One of Freud’s greatest insights was that psychic life is an ongoing drama. Inside our minds great forces rage and collide and strange convoluted processes are developed in order to avoid internal obstacles and keep the status quo. Former versions of ourselves wander through the inner labyrinth, exerting terrific pressure on our decision making and often dictating reactions in illogical ways. We have this charming, quaint idea that we’re in control of ourselves, but it only takes a little stress, conflict or fear to make a mockery of that. It’s a jungle in there.
Lilian Nattel’s latest novel, Web of Angels, goes further than any novel I think I’ve ever read in dramatising the strange brilliance of inner life. This is because she takes the brave and I think unique step of having a main character who has DID, dissociative identity disorder, or what used to be called multiple personality syndrome. On the outside, Sharon Lewis is an ordinary wife and mother of three. But inside she switches continually between different alters, who respond to the requirements of different situations. She can be Lyssa, the tough, athletic teenager, or Alec, the man of few words who steps in with authority or Callisto, the one who’s job it was ‘to take over when the others were overwrought’. The function of all these alters as it is so insightfully expressed, is to protect the life, not to live the life. Hence, when each alter steps forward, the memories of the others are blanked. Sharon has no memory of the time when Lyssa or Callisto is in charge and it is from this quirk of psychology that dissociation arises. Sharon Lewis had the kind of abusive childhood which meant that she could not process the trauma of what happened to her, and so in its protective flexibility, the mind splits, creating an internal army to deal with what is way too much for one small child. It is both the tragedy and the genius of the mind that it can find these extraordinary solutions to extraordinary events.
In Web of Angels, Sharon and her husband, Dan, are struggling to come to terms with Sharon’s unusual personality. She has not quite accepted the truth of her situation, and is in therapy with the calm, infinitely compassionate Brigitte, a process which she knows will help her but which is currently exhausting. The novel begins, however, with an event that will have a significant impact on Sharon’s life. Her son, Josh, has a new girlfriend, Cathy Edwards, a sweet super-good girl. But Cathy’s rebellious teenage sister, Heather, commits suicide just as her pregnancy reaches full term. The mother of the two girls is a paediatrician and she steps in quickly to perform an emergency caesarian, saving the child. This event understandably disturbs and horrifies the neighbourhood. Why did Heather, who had adapted so well to her pregnancy, take her own life? And was the caesarian the act of a quick-thinking mother or an unnaturally calculating one? The parents, Debra and Rick, are pillars of the local community, people of the utmost respectability and surely beyond suspicion. And yet, Sharon is peculiarly placed to be suspicious. Her unusual powers of perception, her heightened emotional awareness and her own experiences lead her to believe that something dreadful is occurring in the Edwards household, and to mobilise her own family to help.
This is a novel that deals with the most commonplace of lives and manages to show the rich complexity that lies behind them. It also shows most poignantly how atrocities can be happening right under our noses, and how healing it can be to step in and do the right thing. I thought it had a beautiful structure, as Sharon’s own acceptance of her condition gradually leads her to come out more honestly to her own family and to use her difference as a remarkable force for good. And I found it immensely moving. There is so much unkind stigma attached to mental conditions like DID, and yet this novel shows how it is simply an extreme version of what goes on inside everyone’s mind. I have a dear friend with DID and as far as I can see, Lilian’s book is an outstanding portrait of that condition. This is, of course, what literature was designed for: it can create images and worlds that do not exist tangibly in reality but which are no less real for that. It can also give voice to those who have never been allowed one, or in this case, several voices. It is, I think, exciting when authors open doors onto new territories. All in all this was an unflinching and powerful exploration of the best and worst in life: the human ability to destroy innocence and our ability to rescue and heal. Read it if you can.