New book examines dissociative identity disorder

Lilian Nattel [Allan Greenbaum photo]

Toronto writer Lilian Nattel’s third novel, Web of Angels, signals a departure for the author of two previous works, both gems of historical fiction.

In The River Midnight (1999), a bestseller that earned worldwide raves, Nattel constructed the fictional Polish shtetl of Blaszka, complete with Chagall-like renderings of sages, peddlers, poets and the strong women who held it all together. The Singing Fire (2004), similarly richly detailed, is set in the Jewish ghetto of late Victorian London and relates the story of two very different Jewish immigrant women from Poland.

This time out, Nattel tries something quite different. For one, Web of Angels (Knopf Canada) is contemporary, set in an Annex-like Toronto neighbourhood (where Nattel still lives), and portrays a typically Canadian, multicultural family. It takes up a potentially tricky subject, but leavened with love and wisdom, the result is a daring, textured book that celebrates not just feminine strength but the human spirit.

 “I was planning to write something completely different – another historical novel,” the Montreal-born Nattel, 55, tells me in her living room, her small hands cradling a cup of hot tea. “And it just wasn’t going anywhere. I needed to get back to writing. I started writing, and this is what came out.”

Nattel’s heroine this time is not a Polish woman but a young Canadian mother of three. Sharon Lewis has a recognizably harried life of picking up kids from school, hurrying to and from programs and preparing meals. Her home is comfortably chaotic. All her husband and kids think is that Mom is a bit weird, but they love her for her quirks.

What sets Sharon apart is dissociative identity disorder (DID), a much misunderstood condition once called multiple personality disorder and always falsely labelled as split personality (which in turn, has been wrongly confused with schizophrenia).

Sharon, it soon becomes clear, has several “selves.” Each is distinct and at least one is male. We never know who’s going to show up.

This is no fly-by-night exploration of a little-known condition. Nattel “read everything I could get my hands on” and conducted in-depth interviews with some two-dozen people with DID. Neither is this the story of somebody she knows.

 “It’s distilled from the experiences of the people I got to know,” she says. “Not a single one of those people feels that they can come out. Most of them are out with their spouses, children, therapists, and occasionally a sibling or best friend. But that’s it. Because there’s so much ignorance and misinformation about DID, people just don’t feel they can [come out].”

As with her previous books, Nattel got an education on the subject.

 “I came to realize that I hadn’t recognized it because my own idea of DID was Sybil [the 1973 book about the treatment of Sybil Dorsett for multiple personality disorder]. That’s most people’s picture. And it’s so far from the reality. As I absorbed that realization, I began to feel compelled to do something with all this knowledge that I had.”

Partly, Nattel seeks to dispel the stigma of DID. But Sharon’s condition is a skeleton key. The novel opens on a shocking note meant to grab the reader by the lapels: Heather, a troubled, pregnant teenager and family friend, commits suicide (her baby is rescued by her mother, a doctor, in a none-too-gruesome way. The episode is based on a true event).

Not to give too much away, but the multiple personalities inside Sharon seem to know what happened to Heather and what may be happening to Heather’s surviving sister (who is Sharon’s son’s girlfriend). Can Sharon rally herself and transcend pain and the taint of “mental illness” to rescue others?

It’s not always an easy read and Nattel rarely takes the simple route. This is a vivid, warts-and-all portrayal of DID.

 “There an argument that DID is not a mental illness,” Nattel says. “It is listed in the DSM (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), but lots of things are listed in it that aren’t mental illness.” The condition, she explains, is an adaptation to trauma.

 “You don’t say your leg is sick when it breaks. It’s more like an injury. You adapt to trauma in this way and then you grow with it. A mental illness implies a lack of functionality, something to be cured of.”

Those with the condition can have completely normal lives, she says. “DID has enabled them to compartmentalize the terrible things they’ve endured in order to function.”

The goal is not necessarily a cure, but “to live co-operatively. It’s about living peacefully and collectively in the present without holding on to the pain of the past.”

And everyone can relate to Sharon, believes Nattel, herself a survivor of sexual abuse.

 “I’ve never met a person who has gone through life unscathed. We all have pain.”

 Nattel never divulges how many personalities Sharon has. Among those with DID, revealing or asking that question is considered rude, she says. So is inquiring about personalities’ names. “The point is to function, not to be seen as different.”

Nattel says writing the book, which took eight years including research, was cathartic. Her character’s ability “to use the pain of her experience to save two children is cathartic.” Sensing she’s about to issue a spoiler, Nattel promises the book’s resolution “is extremely satisfying in every way.”

She concedes the book was a challenge.

 “It’s challenging to present an authentic picture that is also comprehensible to the reader. My background in historical fiction helped me with that because that’s also a very foreign world. And this is the same thing. I’m building a world.”

Nattel will read from Web of Angels at Harbourfront on March 7, 7:30 p.m., in the Brigantine Room.