Lake of the Woods by Tim O'Brien presents the image of the typical mystery; however, as the story unfolds it quickly becomes apparent that it is a story of complex psychological underpinnings. Almost from the opening page it is easily apparent that Kathy Wade, the main character John's wife, will disappear and that her disappearance will remain unresolved. What makes the novel intriguing, however, are the psychological factors underlying the causes of Kathy's disappearance.
The novel's main character is a 40-year-old politician John Wade suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. John is a morally confused individual who has recently suffered a humiliating defeat in his run for the United States Senate. In an effort to escape from the rigors of public scrutiny in the wake of this defeat the Wades move themselves to an isolated cabin on a lake in the Minnesota woodlands. In a twist of fate, however, old and unresolved issues from John's past come to the surface during the time that the Wades spend at their Minnesota cabin. [1: ]
One of the unresolved issues causing conflict is John's long repressed involvement in a massacre in the Village of Thuan Yen in Vietnam. John had not been much of a soldier, barely competent, but had, for the most, aside from this once incident performed competently. Subsequent to the massacre, John had dealt with his guilt over the incident by denying it. "He was a decent person…what happened here was not a product of his own heart…he hated it and wished it would all go away." Aiding in the denial was the fact that John was able to delete information of the incident from his squadron records through his good fortune of being a records clerk after returning from Vietnam. His ability to deny and his fortuitous job placement allowed the Thuan Yen to "magically" disappear at least on the surface. [2: ]
In reality, the effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (hereinafter PSTD) would not allow John to escape. His imagination would allow him to escape from time to time but his dreams would ultimately bring him back to reality. Plagued by the memories of what happened John cannot escape "a place with secret trapdoors and tunnels and underground chambers populated by various spooks and goblins, a place where magic was everyone's hobby…a place where the air itself was both reality and illusion, where anything might instantly become anything else."3 Interestingly, the author himself suffered from the same effects and so was able to write with a deep understanding.4
The dream aspect of John's PTSD is an essential element of the story. Often, through the course of the book, John is confused as to where dreams end and reality begins. This confusion sets the stage for the critical moment in the novel where Kathy ultimately comes up missing. On the night of Kathy's mysterious disappearance, John got out of bed in a murderous rage, poured a pot full of boiling water on each houseplant in the cabin, and the reader is left with the impression that he could have also poured the same hot liquid over Kathy's face and that in effort to hide this fact was forced to hide Kathy's body through drowning or some other means. What actually occurs is left to the imagination and creativity of the reader. What is important is that through John's dream the reader is reminded that John is capable of such behavior as indicated by his prior actions in Vietnam. In Wade's mind, however, it was a nightmare of "impossible events." "This could not have happened. Therefore it did not."5
Adding to John's emotional turmoil is the suicidal death of his father. These realities, like the memories of his Vietnam experience, cause John serious internal conflict. Although the victim of abuse at his hands, John stills holds on dearly to this father's memory but is torn by the reasons behind his death. His father's suicide and John's Vietnam memories are spiritual things that he carries with him constantly and, as a result, they define his character. He hides their existence but in his own mind he cannot deny them. Both factors add to the intrigue of the story as they provide substance to the possibility that John may have actually killed his wife.
Underlying the entire story is John Wade interest and passion for magic and the art of illusion. Through his involvement with these things John was able to deal with the ambiguities of his life. He even gave himself the nickname the Sorcerer. When he was the Sorcerer he was capable of being anyone or doing anything. Unfortunately for John, however, his imaginative alter ego as a Sorcerer could not erase the realities of his life.
He was a failure at being a son; his father was abusive and later killed himself. He was a coward as a soldier; he was afraid to admit what he had done in Vietnam. He was a bad husband; he was constantly spying on his wife and she had an affair. He had even made his wife get an abortion so that the pregnancy would not interfere with his political campaign. Finally, he was even a failure at being a politician. He had intended to do well but he could not avoid his past. In his own mind, however, John had avoided all these realities through his continued reliance on illusion. He had convinced himself that his father loved him; that he had served faithfully in Vietnam; that Kathy dearly loved him; and that he cared about the voters. John held on to these illusions even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
John's reliance upon illusion as a defense mechanism opens the way for there to be a variety of explanations as to what happened to Kathy. Throughout his entire life John has been controlled by his secrets, yet, he believes that he is successfully hiding them. These secrets, his father's suicide, his childhood abuse, his behavior in Vietnam, his spying on his wife have all kept him on the edge of insanity. They have caused him relationship problems and have cost him his dreams. These secrets are so ingrained in John's character that even his hobby, magic, is based upon secrets and deceit.
John's unsuccessful run for the United States Senate might have served as the last blow to the Wade's relationship. From the beginning their relationship had suffered from a lack of trust and infidelity. John's spying and Kathy's infidelity were both mirrors into the problems inherent therein and the pressures of the Senate campaign became too much.
Kathy had a profound dislike for the political process. She hated being in the public eye. I t made her feel exposed and naked.[footnoteRef:1] What she hated the most was the effect that politics had had upon their lives. It had deprived her of a peaceful life; a decent house that she could call home and a baby to love. [1: ]
John, on the other hand, found politics entirely to his liking. The nuances of politics fit his personality perfectly. The illusion, the secrets, the ambiguities were all ingrained in John's character and he fit into the political arena easily. Campaigning for him took on characteristics of being on stage performing magic. A deep passion for illusion had been a part of John's entire life and the required gestures, posturing and manipulation necessary to run a successful political campaign was easy for him. The Senate campaign loss, however, was humiliating to John. He had entered the campaign rated as one of the rising young stars and there was even talk of his having a future at a higher level but, once again in his life, a revealed secret caused him problems.