Lisa Taddeo’s books are filled with desires we don’t often talk about. In her best-selling book Three Women, which is being adapted into a Showtime series that premieres in January, Lina wants to smear her former high-school boyfriend Aidan’s semen all over her body, Sloane fantasizes about her husband having sex with another woman, and Maggie feels as though she would “[eat] a roach” to hold her crush’s hand. In Taddeo’s debut novel, Animal, Joan admits that during a yoga class, she imagines how the male students “might bend the young instructor” and finds it to be “erotic and eviscerating.”
So it’s not surprising that when asked about the best sex she’s ever read, Taddeo’s selection expresses what she calls an “illegal truth” about desire. The passage is from Noy Holland’s 2015 novel, Bird, which chronicles an ordinary day in the life of Bird, a stay-at-home mother with a young son and an infant daughter. As Bird goes about her day, talking on the phone with her friend Suzie and walking, bathing, and breastfeeding her baby, Bird can’t stop thinking about Mickey, an old lover who, more than a decade later, still has a hold on her. Like Holland, Taddeo aims to be fearless in how she writes sex: unafraid to express the messiness of eroticism and the impossibility of separating it from other aspects of life. Below, a representative section from Bird, followed by Taddeo’s comments about it.
Every living tissue, Bird thinks. She doesn’t want to, but of course she does. Bird wants a shirt that smells of her mother still to ball up in her hands. So to sleep. Sleep and let the phone go, let the school bus pass. Take the day in bed.
I can’t want that.
But she does.
She brings the baby to her breast in bed and tries to sleep. Nothing doing. She’s all stirred up. She smells smoke, or a hurricane coming. Smells the baby’s milky head. She has a tooth already, this baby, a little headstone poking through. A little zing when she nurses. It hurts. If only it would hurt a little more, Bird thinks, maybe she would wake him. Take her man in her mouth and wake him, want him hard again. Gimme gimme.
She tries to want that, but what she finds to want is the mess of herself, the old dream that Suzie lies. Makes up, or lives, Bird cannot sort it. She cannot sort the news from the wishful, the actual from the dreamed-up muck of what Suzie fears, or Bird does, from what Suzie wants, or Bird does, or half the time what difference there is between wanting at all and fear.
She will turn a corner and find him there.
She will never in her life again see him.
What I like about this passage is that Holland travels between intimacy with her baby and intimacy with a man, or a lover, with seamlessness in a way that I think we’re often afraid to do. I find her to be completely fearless. I often think of this passage because of how uncomfortable it made me — and how much I like that. That part about “if only it would hurt a little more” when she’s nursing. If only the feeling of it felt a little bit less like a baby and more sexual.
There is a photograph that Louise Friedberg, the director of a couple of the episodes of Three Women, put up on a mood board — I’m not sure who the photographer is — of a naked woman in a bed with a baby at her breast and a man between her legs going down on her. The woman’s face is just like, Great, this is my day. I’m like a fucking cat. That immediately made me think back to this passage and sort of the messiness of intimacy, the overlapping nature of it. When sex is described in a super-honest way, it’s kind of exhilarating because it’s like, Someone is telling the illegal truth.
There’s a line later in the book where Bird becomes pregnant and she loses the baby, and they go to the ER and the doctor “scrapes” her out. Holland has talked about how she knows it’s a brutal word, but the idea is that turning away from the full experience is a disservice to the person living through it. When I wrote about Maggie in Three Women, people would say, “Why’d you say that part?” And I’d say, “Because that part happened.”
People like Noy Holland, Christine Schutt, Barry Hannah, Gary Lutz — there’s a lot of writers whose concern with language and who don’t give a shit about what people say has really helped me. It’s so weird whenever people talk about writers “taking risks.” I think a risk is like having a surgery that might kill you. I don’t think using a weird metaphor is a risk, and the notion of us calling it a “risk” says more about the person calling it a risk and their own fears about being called out. When I see writers who clearly don’t care about that, I find that really electrifying and exciting. Writers who are willing to say something that feels a little scary — not even scary, but it’s scary when we haven’t heard something before being told in a certain honest way. I’ve been really emboldened by writers who break the rules. I don’t think there should be rules necessarily.
Sex writing has this bad rap. It can be so cheesy, it can be too quiet and too puritanical, or it can be too gross or whatever. For me, I’ve always sought to find the line between the clinical and the nonclinical — the word pussy, for example. I don’t like the word pussy, and I don’t like the word cock in my own writing. I don’t use those unless a character uses them. I wouldn’t use them as the third-person narrator — not because I think they’re bad words — because to me it feels like sex writing should come from this place that is understandable to almost anyone. Talking about the movements of bodies and the things that somebody is thinking at the same time is interesting, but using language that is either too clinical (like vagina) or is a slang (like pussy) — to me, neither is right. I wouldn’t say, “He put his penis inside of her.” I would say, “Within seconds, he was inside of her.” I just wouldn’t use the word itself, because I think those words are sometimes distracting — both the clinical kind and the slang kind.
For me, the goal is to translate and communicate all of the feelings that someone feels in the middle of any sex act. The feelings can range from the churchly to the fully depressed and rageful and also to still wanting to be seen as sexy. For me, it’s about communicating all of the different experiences of sex and to not shy away from the things that shouldn’t be sexy but are.