A few months ago, David told me that an old friend of his had just published her first book, a novel called “The Belief in Angels.” I was intrigued by the story, which explores trauma and survival. It turned out to be one of those rare books that I couldn’t put down.
The Belief in Angels is a beautiful, artfully poetic and poignant story about multigenerational trauma, survival, and ultimately, about finding freedom. It’s a coming-of-age story about Jules, who we follow from the age of 6 until she heads to college. The story is told from her point of view, growing up with parents whose trauma is unrecognized and repeatedly expressed through domestic violence, gambling and drugs, and neglect.
It can be challenging to talk about trauma without overwhelming, triggering, or depressing the reader and Dylan does a masterful job of making it intriguing and compelling instead. She alternates between Jules’ story and her grandfather Szasa’s, who lived through the Holocaust and has a survival story of his own. There is a gentle pacing throughout this book that gave me the time to catch my breath, stay curious, and want more. And Jules is a completely engaging, endearing character. I found myself rooting her on, wanting to keep her company as she found her way through a series of difficult, seemingly impossible events and as she also experienced friendship and support from unexpected places. Towards the end of the book we get a glimpse of her mother Wendy’s painful life history, and it surprised me as it stirred up feelings of compassion. Traumatizing behaviors, we are reminded, do not come out of nowhere.
While Jules finds an angel in the first chapter of the book, this story is more about her journey and of her search for her truth. Dylan shows us that survival comes at a cost – Jules develops symptoms of dissociation rather than a chronic physical illness – but by connecting to her truth, Jules finds her freedom.
David met Dylan over a decade ago. She was a realtor at the time and they immediately hit it off as she helped him find just the right fit for his needs. She’s since retrained in a number of different venues, including as an RN, and all of them have helped her support her “writing habit.” She started working on her book 33 years ago when she was recovering from a motorcycle accident.
It turns out that Dylan is a bit of a research geek (something we have in common), and has loved delving into the topics she covers in The Belief in Angels, including trauma, dissociation, and the Holocaust. She won an Alexis Masters Scholarship Award at the San Francisco Writers Conference in 2012. We weren’t the only ones who loved her book!
Dylan was in Boulder a few weeks ago on her book tour, and we got to meet and conduct our interview in person. We had a great time, and even though I had some brain-fuzz and was tired as part of my normal state, we found our way and discovered similar perspectives during our conversation. I’ve edited out a few silent spots, taken out the time I used to test for sound levels, and removed a premature ending of the interview that turned into learning a little more about her upcoming books. I’ve left everything else in.
Here it is. I’ll describe some of what we covered after the podcast for anyone who’d rather read about it than listen to audio.
Dylan was inspired by a number of factors for her book. She did not experience the kind of trauma, neglect or abuse she describes in the story, although she found many sources for her descriptions of Jules’ and Szasa’s experiences. The following paragraphs present some of the stories we discussed in the interview.
Trauma in her Grandfather’s Life. Dylan describes spending time with her grandfather one day when she commented on a photo he had on the wall. It was a picture of his family and 7 siblings. She’d only ever heard of 4. When she asked him about them, he replied, “Some things are better left unsaid.” It was clear that he was never going to answer any questions about them. This experience, and all that was kept out of sight, marked her deeply.
A Best Friend’s Unrecognized Trauma. Another experience that influenced the birth of this story came from a best friend that Dylan grew up with. Dylan describes how they spent all sorts of time together, how much she loved going over to her house and how fantastic her friend’s parents were. Sometime in their twenties, this friend disclosed that she had been sexually abused by her parents during her entire life. Dylan was stunned to the core. At how much she’d loved these parents, and at how she’d never recognized or known about this horrifying truth despite all the time they’d spent together.
Volunteering with Child Survivors of Abuse and Neglect. Dylan describes feeling survivor’s guilt following the revelation from her childhood best friend and how this influenced her to volunteer as a court appointed special advocate (CASA) with Voices for Children, where she worked with children experiencing abuse and neglect. She provided support to one child at a time, sometimes over many years, from spending time with them and offering support, to accompanying them to see the courts where their cases would be held. Some of these kids’ experiences contributed to Dylan’s vivid descriptions of events in Jules’ life.
The Ability to Dissociate. Dylan met one of the kids she’d helped years after their time together and was shocked to learn that this young adult not only didn’t recognize her, but didn’t remember their history of abuse, nor any of the experiences they’d had in court. They were leading a successful life and seemed happy, and it made Dylan realize that it is possible to survive and find one’s way despite having had terrible experiences. It also introduced her to the meaning of dissociation, which she refers to as a dissociative “ability”, because of how it offers gifts, such as forgetting of overwhelming pain. Forgetting provides a mechanism for making it through horrific, overwhelming, impossible circumstances. Dylan set out to research and learn more about dissociation, which became one of the features of Jules’ experiences, and survival, in the The Belief in Angels.
Moving through the generations. One of the unexpected twists that arose for Dylan in the process of writing her book was Wendy’s story. As she wrote about experiences that Jules’ was having with her degree-seeking psychology-student, drug-using, neglectful, abusive mother (Wendy), Dylan began to wonder what could make someone behave in such ways. She began to read about epigenetics and how events can affect people across generations. If intelligence and medical challenges can be passed down through genes, she wondered, why couldn’t emotional intelligence and the capacity for survival be passed down as well? This was a key point in her writing about Szasa, the grandfather who lived through the Holocaust at great personal expense. She gradually realized that he had not only survived when so many others had died under terrible circumstances, but that he was passing on his will for survival (as well as some of his trauma), to his kin. She became intrigued with the stories about the unexpected, unpredictable things that can keep us going through the dark times.
The Take Away
As Dylan has been working through her own life experiences and challenges, she has come to believe that there is hope. While trauma can perpetuate itself across the generations, it does not have to repeat itself in that way. Looking at our lives and the lives of our ancestors – searching for the truth – can create opportunities for us to have choice. And sometimes for us to make different choices.
When allowing ourselves to look for the truth, Dylan believes, we find ways to understand the choices our parents, grandparents and ancestors have made. This in turn can enable us to understand how little choice they had in their circumstances and to begin to find ways to not take their behaviors, actions, and choices so personally.
Dylan feels that finding clarity can help us break the chain of trauma that may have been occurring in our, and our ancestors’ lives, for generations. This clarity can enable us to stop passing on the dysfunction to future generations. Dylan has found that as our own healing takes place, there is room for compassion. For ourselves. For our ancestors. For our lives and the choices that we’ve had to make too.
Ultimately, as we allow ourselves to look for our truth, truth serves as a path. A pathway to Freedom.
Dylan and I covered a few other topics in the interview. We talked about conversations she’s had with a Vietnam Veteran, who, while still suffering the effects of his own experiences of trauma, is still finding a way to help others; how she came upon the book title in a dream; how many readers identify with Wendy’s situation of having experienced so few options once she became pregnant; about upcoming books that will delve into Szasa’s and Wendy’s stories; and finally, in the last few minutes, Dylan’s invitation for me to share stories of divine intervention that might have happened in my life, which I’d never thought of in quite this way before. I wish I’d thought to ask Dylan of her own experiences of divine intervention and survival. That will be for another day.
Thank you Dylan for introducing this hugely important perspective about compassion and the multigenerational roots of trauma. For making and taking the time, and most of all, for sharing of yourself and your passion.
Is there multigenerational trauma in your history? Have you uncovered any unexpected truths in your life or in the lives of your ancestors? How does compassion play a role, even as you work with the impacts of traumatic events in your life and in the life of preceding generations?
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