When a pregnant teenager named Heather shoots herself, the women of Seaton Grove come out in droves to make food for the girl’s family. “They’d come with food and cards, and were dressed in dark clothing as if to make amends for their relief that the tragedy wasn’t theirs, for enjoying this unexpected night out, for being nosy, for feeling superior” (37), writes Lilian Nattel in Web of Angels, perfectly capturing the scene.
While several of the women are connected to the family – it’s a small town after all – one of them, Sharon Lewis, has a special interest. Her teenaged son is dating Cathy, Heather’s younger sister. Something doesn’t sit right with Sharon. Maybe it’s that Debra, Heather’s physician mother, gave her dead daughter an emergency c-section with a kitchen knife in order to save the unborn child. Maybe it’s that Cathy doesn’t dress properly for the temperature. Or maybe it’s just that Sharon sees something of herself – or her selves – in Cathy.
Sharon has Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), which used to be known as Multiple Personality. Nattel clearly did thorough research, and the notes at the end indicate she has friends who are “multiple.” That deep knowledge pays off in the scenes of inside, where the Overseer and the Housekeeper preside over a complex of rooms and personalities. The switches between the personalities are written like someone who really understands what it feels like.
DID is a somewhat controversial diagnosis, and I’m not here to take one or another side on it, because what Nattel does with the material goes beyond the medical. Web of Angels raises important questions: what is it like for survivors of childhood trauma to raise children? What is our responsibility as adults to delve into the life of another family that just feels wrong? How are people fractured by the wounds they receive in childhood? How do they go on, anyway?
Dan, Sharon’s husband, at first seems somewhat improbable. Dan has had to confront the truth about his wife’s disorder, but he has learned to love her in all her forms. Dan’s acceptance of his wife’s many facets speaks to how we could all learn to accept the different aspects of those we love. Whether anyone could really accept his wife having many distinct personalities is beside the point, as I see Dan as a foil to the way we like to throw away anyone who isn’t perfect or exactly what we want her to be.
My favorite scene in the book is when Lyssa (one of the personalities) tells Cathy the truth about her own childhood abuse. “You don’t think she’s gross?” Cathy asks Dan after Lyssa has given details of what happened.
“’Why would I think that?’ Dan asked, insulted.
‘Because it’s disgusting.’
‘It—and the adults who liked it. Not the kids. Not my wife.’”
I loved this scene, because every time I speak at a high school about my own childhood abuse, I tell them this: “I am not damaged goods. And people this happened to are not damaged goods.”
So that the book doesn’t weigh its readers down beyond hope, Nattel has provided comic relief in Dan’s parents. Jake, who is slipping into dementia, has moments of clarity. When he’s explaining why he never hid his Jewish identity, despite prejudice, he turns to Ingrid, a lesbian friend of Sharon’s. “Like you, bubbeleh. You want to be in a cupboard?” he asks, getting the phrase almost right.
I got an advance copy of Web of Angels because I loved Nattel’s The Singing Fire, so she put me on the list of reviewers. The book comes out March 3, which means the rest of you have to wait a few weeks.