In “Animal,” You’re Either a Prey or a Predator
Lisa Taddeo on writing desire, depravity, and female rage
By the time Joan finds herself dining with a married man in New York City, she is weary of the world, wary of men, and has already experienced a lifetime of trauma. But it is only when another married man walks up to her table, pulls out a gun, and shoots himself, that Joan feels the urge to run from everything familiar and forge a new path for herself. Wearing her dead mother’s dress, with her parents’ ashes in the car, Joan makes her way across the country to California. There, she searches for a woman named Alice, whom she believes might allow her to better understand her past, and takes up residence in a rundown property shared with three other men.
The landscape of Animal, Lisa Taddeo’s debut novel, is brutal. Lecherous men tell repulsive stories; coyotes sniff out women’s menstrual blood and howl; children survive horrific acts of abuse; men’s eyes linger too long; and women are rendered as prey or predators. The book brims with sex and violence, two urges that Joan is familiar with. As a child, her mother taught her that “we are all monsters, we are all capable of monstrosity.”
Taddeo, in her propulsive narrative, builds on her exploration of women’s desire from her debut, bestselling nonfiction book, Three Women, and also seeks to understand how women’s rage builds and builds until it reaches a breaking point. Over Zoom, Taddeo and I spoke about depravity, blunt prose, animalhood, perceptions of motherhood, the male gaze, and the mechanisms behind reprehensible choices.
Jacqueline Alnes: In an interview about your first book, Three Women, you expressed that you were “interested in the complexity of female desire, which… have a lot more prismatic and complex feelings attached.” Animal, in many ways, is about desire. What did you learn from writing Joan?
Lisa Taddeo: I don’t think many readers are comfortable with the idea of a suicidal mother in literature or even just one who abandons the kids in any kind of way. It’s not a moral thing, it’s just they don’t want to read about it. I was interested in showing a character like Joan who, while that’s not necessarily her deal in the book, does make these reprehensible choices. I wanted to look at how someone gets to a dark place.
I always think about the astronaut Lisa Nowak, who found out her husband was cheating on her with another woman, so she drove across the country with all these tools in the back of her car in order to kill them. And she wore a diaper the whole way.
JA: I remember that.
LT: At first blush, that story seems insane, but I think that having that sort of pain and sudden rage is a real thing. Wearing a diaper because you do not want to stop to pee, where does that come from? Exploring the way she got to that moment is interesting to me. It’s not about condoning or not condoning her behavior, it’s more of a scientific experiment.
JA: Joan calls herself “depraved” repeatedly throughout the book, and many of her applications of the term seem gendered. What was it like to play with language like “depraved,” “whore,” and “slut”?
LT: When Joan speaks about herself in the negative, I wanted it to come across as someone who is so fully aware of the nomenclature out there that she owns it before anyone else can use it. I think it’s something female comedians do. They make fun of themselves and they do it so that other people don’t do it to them first. Joan knows people are going to call her this, this, and this, so she says I am this, this, and this, based on the definition according to society or according to the dictionary. She says it almost with a tongue-in-cheek, like words have no meaning. There’s a disavowal for her of having any false front or facade.
JA: That’s interesting because the way she actually approaches sex is so surface level. She often performs sex rather than allowing herself to participate. There is just once in the book when she acts for her own pleasure. What was it like to explore the ways in which women are expected to be sexual beings but not enjoy sex in any fulfilling way?
LT: I think it’s blessedly changing a lot, which is something I’ve seen in younger friends of mine and nieces and stuff like that. It has so much to do with what we watch and read when we’re young. My daughter, for example, she’s six, was watching The Little Mermaid and then Peter Pan and all of these stories were ones I didn’t want her to watch any more. I was like, why does Peter Pan get to decide between Tinker Bell and Tiger Lily and Wendy? Why are these three really cool chicks waiting around for this annoying man-boy?
The notion of a man choosing a woman still exists, and it’s societally ingrained. The gendered terminology we have for people and who gets to do the choosing, Joan has an awareness of that. I wanted for her wisdom to lie in that very deep-rooted understanding of where we are in society still.
JA: The title Animal works in so many ways. There are parallels between the actual animals in the book (like the coyotes who smell women’s periods coming) and the men, who sniff out women as prey. What’s the relationship between violence and sex? Or violence and desire?
LT: I think that they exist on parallel planes, but also cross. We have so much violence in sex in our collective history as human beings, that it’s there a lot, but I don’t think they are inextricably linked in any way for everyone.
JA: In the book, they feel linked, only because so much of it is bloody in my mind. So much of it feels traumatic. Even the fact that Joan always goes to eat raw meat after she has sex. There’s something visceral about it. It made me think about how much we are still animals, if that makes sense.
LT: We go through phases of animalhood and non-animalhood, as a culture. We have to go around denying the animal self all day to live in polite, normal society. It’s interesting to witness when kids just do exactly whatever they want, to just see people without that sense of awareness. Women, specifically, are not allowed to be considered animals in the same way that perhaps a man would.
JA: There seems to be an appetite that men are allowed whereas women are viewed as prey.
Joan experiences a series of traumas, but a recurring one is that she feels violated by mens’ touch and gazes. At one point, when she finds a man staring at her, she says that “there are a hundred such small rapes a day.” What, in your mind, is the effect of these repeated violences?
LT: It adds up until one day, you may invariably explode. When you look at men who are put upon in certain ways, it’s not as gendered in some ways. For women, the sort of violences and gazes we have received from men is such a thing that it can trigger so much because it happens so often, in the same kind of way because of the animal aspect of it.
This might be too much information, but this morning a guy came to check the well or something and I didn’t know he was coming. I was working at home, wearing these thin pajamas, and when I opened the door my nipples were just totally there. I was so aware of them and he was staring at them. I wrote a bit about that in Animal and then it happened to me and I was like, did I write this into happening? It was such a weird feeling. It wasn’t his fault, they were just so out there that you couldn’t look away. It was 10 a.m.
That moment stayed with me. It’s happened to me so many times, but this time felt different because I’m a mom, and I’m wearing my really ugly pajamas. The nipple aspect was almost like it’s own private horror. I’ve had that feeling so many times where you close a door and you’re like, someone just looked at my nipples. And it’s like, why do you care? But there are so many implications behind that.
Partly, with Joan, one of the reasons she is so open in that aspect, is that if you allow yourself to hold all the experiences you have had to that end, it starts to form a picture that really stays with you. Then, one day when someone does one little thing, all of those things come together like a mosaic.
JA: And the weight of it. I used to live in Oklahoma, and when I would go running people would honk or yell lewd things from their cars, so I developed this habit of flipping everyone off and running as hard as I could for a while after. There was this rage that I felt. I remember one time a friend told me she had honked and her kids were in the car and I was like, sorry. I couldn’t distinguish between a threat and just a car, and that rage I felt just lives in my body now. No matter the person behind the wheel, no matter the intent, it’s the idea of someone breaking that power I think I have in the world when I’m out running on my own and reminding me that I don’t.
JA: Have you read Melissa Febos’s recent essay “I Spent My Life Consenting to Touch I didn’t Want”?
LT: I have it bookmarked, I’m excited to.
JA: She reflects that women tend to consent to touch, even if unwanted, because “the need to protect our bodies from the violent retaliation of men and the need to protect the same men from the consequences of their own behavior, usually by displacing the responsibility onto ourselves.” It rang so true, and resonated for me so much with the ways Joan has to maneuver as a woman through the world. That unwanted touch builds and builds into rage. What was it like writing that escalation?
LT: I was writing it simultaneously with the story that Lenny, the older man, is telling her. I think a lot of us have had the experience of a man mansplaining and wanting you to hold onto that story—kind of like that line you just read from Febos—they want you to tell them it’s okay. I think the idea of Joan having heard all of these things, all of her life, from men, and someone is asking her to forgive all of the sins in his life, it reminds her of all the other men who have asked her to do the same.
And so finally, she just says no. That felt organic to me.
JA: Joan has such a hard time making relationships with women, but Joan sort of becomes friends with Alice. Joan is always taking note of how Alice is younger, better, prettier.
LT: What I always find interesting is that whenever I’ve written a male character in a book or a show who is incredibly perfect and the varsity whatever and hot, male readers often talk about how those types of men don’t exist. They get really angry at the notion of this perfect guy who is young, hot, well-read, insert whatever descriptor you want here. But with women, you can create this perfect female character and nobody balks at it. They’re like, “Oh yeah, the hot girl. That’s what we should have.” What’s important to me about Alice is that she is that perfect girl. She is Joan’s foil in that sense. Besides what Alice means to Joan in the actual context of the story, she is just another man in a sense. Not a man, exactly, but she is someone that Joan cannot know.
JA: I feel like part of the reason Joan’s relationship with women is so complicated is because of her thorny relationship with her mother. What about mother relationships interest you?
LT: That’s sort of the biggest part that I held over from Three Women. I heard much from women about their mothers and about how their mothers’ actions translated into their own present. Having lost my mom before I got to have certain conversations, I don’t get to get a lot of things from her. I am very interested in that aspect of my own loss and pain. I like exploring that in fiction and talking to people about their relationship with their moms. I find it infinitely interesting.
JA: There are so many things too that you might not realize are passed down until you start to learn these almost secret histories that your mother led. For Joan, she starts to recognize that her mother was one way with her, but that she also was dealing with pressures from her husband, from society, and of who she thought she needed to be as a mother.
I’m interested in the idea of mothering too in how Joan might have had to mother herself or how culturally, women are often expected to want to mother others.
LT: I will say, I’m not that interested in women needing to be mothers to others. We don’t all have mothering tendencies. I don’t know that I’m someone who thinks of myself as having mothering tendencies, but there is such a judgment and definition around what it means to be a good mother. The very fact that we can shame people for not breastfeeding is an example. Having those conversations about motherhood makes it such a fraught topic. I’m more interested in the idea of women who don’t feel the need to mother.
JA: Women are expected to have that desire and if you don’t, you get told that you’re going to change, you’re young. Men don’t get that as much. They aren’t asked why they don’t want to be a father or told that they are nurturing enough to be a father. There are other forms of care.