There is a great deal of blood in Lisa Taddeo’s first novel, Animal: multiple miscarriages, rapes, suicides and murders, a gruesome car crash. “I have to tell you,” says the narrator Joan, “that terrible things always happen around me.” But Joan is no mere bystander. Where Taddeo’s smash hit debut Three Women interrogated female desire, here she turns to pain, rage and revenge.
“I think there’s a lot of blood out there,” says Taddeo mildly, of her feminist grand guignol. “Researching my first book I learned that if you’re in a room with ten women, eight or nine have been assaulted in some way. And I know barely anyone who hasn’t had a miscarriage.” The only thing her editor queried was the rape of an elderly woman: “And I said, ‘That actually happened to my grandmother.’ ”
Yet the pervading theme is bereavement: untethered by the loss of both parents, Joan flees from New York with their ashes in plastic bags to a seedy LA canyon community. Taddeo’s own youth was pocked with grief: a few years after her father, a doctor, died in a car accident, her Italian mother fell ill with cancer and Taddeo, who’d just graduated from college, moved home to New Jersey to be her carer.
“My entire twenties were just swallowed whole by black, death, grief,” says Taddeo, now 41. “Then when my mother passed away, I was 28 and completely alone in the world in so many ways.” Her brother, 14 years older, had his own family. Whereas she was single, with only the clumsy kindness of friends who’d invite her to their family reunions “because you need to be around people” or offer to bring their kids to see her: “I have a six-year-old now and if someone was in pain, I wouldn’t think she could help.”
It was easier, she says, to suffer alone — “stay in hotels, order room service, just sit, take an Ambien, pass out” — although she liked friends to be close by since as a serious hypochondriac she constantly fears dying. Eventually, with the proceeds from her parents’ house, she moved to Manhattan where “I was just so massively, wildly depressed, I would walk the whole city, up and down, every block, for hours. It was a very dark, dark, painful time.”
Dating was hopeless since she craved someone “who had great parents and just brought me into this family construct I had lost, to replace everything”. Not a fun proposition for guys her age. Older men sniffed out and exploited her neediness and lack of a father. “I got really angry. I would wonder why complete assholes were walking around, and my dad, who legitimately was a good guy, was dead.” Joan’s rage in Animal springs from Taddeo’s own furious disbelief: “Why did my life have to get f***ed up in this way?”
A writer with Esquire, she mooted a book exploring the secret desires of women. She planned to include many stories, like Nancy Friday’s female fantasy compendium My Secret Garden. But then it coalesced into a deeper project, where she’d embed herself in a few women’s lives, share their thoughts, diaries, enter their communities, walk in their shoes. And so for an extraordinary eight years Taddeo drove back and forth across America looking for suitable candidates. Sometimes, a woman who’d opened her heart would abruptly drop out, wasting months of work. How did she keep going?
“There were many days when I was like, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ ” Eventually she narrowed it down to three people who “were willing to tell me the truth, without worrying about ego”. Maggie, who’d had a teenage relationship with a teacher; Lina, married to a man who won’t even kiss her, now in a sizzling affair with an old boyfriend; and Sloane, a beautiful restaurateur whose husband wants to watch her having sex with other people.
“My entire twenties were just swallowed whole by black, death, grief.”
Even then, the book had alarming wobbles: “I’d had Lina completely written, but Sloane was falling away and I was worried she didn’t want to be in it any more. So I wrote this email to my editor, saying, ‘What if it’s just one woman?’ ” He was not convinced.
Thankfully the three hung in there and Taddeo’s book became an extraordinary piece of writing, as if the New Journalism of The Right Stuff and In Cold Blood had entered marital beds in Indiana and North Dakota. When Lina met her lover for sex in a forest clearing, Taddeo followed so she could accurately describe the view, the type of trees.
Did she ever feel she was influencing the women’s actions? “Yes, that’s something I was definitely concerned with,” she says. “If they asked me, ‘What should I do?’ I’d say, ‘Here’s what I did once when I felt a similar way.’ But I didn’t want to affect the trajectory. I just wanted to be a pencil in their hand. And I think I did a good job of minimizing myself in their heads so it wasn’t about me at all. My personality was only to be open to theirs.” Like a counselor? “Yes, but one who doesn’t suggest a path — and also doesn’t charge you!”
In 2019 Three Women shot to No 1 in the US and UK. For a whole summer every woman I know was talking about it. Does Taddeo keep in touch with the trio now? She talks about four times a week to Maggie, who is a consultant on the dramatization for the American TV network Showtime. Her friendship with the other two has moved on from the book: “We talk about other things. I care deeply for them. They were so brave and gave themselves in such a shockingly generous manner.”
As if the New Journalism of The Right Stuff and In Cold Blood had entered marital beds in Indiana and North Dakota.
Yet despite her fascination with other people’s erotic adventures, Taddeo herself is uninterested in sex without deep connection. “Recently I met a woman in a ‘throuple’, someone I would not have expected that from. Sometimes I just go, ‘Whoa, everyone’s so much more interesting than me!’ ”
The Language of Sex
In both Three Women and Animal, women constantly subsume their own sexual needs to please men. Does Taddeo feel they are influenced by omnipresent online pornography, made mainly for the male gaze? She was recently shocked by the story of a teenager she knows “taking a selfie of her rear in a mirror while on the bed on all fours. She’s so little … and it’s a porn stance.” But she adds it is hard for women to unpick a language of sex written by men from our own desires. “Are we rewriting it? If we’re OK with it, are we not feminists?”
She ponders a growing trend among young women for anal sex: “What percentage of them are having it for pleasure, versus those doing it because it’s presented as a new frontier?” She spoke recently to a woman made to dress up in an adult nappy by a man who then enacted rape fantasies. When the woman told her friends this role playing made her uneasy, they accused her of “kink-shaming” him. “That’s a new thing,” says Taddeo.
Three Women was published amid the #MeToo movement and its success, Taddeo believes, was fueled by a sudden appetite for female testimony and unlocking of secrets. She wonders whether Maggie, who unsuccessfully prosecuted her teacher, would have won now. Has #MeToo changed anything? Taddeo says she’s amused by men trying to figure out the new rules. “They are like, ‘If I weren’t so woke, I’d say you look hot’ … If six months passes without someone being incarcerated they think, ‘Is it safe to go back in the water now? Can we get back to who we were?’ ”
With each cycle of feminism, she says, there are gains and losses. She fiercely drills her daughter, Fox, with positive messages. “Whenever she says, ‘Oh, Daddy can do that because he’s stronger’, I’ll sit her down and go, ‘Isn’t it weird that men can’t even have babies? Like, what are they even for?’ And she just sits there looking at me, blinking. And I’m like, ‘Oh, my God, I’m a bad person.’ ”
It is hard for women to unpick a language of sex written by men from our own desires.
Taddeo met her husband, Jackson Waite, a screenwriter, while traveling around America researching Three Women. He joined her on the road and she became pregnant. Now they’ve moved to rural Connecticut. What is Taddeo like to live with? “Um, depressing, anxious. I seldom laugh. I have a hard time being present in any moment because of my fear and anxiety. I’m not a ball to live with.”
Waite, she says, is “a glutton for punishment. He’s happy and cheerful. I warned him before we got married that I’ve had a lot of trauma, I’m probably never going to be actually happy and I’m scared all the time. Now he says, ‘Well, I really should have listened.’ I have gradually and systemically brought him into my darker worldview, so that he gets nervous now.”
Their parenting style certainly seems the epitome of overthinking. As a child, her unclubbable parents didn’t encourage her to have friends, so she’d be driven around trick-or-treating alone. “I remember seeing this mother and daughter inside a brightly lit house on Halloween, baking cookies. It felt like a sword in my heart, because I just wanted to have that. So I never had this normal life, and I worry about it all the time with my daughter.”
Recently Fox asked if they could have a pillow fight, as she’d seen one on a TV ad. So Taddeo quickly googled “how to have a pillow fight” because “I’m always so cognizant of wanting to give my daughter this all-American childhood.” When Fox is in even minor pain, both her parents solemnly google for symptoms: “Now she probably wouldn’t tell us if her leg got cut off, because she’s so afraid of our annoying, selfish concern. We’re just taking care of our own fears while she’s lying there bleeding.” She refuses to read her Peter Pan because she thinks he “wants his pick between Wendy, Tinker Bell and Tiger Lily, and he’s just got all three fluttering around him. It’s bullshit.”
Yet this is all said with the dark, self-deprecating humour that illuminates even the grimmest passages of Animal. Living in California, Taddeo hated the expectation that constant sunshine should make her always cheerful. Come to Britain, I say, you’ll fit right in. “I love England,” she says. “Every time I’ve been there, it’s just matched me perfectly.”
Although Three Women made her financially secure, she works in a windowless box room: “It goes with my mood. If I’m looking at beautiful things, I’m thinking about what I might lose. Like people dying, things going away.” During the pandemic, when everyone lived in boxes of sorts, Taddeo says, “I felt more in concert with my fellow humans than I ever did before.”
Animal, by Lisa Taddeo, is out now
Janice Turner is a columnist for The Guardian and The Times of London