

“I love that you didn’t like her!” Taddeo enthuses, surprisingly. “I wanted a character who was going to say everything she wanted to say and had left behind her sense of decorum. A woman who says all of the things she wants is still a hard pill to swallow. I don't think we like when women want things, when they want more than what they have.”

We discuss how unpalatable ambitious women are to society and how frequently they are taken down. Yet Joan exists in a specific framework; a woman who is both rapacious, ambitious and insatiably sexually desirous, whilst also undeniably the victim of some horrendous trauma, both sexual and violent. Do we still struggle with the conflation of victimhood with female sexual appetite? Do we still need our wounded women to be pure?

“Oh, one hundred per cent,” Taddeo says. “It's one thing we can't stand because we prefer things to be black and white. This happened with Maggie, one of the women in Three Women. People just couldn’t get their head around the idea of her being abused but also possessing a longing for this man. We can't look at her desire, she has to have been completely and utterly physically raped in order for us to look at it with any kind of sympathetic eyes. And that's something I'm really interested in: how do we show how difficult that view is?”

It is what makes Joan such a conflicting narrator and yet such a captivating one. Her unravelling story elicits as much sympathy as it does shock. Her candour is also refreshing. In one scene, Joan discloses details of a sexual encounter before becoming embarrassed about the way she acted. “No. You are all of us,” her friend says. “You are the parts of us that no one wants to admit to.” This frankness is something Taddeo feels is important, especially for women.

“We need to be more open about things like desire and trauma, otherwise we're left in the dark, and we don't feel like we can say things out loud. That's when we do terrible things,” Taddeo says. “But we feel so much shame. Most of that is because it’s impossible for us to untangle ourselves from the male gaze. There’s nothing wrong with still being inside it, it’s just interesting to know that we are not ‘fixed’ yet. We are still working through so much.”

Photo credit: Courtesy
Photo credit: Courtesy

Joan’s fury feels fitting, in a new age of righteous rage and brave honesty in female-driven and female-penned art, from Promising Young Women and I May Destroy You, to Raven Leilani’s Luster. “There are so many voices that are so raw and honest and visceral. It's the kind of writing I like to read,” she says.

Taddeo relished the freedom of fiction after the responsibility she felt to her real-life subjects in Three Women. Yet many of the events in Animal have been mined from her own life. Joan, much like Taddeo, deals with the loss of both parents and with miscarriage. Just as her previous book tackled the unspoken realities and nuances of desire, so she wanted to tackle the lack of articulation around grief and trauma.

“There’s certainly a lot of trauma in Animal, left over from my life and the people I spoke with in the course of researching Three Women,” she says, adding that although writing through her own pain was difficult, it was cathartic. “I think the main thing I found was that often we don't know exactly how to communicate how a thing has landed on us. When you have a deep depression, you need for someone to understand it the same way they understand a wound they can see is bleeding. For me, I really wanted to sort of write towards those wounds, to show the way those things feel.”

Her next work of non-fiction aims to tackle grief directly and will probably do for this emotion what Three Women did for desire. “I just hope it doesn’t take another eight years,” Taddeo laughs. And there she goes again, utterly confounding our impression of her.

Animal, by Lisa Taddeo is published 24 June. SHOP NOW.

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