When Lina came to the room happy, when she came from just having seen Aidan, those were the nights when the other women drummed their fingers and tried to drown out her glee.
I met Lina in Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women, a book on the private lives and loves of three American women. Aidan is the truck-driving, high-school boyfriend who Lina cheats on her husband with, and the women, participants in her therapy group. The women are at several removes from me, being American, in a different time zone, and in essence, five black squiggles on a flat white page; but their reaction gets under my skin, just the same. Why are they sympathetic towards Lina’s marital sorrows, but intolerant of her glee when she finds an imperfect solution to the problem?
Taddeo’s interpretation is that the women were angry that Lina wanted more than her nice house and family. Lina didn’t just want to tick the boxes of a happy life; she went brazenly after ecstasy and excitement, two transgressive states with origins in the pagan world. Ecstasy, which comes from the Greek, ekstasis, relates to being outside of one’s proper state; while excitement, which derives from the Latin verb excitare, similarly has connotations of being provoked beyond the normal bounds of behaviour. The possessor of ecstasy and excitement can often feel immortal, while those in her presence fret like bewildered pigeons, all too conscious of their impending doom. I wonder, did the women want to bring Lina down, curb her excesses, to be better able cope with her? But we’ll get to their reaction later; first, we ought to turn our attention to Lina’s unabashed joy in the presence of intimates who seemed unable to handle it.
Taddeo, who worked on multiple case-studies of desire, says that she handpicked the three women in her book for their willingness to give complete and honest accounts of their intimate lives; subjects who were cagier, fell away like failed suitors, or were only mentioned in passing. Whereas historically, honest women have been contained, both in behaviour and speech, neither seeking, nor reporting transgressions, Lina’s honesty is synonymous with advanced truth-telling. In a world of subterfuges and highlights reels, Lina’s candid accounts of the kind of sex she enjoys and the gruelling lengths she goes to get it, when her noncommittal lover, is for the most part, spooked by her passion, imbue her with a likeable integrity. Taddeo’s third-person closed narration, which dovetails with Lina’s perspective, encourages the reader to identify with the protagonist, as she reports emotions that are ripe, painful and difficult to articulate. By describing Lina’s experience in unflinching detail, Taddeo enables readers to find parts of themselves in the specifics of one honest woman’s story.
One woman who would have not been honest enough to make it into Taddeo’s book, was her own mother, an immigrant to America from Northern Italy. This beautiful woman, who Taddeo knew more as an object, than a subject of desire, warned her to not let anyone, especially other women, see her happy, because if they see you are happy, they will try to destroy you. Having lived in a climate of political instability and economic precariousness, Taddeo’s mother could see the meanness in others, (and arguably herself), in a way that Taddeo, who was raised in American abundance, could not. Taddeo’s mother’s worldview, was one of scarcity, where every woman was out for herself, rather than supportive of her sisters; one woman’s gain, was the others’ loss. The words of this woman from an older culture than Taddeo’s, sent a chill of recognition through me. Though I’d never heard them uttered explicitly, the people who raised me, acted as if they were true.
In the Greek Cypriot culture of my parents and grandparents, envy, the brutal fact that we don’t want others to have things that we want for ourselves, was kept at bay with a series of rituals. New televisions and glowing school reports coexisted with hanging glass eyes and clay pots of smoking bay-leaf. Older people, especially, moderated compliments, with I don’t want to put my jealous eye on you. I’ve always thought that this statement outs envy before it has time to settle in the well-wisher’s heart, and so kind of lets them off the hook. Still, the recipient touches their hair self-consciously, aware that whatever has been praised stands to be taken away from them. I’ve seen enough sunglasses, earrings and hefty, acoustic guitars go missing, within hours of a compliment, to fear that there’s truth in this. Like Taddeo’s mother, I see how other pendant things – happiness and romantic love – stand to be taken away days, if not instants after someone’s seen you’ve been lucky.
When it comes to talking about love, I’m closer to Taddeo’s mother, than I am to Lina. Even when I know I’m being good and sisterly by sharing; when I experience some relief from unburdening a full heart, it can feel like I’m talking against my own consent. Strangely, this doesn’t only result from a fear of things being taken away; there’s a lively part of me that takes pleasure in discretion. Secrecy around love, is in my ethnic and cultural DNA. I grew up on stories of girls hiding their boyfriends until one of them metamorphoses into a ring-bearer; of window-escapes and clandestine meetings. Don’t get me wrong, much trouble and heartache was caused by hiding, but the stories of escape were exciting, (that pagan word again), and shaped my romantic imagination. The counter-phenomenon on TV, where shows like Dawson’s Creek and Sex and the City discussed and dissected relationships ad infinitum, was entertaining, but not enticing. It had nothing to do with what I felt was a natural way to hold love and desire. Rather than saying I’m happy, I prefer a mischievous glow that travels from inside to out; the extra energy I have for people and projects. The ecstasy is a shift in my internal chemistry, rather than one that comes out in revelatory speeches, which others can scrutinise and drag through the mud.
When a friend recently revealed her flimsy sunglasses affair to me, I was the one who had to try not to scrutinise, to not be like the women who listened to Lina. Inevitably, though, my friend’s blind obsession made me and her other confidantes both stern and matronly. The indigestible panic came out in the guise of looking out for her – concern, mediated with reproaches. The love object was pronounced a suave, two-timing manipulator; which by all available evidence, he was. I even felt tearful at the thought that this man was cheating on his girlfriend, an unknown woman, who was to my mind, being abandoned. I judged the truant pair for the chaos they were causing, for their carelessness towards the unknown woman, who became the primary object of my empathy. However, reading Taddeo’s book made me feel uncomfortable about experiencing my friend’s passion as a threat. Could I not relate to this honest woman as I had to Lina, see that she was like me and not an Other?
I resolved to co-exist with my discomfort, to not banish or ritualise it away, but to see it for what it was, fear of scarcity and loss of control. I’d realise that my friend and I were cut from the same cloth and that her appetite for excess was part of me too. Accepting that the desire to have more, to feel immensely, was part of life, I could search for a healthy outlet. And when I found it, how I’d express my joy and who I’d tell, would be up to me.
Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women was published by Simon & Schuster in 2019