To be honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect from Lilian Nattel’s Web of Angels. I knew the protagonist, Sharon Lewis, was a mother with dissociative identity disorder (DID) in a small suburban town. From the cover image, I was expecting to cry at this story — I can’t even imagine how difficult it must be to have multiple personalities inside you. I get confused enough with just me in the my head! The cover model’s wistful pose and the title made me think it was a story about how hard it must be to have DID.
On the other hand, there was Primal Fear. If you haven’t watched it yet — do! It’s amazing! Edward Norton plays a young murderer with DID, and the last scene gives me chills every time I watch it. I also remembered Sidney Sheldon’s Tell Me Your Dreams, about a young woman with DID. In both stories, DID was portrayed as being really freaky. Neither Edward Norton’s character nor the young woman knew about their alternate personalities, and the solution was always to try to integrate the multiples into the original psyche. So that was the mindset I had when I began Web of Angels.
This book totally took me by surprise. DID was presented not as a disease, but as a natural survival mechanism. In fact, a therapist says that the term “disorder” is inaccurate for this condition; rather, DID is “an adaptation to early childhood trauma.” Contrary to my expectations, the story wasn’t about Sharon trying to integrate all her personalities into a single Sharon, but about her learning to acknowledge, and even listen to her other personalities. Web of Angels presents a fascinatingly unique take on multiple personalities, and to be honest, it was a bit difficult for me to buy at first. I don’t know anyone in real life with DID (at least as far as I know), and so can honestly say that I know nothing about it beyond what I read or watch. It’s a harsh wake-up call to realize that my long-held view of DID may in fact have been a form of prejudice, and this book made me wonder which portrayal of DID is more accurate. Is it a disease, where the multiples must be integrated, or is it a natural state, where the key is having the multiples learn to work together? In Web of Angels, each multiple knows his or her place, and either steps forward or steps back accordingly. For example, Sharon’s child multiple Ally knows she has to step back when it’s time for them (meaning, all the multiples inside Sharon’s body) to drive, or another multiple knows she must step forward when it’s time to reveal her condition to her husband. So they all actually work together really well; it is possible for them all to co-exist and live a happy life together.
The conflict in this story stems from the suicide of Heather, the daughter of Sharon’s neighbour and sister of Cathy, the girlfriend of Sharon’s son. As Sharon investigates the reasons behind Heather’s suicide, she realizes that she must face her own past and work with her multiples in order to help Cathy avoid Heather’s fate. I found the story of Cathy and her family fascinating, and I love how it was specifically because of Sharon’s experiences that she is able to help Cathy out. I did find the way the relationship between Cathy and Sharon’s son turned out somewhat odd. I understand that it wasn’t an important plot point, but I didn’t like how it just seemed like an inconvenient loose end to tie up quickly in the end.
I also found all the characters confusing. Nattel refers to each of Sharon’s multiples by their own name, and so while other characters are calling her Sharon or Mrs. Lewis, the narrator refers to her as Ally or Callista or Alec or whoever. Add to that a whole list of supporting characters — Sharon’s own family (including in-laws) had about ten people, then we have the neighbours and friends — and after the first few chapters, I had to stop and start from the beginning. I felt really bad for Sharon then — if I had this much trouble keeping all the multiples and all the characters straight, imagine how confusing she must find it! I do wish Nattel had cut down on the supporting cast a bit — I really didn’t care much about Sharon’s in-laws, with the exception of her sister-in-law and best friend Eleanor. It just felt cluttered, and I would have preferred to focus more on the core stories: Sharon’s facing her multiples and Cathy’s family issues.
That being said, I did enjoy meeting the different multiples. While I started out being totally confused whenever a new one emerged (even Sharon has no clue how many there are — and it turns out that it’s impolite to ask), I like how eager they were to experience aspects of life that they missed out on. For example, Alec jumps at the opportunity to go to a shooting range, and is thrilled to be a natural shot. Young multiple Callisto has never made love (Callisto was never the dominant personality in bed with their husband), and her innocence leads to an utterly beautiful kissing scene, possibly my favourite passage in this book:
Was the kiss on the forehead the only one she would ever receive? Surely this much she was allowed. She leaned forward, her lips touching Dan’s, warm lips, neither dry nor wet. His lips pressed into hers and her lips wished to part.
Remember: this is a middle-aged woman, kissing the man with whom she has had three children. Yet this is also a young girl, being kissed for the first time. I love the almost heart-breaking innocence of her lips wishing to part. I love it especially because this isn’t just a middle-aged mother, she is also a woman who had been sexually abused as a child. Even as Callista parts her lips,
Inside there was fear, little ones weeping. No burning, no hitting, someone cried. And someone answering, It’s just Dan. He won’t hurt us.
All the personalities are involved in this kiss, the more experienced ones reassuring the younger ones that their husband can be trusted. And all throughout, there’s Callista, who was experiencing her husband’s kiss for the first time. Her excitement is infectious, and the little voices of terror at the back of her mind heartbreaking. It’s a beautifully written scene of lovemaking, heightened by the realization that “through her, the others felt what it was to have made love for the first time.”
Web of Angels is a fascinating book. I like that it gave a completely new (to me anyway) take on DID, such that DID was more a strength than a weakness. I like its firm argument that the adults who abuse children and therefore cause DID should be brought to justice. I especially like that it subverted my expectations of what a book on DID would be about.