It makes sense when, with a knowing laugh, the author Lisa Taddeo tells me that she “doesn’t like small talk”. Sitting in her airy kitchen in rural Connecticut, she goes straight for the jugular, speaking thoughtfully about sex, rape, and ambivalence about being a mother. She talks with the same detailed and inquiring spirit that was evident in Three Women, the non-fiction book that made her a household name. It is unflinching in its descriptions of female desire, sex and emotional trauma and it gave a voice to women who were tired of pretending they were not angry and wounded, coming out in 2019 when the world was reeling from MeToo.
The book turned Taddeo from a journalist and writer to a feminist figurehead, topping bestseller lists in the UK and the US. Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray, Love, compared it to In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. Taddeo is working on a screenplay of it for a Showtime TV series, with the help of Maggie, one of the women (Maggie is doing well).
Now she has written a novel, Animal, a rage-fuelled thriller about a woman called Joan who describes herself as “depraved”. It came out in June and has been called American Psycho for the #MeToo generation. Joan flees from New York to Los Angeles after her married boss, who she has been having an affair with, shoots himself in front of her.
“It is not that I want people to feel uncomfortable,” Taddeo, 41, explains, in her sunny New Jersey accent. She is warm company, and willing to show her vulnerable side. “But I believe things only change when there is a little bit of discomfort. We are taught as women to downplay our anger, even though if we don’t talk about things we are more likely to repeat mistakes. MeToo did a lot but we still have a long way to go. People still don’t want to hear some women’s stories.”
She sweeps her cropped obsidian black hair up into a pink hair band and yawns, apologising that she is tired from being up in the night to comfort her six-year-old daughter, Fox, during a thunderstorm.
By day, her husband, screenwriter Jackson Waite “is the parent who is the most into validating our daughter’s feelings but when it is 3am and someone needs to get up to comfort her, he could not care less. I have to get up”. She met Waite while she was travelling around America researching Three Women. It took eight years to write and she started Animal while working on it, in 2017. “It is in conversation with Three Women,” she says. “It became a place to filter “ideas I was hearing from the women I spoke to for Three Women that were a bit too dark for them to see in print”.
Every eight out of 10 of the women Taddeo spoke to for Three Women “would have some kind of wild trauma or assault that had happened to them. But we are taught as women to downplay our anger and not be too disagreeable, even though anger helps you heal.”
The national hypocrisy of the way we deal with sexuality is absurd to me. I write about sex in a way that feels true and detailed
The one section of Animal that her editor was unsure about including involves an older women being assaulted. Taddeo was adamant that it stayed. “My grandmother was raped when she was an older woman,” she says. “I was around six and it marked my childhood. I knew she had been assaulted but I didn’t know what had happened until I was in my twenties. My father would not talk about it. I was interested in how I pieced together that memory and the way it shaped how I moved about in the world.”
Taddeo’s detailed style has been called voyeuristic but she says this is not a bad thing: “Everything we do is voyeuristic — aren’t we reading purely for voyerusim? Aren’t we wanting to be titillated, swept away in a narrative? The national hypocrisy of the way we deal with sexuality is so absurd to me. I just write about sex the way I have experienced it, seen and heard others experience it, in a way that feels true and detailed. What is the point of writing something that is easy to digest?”
What do men make of the book? She says they have had questions and observations about it, not refuting it by saying they are not all like that.
Joan, Animal’s protagonist, is a rare character in fiction, a female main character who is not always likeable, driven by her own desires. “The idea of a woman wanting anything is dangerous,” says Taddeo. “There are women out there who think their story is not as important as a man’s. My cousins, for example, won’t order food until their husbands arrive, even though their husbands have gone on bike rides and will be late. Let them go get themselves a f***ing sandwich.” She continues: “Whenever there is a male protagonist or antagonist we are all along for whatever the ride is but when it is a woman there is a little sliver of correctness we need to abide by. We have to be the perfect amount of slutty or not slutty, not too smart. It is interesting and sad that it’s still like this.”
With her “mum friends”, “none of us wants to be the one to say the outre thing. There is a safety in everyone staying right here. If someone tries to do more or gets married or divorced first, whatever it is it causes a stir. We are all driving around in these little bumper cars and we are all so afraid to take the bumper part off and really smash anything up. There is safety in not changing. I think it is sad.” She “gets bored when my mum friends want to talk about things like who is doing lunch. I want to talk about the stuff that makes me feel jumbled inside like how I feel when I don’t want to cuddle my daughter”. Taddeo “didn’t always want to have a kid”. “It wasn’t this marker that I needed to have. It made me sad that I did not want one. I thought this meant something about me as a woman.” But eventually, after meeting Waite, she changed her mind.
Having a child has brought up a lot that “is mind boggling”. “I saw a couple of male writers who I’d known prior to having my kid. I was with her and they said, ‘my god why do you have a kid, I thought you wanted to be a writer?’ Wait a second, they have children and they are writers. I don’t understand, is it different for men? I grew up with a father who treated me like I could do anything so when I saw that girls weren’t allowed to do some things it smacked of complete inanity for me.”
She is selective about what she reads her daughter — Peter Pan is off limits because he has three women to choose from. So far, her approach has worked. When they watched Joe Biden and Kamala Harris’s inauguration, her daughter asked why they were celebrating having a female vice-president. “She thought it was normal and I didn’t want to burst that bubble. When kids are born into the world they don’t care about gender or race. Why would a person be treated differently because of it?”
It is a relief to have “an adult in the White House, who appears to be a kind person — unlike narrators of books I do think presidents should be kind and smart. When you have the ability to change people’s lives by the laws you make, kindness is a bottom of the barrel attribute you should have.”
She thinks carefully about how best to respond to her daughter’s emotions. For example, this week, Fox told her about a friend who always wants to sit next to someone else and it hurts her feelings. “I felt her getting sadder the more I asked about it. My dad would have been like, ‘who cares?’ That’s served me well in some things, you could say I am repressed in other ways.”
Fox is the motivation for much of Taddeo’s writing. “I wish I had more of my mother. I lost her before we were adults together. I want my daughter to have some record of me, to feel I am there in some way. I do want her to hear the full-throated cries of rage.” Grief is a strong theme in Animal. Taddeo lost both her parents in her twenties — her father, a doctor, died in a car accident and shortly afterwards her mother was diagnosed with cancer. She was 28 when she died and felt “completely alone”. She has a brother but he is 14 years older and had a family, while she was single. “It was like being mauled by a tiger,” she says. “I am petrified of feeling that way again. But to anyone in the outside world I was just someone who had lost their parents. It wasn’t like I was five, I could take care of myself. The amount it hurt me was not visible to others. Animal for me is writing about what it is like to feel that.”
Her next book is probably going to be non-fiction, about grief. “I am interested in how in the western world we sweep it under the rug, so much so that people don’t know what to say when someone loses a person. I want it to be a useful book for me and others but I don’t want to exploit people’s pain in any way so I am trying to work out how to do it, in a way that is hopeful and helpful.”