Our general manager, Sally Haldorson, responds to her reading of Lisa Taddeo's Three Women with a lengthy piece of introspective and insightful literary criticism.
“Here she comes, running, out of prison and off the pedestal: chains off, crown off, halo off, just a live woman.” —Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Three Women by Lisa Taddeo, Avid Reader Press
Song of Myself by Walt Whitman, first published by Walt Whitman himself in Leaves of Grass
The Will to Believe by William James, first published in the New World
The Garden of Forking Paths by Jorge Luis Borges, first published by Editorial Sur in El Jardín de Senderos que se Bifurcan
Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation Between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, first published by Small, Maynard & Company, et al
The Awakening by Kate Chopin, first published by Herbert S. Stone & Co.
The Multiverse Theory contends that the universe we experience is only one of a multiple number of universes. Why some scientists believe in this theory is largely due to physics problems that can’t be solved by what we know about our universe, but can be explained if there are indeed others that exist beyond our own. Even more simply, the possibility persists because we don’t know that they don’t exist; we can only see so far into our own universe, and therefore we can’t see what’s on the other side to prove that there isn’t another one—or more—out there.
William James is credited as the first to use the word “multiverse,” writing in 1895: “Visible nature is all plasticity and indifference, a multiverse, as one might call it, and not a universe.” And, “[W]hat we call visible nature or this world must be but a veil and surface-show whose full meaning resides in a supplementary unseen or other world.” James, a philosopher and psychologist, was more interested in questioning whether morality should or should not be defined by the natural world, and argued instead that humans were enlightened and thus enabled, and even called, to find greater spiritual meaning beyond nature. (Though James was not a physicist, the study of “natural philosophy” evolved from a mode of thinking about the unity of body and mind, and the intersection of the human and the natural world, to become the “physics” we know today. Perhaps then the adaptation of James’ introduction of the term multiverse into scientific theory isn’t such a stretch.)
While I have little opinion on whether there is a true multiverse beyond the stars, I do believe that knowledge is an accessible, explorable multiverse, and authors are the scientists intent on discovering and conveying their unearthed insights via their books. Their books offer us a way to see past or outside our own existence and into the lives of other people, thus opening us up to the multiverse we know to exist in human form beyond ourselves. Most critically, hidden realms that have been unexplored are revealed much to our universal betterment. When minority writers, for example, have a platform from which to write about their lives, some who read their work benefit from finding themselves described within, learning their own troubles and triumphs aren’t so unique as to never have been named. Others will come to the work as an alien might a new planet, with curiosity and awe and maybe some trepidation.
Such is the case of Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women, a nonfiction account of three women in the United States who prioritized and satisfied their sexual desire in complicated ways with complicated consequences. Some will read this book and be relieved to see their inner selves reflected within; others will read it and find the landscape foreign and inhospitable. Yet, Taddeo offers us three newly-discovered interior worlds to explore that will expand what we think we know about women, and about ourselves.
"While I have little opinion on whether there is a true multiverse beyond the stars, I do believe that knowledge is an accessible, explorable multiverse, and authors are the scientists intent on discovering and conveying their unearthed insights via their books."
Following William James, there have been many other notable thinkers who have similarly pondered perception and experience, possibility and existence, such as Erwin Shrödinger. Shrödinger, in his infamous cat experiment, proved that unless something (a cat, a universe) can be witnessed, that thing (a cat, a universe) can exist in more than one state of being. The cat is both alive and dead, the multiverse is non-existent and existent. Contrary, then, to conventional religious moral tenets, a person also needn’t make a choice: a person can be both good and bad rather than the dichotomous good or bad.
Later, Jorge Luis Borges, a writer and literary critic whose work often explores alternate futures and parallel timelines, would posit: “I am not sure that I exist, actually. I am all the writers that I have read, all the people that I have met, all the women that I have loved; all the cities I have visited.” According to Borges, we human beings are each of us a multiverse made up of every interaction we have.
Perhaps the most well-known representation of this confluence comes from poet Walt Whitman and his assertion in Song of Myself, “Do I contradict myself?/ Very well, then I contradict myself,/ (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” Whitman was an individualist, and as such, believed in the validity and value of his/each person’s perception with no refutation or judgment of his/their various selves. “I CELEBRATE myself, and sing myself/ And what I assume you shall assume,/For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” He speaks in his work of himself, but also of himself as representative of the whole, of us, of humanity.
"According to Borges, we human beings are each of us a multiverse made up of every interaction we have."
In Three Women, Taddeo doesn’t just engage with her subjects but embodies them from an extremely close narrative perspective. She “embedded” journalistically with them for years but isn’t reporting as an objective observer. Instead, she assumes (and presumes?) their interiority, speaking as an omniscient narrator, a writing technique more conventionally found in fiction. The book reads as intimately as a memoir, yet Taddeo only had access to these women’s memories and her own interpretation of their stories, so it can perhaps be considered creative nonfiction. This approach allows Taddeo to more fulsomely express the characters’ inner lives, and these women unfurl for us fully-realized and multi-dimensional.
It is tempting to judge these women. It’s also tempting to judge the men these women become involved with. But Taddeo does her best to maintain neutrality. Their actions (both good and bad) come from their complex histories (both good and bad), and result in consequences (both good and bad.) Even if they had chosen a different path, a different partner, a different manner of fulfilling their sexual desire, they would have faced different or, perhaps even the same, consequences (fulfilled and unfulfilled; happy and unhappy). Perhaps as Borges illustrated in “The Garden of Forked Paths,” all possible paths are happening simultaneously, and no choice we make limits the possibility of other paths that could lead to the same outcome.
Many readers will feel their own complicated lives and complex feelings validated, particularly with regard to how desire represents self-determination and reflects self-worth, whether these women’s stories reflect the person the reader wants to be, or the person the reader is. Unlike Whitman who used “I” as a stand-in for everyone, Taddeo’s narrative technique melds her perspective with that of the three women: she is the “I” in the story, but she is also “they,” and thus, they are also “we.” Do we trust that Taddeo represents each woman faithfully in her interpretation? Perhaps it doesn’t matter because we would never hear their stories without Taddeo as both witness and preacher.
"Perhaps … all possible paths are happening simultaneously, and no choice we make limits the possibility of other paths that could lead to the same outcome."
If you do a Google search of William James, or the concept of the “multiverse,” or really most everything written in the second half of the nineteenth century (and before) on existentialism, morality, mortality, literature, spirituality, physics, etc., you will not be surprised to see the majority of “great thinkers” or “notable authors” about these topics are men. It’s not that women weren’t writing during that time, but what they were allowed to explore through their published writings was limited to reflections about the domestic sphere—parenting, housekeeping, friendship, or works of Regionalism that concentrated on locale—the social goings-on of a country town, the family in relationship to nature and community.
And yet we do have some rare examples of 19th century women writers who not only wrote skillful fiction that worked like a secret code to cautiously reveal a woman’s interior life through their domestic (female) trials, but also publicly theorized about such public-sphere (male) topics such as metaphysics and social reform.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman, who wrote the intimate and anguished short story about post-partum depression, The Yellow Wallpaper, and Herland, a utopian novel about a society in which women rule, also wrote Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation Between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution (1898), positing that “excessive sex-distinction” (i.e., a version of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus) is the cause of many societal problems. She wrote: “We have differentiated our industries, our responsibilities, our very virtues, along sex lines. It will therefore be clear that the claim of excessive sex-distinction in humanity, and especially in woman, does not carry with it any specific ‘moral’ reproach, though it does in the larger sense prove a decided evil in its effect on human progress.” In other words, the more distance we put between men and women, the more we allow for hierarchical positioning and a minimization of women’s contribution to society to the detriment of all.
Contemporaneously, we see the “evil” of excessive sex-distinction that Perkins Gilman describes when denying equal pay for women. Ultimately, it benefits both women and men economically when women are paid the same as men, but an over-dependence on making women “other” or “less than” prevents rectification of a problem that once solved would likely bring more money into the economy and less time spent away from the family. We also can see how sex-distinction has limited women’s access to education and knowledge. Perkins Gilman was motivated by the discrepancy between the education she was allowed in comparison to boys her age, but she was in the minority to have persevered, albeit with men in her life who unconventionally supported her work. Still, most of the materials available to women who did/do want to learn had/have been written by men. When this is true, men’s experience remains the “canon” of not only literature, but also human experience.
"[T]he more distance we put between men and women, the more we allow for hierarchical positioning and a minimization of women’s contribution to society to the detriment of all."
In her Introduction to The Amelia Report—a recent investigation of gender bias in media coverage of books—playwright Morgan Lloyd Malcolm concludes “[t]hat the idea of women’s writing being unimaginative and ‘domestic’ is a lie and that our creations have as much to say about the human condition as those of men.” But what is perhaps even more notable is that a book like Three Women, while written about women and by a woman, was edited and published by men. Only when minority stories aren’t sidelined or rewritten by those in the majority who are often the purveyors of story can a multiverse of experiences be accessible to everyone and begin to take their rightful, equal place in representation of what it means to be human.
Three Women is marketed as a book about female desire, but perhaps more importantly, I think, it is a book about real “live” women, to echo Gilman (with whom I opened this essay). No crown, no halo, but three fully living women. Still, it’s key that Taddeo focuses on sex and the intimacy that sex does and does not allow for. For centuries, women have been denied the opportunity to own and discuss without judgment their sexual selves. Sure, men have sexualized women, but the result is that women often consider their sexual selves only in terms of what men make available to them. In her introduction, Taddeo effectively 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.” And while we have long recognized that the chastity belt and gender mutilation, virginity testing and “what was she wearing?” are biased and cruel and dehumanizing, we as a culture still struggle to allow women to be sexual equals to men, free to define their sexuality for themselves.
Three Women works well as an exemplar of this persistent inequality—men defining or determining woman’s desire and/or satisfaction. Others have reviewed the book as a testament to women taking control over their own desires and pursuing the satisfaction of those desires, but the reality is that each of these three women, even when emotionally energized by a flirty text response or physically titilated by a long-sought-after kiss or particularly satisfying sex, are all hurt and disempowered by how much the men in their lives control the state of the relationship and even the narrative with which its told.
Maggie is a teenager engaging in “an inappropriate relationship” with her English teacher, as she first describes it when telling her parents. By law, Maggie’s participation in this relationship is not consensual, though before it falls apart, she believes she is a willing partner in the affair. Once she is rejected by him, she realizes she was groomed by him and takes him to court. While testifying, he “describes how [she] grew needy. It was not his wish to be on the phone with her [so often and for so long] but he thought she might spiral out of control. She was a tornado. He hoped to slow her descent.” He takes just enough blame to make him seem blameless, knowing it’s his reputable word against hers. Taddeo writes: “Part of [Maggie’s] narrative poses for the reader the all too familiar question of when and why and by whom women’s stories are believed—and when and why and by whom they are not.” One wonders if Maggie will ultimately ever be able to tell her own story.
Lina is equally complex. Of all the women, she is the most aware of how essential sex is to how she views herself as a success. She is as ambitious about sex as other women are in their careers or families. Her husband only offers her passivity and convenience when what she longs for the intensity and lanquidity of a make-out session. Lena’s experience with sex during her youth was, like Maggie’s, injurious. She was drugged and sexually assaulted by three boys, later choosing to view the rape as an event she hardly remembers and was complicit in: “I wasn’t fighting, that much I remember. I was just chill about it. I think I thought that I didn’t want to say no to anyone, that I wanted them to like me. I just didn’t want to give them any reason not to.” Neither Taddeo nor Lina directly examine the fallout of her assault on her future sexuality, but Lina, as an adult, seems almost emotionally stunted, still the young woman pre-assault who obsessed over her desirability to men. While leaving her husband, she commences a torrid affair with her first boyfriend and falls in love with the sex they are having. But it seems clear that she is not truly in love with him despite her intense feelings: “Aidan is not the same in sex as he is in life. He can be an asshole in life, a loser, but in bed he becomes something else entirely. A lord.” Taddeo leaves the end of Lina’s story ambiguous, but it’s hard to see what she has truly gained beyond freedom from an unsatisfying marriage, because she remains tethered to Aidan’s fickleness and a slave to her own obsessive desire.
Sloane is a restaurateur. Of the three women, she is the wealthiest, the most privileged. Attractive, slim, unflappable. She has a husband, Richard, who professes to love her and whom she professes to love very much, though she offhandedly mentions that he neglects to do small tender gestures such as bringing her a birthday cake or washing the dishes without her asking. Instead, she has a husband who professes to love her and also enjoys watching her have sex with men he chooses for her and sharing that experience with him in person or via technology. She admits sometimes she has sex with men she wouldn’t choose. (“They were always nice-looking enough, kind enough, smart enough. Nothing she couldn’t stomach. But she wouldn’t have picked them out herself.”) She learns she is a submissive, or tells herself she is. She believes she enjoys this unconventional sex life, though whether she is satisfied by it seems constantly in question, especially by Sloane herself. Growing up, her family was emotionally cold, and she questioned her value beyond her appearance and performance, and so desperately looked for validation from others. Like the other two women, Sloane wants to be wanted, but even more so, “[w]hat Sloane wanted more than anything else was to like herself.” Taddeo doesn’t offer us any clear resolution to Sloane’s story; instead, she contrasts a late moment of Sloane embracing a sort of fierce selfhood, of being seen and demanding that others see her, with a note in the Epilogue in which Taddeo hints that being loved by her husband and wanted by another man in tandem still defines Sloane’s perceived value of herself.
The readabiity of Taddeo’s book relies on her having chosen interesting subjects and her ability to convey their “erotic lives and longings” in a way that isn’t gratuitous but instead illuminating and relatable. And yet I was struck by the fact that none of them were truly ordinary women as the market copy indicates. In fact each of the women had a negative experience with a man/men during their teenage years that perhaps shaped how they saw themselves as valued only as sexual beings. And each of the women had some degree of mental illness—whether depression, or anxiety, or obsessive-compulsiveness—they had been treated for that resulted in making their pursuit of passion seem symptomatic of an existential emptiness rather than a delight of desire discovery. Is it possible for sexual desire to take such a prominent position in a woman’s life when everything else in her life is, well, fine? We don’t know, if Three Women is all we have to judge by. What if Taddeo had chosen a truly ordinary woman who makes an unextraordinary plan to satisfy her desire, and… ends up happy?
And why, I also wondered, were there no good men in this story that partnered these women in finding their sexual selves? You can say that each of these women were complicit or even directing the sexual relationships with the men in their lives, but none were true partners. (Maggie’s Aaron is an alleged pedophile; Lina’s Aidan is, as she herself says, “a loser”; and Sloane’s Richard could be seen as pimping out his wife for his own pleasure.) There isn’t anything inherently wrong in Taddeo choosing these stories to tell, but each of these women are engaged in dysfunctional sexual relationships disguised as freedom, and I would be cautious of anyone championing the book strictly as an emblem of female empowerment.
"[W]hile we have long recognized that the chastity belt and gender mutilation, virginity testing and 'what was she wearing?' are biased and cruel and dehumanizing, we as a culture still struggle to allow women to be sexual equals to men, free to define their sexuality for themselves."
In 1899, the same time as William James and Charlotte Perkins Gilman were at the height of their writing powers, Kate Chopin wrote The Awakening. In that story, Edna Pontellier longs for more from her life. She is a wife and mother, but during a family vacation away from the city, the expected behaviors and responsibilities of her domestic and societal role begin to suffocate her (“An indescribable oppression, which seemed to generate in some unfamiliar part of her consciousness, filled her whole being with a vague anguish. It was like a shadow, like a mist passing across her soul's summer day.”) just as the natural world—the gulf, the heat, the humidity—tempts her, opens her up. Searching for something to distract her from her melancholy, she falls in love with Robert who awakens in her a fledgling passion for him, but also a desire for freedom. “Mrs. Pontellier was beginning to realize her position in the universe as a human being, and to recognize her relations as an individual to the world within and about her.” Her sexual desire cannot be separated from her desire for independence.
Robert doesn’t want Edna to sacrifice her social standing in order for them to be together, so he leaves town abruptly. In his absence, she begins to explore the inkling of agency she lacked before. She begins to create art more deliberately than recreationally. And she distracts herself by diverting her attention toward another man, Alcée, known for his seduction of married women. “It was the first kiss of her life to which her nature had really responded. It was a flaming torch that kindled desire.” She knows her desire is superficial and yet, this is a turning point for Edna. She moves out of her husband’s house, leaving her children behind because she can no longer abide being tethered to responsibility. Edna “thought of Leonce and the children. They were a part of her life. But they need not have thought that they could possess her, body and soul.“ Her feelings for Robert ignited something in Edna that had lain dormant her whole life: the desire to be her own woman. When Robert comes back, they share declarations of love, but he leaves her again, citing his love for her as the reason he mustn’t stay. Unhappy and wanting, Edna solves the gaping emptiness by swimming out to her death.
It’s no accident that Chopin describes her conjoining with the water with sexual connotations, writing: “The water was deep, but she lifted her white body and reached out with a long, sweeping stroke. The touch of the sea was sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace.” The ambiguousness of the ending—did Edna choose suicide because she was brokenhearted or because she could not live in a society that would not allow her to be her true self? Perhaps both. Or perhaps drowning was an act of empowerment.
Earlier in the book, when Edna first learns to swim, Chopin imbues the mastered skill with strength and awakening: “A feeling of exultation overtook her, as if some power of significant import had been given her to control the workings of her body and her soul.” Independence. Agency. The right to choose who to be and who to be with, without rules and without judgment. As Edna’s doctor states when imploring Edna to come to him for help for her mood: “[N]ature takes no account of moral consequences, of arbitrary conditions which we create, and which we feel obliged to maintain at any cost.” And in the end, only nature could provide her with a path forward, even if forward was an end in itself.
When The Awakening was first published, it was met with derision from (mostly male) critics. Edna’s disobedience as wife and mother and the exploration of not only her desires, but her independence caused a fervor. Edna was considered a bad woman and a bad influence on other women. Her suicide was considered too “dark” to be introduced into the fragile psyches of readers like ‘80s metal music was believed to corrupt young listeners and deserved to be banned. Today, we consider The Awakening to be an important feminist work, though there is still plenty of debate over whether Edna’s final act of self-ownership was her only course of action. But in 1899, Chopin is telling us, the world was not going to make room for a complicated woman.
"When The Awakening was first published, it was met with derision from (mostly male) critics. Edna’s disobedience as wife and mother and the exploration of not only her desires, but her independence caused a fervor."
In Three Women, Taddeo doesn’t offer us such dramatic conclusions, though she does want us to be generous to these women and their stories. She argues that our culture doesn’t want women to pursue passion—“It felt as though, with desire, nobody wanted anyone else, particularly a woman, to feel it.” That there is some hegemonic envy or shame that keeps us all in our harnesses, and when other women step out of theirs, we want to pull them back into place. And when we extrapolate further, if women achieve sexual freedom, then they also achieve greater freedom, full stop.
Like Edna, these women face consequences for their pursuit of passionate connection. There are damaged families and betrayed wives. There is a court case. There are damaged reputations and future plans denied realization. Should the moral of the story be that women will be punished in their pursuit of pleasure? No, I think instead that Maggie, Lina, and Sloane, like Edna, desired something more than sexual congress. The stories in Three Women represent a snapshot in time, and each of these women are on a long and winding path toward realizing, as Chopin puts it, “her position in the universe as a human being.” Unlike Edna, these women have a future that will be informed by but not limited to these affairs.
For those reasons, I don’t believe that Three Women is about female empowerment via sexual satisfaction and desire—this is not What Women Want and it is not Eat, Pray, Love. Instead, the three stories introduce us to the messy interiority of women and convey how messy women are also simply messy human beings. And therein lies the importance of this book. For women to be truly equal, even liberated, they must be recognized as and allow themselves to be multitudinous, complicated, and complex. As Charlotte Perkins Gilman knew early, “In our steady insistence on proclaiming sex-distinction we have grown to consider most human attributes as masculine attributes, for the simple reason that they were allowed for men and forbidden to women.” Men and women are each just ambitious, misguided, injured, angry, irrational, powerful, hurtful, loving humans.
One of the issues I struggle with in this #metoo era is the tendency to vilify all men and saint all women. When we do this we do as much damage to women’s sexual freedom and agency as we did when we saint men (or at least exonerate them, saying boys will be boys) and vilify women. Women are not inherently good and men inherently bad, but can be both and all. We have been contemplating the multidimensionality of humanity for centuries (with James, Schrodinger, Borges, Whitman, Gilman, Chopin just a few of our brave explorers), and yet we still fall prey to easy categorization and limiting dichotomization. By denying women the complexity of the self, and the opportunity to own the kind of desire we default to men regardless of consequence, we also deny women their ”chains off, crown off, halo off” humanity. Maggie, Lina, and Sloane (and you, and me, and Taddeo, ad infinitum) each ourselves prove the existence of the multiverse, in the variety of our stories and our continued striving for what’s possible when we are courageous enough to unleash all our desires.