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The Strangers in the Lake: A Diagnosis of In the Lake of the Woods

The Strangers in the Lake: A Diagnosis of In the Lake of the Woods

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An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Conor Dawson. Originally submitted for 20th Century American Literature at University College Cork, with lecturer Dr. Alan Gibbs in the category of English Language & Literature
An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Conor Dawson. Originally submitted for 20th Century American Literature at University College Cork, with lecturer Dr. Alan Gibbs in the category of English Language & Literature

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 29, 2012
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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 1The Strangers in the Lake: A Diagnosis of 
 In the Lake of the Woods
 Dissociation is defined as a disruption in the usually integrated functions of consciousness,memory, identity, and perception, leading to a fragmentation of the coherence, unity and continuity of the sense of self. Depersonalisation is a particular type of dissociation involvinga disrupted integration of self-perceptions with the sense of self, so that individualsexperiencing depersonalisation are in a subjective state of feeling estranged, detached or disconnected with their own being.
  Depersonalisation Disorder: A Contemporary Overview -Simeon
 In the Lake of the Woods,
creates a diegetic author who reflects upon his ownlife in recreating the enigmatic life of J
ohn Wade, a process O‟B
rien simultaneously
undergoes through his own writing process. Heberle‟s comprehensive account of 
 In the Lakeof the Woods
notes that there are “direct [biographical] parallels” mirrored between O‟Brienand the recreated Wade, ultimately reflecting “Wade as a darker version of his creator” (250).O‟Brien
is not only linked to Wade however; he is also linked to his internal anonymousnarrator. Beyond mundane biographical details, all three exhibit deeply rooted psychiatricparallels. The similarities include: childhood emotional distress, intense trauma which leadsto a fascination with mirrors, and temporal collapses. These parallels seem symptomatic of depersonalisation disorder. The distinction between author, diegetic author and fabricatedsubject is blurred and fragmented beyond recovery.
 In the Lake of the Woods
thus functionsas a psychobiography
for O‟Brien,
with important implications for the national psyche of 
America. O‟Brien conjures up a labyrinth of depersonalised selves, perhaps the inevitable
result of an author who
seems to have suffered from the “
under-diagnosed and poorly treated
 psychiatric disorder,” depersonalisation disorder (Simeon 35
 2John Wade is imaginatively reconstructed as a character suffering from symptoms of depersonalisation as expressed
in Simeon‟s overview.
He suffers an
“intense sense of emotional disconnection from those [he] care[s] about” (Simeon 345)
, from the earliestmoments of his childhood to his participation in the My Lai Massacre of 1969 and hiseventual disappearance which becomes his ultimate act of social and self-detachment.
 In the
 Lake of the Woods’ 
narrator speculates that Wade had attempted to relate these feelings of self-detachment to his significant other Kathy. Wade
through our narrator
exclaims toKathy:
“It‟s hard to explain
[...] but I don‟t feel real sometimes” (
 In the Lake of the Woods
74). Our narrator‟s
speculative use of direct speech suggests that he is drawing from his ownsimilar feelings of detachment in rec
reating Wade‟s depersonalised state of mind
“after four years of hard labor” (30) his report functions as a “remind[er]” of 
his fragmented life (301).Depersonalis
ation is commonly rooted in childhood “emotional maltreatment
” (343).
According to
account of 
 In the Lake of the Woods,
“[t]he distinction between
author and character actually [c
ollapses]” (283) upon an
examination of their respectivechildhoods. Heberle points towards
and Wade‟s childhood fascination with magic bydirecting our attention O‟Brien‟s 1991 essay, “The Magic Show.” The childhood connectionextends into O‟Brien‟s essay “The Vietnam in Me,” as O‟Brien relates “painful
feelings of rejection as a child,
” describing himself as “[c]hubby and friendless and lonely.” Our diegeticauthor‟s recreation of Wade‟s childhood recalls his father‟s painful teasing,
coldlynicknaming Wade
“Jiggling John”
 In the Lake of the Woods
65) during the early stages of 
his “masculi
ation” (Melley 116).
The complicated detachment of depersonalisation withinthe novel begins
with “the pressures” of this process (116)
 In the Lake of the Woods
presents us with imagery symptomatic of the postmodern process of depersonalisation. This imagery operates on two
distinct levels. Simeon notes that “looking in
the mirror and feeling detached from one‟s image” is a common sensation experienc
ed during
depersonalisation (344)
. O‟Brien attempts to ref 
lect this traumatic detachment in his
evocation of a recreated Wade. Wade‟s unhealthy preoccupation with mirrors is rooted in his
troubled childhood. Following his
father‟s suicide and
years later, his return from Vietnam inthe November of 1969, the mirro
r becomes the surface for Wade‟s growing
depersonalisation. Wade stares into the mirror whilst talking to one form of his splintered
self, Sorcerer: “Hey Sorcerer [...] [h]ow‟s tricks?” (41) Wade murmurs to the mirror. This
literal detachment of the self is later covertly extended through the use of reflective imagery
from the author‟s “fabricated self” (
248) to O‟Brien.
O‟Brien‟s narrator opens his report
with a description of the lake which envelops hisimaginative reconstruction, thus extending the reflective motif of the novel. He announces
that “the wilderness was [...] like one great big curving mirror” (
 In the Lake of the Woods
1).The reflective quality of the lake is sustained throughout
 In the Lake of the Woods,
until ournarrat
or describes how Wade found himself “adrift on a sea of glass” surrounded by“reflections everywhere” (280). The internalised “box of mirrors” (159)
of Wade‟s troubl
edpsyche is ultimately externalised by authorial speculation. In creating the environment of 
 Inthe Lake of the Woods
, O‟Brien exte
nds his mirror motif, gesturing towards his own sensationof depersonalisation. In staring at the lake
, O‟Brien finds depersonalised images of himself 

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