07/23/2024

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Competition and judgment – can friendship exist without them? If you say the worst thing someone might say about you, does it take away the power of that thought? How do we keep unrequited love from destroying us? These are just some of the questions Lisa Taddeo explores in her new collection of essays, “Ghost Lovers,” out June 14.

The pungent collection completes a triad of stuff. Taddeo has also written a fiction book, last year’s Animals, and a nonfiction project she covered for eight years, the 2019 bestseller Three Women. Like her previous work, the series explores the magnetic attraction of our desires, the true extent of our cruelty to ourselves (and our bodies), and the power of grief.

Here, in a wide-ranging interview related to the new collection of essays, Taddeo talks about love, sex, friendship, and grief.

Refinery29: One of the themes of the essay is this competition in friendships, especially among those who identify as female. Why do you think there is so much inherent competition in some female friendships? Where do we learn this, and should we? How do these characters represent this?

Lisa Taddeo: “I built it on a lot of my own friendships and the friendships I explored in Three Women. I find that in those friendships there is a lot of beauty and joy as well as genuine love and compassion and understanding and appreciation for what the other person is going through – and of course competition. Not always, sometimes rarely, sometimes not at all. I feel like the young people I’ve talked to – it’s not as common as it was in their generation, not as common as it was in my age group, or when we were single. I think there’s too much self-consciousness in young women today.

“But I think there’s this natural biological competition for single women who are looking for love – whether it’s with a man or another woman or whatever – with your platonic friendship. But not only that. It also appears in all of our storybooks – even in Peter Pan. We grew up on that. So while I think there’s so much assumed beauty in female friendship, I also think there’s a lot of other things that we don’t really talk about because it’s hard to talk about. Because your friends are the ones that you would talk about it and even bringing it up kind of acknowledges that there’s something unholy about your friendship – that’s not true. It’s not possible.

“And yet, it’s just the reality. Talking about it in a book is easier to digest and maybe easier to understand. That’s how I approached it. That’s the hope I have for what it does, is to put something out there in the universe.”

That’s an interesting observation you make – that there’s less competition in Z-generation friendships. But do you think there’s still judgment? I see that playing out in a lot of the relationships in the book, especially the friendships.

“Indeed. Now, there is less competition, but more judgment. I’m talking about this with Amia Srinivasan, who wrote Sexual Rights. What’s happening is that we condemn women for having the ‘wrong’ desires. We’re not allowed to be like “bad guys” for us. I think there’s all kinds of tacit agreement that new judgments have come in. The old judgments haven’t exactly left the building. As long as it doesn’t affect your life, it’s a puzzling thing for me to have something to say or think about someone else’s life. I think that’s one of the biggest problems we face as a society.”

You can totally see that in the book. Just like in “Air Supply,” the narrator judges her friend Sarah at almost every step of her international travels and then seemingly later in life.

“Yes, the narrator is judging Sara, but also what Sara thinks of her friend. We all have our own shame and self-judgment. Sara in “Air Supply” takes a lot of her own stuff and projects it onto her friends. The other thing that interests me about this relationship is that it switches back and forth between “who hates themselves less today” or “who does best by society’s standards. I think that’s what erodes friendships the most. So that’s something I want to focus on.”

Why does it erode them the most?

“Considering who is ‘better’ or ‘worse’ across the board, I think it erodes civilization. We are all human beings. We’re all animals in the world, kind of trying to find our own way. The only purpose [of this comparison] is to degrade someone else or to elevate another person, or to elevate ourselves while degrading someone else – which is essentially what we’re doing with racism and gender inequality. Any time we do that, it’s a negative.”

You’ve mentioned shame before – you’ve written a lot about shame. In the book’s essay of the same name, “Ghost Lover,” you talk about the complex emotions surrounding sexual abuse and shame. In that essay, the narrator is abused by her stepfather, and then she plans to tell the world about the solo sexual assault of another man she dated, but still has mixed feelings. Before she shared the story publicly, she thought, “These people won’t sympathize with you for what your stepfather did. Or they’ll stay one night, and then they’ll think you’re disgusting. They’ll miss you, just like you often miss yourself.” How does this article aim to show the damage and shame that sexual abuse can cause and the consequences that can result from it?

“The overall politicization of sexual assault – which sexual assaults are considered more shocking and who will be the decider. I often think of Mary Gaitskill’s article in Harper’s a few years ago where she talks about being raped on three different occasions. One of them was a stranger rape. The other was a young man, I think a student she invited to her house. She talked about how [the subsequent experience] was the most insidious rape for her. It affected her the most because of her complicity. Then later in the article, there’s an epilogue where she says she continued to date the man after the rape, and she cut it out of the original article because she knew people would judge her for it. They might say, well, “That’s not rape.” All of this is about sexual assault – all the preconceived notions we have about it. Ghost Lover is about a lot of things, but something very vivid in it is exploring this idea of: what kinds of sexual assault do we think are “right? The ones that aren’t disgusting to talk about.”

Especially in the “Ghost Lover” article, we really don’t know what’s going to happen next. She’s going to tell the world about this particular sexual assault, but we can’t hear the audience’s reaction. Was that intentional? I was so excited to read it and to find out what happened!

“That was the big idea. I love endings – when I write them myself as the end of short stories, and when they appear in other stories I’ve read – when they’re not cleaned up. I like not knowing what will happen at the end of The Sopranos. In a sense, it makes it feel like it’s there forever. That’s my idea of a great short story.”

I was thinking about that article in relation to the Amber Heard and Johnny Depp trials, the results of which set the precedent for people to talk openly about assault and sexual assault and be sued for defamation. Do you think it’s all connected?

“I didn’t focus on the trial as much as my interest level would have liked. I do think that in terms of speaking up or not speaking up, you never know when you’re going to be heard and when you’re not going to be heard. I hope people don’t see that and think they won’t be heard. I don’t think it’s a blanket statement about the way we’re going to move forward any more than I think Harvey Weinstein is a blanket cleanup of everything. I think both are huge markers for society in a way – they’re not 100% indicative of where something is going to go. It’s both fortunate and unfortunate.”

You always write so poignantly, you talk about its beauty and its rawness, even its cruelty. I love your line “His sexuality radiated like a space heater.” So melting! But you also have such heartfelt lines that show the complexity of our relationship with sex. For example, “Fucking her is a planetary movement, like he’s poking into a dark solar system between two long trees and feeling nothing but humidity and sick air.” When I read that article, I drew in a breath as I listened. How do these evocative and sometimes brutal lines reflect our society’s relationship with sexuality?

“Especially the second line, which I think many of my characters often do – they would say. As a protective measure, they can imagine the worst thing someone could say to them. It’s something that comedians do. It’s something that people who have learned how to survive in this world do. It is the protective shell of things. It’s also an ironic commentary on the way we see each other in the world

“I’m interested in ageism. And I think that the way younger women see older women and the way older women see younger women – when we’re actually on the exact same trajectory – we often see us as a different species as much as we see each other. To me, writing something like this shows the insanity of the way we treat age in this country – as if it’s something that some people can help with and others can’t.”

I want to talk to you about the way people in the paper talk about their bodies. I think it goes back to the same idea: talking about ourselves

That’s an interesting observation you make – that there’s less competition in Z-generation friendships. But do you think there’s still judgment? I see that playing out in a lot of the relationships in the book, especially the friendships.

“Indeed. Now, there is less competition, but more judgment. I’m talking about this with Amia Srinivasan, who wrote Sexual Rights. What’s happening is that we condemn women for having the ‘wrong’ desires. We’re not allowed to be like “bad guys” for us. I think there’s all kinds of tacit agreement that new judgments have come in. The old judgments haven’t exactly left the building. As long as it doesn’t affect your life, it’s a puzzling thing for me to have something to say or think about someone else’s life. I think that’s one of the biggest problems we face as a society.”

You can totally see that in the book. Just like in “Air Supply,” the narrator judges her friend Sarah at almost every step of her international travels and then seemingly later in life.

“Yes, the narrator is judging Sara, but also what Sara thinks of her friend. We all have our own shame and self-judgment. Sara in “Air Supply” takes a lot of her own stuff and projects it onto her friends. The other thing that interests me about this relationship is that it switches back and forth between “who hates themselves less today” or “who does best by society’s standards. I think that’s what erodes friendships the most. So that’s something I want to focus on.”

Why does it erode them the most?

“Considering who is ‘better’ or ‘worse’ across the board, I think it erodes civilization. We are all human beings. We’re all animals in the world, kind of trying to find our own way. The only purpose [of this comparison] is to degrade someone else or to elevate another person, or to elevate ourselves while degrading someone else – which is essentially what we’re doing with racism and gender inequality. Any time we do that, it’s a negative.”

You’ve mentioned shame before – you’ve written a lot about shame. In the book’s essay of the same name, “Ghost Lover,” you talk about the complex emotions surrounding sexual abuse and shame. In that essay, the narrator is abused by her stepfather, and then she plans to tell the world about the solo sexual assault of another man she dated, but still has mixed feelings. Before she shared the story publicly, she thought, “These people won’t sympathize with you for what your stepfather did. Or they’ll stay one night, and then they’ll think you’re disgusting. They’ll miss you, just like you often miss yourself.” How does this article aim to show the damage and shame that sexual abuse can cause and the consequences that can result from it?

“The overall politicization of sexual assault – which sexual assaults are considered more shocking and who will be the decider. I often think of Mary Gaitskill’s article in Harper’s a few years ago where she talks about being raped on three different occasions. One of them was a stranger rape. The other was a young man, I think a student she invited to her house. She talked about how [the subsequent experience] was the most insidious rape for her. It affected her the most because of her complicity. Then later in the article, there’s an epilogue where she says she continued to date the man after the rape, and she cut it out of the original article because she knew people would judge her for it. They might say, well, “That’s not rape.” All of this is about sexual assault – all the preconceived notions we have about it. Ghost Lover is about a lot of things, but something very vivid in it is exploring this idea of: what kinds of sexual assault do we think are “right? The ones that aren’t disgusting to talk about.”

Especially in the “Ghost Lover” article, we really don’t know what’s going to happen next. She’s going to tell the world about this particular sexual assault, but we can’t hear the audience’s reaction. Was that intentional? I was so excited to read it and to find out what happened!

“That was the big idea. I love endings – when I write them myself as the end of short stories, and when they appear in other stories I’ve read – when they’re not cleaned up. I like not knowing what will happen at the end of The Sopranos. In a sense, it makes it feel like it’s there forever. That’s my idea of a great short story.”

I was thinking about that article in relation to the Amber Heard and Johnny Depp trials, the results of which set the precedent for people to talk openly about assault and sexual assault and be sued for defamation. Do you think it’s all connected?

“I didn’t focus on the trial as much as my interest level would have liked. I do think that in terms of speaking up or not speaking up, you never know when you’re going to be heard and when you’re not going to be heard. I hope people don’t see that and think they won’t be heard. I don’t think it’s a blanket statement about the way we’re going to move forward any more than I think Harvey Weinstein is a blanket cleanup of everything. I think both are huge markers for society in a way – they’re not 100% indicative of where something is going to go. It’s both fortunate and unfortunate.”

You always write so poignantly, you talk about its beauty and its rawness, even its cruelty. I love your line “His sexuality radiated like a space heater.” So melting! But you also have such heartfelt lines that show the complexity of our relationship with sex. For example, “Fucking her is a planetary movement, like he’s poking into a dark solar system between two long trees and feeling nothing but humidity and sick air.” When I read that article, I drew in a breath as I listened. How do these evocative and sometimes brutal lines reflect our society’s relationship with sexuality?

“Especially the second line, which I think many of my characters often do – they would say. As a protective measure, they can imagine the worst thing someone could say to them. It’s something that comedians do. It’s something that people who have learned how to survive in this world do. It is the protective shell of things. It’s also an ironic commentary on the way we see each other in the world

“I’m interested in ageism. And I think that the way younger women see older women and the way older women see younger women – when we’re actually on the exact same trajectory – we often see us as a different species as much as we see each other. To me, writing something like this shows the insanity of the way we treat age in this country – as if it’s something that some people can help with and others can’t.”

I want to talk to you about the way people in the paper talk about their bodies. I think it goes back to the same idea: talking about ourselves or what others can say. I think many of us sometimes think we have these negative things about ourselves, but won’t admit that because we want to show the world that we’re good advocates of body positivity-or at least body neutrality. What is the intent of the series to address these complex issues? To show us that we are not alone in our ideas?

“It’s something I have a lot of feelings about. That moment when you’re talking about your body in front of other people, other women, and everyone’s like, ‘No! Don’t say that! You’re great, you’re beautiful!’ That’s great. That’s great. We should. That should be a reaction. But there’s also something to be said for letting someone feel what they feel, and there’s something to be said for the destructiveness of toxic masculinity.

“And when we do set norms, [it can be harmful]. Let’s say someone is going through a breakup or someone they love has died, and everyone else is like, ‘Oh, you should go to yoga,’ ‘You should start knitting,’ ‘You should read this article “, “You should have sound therapy” .’ I’ve been in the depths of depression, and I’ve tried to do all of these things. There’s nothing worse than when you try to do all these things and you just want someone to listen to you and they just make you do another thing. That’s how I feel about my body. It’s real. We do this. It happens. And until we get to a place where we don’t do it anymore, I don’t think saying “that thing” makes it happen any more. I think it helps those who feel it to feel it less.”

You talk a lot about unrequited love in your essays. As a single person dating in my twenties, I really get that. I was drawn to “Forty-Two,” which is about a young woman – actually named Molly, like me – who is marrying this character who is talking to another woman on her wedding day. The character. In the end, that person says to herself, “If only they knew how little time we spend thinking about them, if only they knew how much we know about how much they think about us.” I’ve dated people who might say that. How do we deal with this unrequited love?

“Acknowledging the problem is the first step in solving it. I’m not saying that thinking about other people more than you is a problem. It happens a lot. However, if I tried to advise my child on how to handle future love, I would definitely advise her against it. But that’s okay. It’s okay to have all those feelings, and we should be able to be there for each other in them. Part of the reason I’m writing these lines is: what’s the worst thing we think is happening, right? Like I said before, if we can say that thing out loud – whether it’s true or not – to me, it’s a form of healing.

“And, especially in this book, I don’t care about the happy ending. I’m worried about the millions of sad endings that came before it. It’s almost like a primer on how to get through those.”

Unrequited love isn’t the only type of grief in the book – there’s also Vern, who loses her parents in the story “Suburban Weekend. Her grief for her parents seems as boundless as her love for them. In Fern’s case, the loss makes her what some would call reckless. How does this book show us grief up close and personal, especially when it affects us young and vulnerable?

“That story is probably the closest I’ve ever been to it in my life. In that story, Fin lost her parents, and I lost mine. I remember being very similar in a sense – I didn’t know what I was living for.

“At that time I had no one to talk to. Sure, there were support groups, [but] I didn’t go. I hung out with my same friends, and we did the same things we’d been doing. But now I’m doing it with this hole. It’s really weird and tough, and I’m a little different than the other guys. That’s what I wanted to show in that game.”

I can tell you that there was a lot of heart and soul put into that story. How would you want someone to feel similarly after reading that article?

“Someone who will care about you on the other side.”

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