Like any landscape after a flood, everything looks different since the advent of the #MeToo movement. Contours have shifted, new lines have been drawn. Of course, changes were afoot long before Harvey Weinstein was smoked out of his Hollywood penthouse. Fourth-wave feminism has been in the ascendant for some years now, making Julia Kristeva’s 1981 essay ‘Women’s Time’ look wonderfully dated. Like any contemporary movement worth its salt, fourth-wave feminism uses the internet as its primary weapon, asking women to revisit sexual encounters, workplace relationships, family entanglements and just about anything else in a surge of digital re-moralisation.
Perhaps most pressingly, revisionism calls for new stories. Step forward Lisa Taddeo, whose Three Women has been happily gestating for many years, originating long before #MeToo broke and Kristen Roupenian’s hit New Yorker story ‘Cat Person’ had seen the light of day. For eight years, Taddeo followed the three women of the book’s title, Maggie, Lena and Sloane, living through the cold Indiana and North Dakota winters, eating in the diners they worked in, driving through the Midwestern corn fields they sped through and scrutinising their phone, text message and email logs. In the prologue, she stresses that the three women ‘are in charge of their narratives’ and that hers is a work of nonfiction, a book about ‘human desire’ that sets out ‘to register the heat and sting of female want so that men and other women might more easily comprehend before they condemn’. Structured as a rotating triptych, the narrative circles around the three women’s stories and zigzags into their consciousnesses, sometimes uncovering long-submerged traumas such as experiences of rape, incest and eating disorders, at other times skittering across more superficial aspects of the women’s lives, such as their hair, make-up and social media profiles. All three women encounter the many different forms of desire: illicit, staged, euphoric, frightening and grotesque, to name but a few.
Three Women is a skilled example of imbricated layering, mixing high trauma with the quotidian, the profound with the peripheral: ‘Nothing is as Catholic and binding as a clean, white blender’; ‘This kiss, with this man, is roving, and she feels the five hundred Home Depot trips’. But for all Taddeo’s insistence that the narratives belong to the three women alone, I couldn’t help but sense that she had too much skin in the game. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the case of Maggie, the only woman whose name she hasn’t changed. Deep into the account of how Maggie brought charges against one of her school teachers for corruption of a minor, Taddeo pops out of the shadows, shouting in indignation over Maggie’s voice, ‘Can you imagine’.
Perhaps this is to be expected, even desired, in a work that is bookended with an account of the author’s complicated relationship with sexual boundaries, something bequeathed to her by her mother, who silently let a man masturbate behind her on her way to work for many years. Maybe we need help reframing stories of desire. Might we hope that multiple female voices will together finally lead us to believe what women have to say? Herein lies perhaps the book’s most chilling message: testimony is simply not enough. And yet, the testimony on offer here is extremely gripping, making this a very readable – if gloomy – book that I raced through from cover to cover.
Three Women turns #MeToo inside out, showing us its ugly seams and exposing unfortunate truths – most notably that women are not a unified bloc. Put simply, women don’t always believe other women. One particular observation underwrites all three narratives: ‘And the truth, Maggie knows, is that other girls can’t protect you. They will leave you the moment a man they like pulls them up, anoints them, and alchemizes them into princesses who don’t have to deal with the rabble outside the castle walls.’ Maybe we haven’t come as far as we thought we had.