Feeling unalone, facing fears, and the questions of 7-year-olds

Three things I learned or loved this month

Lisa Taddeo’s 2019 book Three Women is widely described as a “bestselling phenomenon”. Columnist Caitlin Moran is quoted saying she would “probably re-read it every year of my life”. Now that I’ve read it, her praise doesn’t seem too far-fetched. 

As much as I was swept up in the real lives that Taddeo portrays – lives of complicated desire, sadness, sexuality, rejection, power, loyalty – I am fascinated by her process as a writer. She spent eight years on research (during which time she also had a baby). Twice, she moved to the town where the women lived to spend time with them; her husband moved with her. She was present at some of the events described in the book; she would meet one of the women immediately after her encounters with a secret lover to hear her recount the experience. Taddeo describes her role, in an interview on the Happy Place podcast, as a sort of “non-judgmental ghost”, present as lives unfolded. Each of the three women finds her decisions judged harshly by those around them; in giving them the full range to tell their stories, the author aims to challenge the quickfire dismissal most of us unleash on people we barely know. “I wanted people to feel unalone,” Taddeo says.

In an author’s note to the book, she writes that the three women “are in charge of their narratives”. That may seem an exaggeration – surely it’s always the author, ultimately, who is in control – but in an interview with Australia’s Wheeler Centre, Taddeo says she told her subjects they could pull out at any time (a few of her original interviewees did). Fact-checkers went through the manuscript with each of the women; and, unusually, Taddeo herself sent the women an early draft to review. The book is not without its critics, but the writing process seems to me a generous way to serve someone’s story, if that someone is brave enough to share it.

Speaking up

Not many people would set up an organisation whose sole purpose is to push ourselves, and others, to face our worst fears. Laura North, a social entrepreneur who recently won our ‘star of the future’ WISE100 award, did just that. Her venture, We Speak, runs programmes for young people from underrepresented backgrounds who lack speaking confidence; as CEO, part of her job is to present their work and to pitch investors.

We invited Laura and a few of her colleagues to join a panel discussion last month, and it was interesting to see how open they all were about how challenging they found the experience. Most of us get through tense situations by pretending we’re fine. But there might be something smart about Laura’s approach. In this case, it meant that we talked to her beforehand about how to make things easier for her. And by making fear of public speaking the subject of their talk, Laura and her colleagues clearly won the audience over. Who knows how many of us listening could secretly relate to what they said.

Unexpected questions

For the charity I Can Be I spoke via video call to a group of 7 to 8-year-old girls about what it’s like being a journalist. After quizzing me about whether my job was nice and if I had friends at work, things went a little off track. The questions turned to whether I had a husband, if I had kids and what age I was. It was a lot of fun. 

Before Covid, I Can Be groups visited workplaces in person. Nowadays, the visits are mostly virtual ones, with a stranger (pre-vetted, of course) beamed into their classroom for 45 minutes. It means they miss out on seeing inside a workplace, but I’m told the virtual visits have some advantages – not least, that some children feel less shy than they might be in unfamiliar surroundings. I hope I’ve encouraged this group to ask lots more questions in future, wherever they are.