Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an emotional / anxiety disorder that normally affects individuals who have experienced an extremely stressful or frightening ordeal. It is commonly a result of psychological stress.
McIntosh states that, trauma that really threatens one’s mortality and one that extremely compromises with the normal emotional health of an individual, is bound to cause post-traumatic stress (4). As the name of the disorder suggests, it is stress that happens after a person experiences extreme fear or trauma. Those who suffer from this disorder usually re-live or re-experience the ordeal that triggered the trauma.
These individuals often come up with defensive mechanisms that help them forget these experiences even though for a short period. Tim O’Brien’s novel In the Lake of Woods shows us the effects of the Vietnam War on a former American soldier called John Wade. He exhibits the characteristics of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. The rage that causes him to inadvertently scream “Kill Jesus” is suppressed to the “forgetting tricks” throughout the novel.
The novel tells of a sad story of post-traumatic stress disorder as experienced by John Wade, a Vietnam War veteran. The main concept of the book revolves around John Wade’s experience through flashbacks including his abused childhood. As John grew into a man, he became involved with a woman by the name Kathy.
In their relationship, both kept many secrets from each other. For instance, Kathy hated her marriage to John Wade, had an affair with the dentist of which John was aware and how John had the habit of spying on his wife. Thus, their relationship was built on deceit, concealment and illusions. Furthermore, during the war, John wrote letters to Kathy, he stated to her in pride of his involvement in a massacre of a village as well as his identity as the Sorcerer.
The three principal groupings of the most common characteristics symptoms of PTSD are re-experiencing/relieving the traumatic event, emotional numbing and avoiding reminders of the traumatic experience. Many occurrences in war happen suddenly and unexpectedly. These occurrences do not give the one experiencing them enough time to conform psychologically to the sudden change (McIntosh 9-11) thus leading to PSTD. Similarly, John Wade exhibits these characteristics after having gone through the Vietnam War.
He relieves the traumatic event of the Vietnam War. Consequently, after John came back home from Vietnam, he gets a job in records within which he destroys any evidence of his involvement in the My Lai massacre. He concealed his involvement to gain a position as lieutenant governor of the state of Minnesota as well as a United States senator but lost miserably.
John’s Vietnam ordeals continuously haunt the couple as they settle in their cabin house following John’s defeat. John even forces his wife to have an abortion even thou she really would love to have children. He kills his unborn baby just like those helpless villagers in Vietnam during the massacre.
John exhibits emotional numbing and cannot feel what is going on around him. This is a coping strategy of victims of PSTD as Peters, in his article urges that the individual becomes ‘numb’ to the environment around him and the normal emotions experienced by a normal person become nonexistent to them (6-7).
As a symptom, to his depressing state, we find that he unknowingly carried the kettle of boiled water into the bedroom to watch his sleeping wife. “It was almost a fact, but not quiet, that he moved down the hallway to their bedroom that night, where for a period of time he watched Kathy sleep…” (O’Brien 188-189). John seemed out of touch with his actions as well as his environment. Apparently, John felt a numbness inside him that traveled to his mind and a feeling of not quite caring about his actions. “Odd, he thought.
The numbness inside him. The way his hands had no meaningful connection to his wrist” (p.50). This numbness, of not feeling the twisting of his wrist, indicates that he was not even aware of his destructive action of pouring the water from the kettle. He is not aware whether Kathy woke up or not. We as the readers are not even sure what is real or John’s figment of imagination. “In the dark she seemed to smile at him.
Then she jerked sideways, puffs of steam rose from the sockets of her eyes. Impossible, of course” (p.84) – this part particularly shows the level of disorientation that John suffered as he did not seem to understand his horrible action of burning his wife. The way John viewed the scenario in the dark was obviously so inaccurate that he mistook Kathy’s look of pain for a smile. He did not realize that the steam rising from her eyes was a sign of the burning that was taking place.
The book was written in John’s viewpoint and the use of words “impossible, of course” show that to him, the puffs of steam rising from his wife’s eyes were just unreal allowing his continuing of burning her to death. John was not even moved by his actions the next morning.
The following day he does an action so absurd that we are shocked. John did not even remember that he had dumped the body of his wife in the lake. His forgetfulness about killing his wife and concealing her body is a forgetting trick that the author uses in the novel to show us how the PSTD victims conceal or deny their actions. Thus, John avoids dealing with this possible horrific action.
People suffering from PSTD avoid reminders of the traumatic experience. In John’s case, he tries to avoid remembering the traumatic experience of killing of his wife by getting involved in a search team and questioning his neighbors about her whereabouts.
However, on pages 131 to 132, “He remembered the weight of the teakettle. He remembered puffs of steam in the dark…the steady lap of waves against his chest…Absurd, Wade thought”. At this point, John saw it as absurd that there was steam rising in the dark, a scenario that any normal person would have realized as coming from the extremely hot water he was pouring.
We have seen that a post-traumatic stress disorder victim has frequent periods of lapsing memory and a mind that is disconnected from the normal occurrences of life. Such an individual like John Wade will suffer disorientation throughout his life. Though having forgotten sinking his wife into the lake, he gets flashes of the events that occurred that night as time moves on.
Later he wakes up in the deep night and goes to the boathouse where he feels that something horrible had happened at that place only that he did not remember what it was. “…as sense of pre-memory washed over him. Things had happened here. Things said, things done…” (188).
On page 242, however, he seems to remember everything even where his alleged missing wife is “He didn’t think about it. Quick, he stripped naked and filled his lungs and dove to the bottom where Kathy was.” Disturbingly, John thought of his dead wife as he would if she were still alive as he swam towards her body.
“From the bottom of the lake, eyes wide open, Kathy Wade watches the fish fly up to swim in the land of sky blue waters…” (286). He thought that she was looking up at him and that she was swimming. “Kathy stares up at him from beneath the surface of a silvered lake…she swims in the blending twilight of it in between” (288).
On page 283, it seems that John is now aware of his actions but still has some sense of denial “Had he harmed her? Well no, but yes”. Of course, he knew he had harmed her but he seemed to justify that he had done it in his sleep meaning he did not mean to do it. “He was Sorcerer. He was guilty of that, and always would be….” Meaning he still identified himself with the person, he was in Vietnam. He still was the person who made things disappear and vanish. He still was the man who wanted to kill.
The other coping strategy that PSTD sufferers use is blocking the traumatic experiences from the mind. Victims of post-traumatic stress disorder usually try to block out intrusive memories of the occurrence, feelings that re-animates that event into the current as well as feelings of severe anguish on recalling the traumatic event (McIntosh 9).
The traumatic experiences are pushed back into the subconscious and the victims often forget some of the traumatic events although this does not mean that the memories go away forever as they can be revived by watching horrific scenes involving war on television and some of the war veterans have suffered by seeing similar war horrors (Peters 4). Moreover, Vietnam War veterans are known to have memories and nightmares associated with the war experiences.
They become so caught up in these memories that they find difficulty in focusing on present and events around them. The veterans say that their dreams often involved terrifying memories of the Vietnam War and other horrible nightmares not related to the war. The veterans avoid people and events that remind them of the war even decades after the war ended. They attempt to block off these memories and distressing feelings arising from the memories.
This leads to withdrawal from the family circle, their friends as well as the entire society (McIntosh 9). This may explain why John withdrew into the Lake to try to escape from the haunting experiences although his bid failed. John tried to block out the memories of Vietnam and some of the horrific secrets about the war are buried deep inside in his memories.
However, the effects of war leave an indelible mark on the veterans’ minds and lives and John was no exception and often suffered from blackouts as well as nightmares. He would wake up yelling because of recalling horrors about the atrocities that he took part in during the Vietnam War. Eventually the horrors led him to kill his wife an action that he would otherwise not have likely committed had he not been haunted by the Vietnam horrors. He cannot escape from the undead memories of the war.
War veterans suffer from PSTD and in most cases; they end up committing unforgivable acts. Most are unable to cope with the traumatic events that they experience while at war and thus there is a need to help the veterans overcome the trauma and fit into the normal life once the war is over.
John does not recover from the PTSD and kills his wife Kathy in cold blood. He symbolizes the horrors of war that continue long after the war is over. O’Brien captures John’s coping strategies- re-experiencing/relieving the traumatic event, emotional numbing and avoiding reminders of the traumatic experience- using “forgetting tricks” in a compelling way.
McIntosh, Steven. “Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and War-Related Stress” Information For Veterans and their Families (2000): 4-20.
O’Brien, Tim. In the Lake of the Woods. New York: Penguin Books, 1995.
Peters, Roger, F. Casualties of War: Vietnam War Veterans PTSD and Depression. Human Focus Group, 2003. Sept. 13. 2003. Nov. 11. 2010.