All of the major characters in In the Lake of the Woods struggle to deal with traumatic events from their pasts. John Wade, the protagonist, endured verbal abuse from his father and then lost his father to suicide. Most disturbingly, he later witnessed and participated in the infamous My Lai Massacre in Vietnam. At My Lai, American soldiers were ordered to murder Vietnamese women and children with the explanation that they were “dangerous.” While some soldiers refused to carry out the order, many killed innocent civilians without question. We learn that John killed two unarmed people in Vietnam: an old man carrying a hoe, and a fellow soldier.
John’s reaction to his experiences in the Vietnam War fits the classic definition of trauma given by Sigmund Freud (who’s quoted several times in the novel): an event so disturbing and stressful that the mind doesn’t know how to incorporate it into the memory, and thus relives it endlessly. As Freud’s definition would suggest, John experiences his memories of Vietnam—and also of his father—as if they’re happening to him in the present. At many points in the novel, John talks with his father as if he’s still alive, and has visions of My Lai that border on hallucination.
John tries to cope with trauma by repressing it—trying to make himself forget that it ever happened to him in the first place. While this strategy seems successful—John spends years as a loving husband and a successful politician—it actually causes John to experience sudden “bursts” of trauma. He yells out in his sleep, and after evidence of his actions in Vietnam comes out, his relationship with Kathy Wade, his wife, seems to deteriorate almost immediately. In no small part, John’s memories are traumatic because they seem to remind him who he really is: in other words, beneath his façade of charisma and kindness, he’s still “Jiggling John,” the child his father used to mock.
O’Brien (who served in Vietnam, has experienced post-traumatic stress disorder, and has many friends who have experienced it, too) has no illusions: it’s incredibly difficult to deal with trauma. Nevertheless, he uses his novel to suggest a healthier way of coping with disturbing memories than the one John adopts. The form of In the Lake of the Woods itself implies that it is better to deal with the past by addressing it and treating it as a reality than it is to pretend that it never happened. O’Brien accumulates information about his subjects, John and Kathy Wade. He compares their actions with the actions of other, similar people—other soldiers who fought in Vietnam, for instance. At the same time, he delves into the characters’ deep thoughts and feelings—thoughts they would be reluctant to share with anyone else.
There is nothing inherently successful about O’Brien’s project; trauma is a terrible thing, and in many cases it’s impossible to make it any better. O’Brien also acknowledges that there is a limit to how much he, in the guise of the narrator, can know about John and Kathy. He ends the novel unsure whether John killed Kathy, Kathy killed herself, or the both of them ran off together. The entire novel, then, can be seen as a frustrating, inadequate attempt to perform the kind of therapy that John must perform on himself. Nevertheless, O’Brien acknowledges that the human mind has the ability to heal itself and overcome trauma over time. The only way to allow for this healing is to confront memory and trauma oneself by talking about it explicitly—hopefully John will do so.
War, Memory, and Trauma ThemeTracker
War, Memory, and Trauma Quotes in In the Lake of the Woods
You know, I think politics and magic were almost the same thing for him. Transformations—that’s part of it—trying to change things. When you think about it, magicians and politicians are basically control freaks.
John Wade would remember Thuan Yen the way chemical nightmares are remembered, impossible combinations, impossible events, and over time the impossibility itself would become the richest and deepest and most profound memory.
This could not have happened. Therefore it did not.
The unknown, the unknowable. The blank faces. The overwhelming otherness. This is not to justify what occurred on March 16, 1968, for in my view such justifications are both futile and outrageous. Rather, it’s to bear witness to the mystery of evil. Twenty-five years ago, as a terrified young PFC, I too could taste the sunlight. I could smell the sin. I could feel butchery sizzling like grease just under my eyeballs.
Curiously, as he worked out the details, Wade found himself experiencing a dull new sympathy for his father. This was how it was. You go about your business. You carry the burdens, entomb yourself in silence, conceal demon-history from all others and most times from yourself. Nothing theatrical … and then one day you discover a length of clothesline. You amaze yourself.
Why do we care about Lizzie Borden, or Judge Carter, or Lee Harvey Oswald, or the Little Big Horn? Because of all that cannot be known. And what if we did know? What if it were proved—absolutely and purely—that Lizzie Borden took an ax? That Oswald acted alone? That Judge Carter fell into Sicilian hands? Nothing more would beckon, nothing would tantalize.
And here in a corner of John Wade’s imagination, where things neither live nor die, Kathy stares up at him from beneath the surface of the silvered lake. Her eyes are brilliant green, her expression alert. Se tries to speak, but can’t. She belongs to the angle. Not quite present, not quite gone, she swims in the blending twilight of in between.
It’s odd how the mind erases horror. All the evidence suggests that John Wade was able to perform a masterly forgetting trick for nearly two decades, somehow coping, pushing it all away, and from my own experience, I can understand how he kept things buried.