When people ask how I was able to get so intimate with the subjects of Three Women
— a book about desire reported over eight years — I talk about the different methods I used. I posed the same question, for example, dozens of times and from a variety of angles. It was a book, after all, about desire, and not about bird-watching. And a real
story about desire needed to explore the caverns of the soul. I drove across the country six times in total, posting signs and talking to everyone I met along the way, looking for the right people who’d be amenable to letting me into their lives in so close a way. I knew it had to go deep and that the subjects needed to be eminently relatable to as many people as possible.
When I met Lina, the housewife in Indiana, I knew right away she was it. She was going to leave her husband, who no longer wanted to kiss her on the mouth, who said the sensation offended
him, and begin an affair with her former lover. Her heart exploded in the discussion group where I first met her. Its pieces scattered around the room like wet confetti.
She began to call me directly after their encounters and send me play-by-play messages over Facebook. It was wild, in retrospect, to be that inside of someone’s brain, but at the time it felt like speaking to a very close friend. I wanted to tell all the stories, taking into account the women’s language and mannerisms.
Beyond the methods I used and the time I spent, I know that one of the principal reasons I was able to get so close was because I had a vast store of empathy for those in pain.
In the time before I started Three Women
, I lost my parents tragically; nearly my entire family was, in fact, decimated over the course of a decade. As such, I found myself very open to hearing the stories of others. I found myself wanting to make sure others — especially women — didn’t experience the same sort of torrential loneliness that I had.
The other fundamental reason I was able to get so close is because, like nearly any other woman in the world, I understood the weight of shame.
During one of those cross-country trips for the book, in an RV campsite in Whitefish, Montana, I found out I was pregnant with the child of a man I had known for only a month. The response from the friends and family I called in the unsure hours following the plus sign on the strip — that materialized like a child’s invisible ink — was surprising to me: You can't keep this baby, you have this book, and anyway, who is this man? What would your (dead) parents think? I felt I was being shamed. It was terrible. Most shockingly, the family members who were pretty obviously pro-life were suddenly not. They were not pro-life about me. It was the opposite reaction from that which I expected.
Pain and shame are a part of nearly every woman’s trajectory.
My boyfriend went for a run while I rinsed some clothes in the river. He came back and said, I think we should have the baby. What do you think?
I was terrified of losing someone else. By then I had lost four people that I deeply loved to illness and tragic accident. My dog. All my grandparents.
I said, OK
. I continued my trip. I looked for people and found people and hung signs on so many truck stops and barber shop windows and coffee shop and supermarket bulletin boards and slot machines and bathroom stalls. I drove back east and hung some more.
Along the way I doubted myself — my choices and my process. I worried there was no process at all. I made many lists. I tried to schedule my days, with the loose plan of finding subjects in the mornings and then, in the afternoons and evenings, spending time with the various people I had already found. All of which — even the ones who didn’t make it into the final book — had been affected by shame.
Maggie, the high school student who had an alleged affair with her English teacher, had been torn apart by her community for refusing to remain unseen.
Sloane, a beautiful and powerful entrepreneur, had sex with other men to please her husband’s predilections. She didn’t seem in pain, quite, but in a state of confusion. But what intrigued me almost more than Sloane herself was her community’s reaction to her lifestyle. The judgment and the shaming.
And Lina was shamed by everyone in her town. She’d dismantled the very core of her position in the world. The happy housewife, no longer happy. It was no longer the 1950s, and yet it was the 1950s everywhere she looked.
Beyond describing the passion, which I found so arresting, I wanted, too, to catalogue the moments of agony that resulted from passion, to isolate and magnify them so that people could see themselves reflected in these stories. Pain and shame are a part of nearly every woman’s trajectory. Women who chase wild passion are often in even more pain, and even more shamed. I knew it from my personal experience, and I knew it from theirs.
When I was about three and a half months pregnant I took a hiatus from the people I was shadowing and went to an obstetrician with my boyfriend. We were happy. The baby was part of the plan, of the book, of the world. I’d been misused by men for a long time. All along I’d pretended not to care because my mother told me to never show my heart. But finally, I thought I could. I was in love with the beast in my stomach. It didn’t have a gender but it had a name.
I’d read that the baby by that point should be the size of a plum. The doctor looked at the screen. I said, That doesn't look like a plum.
She told me I would most likely lose it. I think she said there was a 95% chance that I would. But the 5% that it might live — I could exist for that. I declined the D&C. I didn't think it was possible to lose something else.
Two weeks later, I had a violent miscarriage that lasted two days. My boyfriend quit his good job and freelanced and worked odd jobs to support the final years of my research, because the advance money had run out. I was operating off fumes.
I have been wounded by some men and allowed by other men to write, to spend all my time on my work, on listening to people for years and waiting until I’d gotten their stories right. I have been wounded by women — most markedly, by the specter of who my mother was. But I have most emphatically been shamed by women.
I lost my first pregnancy but my second resulted in my daughter — a lovely, howling thing. Every day I worry about the shame I hope she never feels. Shame and silence were the two things I found the most prevalent in this near-decade of reporting. The way that women are profoundly organized about hiding their desire and their fear over the same. The way the anger and judgment we graft onto others is often our own shame, projected. I don’t know what the answer is, how to stop the cycle of shame, but I imagine the first step, that which we can do fairly easily, is just to listen.
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has contributed to New York
, and many other publications. Her nonfiction has been included in the Best American Sports Writing and Best American Political Writing anthology series, and her short stories have won two Pushcart Prizes. She lives with her husband and daughter in New England.