It is not a usual question for me, but I would really like to know if Lisa Taddeo is capable of murder. The 42-year-old American author is famous for her 2019 nonfiction best seller Three Women, a book rich in empathy for its trio of protagonists and their tragically determinant sex lives.
If my question therefore appears inappropriate, it will not to those who have read Taddeo’s follow-up, Animal, a brilliant, witty, horrible novel that keeps you guessing not whether its depraved heroine will eventually kill someone, but merely who that someone will be. The story’s animus, not least toward men, surely erupts from a place so dark and deep that I just have to ask.
But I don’t need to. On meeting, the former journalist, brought up in New Jersey, raising her family in Connecticut, but now creatively embedded in Hollywood (which is mad for her stuff), almost immediately volunteers an account of something that happened just the other night in London.
Taddeo was in Dean Street, Soho, having attended a book launch. She and her husband were looking for somewhere to eat. “So this woman in her sixties, I think – my husband says eighties, but I think it makes it a gruesome story if it’s in her eighties, so I like to say sixties – she asks for money, and I had just given someone else on the street my last £5 and I go, ‘Sorry.’
“And she goes, ‘I don’t want your sorries, c***!’ And I was like, ‘Oh, that’s not OK.’ I have this bit of rage in me because I’ve had a lot of trauma, so I got angry. I said, ‘What did you f***ing say to me?’ And she goes, ‘I said, “I don’t want your sorries, c***.” What are you going to do about it?’ And I just flipped. I said, ‘I’m going to f***ing kill you.’ My husband’s looking at her like, ‘I really think she will. She’s crazy. Don’t mess with her.’
“And she pulls a knife out of her pocket, like a shank with masking tape around it. I swear to God it was the real thing. And she goes, ‘Who’s killin’ who then?’ I’m not backing down even though I’m afraid. I just said, ‘I’m going to kill you.’
“She’s holding the knife, my husband is grabbing me, and all of a sudden we both kind of blinked and thought, ‘What the f*** are we doing, me and this woman?’ And she just crossed the street and asked somebody else for money, and my heart broke because I was like, ‘My God, it meant nothing to her.’ That altercation meant the world to me.”
So this is my answer: Taddeo could get dangerously close to killing someone, but might settle for having a funny story to tell instead.
Laughing and Grief
This, incidentally, is what Taddeo’s interviews and reviews habitually neglect: she is very funny. Like the Mock Turtle in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Taddeo is schooled in Laughing and Grief, with extra tutoring in anxiety, in which topic she has reached doctorate-level expertise.
So anxiety more than rage then, I ask. “They are two incestuous siblings. I live with massive amounts of anxiety and panic and fear,” she replies. Her therapist once said he had never seen anyone as high-functioning with such elevated levels of anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder (expressed as hypochondria). She was prescribed Prozac, but Taddeo steadily decreased the dose once she realized it was dulling the very thing that drove her to write past midnight, namely panic.
A short, olive-skinned Italianate woman, Taddeo is dressed quaintly in a peasant’s dress worn over a Peter Pan collar shirt. She is like no one I have ever met, mainly so engagingly benign that I sometimes feel we are discussing the works of a morbid writer we both admire but have never met. At other moments, however, she becomes chillingly serious about, for instance, her belief in vengeance. By comparison, the three women in crisis she spent eight years following in Three Women are rather ordinary.
The best known is Maggie Wilken, who claimed she was sexually abused by her teacher when she was 17. She testified against him in court six years later, losing the case in what Taddeo believes was a shocking miscarriage of justice. “Lina” is a wife who refused to accept her sexually barren marriage and took on an opportunist lover who never intended leaving his wife. “Sloane”, like Lina renamed in the book to preserve her anonymity, is a restaurateur who had elaborate sex with other men in front of her husband, remaining unsure whether this was for their benefit, hers or just his.
We can never know how representative of modern womanhood this trio are, but in her foreword Taddeo says she is “pretty confident” that they contain “vital truths about women and desire”. I ask what they are.
“I think the biggest truth is that we just all really want to be loved and we want to be loved for who we are.”
In that case, why did her interviewees spend so much time simply servicing their libidos? “Because it’s easier to say, ‘I love you inside me,’ than to say, ‘I love you.’ It is easier to make it all about sex.”
But is there really as much sex available to the average American, as Three Women suggests, I ask, having always found it in distressingly short supply in Britain.
“It depends. I think one of the things I learnt from researching that book was that the people you’re least likely to imagine having a lot of sex are having a lot of it.”
Women less than men, she thinks. A woman’s time is rationed because she tends to take greater responsibility for her family. Men, even busy men, on the other hand, compartmentalize wondrously.
I tell her about our former health secretary, busy day and night fighting the Covid fight and telling us what we mustn’t do, and yet finding time for what we call “a bit on the side” (saying that, I am reminded of Taddeo’s description of a woman posing with a group of men and looking “like a kayak they were carrying at their sides”).
“Yeah, they always have time to have sex,” she sighs.
The three women’s stories did not end on publication. Maggie went back to college, has a degree in social work and is “doing brilliantly”. Her alleged abuser is still teaching and was reinstated after his suspension with full back pay.
“I think one of the things I learnt from researching [Three Women] was that the people you’re least likely to imagine having a lot of sex are having a lot of it.”
Lina turned 40, has separated from her husband, is with a new man and is “good”, although her pain took a lot longer to heal than Maggie’s.
And then there is Sloane, the least easy woman to like, but the victim of a controlling mother who withheld food to starve the puberty out of her. “Yes, she’s rich and thin, but who are we to judge trauma?” asks Taddeo. “If you can’t sympathize with a woman who has been torn apart by her mother at a young age, if you can’t sympathize because of things she has that you don’t have, then that’s on you. It’s not on her.”
On publication, I have read, Sloane was identified by the citizens of her small town.
“Sloane was recognized by a few people, yes, and it was difficult for her. I felt and feel truly awful. I’ve said it before: had I known the book would be read by more than a few people, I probably would not have spoken to her. But she is doing great. She is married to her husband still, and they have a loving marriage. He is absolutely obsessed with her and she loves it and the point is, whatever works for two people, other people shouldn’t judge.”
Three Women is spectacular reportage, its subjects’ every unexpressed thought fact-checked. It neglects, however, to be unfair, to let rip, to let on what its author really thinks. Perhaps this will become obvious when, later this year, a ten-part dramatized version reaches TV (Taddeo’s role will be played by Shailene Woodley, the teenage cancer patient in The Fault in Our Stars). In the meantime, to discover how she thinks, kindly read Animal, which she wrote while working away on Three Women.
It begins with Joan, narrator, heroine, orphan, fleeing Manhattan for California. Her married lover has just shot himself in the head in front of her in a restaurant where she is dining with another married lover. Relocated to the Los Angeles canyons, where the coyotes prowl like untamed ids, she seeks intimacy with a woman “so unequivocally flawless I wanted to hit her”.
Joan has richly described but generally bad sex with men, occupying her spare time with rape fantasies, men’s and hers. A male reader hardly dares to decide which is which when confronted, very early on, with this passage: “The young man at the cash register noticed me and then didn’t take his eyes off me. I was in a white nightgownish dress, thin as smoke. He was picking a pimple on his chin and staring at me. There are a hundred such small rapes a day.”
I suggest that Animal released all Taddeo’s unexpressed rage at the injustices inflicted by men on Maggie, Lina and Sloane. “It’s a little bit of that. Actually, the rage from Three Women was afterwards. I’ll never forget, doing the first press tour, there were some people, women, who were like, ‘But they were kind of sluts, right?’ There were women actually saying that. It’s so reprehensible and repulsive to me that we still use that word.”
But, she says, most of the rage that animates Animal comes from another source; it is the rage of uncalmed grief from her parents’ deaths. Her father, Peter, a much loved Italian-American doctor, died in a car smash in 2003 when she was 23. The two were so close, and he so protective of his only daughter, that when he failed to answer her phone call she immediately concluded he was dead. Recalling it all, she looks as if she is about to cry, and swears at herself.
“He told me that he would never die, once when I was a kid. That was f***ed-up in a kind of interesting way.”
Perhaps the first time a man had lied to her?
So, in psychological terms, the parent-child separation hadn’t fully happened? “It’s still not happened. I’m still totally f***ed in the head.” (It may not just be her: her brother, 15 years her senior, has hung the number plate from the car in which his father died from his ceiling.)
Not long after Peter’s death, Taddeo’s mother was diagnosed with cancer. She died five years after her husband. Taddeo has compared this hurt to being mauled by a tiger.
“It screws you. It’s f***ing brutal. Cancer is f***ing brutal. Once you have been in the maw of that thing, you go through life very afraid. You realize your life can change in an instant. Maybe some people go and help the needy. Others tell people on the street they’re going to f***ing kill them. Either way, you’re doing something different afterwards.”
I say that reading Animal and then the short stories in her forthcoming collection Ghost Lover, I began to expect car crashes and tumors.
“My editor at Esquire once said, ‘When are you going to stop mining your parents’ deaths for work?’ I was like, ‘When it stops hurting.’ ”
“Once you have been in the maw of [cancer], you go through life very afraid. You realize your life can change in an instant.”
Cancer in particular is a motif, metastasizing in strange places such as a description of an old people’s gym class. Another of her forthcoming TV projects is based on her unpublished book Cure for Cancer, which is about a young man whose mother is dying of stomach cancer. It is deeply personal for her. She was misdiagnosed with pancreatic cancer while expecting her daughter, Fox, who is now seven.
“I got told that I had about a year to live when I was about three months pregnant. I could not get a contrast dye MRI until after I had her, because getting injected wouldn’t have been good for the baby. When I got the contrast MRI, it wasn’t there, but I still can’t even talk about it without freaking out. My mother had just died. I’d had a miscarriage. And then I have a new fresh baby and I’m told I’m going to… I just kept getting f***ed in the face by life.”
Her miscarriage, early in her relationship with husband Jackson Waite, is another wound that can gape open in her fiction. In Animal, we read of a mother holding a stillborn child to her breast and kissing “its alien skull”.
You don’t write that, I say…
“…No, no, not without actually seeing it. My mother also miscarried several times between me and my brother, and she lost a baby brother when she was young. They were so poor. I think he had TB. They couldn’t afford medicine in Italy [where her mother lived before her marriage] back in the Thirties. So there’s lots of child death in my writing.”
It is Pia – also the name Taddeo gives Joan’s mother in Animal – whose early life is recorded in the introduction to Three Women. Its prologue begins: “When my mother was young a man used to follow her to work every morning and masturbate, in step behind her.” She says Pia confided this to her after her father’s death, which places Taddeo in her mid-twenties. By then she had already collected plenty of personal evidence that men were not to be trusted.
As a teenager, she recalls, she was waiting outside a club in New York with a friend when she was approached by a man in, she thinks, his mid-thirties. “I just remember him saying something like, ‘I’d really like to kiss your mouth.’ If I had been attracted to him I might have been like, ‘OK.’ But I said, ‘Um. I’m 15.’ And he goes, ‘Well, you know what they say.’ I was like, ‘What do they say?’ And he said, ‘If there’s grass in the infield, you can play ball.’
“Is there a rage remembering that?” she asks herself. “Yes, but there’s also a curiosity. How does that grow in someone, the ability to say that? Where does that come from? What has happened to him?”
She displays less understanding toward a man she calls Dr F*** (first in a Playboy article, soon in a movie), her former gynecologist. She claims he made “inappropriate” comments and then, she is pretty sure, assaulted her while she was under anesthesia for a painful and possibly unneeded procedure. Later she was researching a magazine article about a dating agency for people ambitious to cheat on their spouses and was messaged, unwittingly, by this very same gynecologist. Seven years on, he was still sending her messages so crude the courage even to paraphrase them fails me.
The most shocking story, though, is related as fiction in Animal. The “sensitivity readers” at her American publisher – who must have had a hard week working their way through that novel – objected. “They were like, ‘There’s a grandmother who’s raped, an elderly woman raped. We shouldn’t do that. That’s a little out there.’ And I was like, ‘Well, my grandmother was raped when I was eight years old. I remember it very well. That is ripped from the headlines of my life.’ ”
Giving Up the Ghost
These are terrible, terrible abuses. Some of the crimes she accuses men of in her work seem to fall short of that standard, however, at least to this male. It cannot be men only who survey rooms to assess the sexual “worth” of the opposite sex therein. Don’t women too practice “ghosting”? Women too, I suspect, decline to spend excess time thinking about people whose admiration is not mutual.
“It’s not that men are bad, women are good,” she says. “I’m not like that at all. I think men get their hearts broken. It’s the same thing. I talked to plenty of men when I was writing Three Women because I never thought it was just going to be three women. I thought it would be like six men and nine women.
“You know, for me, a lot of the rage that I have towards men is really directed at myself because I have felt the times that I was complicit in my own sexualization.”
I quote from Animal: “There are rapes and then there are the rapes we allow to happen, the ones we shower and get ready for.”
“You know, for me, a lot of the rage that I have towards men is really directed at myself because I have felt the times that I was complicit in my own sexualization.”
“Exactly: the times that I have done that to myself, the times that I have allowed it, and during the allowing of it, laughed about it, not wanting to be considered uncool.”
There are so many limits placed on women’s emotions, she thinks.
“You have to have the right trauma and then you have to deal with it in the correct way: you have to go to therapy, you have to do yoga, you have to take up knitting, you have to do Pilates… It’s like, ‘Oh, you’re angry. Have you tried this?’ Yes, I have. ‘Well, have you tried walking at 4am?’ F*** no, I haven’t tried that. I don’t want to walk at 4am. I want to f***ing just scream from the top of my lungs.”
Does she scream?
“I scream. I scream.”
So she’s not into anger management?
“No. I like to let it out.”
In her prose?
“I’m just like f*** it, who cares? That’s what my friend said about that woman pulling a knife on me in the street: ‘You act like you have nothing to lose.’ I felt I do have a lot to lose, but I also have lost so much. There’s a part of me that’s kind of dead. You can’t kill me any more.”
And this is where she turns mafioso: “I’m really into vengeance. I’m a big fan of the vengeance plot. I love the notion of lying in wait to vanquish my enemies, years into the future. When you least expect it, I’m going to come for you.”
I had better make sure this is a nice article.
“No, my husband and I talk about it all the time. We want everyone who works with and for us to be happy… But when someone takes advantage of that…
“I lay everything out: ‘I am going to lay my whole heart on the table. I will tell you everything about myself. I will tell you what scares me. I’ll tell you what wounds me. I will give you the key to how you can hurt me. And if you f***king take that key and use it, I will f***ing kill you.’ ”
But five minutes later she says: “I have a genuine compassion for all of humankind…Everybody is just trying to survive.”
So why, I ask, are some of her descriptions of women in her fiction so spectacularly callous? In one short story she describes a woman dying “the sad, brittle, bony, blind death of the diseased young mother”. In Animal she, or Joan, fantasizes about placing a woman into a cage to “fatten her up, feed her hormones and pig cheeks and Fanta. Knock her teeth out and shave her eyebrows.”
“When I’m critical of women,” Taddeo replies, “I think it’s because I am showing what it’s like to be critical of women, how it feels to talk about someone. I think it’s disgusting. I do it because it’s something we do.”
Women really talk like that?
“Oh, I mean, it is amazing what women say in the dark about other women.” She announces this with regretful warmth rather than heat.
“I’m really into vengeance.... I love the notion of lying in wait to vanquish my enemies, years into the future. When you least expect it, I’m going to come for you.”
I can almost imagine her and her filmmaker husband cozily bringing up Fox in rural Connecticut. Waite seems to be an exemplar of the kind of love she appreciates most, the kind defined as “acts of service”. He makes breakfast? “He writes scripts for me and right now he’s an employee on my TV show.”
As for Fox, well, she certainly has a mother who will teach her the ways of the world. When a boy told Fox girls could not be ninjas, Taddeo got out her phone and played a scene from Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill in which Uma Thurman slashes to bits the clientele of a bar. Yet, I note, and despite today’s outsize collar, she will not let Fox read Peter Pan.
“It’s the way that he keeps Tinker Bell in this little box. Why the f*** does Peter Pan get to have Tinker Bell, Wendy, Tiger Lily, all the mermaids? He gets to have this panoply of women. I just don’t want her to imbibe that stuff at such a young age.”
And end up waiting to be picked by a man? “I don’t want her to wait for anyone to pick her, ever. I don’t even want her to go around picking people. I just want her to choose kindness, but also mainly kindness for herself.”
She shows me a video of her daughter screen-testing for a role in one of Taddeo’s many projects. Fox is beautiful but Fox is also repeatedly saying the f-word. It is, Taddeo says, so hard to find parents who will allow that.
So while, in my customary pursuit of a clinching journalistic paradox, I would like to conclude that this outrageous writer’s final contradiction is that she lives quietly and conventionally with a loving husband and sweet-tongued child, in all honesty I can’t say that for certain. Maybe it’s me. Maybe my life is unusually boring.
“Some people live their lives on the line and I’ve always lived mine beyond it,” she says. “But for what it’s worth I would love to do that. I would love it. All I want is a boring life.”
The only hazard being that Lisa Taddeo might actually kill for it.
Lisa Taddeo’s latest book, the story collection Ghost Lover, will be published on June 14
Andrew Billen is a staff feature writer for The Times of London