The unbearable wonder of being completely known

Justine Toh on Lisa Taddeo's book 'Three Women', and the desire to be completely known by another.

“Wouldn’t it feel wonderful to be completely known?”

I did not expect this question to be left burning in me after reading Three Women, Lisa Taddeo’s extraordinary feat of narrative journalism — an immersive account of the sex lives of three women she followed for nearly a decade, even moved town to be closer to, became the sounding board for, and the implicit witness of so many explicit events in these women’s lives.

“…it’s the nuances of desire that hold the truth of who we are at our rawest moments.”

I should not have been so surprised. Taddeo has written a book making known some of the mysteries of female sexual desire, convinced that “it’s the nuances of desire that hold the truth of who we are at our rawest moments.” But an unexpected pleasure of Three Women is its disclosure of an even more secret desire. It’s the desire to be known, to be “completely known” by another.

Maggie Wilken is one of Taddeo’s three women, and the only one to be known by her real name. She silently asks that question — “Wouldn’t he feel wonderful to be completely known?” — of the defence attorney currently grilling her about why she wrote a letter to Aaron Knodel, her English teacher, telling him she’d lost her virginity to an army man twice her age. Because Knodel (also his real name), by then North Dakota’s Teacher of the Year, is on trial for subsequently having an affair with the then 17-year-old schoolgirl. He’ll eventually be exonerated; leaving Maggie bruised and bruising, and subsequently spilling all to Taddeo to give her side of the story.

What emerges is a tale of heart-pounding first love, drenched in Taddeo’s luscious prose that allows us to feel, along with Maggie, each intoxicating moment and lingering gaze, but also the ever-present threat that Knodel might withdraw his attention. That authors of fiction should know, deeply, the characters they create is expected. We’re less accustomed to non-fiction laying bare the soul of one before the gaze of another. At times, Three Women feels almost too raw and revealing.

Maggie’s version of events, of course, is also deeply unsettled by the gross power imbalance between her and her teacher. There are disclosures that are as revelatory of their mutual infatuation as they are creepy: she claims Knodel sprayed his cologne onto the pages of her copy of Twilight, and carefully annotated it with handwritten notes comparing their relationship to Bella and Edward’s forbidden love. Yes, this feels too private to publish. But this kind of intimacy is the result, Taddeo claims, of at least eight years of reading her subjects’ diaries, sifting their memories, talking in depth to their friends and family and listening to her women tell their stories. “Getting to know someone” almost never looks like this.

Lina and Sloane, Taddeo’s other two women, also let themselves be known. Lina, a Midwestern housewife, embarks on a desperate affair with her high school ex after wilting in a sexless marriage for eleven years. Sloane is a poised restaurant owner who has sex, on request, with others for the viewing pleasure of her husband. She seems the most “together” — and thus least sympathetic — of Taddeo’s subjects. And yet by the end of her account even that impression is undermined. All, it turns out, is not as it seems.

Taddeo chose her subjects based “on what I perceived as these women’s ability to be honest with themselves and on their willingness to communicate their stories in a way that laid bare their desire.” Such unsparing honesty does not always make for easy reading, especially given the almost self-destructive impulse that haunts these women’s experiences of desire — most evident when their lovers remain tantalisingly out of reach. As Taddeo writes of Maggie (though it could easily apply to all three), “sometimes she falls on the sword of her own desire. And lies there, and repents too late, and too incorrectly, for anyone to want to save her.”

Lest that quote comes off as even slightly judgmental, it’s Taddeo’s stated intent to comprehend rather than condemn her women’s choices. For the most part, Taddeo bears witness to their lives and remains mostly off-screen. But there is the odd authorial comment, like the one concluding Lina’s mad dash to meet her lover: a monumental effort to organise last minute childcare, race across town, switch cars and location — all while trying to quell her rising panic that he’ll cancel. He doesn’t, so she will later text him to thank him for taking the time to see her. And then Taddeo writes: “If you ask her how long it was she will say, Gee, I’d say it was almost thirty minutes.” Devastating.

And after Sloane is caught cheating with Wes, her lover, her instinct is to tell Jenny, Wes’s partner, “it’s not what you think.” But then, this: “Sloane knew, as she imagined Jenny knew, that it is almost always what you think.” Sloane realises instantly that, deep down, she had always been aware Jenny didn’t know, but was trying to protect her own conscience.

Here, Taddeo’s authorial voice merges with Sloane’s, holding space to recognise what Sloane has done. With Lina, Taddeo retains a slight distance. In these ways, Taddeo offers some very perceptive, and not at all unkind or intrusive, commentary on the depths of these women’s desires and their desperate needs — and on the brutal truth of their failures and disappointments. Taddeo is nothing if not gracious towards her women, even as she reflects back to them truths they would rather not face.

…if my story, or yours, was written by someone else, wouldn’t we wish for an author to be as generous towards us as Taddeo is to her three women?

All of which begs some questions: did Taddeo’s three women recognise themselves in Three Women? Did they discover in her account of their lives something they didn’t already know about themselves? Even more searching questions beckon: Is it possible to tell the full story of someone’s life? Who would tell it? And if my story, or yours, was written by someone else, wouldn’t we wish for an author to be as generous towards us as Taddeo is to her three women?

C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces may not be the most obvious companion piece to Taddeo’s Three Women, but the two books, strangely, complement each other. Three Women is written like fiction but tells true stories; Till We Have Faces is fictional — it retells the Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche — but imparts some profound truths. Moreover, both share a theme of speaking your truth and telling your story, especially if you feel you’ve been denied justice either in court (like Maggie in Three Women) or by the gods (like Oural in Till We Have Faces).

But the genius of Lewis’s book is the way it exposes how unreliable a narrator we might be, especially when it comes to narrating our own story. The bulk of the book concerns Oural’s (written) complaint against the gods, her tally of their injustices towards her. But once Oural envisions herself pleading her case to a heavenly court, she is struck by the venom of her testimony, as well as the awful realisation that she is, at last, hearing her real voice. Brought face to face with her capacity for self-deception, Orual understands she needed the gods to reveal herself to herself. “They used my own pen to probe my wound,” she writes.

To juxtapose Lewis’s book with Taddeo’s and Oural with Maggie is not to cast doubt on Maggie’s story, much less to deny her very real hurt. It’s just to observe, to the extent that we can tell our stories, we only do so imperfectly. This does not mean that there can be no complete account of our lives; only that it might lie beyond our ability to grasp.

One of Taddeo’s many accomplishments is the way she gets us to imagine our lives as capable of narration by another. To this, Lewis adds the possibility that there may be an authority on our lives even higher than ourselves. As a Christian writer, Lewis proposes that that authority would be God — the Author, say, beyond every other author, and kinder to us than we might imagine. An Author who knows us intimately, even better than we know ourselves.

And perhaps, to return to Three Women, the thrill of being known is what draws us to risk all in our often-torturous dalliances with desire. Being known, that is, just might be the consummate desire towards which every other act of consummation strains.

Justine Toh is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity, host of the occasional series Spiritual Lifehack on ABC RN’s Soul Search and, very occasionally, guest host of ABC RN’s God Forbid.

This article first appeared in ABC Religion & Ethics.