Lilian Nattel's Web of Angels

First aired on The Next Chapter (16/4/12)


Seaton Grove is a fictional neighbourhood where everyone feels safe. Kids play in each other's sandboxes, teenagers do homework together and adults gather for dinner parties down the block. It's the kind of neighbourhood in which author Lilian Nattel lives. But in fictional Seaton Grove — the setting for her new novel Web of Angels — all this changes when a pregnant 16-year-old kills herself. While the neighbours struggle to understand what happened and why, only one person can sense the answer: Sharon Lewis, a happy wife and mother of three. However, Sharon is also Alyssa, Calisto and Alec, and many others. She has dissociative identity disorder (DID), triggered by trauma that she suffered as a child. As Sharon and her alters struggle to understand what happened in Seaton Grove and why, Web of Angels takes us on a gripping journey, showcasing humanity at its worst and at its best.

Web of Angels is Nattel's third novel, but she says it was easily the most challenging one to write. Nattel was constantly frustrated with how DID was portrayed in popular culture — she likens watching the TV series The United States of Tara to be "a bit like watching a train wreck" — and wanted to do justice to the illness and those who live with it each day. "People have an idea of DID that's very far from reality," Nattel told Shelagh Rogers in a recent interview on The Next Chapter. The extremes you see in movies and television are far from the truth, she pointed out. "They are out there, working, having friends, married, having children and doing everything they can to have a normal life while at the same time hiding who they really are and carrying that extra burden of all the trauma."

Nattel did substantial research into "alters" and how people with DID handled their circumstances. When creating Sharon and Sharon's alters, she started with the basics and built from there. It's common to have an alter of the opposite sex or have an alter that's a child or teenager. For Nattel, each alter is part of the whole person, not unlike how a person without DID — a "singleton" — has different aspects of their personality. A "singleton" may have "a work mode and a play mode and a romantic mode." Similarly, "people who are DID have very different parts, but they also have a certain gestalt to the whole," Nattel explained. "[Sharon] is a person who is living a life as a stay-at-home mom who has a part-time job and that's going to affect all of them."


Nattel was then faced with a challenge: how can she bring to life what living with DID is really like, but write a compelling, "gripping" story at the same time? That's how the mysterious death that kicks off the story came in. After Nattel heard about a pregnant teen being murdered — and that her child lived and was being held for ransom — she knew she had to incorporate this into Web of Angels. "It brings out, in a dramatic way the possibility that anybody here ... can have their eyes open and have the opportunity to save a child through nothing more than giving that child hope that there is kindness in the world."

Nattel hopes that readers will connect with this aspect of the story just as much as they connect with Sharon's situation. After all, Nattel sees Sharon, and those who with DID, wanting the same thing we all want, which is "freedom to come out as all of who we are."

"That's what we all want," she said. "Acceptance."