"Three Women" is your next must-watch on Stan

The spicy new series adapted from the book of the same name is a no-holds barred look at female desire. Author and showrunner Lisa Taddeo joined Booksmart to tell me all about it.

We’ve never had an international author on our podcast Booksmart before. That is, until now. Lisa Taddeo took the world by storm in 2019 with her debut book Three Women the true tales of you guessed it, three women in relation to sex, desire, intimacy and pleasure across America.  When I ask her why she chose to write about desire, she tells me that an editor originally approached her with an idea that she would write a nonfiction book about any topic of her choice, the freedom of which was “both liberating and absolutely terrifying”. To give her some guidance, they sent over examples of non-fiction books that struck a chord with them, including Gay Talese’s Thy Neighbours Wife, a seminal exploration of swinging culture in the seventies. 

Reading it, Lisa was struck by the fact that it was perhaps unsurprisingly very male-centric in its views and experiences. Not only that but it felt hyper-focused on the biology of it, there was “no enumeration of the emotional aspect of sex. There was no undercurrent of emotion behind the actions of these people, and I wanted to read more about that so I wrote a book to fill the gap in the marketplace but also in my own experience.”

Now, Taddeo’s adapted the book into a gripping television show starring Shailene Woodley and Dewanda Wise among others. Over ten episodes, I laughed, gasped, cheered and cried. Seriously, Episode 8 in particular undid me, all the more because I knew it to be real. Something else vastly unique in the television and film industry that Three Women manages to achieve is the fact it was made almost entirely by women from writers and cast, to directors, producers and crew. This was entirely intentional, a decision made to create the safest and kindest environment possible in which these sometimes confronting stories could be told with care.

That said, she tells me the bold move was not without its challenges. “Sometimes, finding the right people was really hard purely because of the barriers so many women face to get here. We’d look around and there weren’t always people who came easily to mind. We had to search, sometimes really hard, which is a reflection of how rare what we were trying to do is, and it shouldn’t have been.”

Lisa’s decision to adapt it herself, alongside her husband, screenwriter Jackson Waite was twofold; first the desire to flex her creative muscles and try something new. I get the sense she is always keen to challenge herself, not least because her writing process is playing with fiction and nonfiction concurrently, always writing both at the same time “because it keeps your non-fiction fresh and interesting and makes sure there’s always truth in your fiction.” And second, because she knew that with these stories, which had been entrusted to her over an 8 year period that involved driving across the country multiple times and even uprooting her life to live in the same towns as two of the women, there was no one else she trusted to tell them.

Through the stories of Lina, Sloane and Maggie, Taddeo takes us on a journey that is in many ways centered on the reclaiming of female pleasure, the quest to unlearn the burying of your needs in service of a man’s, the navigation of what is pleasure for them and pleasure for you. 

At least that’s the crux of Lina and Sloane’s stories. Lina - a housewife in Indiana who just wants to be kissed and touched but lives with a husband who could think of nothing he’d rather do less while Sloane is the polar opposite, married to a man who can’t get enough of her so much so, he likes watching her have sex with other people.

Maggie’s story however is a little different. For starters unlike the other two, Maggie is her real name. The reason she gave permission for Lisa to use her real name? Maggie Wilkien wanted the world to know what happened to her. 

In 2009, when she was just 17, Maggie was involved in an alleged ‘sexual relationship’ with her high school English teacher at the time, Mr. Aaron Knodel. The characterisation of such power dynamics between students and teachers between children and adults, by media and the legal system has always made me uncomfortable. In this case, Maggie personally characterised it that way at the time, not least because there had been shared declarations of ‘I love you’ between the two. By the time she felt ready to report it, Maggie noted in her allegations that she felt confident there was alleged grooming and sexual preying involved. 

I use the word alleged because unfortunately when Maggie came forward in 2014, ready to tell her story, the court case that followed didn’t go her way.  In August 2014, Aaron Knodel was charged with five counts of corruption or solicitation of a minor over alleged events that took place in his home, Maggie’s car and his classroom. The sentence attached to these charges was 35 years in prison. That same year, Aaron Knodel was awarded North Dakota’s Teacher of The Year. 

By June 2015, the twelve person jury was ready to deliver a verdict after testimony from several sources including Maggie herself, Aaron Knodel, his wife, fellow teachers and Maggie’s friends.  The day of the verdict, a juror was hospitalised prompting calls for a mistrial. The judge allowed the verdict to go ahead and the jury found Aaron Knodel not guilty. He was acquitted of three charges while the other two were in fact declared a mistrial. A month after the verdict, the West Fargo School Board voted unanimously to reinstate Knodel as a teacher and give him the full year’s worth of backpay. He still teaches today.

Given all of that, Maggie’s reaction to the show was arguably the most important to Taddeo. From what she’s been able to see so far, (the show is not yet airing in the US), “she’s loved it.  Maggie's reaction to seeing herself on screen, to seeing her parents on screen, one of whom is no longer with us and the portrayal of Aaron Knodel, for her to have loved it and felt even more seen by it is the greatest success I could ever think of.”

To me, that’s a pretty great success too but honestly, I think it will grow. I think if it hasn’t done so for people already, the combination of the book and the TV (there’s something about seeing people play out these stories that makes them hit even harder) are going to blow open conversations and long-locked doors for women everywhere. Personally, I can’t wait to see it when they do.

All episodes of Three Women are available to stream now on Stan