Review and Q&A: Beautiful on the Outside by Adam Rippon

Figure skater Adam Rippon, the first U.S. athlete to medal at a Winter Olympics while being out as gay, has released a memoir called Beautiful on the Outside.  I’ve been following gay issues in figure skating since the 1990s, and once ran a website called Rainbow Ice (1998-2006) that was the first to be dedicated to such issues, so I have been captivated by Rippon’s success.  (Rainbow Ice is still archived online.  It’s like a time capsule of late 1990s terminology and website aesthetics!)

Figure Skaters Online invited me to write a review.  I wrote about how the memoir conveys both Rippon’s exceptional mental discipline and his love for drama.  It’s a good book, and funny; I recommend it.

Rippon came to the Free Library of Philadelphia on October 17, 2019 as part of his book tour.  You can listen to the podcast recording of his appearance, which includes, around the 53-minute mark, a brief exchange that I got to have with him.


Lorrie: So I want to tell you one thing and I want to ask you one thing. 

Adam: Go for it.

Lorrie: In 1998, I started the first website for gay skating issues, and I listed… because people kept saying, “Oh, well, who’s gay in skating?” and I said, “I will tell you!” They thought I was kidding!

Adam: Wow! I really like you already.

Lorrie: [Joking] For ten dollars…

Adam: Ten dollars! Well, I mean, in 1998, ten dollars is like being a millionaire.

Lorrie: Actually, 1998 wouldn’t have gotten me very much money, because I have everybody listed if they were on the record. And then by 2006 I moved on, but I did keep an eye on the Olympics.

Adam: I’m fucking obsessed with you. Keep going.

(laughter)

Lorrie: So 2018, I’m sitting with my two little gay daughters who have on their green and blue mermaid makeup for your costume, and we’re watching you. 20 years. Oh my God, it took 20 years. Thank you, and they thank you. And they’re like… my then 13-year-old is like, “I didn’t know I could love anybody so much!”

Adam: Oh my God, what good taste!

(laughter)

Lorrie: The thing I’m gonna ask you… and before I ask you, I will tell you that you are probably the second white man that I will ever accept this from. What did you mean when you said you were a timid, beautiful, shy Asian girl? Yes. Fair enough, yes, but what did you mean?

Adam: I think because I was talking about… well, first of all, thank you for accepting me to your community. Thank you. I feel embraced. What she’s talking about, there’s this moment in my book where I had two girlfriends in my life. What? No. And one of them was this girl that I skated with who was from Korea, and I was saying in the book how we were perfect for each other, because she was… I think when you skate yourself focused on what you’re doing and what you’re trying to get done that you put a lot of… you emotionally stint yourself in a lot of different situations. She never had a boyfriend before, and I had an ex already. And I remember that I wasn’t gonna do anything with her, and I thought for a really long time that the reason I wasn’t gonna do anything was because I was just a really good guy. I was raised as Catholic. Of course I’m not gonna do anything. I’m not a sinner. In the book, she was very… she didn’t have a lot of friends at the rink. She was very focused, she was a very, very good skater. One of the best in the world, so not a lot of people approached to be her friend. We were both training and competing at the time, and we confided in each other and we found each other. In the book, I say she was this ty… “Thai.” She’s Korean! She was this shy, timid Asian girl, and I was like…  and here I was, a perfect match for her, also a shy, timid Asian girl. And I just said it, tongue-in-cheek, that here we are. We’re so similar and we’re both so afraid of taking this next step forward and figuring out who we are. We’re both 19 and 20, but we’re so the same. We’re so just 13-year-olds trying to figure out how do we become normal people in this situation that is so not normal. Unfortunately, I will never be Asian.

Lorrie: We’ll take you!

Adam: Thank you! I’ve tried, but…

 

The transcript of our exchange is courtesy of Deannah Robinson, deannahm03@gmail.com.  Hit her up for your transcription needs!

 

“And my soul, Dumbledore?” The Snape-Dumbledore Relationship

Notes from a talk delivered at LeakyCon in Boston, MA, USA, on Sunday, October 13, 2019.  Posted by request.

Thank you for coming to think about what is, to me, the most difficult relationship to understand in Harry Potter.  There are things about Snape and Dumbledore that I’ve been trying to figure out since July 2007 and I’m still trying to get there.  I see the author’s perspective on this relationship changing, too, as she grows older. When she wrote Deathly Hallows, she was close to Snape’s age of 38 and she wrote Dumbledore as almost godlike.  In the Fantastic Beasts series, she writes Dumbledore as younger than she is now.

In 2016, Rowling wrote that McGonagall added Snape’s portrait to the headmistress’s office after a conversation with Harry.  When I picture that portrait gallery, Snape makes for an arresting addition: the very young protégé hand-selected by the legendary Albus Dumbledore to see Hogwarts through one grim, pivotal year in its history.  I wonder where she put his portrait. Is it next to Dumbledore’s, behind her desk? I wonder how these two portraits interact.

As we learn more about Dumbledore’s backstory, we see how he could be sure Snape’s repentance was real:  because Dumbledore recognized it from his own experience of facing his evil and renouncing it. This is a story that’s become especially urgent in the current political climate, something we can see being emphasized in the Fantastic Beasts films that were released in 2016 and 2018.  Considering that Dumbledore and Snape are both essentially reformed white supremacists who used their knowledge of evil to fight Dark Magic in ways not available to those who have always been pure of heart, I think their stories are worth considering now in a way that wasn’t as topical in the years when Obama was president and Godwin’s Law was still in place.

Dumbledore made significant bequests to Harry, Ron, and Hermione:  a Snitch, a Deluminator, a first edition, the sword of Gryffindor. In a similar spirit, he also left things to Snape:  the Headmaster job, the final message for Harry, and the Elder Wand, though that didn’t work out the way he intended. He left Snape the responsibility for everyone at Hogwarts, a powerful cover story that was years in the making, the private sanctum of the Headmaster’s office, and his personal gratitude for doing whatever it took to agree to kill Dumbledore and then survive a terrifying time without his mentor.

Rowling wrote such complexity into the Dumbledore-Snape relationship that we can see several different interpretations of their dynamic, including one that Snape believed for a time, before Dumbledore died:  that Dumbledore used Snape as a pawn. For a long time, I had difficulty believing that Snape could possibly have drawn strength from the memory of Dumbledore in his final year.  But that is what I think now, and I’ll go through why I think so, starting with the headmaster’s password.

Harry took Snape’s memories to the headmaster’s office and said, “Dumbledore!” without thinking, and the gargoyle let him through.  Until then, Harry and Snape had one shared password of sorts: Lily. When Harry saw Snape’s Patronus, without even knowing whose it was, it felt deeply familiar to him:  both Harry and Snape had been formed by love of the same person. We’ve just seen Harry spend a year struggling to work from Dumbledore’s instructions, sometimes losing faith.  The second shared password points us to the possibility that Snape has been going through the same struggles during the same year, in parallel. 

Remember how Harry raged against Dumbledore in Deathly Hallows?  Snape would have understood the feeling:

“Look what he asked from me, Hermione! Risk your life, Harry! And again! And again! And don’t expect me to explain everything, just trust me blindly, trust that I know what I’m doing, trust me even though I don’t trust you! Never the whole truth! Never!”

Remember Snape telling Dumbledore he might change his mind about killing him? “You refuse to tell me everything, yet you expect that small service of me!”  Dumbledore says, “You gave me your word, Severus.”

He was just as inexorable when Harry asked him in the cave, desperately, “Why can’t I drink the potion instead?”

“Because I am much older, much cleverer, and much less valuable,” said Dumbledore.  “Once and for all, Harry, do I have your word that you will do all in your power to make me keep drinking?”

For both Harry and Snape, when they keep their word to Dumbledore, what they get in return is Dumbledore’s gratitude that they have made him feel less alone, a rare experience for the most powerful wizard of the century at the end of his life.  When Dumbledore was weak from the poison in the cave, he said, “I am not worried, Harry. I am with you.” When Snape saved Dumbledore’s life from the curse in the ring, he said, “I am fortunate, extremely fortunate, that I have you, Severus.”

He asked them to help him in his weakest moments, called for them specifically to be with him through mortal peril and at his death, and they saw that this brought him comfort.  Dumbledore, asking for help for himself. They might have doubted his guidance in their own lives, but where Dumbledore’s needs were concerned, I have to think Harry and Snape must have realized, in time, that this meant Dumbledore loved them.

When Harry meets posthumous Dumbledore at King’s Cross, we see someone at peace:  “Happiness seemed to radiate from Dumbledore like light, like fire:  Harry had never seen the man so utterly, so palpably content.” Dumbledore mentions Voldemort’s obsession with the Elder Wand and says, “Poor Severus,” as though saddened but not self-recriminating, the way he sounds about Grindelwald or Ariana or Sirius.  At least in Harry’s vision, Dumbledore is content with how things have played out. How can he be content when the battle is still going on, Voldemort has not been defeated, and Harry has not yet made a choice to return and finish him off? The Dumbledore of Harry’s vision assures Harry that it’s up to him what to do next; there are no more directives from him.  This tells me something important about Dumbledore:

He cared more about keeping souls whole than winning the war.  It’s possible to read him as wanting to win the war against Voldemort above all things, and manipulating everyone ruthlessly into serving his plan, even if it meant deceiving them about their own lives.  But to me, this reading doesn’t seem right.

I remember feeling aghast, much as Harry did, when I first read in Half-Blood Prince that Dumbledore wanted Harry to agree to follow orders such as force-feeding him poison or saving himself and leaving Dumbledore to die.  I was appalled when Dumbledore said things like “Your blood is worth more than mine.” What? But Dumbledore is consistent in believing that only Harry is essential to win against Voldemort — not himself, not Snape.  It’s Harry’s fight, and his own job as a teacher is to do his flawed best to prepare Harry to fight it.

That goal can’t be dependent on a guaranteed victory in war.  Nobody can control that, especially when planning past their own deaths.  But Dumbledore can put all of his formidable teacher gifts toward guiding his students to take care of their souls.  It looks to me like he wanted that more than he wanted to impose his own posthumous agenda. This is the man who literally told Harry and Snape to kill him and make their own way! 

The contented Dumbledore of King’s Cross said, “Your soul is whole, and completely your own, Harry.”  In Rowling’s universe, as Hermione explains helpfully, “Look, if I picked up a sword right now, Ron, and ran you through with it, I wouldn’t damage your soul at all.”  And the story of Dumbledore’s relationship with Snape is defined by the question:

“And my soul, Dumbledore?  Mine?”

Dumbledore and Snape have two different conversations about Snape’s soul.  The first begins with the not-entirely-reassuring words, “You alone know whether it will harm your soul” to kill Dumbledore.  That’s true, and it’s exactly what they need to consider, but this answer is not comforting

Much of “The Prince’s Tale” documents how Dumbledore tried to nudge Snape toward feeling remorse for the sake of his own soul.  It didn’t take. Year after year, whenever he checked to see if Snape could be honest about remorse for the life he had given Lily Potter’s child, the answer was no – Snape persisted in groundless bias, lying to himself that Harry was spoiled or craved notoriety to distract himself from the unbearable guilt of acknowledging that his long-ago hate crimes had led to Harry’s life as an abused orphan who is the number one target of a mass murderer.  As Hermione said, the pain of remorse can destroy you.

But when Dumbledore needed Snape to kill him, he hit upon the key for getting Snape to care for his own soul:  get Snape to do it for Dumbledore, not for his own sake.  We know that killing someone splits the soul and remorse is the only way to become whole again.  At first, Dumbledore tells Snape to kill him to spare Draco’s soul.  This makes it sound suspiciously like Dumbledore doesn’t think Snape’s soul matters as much.  The bravest man that Harry ever knew has the guts to ask what I think might be one of life’s hardest questions:  What about me?

The answer turns out to be unsparing, which is how we know it’s the right answer for Snape:  “You alone know whether it will harm your soul to help an old man avoid pain and humiliation.”  Dumbledore brings up extremely plausible scenarios of what might happen if Death Eaters got their hands on him.  He’s rightly afraid.

So Snape is going to have to reintegrate his soul through remorse, the one thing that’s always been too difficult for him.

While Snape thinks about it, Dumbledore’s “blue eyes pierced Snape as they had frequently pierced Harry, as though the soul they discussed was visible to him.”  That’s a “look at me” moment. Dumbledore asks if Snape will be able to save his death, and the answer depends on both men seeing this tightly Occluded man for his truest self.

We humans can’t always take care of ourselves for our own sakes; it sometimes takes more than we have.  But we can do more than we thought possible when it’s to help someone else, if love is there.  This is not a bug; it’s a feature.  This is what makes love a powerful force.

That first conversation about Snape’s soul takes place after Dumbledore hurt his hand at the beginning of his last summer.  The second time is the following March, and Dumbledore’s answer shows character development that changes the story for me, and I think for them.

Snape asks Dumbledore, painfully, why he tells Harry secrets that he won’t entrust to Snape, and Dumbledore tries to explain that it’s not a matter of trust.  He can’t tell Snape he’s worried that Voldemort will kill him if he sees, through Legilimency, that Snape has learned about Horcruxes.  He misses the vulnerable jealousy in Snape’s question. Dumbledore is trying to get Snape to understand, instead, that Harry is a safer recipient for secrets because Voldemort will never possess Harry’s mind again:  “Lord Voldemort’s soul, maimed as it is, cannot bear close contact with a soul like Harry’s. Like a tongue on frozen steel, like flesh in flame —”

Is Dumbledore waxing poetic to Snape about the purity of Harry’s soul, again?  He is! Snape, with his world-class Occlumency, tries to get them back on track.

“Souls? We were talking of minds!”

Dumbledore does not take the hint.  He continues:

“In the case of Harry and Lord Voldemort, to speak of one is to speak of the other.  After you have killed me, Severus —“

Snape can’t take it anymore.

“You refuse to tell me everything, yet you expect that small service of me!” snarled Snape, and real anger flared in the thin face now. “You take a great deal for granted, Dumbledore! Perhaps I have changed my mind!”

It finally gets through to Dumbledore, who has been understandably preoccupied.  Snape knows Dumbledore loves pure Harry Potter; he’s asking if Dumbledore has come to love him, too, after Snape has given half his life to faithful service, putting himself in mortal danger for Dumbledore and pulling off feats of spycraft that no one else could.  You can’t plan to split your soul for someone and put yourself back together, alone, without love.

Dumbledore tells Snape to come to his office at the eleventh hour and reveals what he can about the final message to Harry, protecting Snape’s life by closing his eyes tightly while explaining anything that has to do with Horcruxes.  Snape is horrified and accuses Dumbledore of using him and Harry. Dumbledore finds this touching and asks if Snape has grown to care for Harry, and we know the complicated “no” Snape gives in reply:

“For him?  Expecto Patronum!

Dumbledore watches the silver doe fly out his window and his eyes fill with tears, after all this time.  There’s an immediate interpretation, one that’s never fully satisfied me: that Dumbledore is moved to see Snape’s devotion to Lily’s memory.  But there’s an additional one that resonates more for me, and I understand how this one would move Dumbledore to tears.

Snape had said to Dumbledore, “I thought…all these years…that we were protecting him for her.  For Lily.”

We.

All these years.

Dumbledore once tethered Snape to life with the words, “If you loved Lily Evans, if you truly loved her, then your way forward is clear.  Help me protect Lily’s son.”

It misses the mark, for me, to think that Snape’s demonstration of his doe Patronus indicated only a devotion to Lily’s memory.  I think there’s another answer right in front of us.  Snape once thought his life was worthless and finished, but Dumbledore saw a reason to offer him a second chance at life, if he had really loved Lily and could be guided by that love.  Snape accepted the offer because Dumbledore thought he might have something good left to give, something Snape didn’t see in himself at that time.

To point out the obvious:  Lily is dead. She’s at peace.  There’s nothing new for Snape there.  Dumbledore is the one who has been the inspiration for the second half of Snape’s life, engaging him with life-or-death work that challenges even this intensely gifted man.  This is a charged moment between Snape and Dumbledore. All the dangerous things Snape has done have not been because he has grown to care for the boy, but because he took Dumbledore’s directive to heart and still lives by it, as he demonstrates to Dumbledore with the sight of his luminous Patronus.  Of course Snape wants his extraordinary mentor to look at his soul, see its wholeness, and acknowledge that after all this time, Snape was worth a second chance.

When Harry once said he told Scrimgeour that he’s “Dumbledore’s man, through and through,” Dumbledore’s eyes watered and he could not speak, and Fawkes “let out a low, soft, musical cry.”  I think this exchange between Snape and Dumbledore, too, is a moment when Dumbledore learns that his life’s work of caring for his students’ souls has been worthwhile, despite his very many shortcomings.

Those are two of the three readings that led me to believe that the memory of Dumbledore empowered Snape in his last year:  Snape keeping his soul intact for Dumbledore’s sake rather than for his own, and Snape’s Patronus attesting to his love for Dumbledore as well as Lily.  The third comes during Snape’s memory of the long-lost second page of Lily’s letter, during the wrenching scene when he reintegrates his soul with remorse, leaving a trail for Harry in Sirius Black’s bedroom.

could ever have been friends with Gellert Grindelwald.  I think her mind’s going, personally! Lots of love, Lily.

I thought for years that Lily’s love was the only important thing on that page.

Then I realized that this letter was the first time Snape learned that Dumbledore, whose soul seemed surely more pure than Snape’s ugly, Dark-Marked soul, had once been Grindelwald’s friend.

Every crisis of faith that Harry goes through in Deathly Hallows regarding Dumbledore, Snape went through, too, during the same relentless year.  Harry felt growing fear at Rita Skeeter’s hints that Dumbledore “dabbled in the Dark Arts himself as a youth,” then shock as he read Skeeter’s biography and the incontrovertible proof, in Dumbledore’s own hand, that he had once been Grindelwald’s partner, ardent and fully invested, in plotting fascism.

Snape went through those realizations, too, at the same time.

The news about Dumbledore’s past, his former fascism and the death of Ariana, changed Snape’s perception of Dumbledore in a way that would have made Snape feel less alone, not more.

This put several things about Dumbledore in a different light where Snape was concerned.  His testimony to the Wizengamot that Snape “is now no more a Death Eater than I am.” His unwavering conviction, in the face of skepticism, that Snape’s change of heart was genuine and not an act.  His insistence on Snape, and no one else, to counter Dark Magic at Hogwarts: he recognized Snape as someone who understood how to fight Dark Magic because he knew what it took to cast it and he knew the greater power of wanting to reverse it.

So the times that Dumbledore had annoyed Snape by idealizing Harry Potter as pure of heart, he was comparing Harry favorably not to Snape but to himself.  We readers knew this, but Snape, always jealous of Dumbledore’s regard, had not, until he learned of Dumbledore’s past.

It made sense, too, of one of Snape’s least favorite parts of the cover story that Dumbledore invented for him as a double agent:  that he could not be trusted to teach Defense Against the Dark Arts because he might be tempted back to his old ways. There’s no evidence that Snape felt the slightest pull toward Dark Magic once he pledged himself to Dumbledore.  When Umbridge asked Snape, “Do you have any idea why Dumbledore has consistently refused to appoint you?” he could not bring himself to mouth the lie, managing only to say, “I suggest you ask him.” But we saw in Crimes of Grindelwald where Dumbledore might have gotten the idea for this cover story.  He was once removed from the Defense post and knew, because he still saw Grindelwald in the Mirror of Erised, that he couldn’t be trusted with Dark Magic. 

Most of all, Snape’s understanding of Dumbledore’s guilt about his past gave new significance to the harshest words that Dumbledore speaks to anybody:  “You disgust me.” Dumbledore’s judgement of Snape, who sees nothing wrong with begging for Lily’s life in exchange for the lives of her husband and child, comes not from moral superiority but from recognition. 

Snape was an effective mentor for Draco because they both knew:  there was nothing disgusting Draco could do that Snape had not already done.  Snape was able to maintain that connection, that trust, by signaling: I know what you’ve done, and I am still here.

Knowing that Dumbledore, too, had once seen nothing wrong with letting people die for what he wanted would have given Snape a different understanding of the harsh words, “You disgust me.”  Dumbledore shared not only Snape’s self-loathing but his unresolved shame, and he remained close to Snape to the end of his life. 

Throughout the year that Snape was Headmaster, he kept the half of the letter that said Dumbledore had once been friends with Grindelwald.  It was evidence that the mentor who believed that Snape had it in him to revert all the way back to Dark Magic without harming his soul knew firsthand how much he was asking of Snape – knew it could be done and knew, from his own life, what kind of person a former fascist could become. 

The lesson of the Snape-Dumbledore relationship is learning how to make that happen.  Only someone who has managed this sort of change, someone who has the means to overpower others but knows not to attack, not to dominate, has the greatness to command the allegiance of the Elder Wand from Dumbledore.  This is the qualification that Dumbledore had in mind when he planned to pass the Elder Wand to Snape, what Grindelwald meant when he told Voldemort that the wand would never be his, and what Draco and Harry, who learned Expelliarmus from Snape, proved to have within them.

Voldemort kills Snape for possession of the Elder Wand.  That’s not how it was supposed to go. In King’s Cross, Harry asks:

“If you planned your death with Snape, you meant him to end up with the Elder Wand, didn’t you?”

“I admit that was my intention,” said Dumbledore, “but it did not work as I intended, did it?”

“No,” said Harry. “That bit didn’t work out.”

What did Dumbledore hope would happen, then? We know that in the Final Battle, when Harry and Voldemort cast Expelliarmus and Avada Kedavra at each other, the Elder Wand goes “spinning through the air toward the master it would not kill.” Dumbledore wanted the Elder Wand to recognize the mercy and protectiveness in Snape’s Killing Curse and transfer allegiance to Snape, quietly, without Snape having to lay a hand on it.  He expected Voldemort might violate his tomb and take the wand, but he had hoped that any spell Voldemort cast against Snape with it would fail because the Elder Wand would not kill its master.

Dumbledore also knew he could trust Snape to be the rightful owner of the Elder Wand because with all powerful magical objects, Snape handles them without greed, not for personal gain but to protect others. In his third year, Harry saw that his Invisibility Cloak, one of the Deathly Hallows, worked perfectly for Snape because Snape was using it in the belief that he would protect children from murderers. Dumbledore, in contrast, says he once borrowed the Cloak from Harry’s father “out of vain curiosity, and so it could never have worked for me as it works for you, its true owner.” The sword of Gryffindor cannot be owned but presents itself of its own volition to worthy Gryffindors, yet it permitted Snape to handle it. 

Dumbledore planned not to tell Snape about the Elder Wand for two reasons: it wouldn’t be safe and it wouldn’t be necessary. He didn’t want Voldemort to learn of Snape’s ownership through Legilimency and kill him. He also knew Snape would be a worthy owner, a Master of Death, whether or not he was conscious of owning a Deathly Hallow. In the “King’s Cross” chapter, the Dumbledore in Harry’s vision says he has found that “perhaps those who are best suited to power are those who have never sought it.”

But the flaw in the plan was that Dumbledore didn’t foresee Draco casting Expelliarmus, choosing the defensive spell Snape ingrained into him rather than the violence his father or Voldemort had groomed him to use.  Dumbledore had never been able to turn either Tom Riddle or Snape away from Dark Magic when they were students, but he lived long enough to see that Snape’s teaching reached Draco.

We can’t go back in time, but if we get a second chance, we can learn from the past and do better.  Dumbledore and Snape had their own history, reaching back to Dumbledore’s mishandling of the murder attempt on Snape as a student, but together, they did better for Draco and Harry.

There’s no way to know what might have happened if Dumbledore had had a mentor’s guidance when he met Grindelwald, or if Dumbledore had reached out to Snape when he was nearly killed rather than compounding his trauma by swearing him to silence and letting the Marauders go unpunished.  It’s not that anyone owed them such connections in order to prevent them from joining fascists – neither of them had any business joining hate movements anyway. But the lack of such connections didn’t help. Twenty years, a hundred years later, both Dumbledore and Snape tried to learn from their mistakes for Draco and Harry. 

Dumbledore’s gag order about the Marauders’ Prank contributed to the estrangement between Snape and Lily.  When Snape tried to warn her against the Marauders, she said, “You’re being really ungrateful. I heard what happened the other night.  You went sneaking down that tunnel by the Whomping Willow, and James Potter saved you from whatever’s down there –” That must have been galling for Snape, to be unable to defend himself and explain what had really happened.  But he kept his word to Dumbledore.

We see Dumbledore doing better for Harry at the beginning of sixth year, surprising him with the advice to tell Ron and Hermione about the contents of the prophecy:  “I think they ought to know. You do them a disservice by not confiding something this important to them. You need your friends, Harry.”

Dumbledore also learned from the “fiasco” of assigning Snape to teach Harry Occlumency instead of doing it himself.  There has to be mutual trust. The hostility between Snape and Harry doomed the lessons and Sirius died for it. The following school year, after Draco took the Dark Mark, Dumbledore charged Snape with keeping an eye on him instead of trying to do it himself.

When Draco nearly died from Sectumsempra, Snape enacted what he had learned from the mishandling of his own near-death.  He healed Draco immediately, “told the staff precisely what had happened,” commanded Harry to hand over his spellbook, and assigned Harry heavy detentions, with McGonagall’s full backing.  His quick action prevented Draco’s wounds from scarring and did something equivalent for Harry. Snape dragged the truth about the spellbook out of Harry, even if Harry denied it and hid the book itself.  It was no longer Harry’s uneasy secret, and as a result, it wouldn’t fester and cause him guilt, the way Slughorn’s secret memory of the Horcrux conversation tormented him. The severe detentions drove home the gravity of what had almost happened, but more importantly, they allowed Harry to serve his penalties and then walk free, lesson learned, with gratitude for the close call.  As Dumbledore said to Ginny at the end of Chamber of Secrets, “There has been no lasting harm done.” 

Through the openness of his actions, Snape turned Harry’s heedless use of Dark Magic into something Forgivable, forgiven.  Snape took the shame out of it for Harry and laid on the accountability. Harry and Draco were still underage at that point, by weeks, and Snape was an adult who took care of them.

Regret and accountability were part of the spell that Snape sang to heal Draco’s wounds.  Only someone who had cast this Dark Magic spell in the past and then regretted it would know how to heal it, and Snape’s magic had the extra power of his grief that his own long-ago inventions were still causing harm, hurting this child whom he had sworn to protect.  Draco has been pushing Snape away all year, yet when he was in danger, Snape’s protective response was absolute: I came as soon as I could.  I’ve got you. I’m here.  It’s in Snape’s nature to be where he’s needed, but in this case, Draco knows that this protection was doubly assured by his mother’s love. 

Snape agreed to Narcissa’s Unbreakable Vow.  He believed Draco was worth dying for, even after knowing every disgusting thing Draco had done as a Death Eater.  He reversed the curse wounds and Draco experienced that magic reversal in his very blood. Snape is the only other person at Hogwarts who can pass through the barrier that requires a Dark Mark and he can take Draco back out with him again.

There was no way that Dumbledore and Snape could have guaranteed that Snape watching over Draco would have the slightest effect.  But with the life debt to Snape in his blood, the first moment in a year that Draco had experienced healing rather than the mounting terror of Voldemort toying with him, Draco breached Dumbledore’s tower with Expelliarmus rather than attack so they could talk, in case Draco heard any cause for hope there other than killing Dumbledore. 

Dumbledore’s plan for the Elder Wand was for ownership to pass untouched to whoever defeated Dumbledore with magic intended to protect others rather than to harm, the only kind of magic powerful enough to command the Elder Wand’s allegiance.  He didn’t foresee that their care for Draco would work so well that given the option, Draco would choose disarmament and confession and hope for a second chance. That Draco did so is a gift to his teachers, whether or not he would eventually go on to renounce Dark Magic.

Draco’s Expelliarmus gave Dumbledore a moment to immobilize Harry so he could invisibly witness the exchange.  Harry saw Draco lower his wand and for the first time, mixed in with despising Draco, he gained a drop of pity that strengthened his understanding of his enemy.  Dumbledore made that happen before he died.

When Harry was about to die, he summoned the memories of his parents, Sirius, and Remus to strengthen him.  When Snape was about to die, he drew strength from thinking of Dumbledore.

In the Shrieking Shack, Voldemort tells Snape that he has violated Dumbledore’s tomb and stolen the Elder Wand.  In reaction, “Snape’s face was like a death mask. It was marble white and so still that when he spoke, it was a shock to see that anyone lived behind the blank eyes.”

With the words “death mask” and “marble white,” Rowling is calling back to the image of Dumbledore in his white marble tomb.  The blankness of Snape’s face shows that he is Occluding Voldemort as hard as he has ever Occluded in his life, hiding his reaction to the news of this desecration.  Together, I think these things show that Snape is grieving for his friend. As we learned from Harry, grief can Occlude: “Just as Voldemort had not been able to possess Harry while Harry was consumed with grief for Sirius, so his thoughts could not penetrate Harry now, while he mourned Dobby. Grief, it seemed, drove Voldemort out . . . though Dumbledore, of course, would have said that it was love. . . .”

Snape kept himself alive until Harry arrived, ensuring that Harry would be the last thing he ever saw.  Dumbledore did the same thing, keeping himself alive until Snape arrived so that Snape could be the last thing he saw.  Dumbledore didn’t want to die looking at Bellatrix or Fenrir Greyback or frightened little Draco Malfoy. He wanted to look into the eyes of someone who would take care of him and look after everything he worried about, so he could rest in peace.  He asked Snape to be the most important person in his death. Snape agreed, and he kept his word.

I find it moving to imagine their portraits next to each other.  I like to think about their mutual respect, and awe, and gratitude.  I think they would bicker, too, and be sarcastic the way they only ever were with each other.  I like to think of McGonagall working with their portraits behind her, making her even more intimidating.  I think she enjoys their company, silences them when she has to, and she knows, at last, that they’d both always deserved her trust.

 

Review: When My Name Was Keoko by Linda Sue Park

I didn’t intend to see Snape parallels when I picked up this book, but they’re plentiful.  The narration alternates between a middle-school Korean girl, Sun-hee, and her young adult brother as they live with their parents through Japan’s colonization of Korea during World War II.  The story is set a decade or two after the events of Fantastic Beasts:  The Crimes of Grindelwald, but Japan was already occupying Korea by then, so it does provide some context for anyone who saw Claudia Kim’s Nagini and wondered what life might have been like for a young Korean woman at that time.

Literacy and reading are at the core of this resistance story.  Sun-hee’s uncle goes into hiding and runs an underground printing press.  The Japanese army sends people to search Korean homes for seditious writings, and of course all post is monitored.  Sun-hee’s brother tells her that when he writes her letters, she must learn to read between the lines.  The most thrilling passages of this suspenseful book come when we witness Sun-hee becoming an expert close reader.  It’s a beautiful example of fiction that demonstrates how close reading is one of the most essential skills for survival.

As for the Snapeyness of this book:  Sometimes, what looks like acquiescence or collaboration may not be.  Sometimes, personal friendships can survive bad politics.  Sometimes, people commit themselves to resistance while knowing that they will be thought, in life and even after death, to be collaborators or traitors.  You don’t always have to lose faith in your loved ones.  Sometimes it’s not safe for them to tell you everything they’re doing.

Review: Circe by Madeline Miller

This book was thrill after thrill. It gave me something I have not often encountered: ancient Greek mythological stories that were new to me. I did not know what happened after the Odyssey and its strangely unsated ending. As I learned the story in this book bit by bit, I felt elated. I felt rightness and relief, the same as I recall feeling when I first encountered stories of Iphigeneia in Aulis or Helen in Egypt.

It was fun to read this book as a break before heading into the preparatory work for writing the second edition of my Snape book, since there are so many resonances with the Harry Potter stories and Snape in particular. Circe is a potions mistress extraordinaire! And she slowly wears herself into shape with regrets and penances, and comes into her own power.

I enjoyed the different men that this author gave Circe to be her lovers. I loved the ones that she loved.

Even more, I enjoyed reading the account of how taxing it was for Circe to parent an infant and then a gifted child. Even for a witch, solo parenting was a full-time job and she got nothing else done for years! I laughed.

Of all the enchanting moments in this book, my favorite was a gift that one character gives another, fairly early on. I gasped with happiness when I read of it.

I ate the book in a day, but I was glad to find that it kept giving new twists until the very end. I was afraid it would feel too short and I would feel bereft to let it go, but it was so satisfying that I did not.

Rough notes on Discussing HP in 2019

At MISTI-Con 2019, Irvin Khaytman (author of The Life and Lies of Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore) and I conducted a conversation on “Discussing HP in 2019,” during a time when fandom is grappling with a number of contentious issues.  Our actual discussion went differently, and I don’t have notes for Irvin’s half of it, but here are some of the rough notes I prepared ahead of the panel.


 

I have feelings about J.K. Rowling, about Cursed Child and the Pottermore Presents extras and Fantastic Beasts.  They’re probably different from your feelings.  I don’t know how, and won’t know unless I ask and I listen with as much fairness as I can, but they are.  I also know that if I listen to other people explain their feelings, I’ll probably want to talk about mine, and they might not be as evolved as I think they are.  Feelings about stories can be potent and based on deeply personal reactions.  In that sense, there’s something sacred to be honored within everyone’s feelings, and that makes this kind of conversation tricky.  I’m going to talk about a few strategies I’ve used to try to reduce discomfort and increase understanding.

One fan’s trash is another fan’s treasure

This is something I learned from the BBC Sherlock fandom.  I learned not to call something “garbage” when I hated it, because I found out too many times that I had hurt people who loved that thing or that character – sometimes for reasons I could never have imagined.  I learned to ask why people love what they love.

Know who is hearing you

Last month, I saw people discussing anti-trans things J.K. Rowling has said, worried that this means they should avoid downloading Wizards Unite or boycott the Wizarding World theme parks or stop writing fanfic in her universes, even though they wanted to.

If boycotting feels right to you, go for it.  But sometimes we don’t want to give up something, even when there are serious issues, because something about it gives us energy and joy and community.  In those cases, I think it’s absolutely worth it to hang on.  A few dollars more or less from me might make a difference to Warner Brothers.  But those few dollars will make a difference if I use them to support books by trans authors, or queer creators, or people of color.  If you buy a book, that author will feel the $1.65 royalty they get from you.  If you can afford it, give someone a dollar a month on Patreon so they can be supported in getting the content out there that you know we deserve.  Borrow books from the library and then recommend them on social media, or circulate recommendations whenever the topic comes up.  This is something you can do, it’s empowering, and it reaches people who can actually hear you.

Definitely vote with your wallet and get your objections out there.  But I believe in a dual track of action that also focuses on ways to direct our energy that can build community and nourish us.  It combats burnout.

Recognize that the story hasn’t changed; it’s the reader

I was appalled when I reread the Defense Against the Dark Arts lesson in Prisoner of Azkaban and recognized that Lupin coaching a class of third-years to mock Snape by imagining him in an old lady dress is a move that has anti-trans bullying in it.  It was uncomfortable because I remember laughing.  I remember loving a lot of passages that make me uncomfortable now.  I have to recognize that my perspective changes with age or greater awareness.  But I also try to recall that I actively made peace with some disturbing aspects of Harry Potter when I was younger – it was just so long ago that I don’t always remember it.  The anti-fat hatred, especially bad in the beginning of Chamber of Secrets:  many readers at the time went through a whole process of confronting it in this author and making decisions about whether to continue in the fandom or not.  Sometimes, when we’re confronted by the newness of Cursed Child or Fantastic Beasts, we remember the seven-book series as a monolith of goodness.  That’s not how we experienced them at the time.  There were serious shortcomings in them that we hashed out as a community through years of hiatus and re-readings.

This author specializes in the joy of re-reading

The first time I read the script for Cursed Child, I wasn’t sure what to think.  Every subsequent time I’ve read it, I’ve seen something new, and the more seriously I took it as literature, the more I got out of it.  It took me years to figure out a lot of things about the original series.  So Voldemort was present at Hogwarts for all of Harry’s first year?  What was Dumbledore’s plan for Snape and the Elder Wand?  Why, exactly, was Slughorn on the run from the Death Eaters?  What did Snape think Lupin was trying to do to Harry during book three?

Nobody has to reread Cursed Child, but if you’re at all curious, I encourage it.  There are things you can only get from re-readings.  I have never fully understood a story from this author on the first reading.  That’s what makes her a good writer in the first place and why her stories stay with people.  Cursed Child may have been written by Jack Thorne, but the layers in the story and the hints indicated by the wordplay reward re-reading in a way that feels familiar.

The soul of the story

Studies have shown that reading Harry Potter increases people’s empathy toward other groups, even groups that aren’t mentioned within Potterverse, such as gay people or refugees.

Many readers feel distress when Rowling fails to live up to the standards she taught in her own books:  for example, in her treatment of Native American cultures and religions in the Ilvermorny backstory.  I’ve seen what feels almost like self-blame on the part of fans who recoil from that kind of prejudice, but still feel a profound love for books that will always be a part of them.

Two years ago, I was part of a panel at Readercon called “The soul of the story,” moderated by Cecilia Tan.

The soul of the Harry Potter universe is love in its many manifestations, such as infant thriving, physical growth, grief, and empathy.  The flawed human author can convey the soul of the story without being any more able to live up to it than the rest of us. This explains why examinations of race and sexual identity thrive in HP fandom despite the author’s clumsy handling of such issues:  fans are responding to the soul of the story, not the text, and acknowledging the difference.

Rowling’s writing has always reflected her demographic:  white British Christian cishet educated woman, married with children.  I get the sense, sometimes, that some people worry that in order to be principled people, when they recognize an author’s biases, they must give up something they once loved and still do.  To this, I say:  if your interest naturally moves on, that is one thing.  But if you actively feel love, honor that and treasure it, and never be ashamed that you responded to the soul of the story and recognized that this is a different thing from the particulars of the story and the author’s limitations.

It can feel personal when Rowling fails to reach her own standards.  Especially if you read Harry Potter in your formative years and it influenced your sense of empathy and justice, you associate with these books a feeling of learning, of virtue, of how to be a loving person.  It can feel like Rowling personally lets us down when she falls short.  Dumbledore talks about something like that, when he says that being rather more clever than most people, the effects of his mistakes are “correspondingly huger.”  It helps me sometimes to keep in mind that it’s an artist’s gift to be able to convey a soulful truth that may be beyond their personal ability to achieve.

Death of the author doesn’t apply when the author is alive and still writing

I have heard the argument that once released, a story belongs only to the readers and not at all to the person who wrote it and continues to write it.  I’ve heard people argue that everyone in the world has the right to make more stories in the Harry Potter universe except the person who created it, who should be stopped.  I don’t understand those arguments or how people imagine they can be enforced.  Short of censorship and totalitarian control, we cannot stop a writer from continuing her work.  It’s on us to handle the weight of the authority of her words in ways we can actually control.  Irvin has his approach; I have mine, of viewing this influential author’s output as an ongoing work in progress and part of a larger cultural phenomenon that includes fan works.

What would you do if you were her beta?

Sometimes my friends or I are frustrated or angered by something a powerful author has written.  In those instances, one of my ways of restoring a feeling of my own power is to ask myself and others:  How would you mark up her writing and talk to her if she were your beloved friend and you were her beta?  Someone whose friendship you very much intend to keep?  It’s one thing to rant and rail, but if you know there will never be an answer, yet you still have feelings, at some point, I feel like you have to turn the rant into something more self-nourishing.

The point of thinking what constructive advice you would give as her beta is not, of course, that you will send her your thoughts and she will thank you and make all the changes you suggest.  The point is to turn the frustration into productive critical thinking that will absolutely benefit you in your own work, whether it’s your writing or your confidence in giving feedback to others.

Why I find HP worthwhile

A question during the hiatus before Deathly Hallows was whether HP would go on to be a classic, or whether it would be a soon-forgotten fad.  I find it exciting to track how these stories are transitioning right now into second-generation readership.  I find Potterverse incredibly useful for teaching how to read clues and layers, something I think is continuing with Cursed Child and the Fantastic Beasts series.

It still astonishes me that a woman became a billionaire by writing books for children.  That kind of wealth usually happens through exploitation and oppression, not from telling stories.  For something to become a bestseller, it has to speak to something emotional within people.  For something to become an international bestseller, across cultures, it’s an important phenomenon that tells us something important about being human at this moment.

Sons of an Illustrious Father, Boot and Saddle in Philadelphia, July 21, 2019

Weeks after an international tour playing for audiences of thousands, Sons of an Illustrious Father swung through Philadelphia for a sweet hello of a concert.  They’re not even from here, but it had the feel of a quick visit home.  I think I always want to see this band with a crowd that will yell “FUCK YEAH” upon hearing the opening chords of “Extraordinary Rendition.”

Josh Aubin was in full guitar-god form with “EG,” which seems to have gotten, impossibly, even faster in tempo.  I got to tell him how much I’ve appreciated his musicianship and his dancing, and how vital this band’s music has been to me when coping with current events.

Have a few seconds of Lilah Larson’s gorgeous voice from the concert.  If I were to write a poem about things that are true, her voice would have to be in it, I think.

I had sworn off buying more t-shirts, but then I saw this graphic of the band closing ranks, giving the finger to anyone who would hurt them, and it was labeled “F U” among the shirts at the merch table, and that made me laugh.

The last thing I saw after the show was Ezra Miller, sitting down on a stoop in exhaustion but smiling gently, making sure to greet the people who had waited to tell him that his work was important to them.

Thank you to the band for coming out to sing for us in this heat, and welcome home to the East Coast.  I always breathe easier after seeing this band play.  The music makes me incredibly happy and that is a sacred thing.

soaif octopods front view with book

Notes on Claudia Kim’s Nagini

I was honored to be part of the keynote panel at MISTI-Con 2019 alongside Bayana Davis, Constance Gibbs, and Lawrence Neals, “Evanesco Representation, Accio Inclusion:  Diversity in Harry Potter.”  Moderator Robyn Jordan of Black Girls Create sent out questions in advance.  Here are the answers I prepared to a couple of those questions.


I’m going to focus on my love for Claudia Kim’s portrayal of Nagini in Fantastic Beasts:  The Crimes of Grindelwald.

On September 25 of last year, they announced her character’s name.  Here is my five-item tweet as soon as I found out:

 

A Korean woman in Potterverse! *instant identification*

  1. Neville killed me, oh noes
  2. “milk Nagini” GROSSSSSS
  3. Impersonating Bathilda Bagshot’s corpse? That was a lot to ask of a snake!
  4. Ugh, I had to eat Charity Burbage
  5. OH MY GOD I ATE SNAPE

 

That was a fun morning.

I followed Claudia Kim’s Instagram with the video of her at a press event, saying, “I’m Nagini!  I’m blushing.”  She posted about running to watch Chamber of Secrets when it was on TV and captioned a screenshot of innocent little Neville with “Neville!  Ahhhh!” and a scared-face emoji and a snake emoji.  On her posts about the character, she wrote, “I love you, Nagini!”

Then I saw some of the backlash against the casting and storyline.

I tried looking through the arguments again for this panel, and they were so hurtful, I had to stop.  Many of the objections struck me as unintentionally racist, even though they were from people who seemed to think of themselves as allies.

After all that, when the movie was released, I liked Nagini in it.  I loved her two deleted scenes from the DVD and wish that both of hers had been kept in.  I know Nagini is not written as Korean, but she feels very Korean to me.

1.     What has been your experience as a non-white Harry Potter fan?

Some people objected to showing an Asian woman with such a tragic backstory or so unempowered, subservient to a white man.  One viral tweet said something sarcastic about Nagini not being a “strong independent female character.”  This confused me because this is Voldemort we’re talking about, right?  Who possessed people and killed babies?  Within a universe where magical people commonly have magical familiars, including Wormtail pretending to be a rat.  This fandom has handled tragic stories like Sirius losing 12 years to wrongful imprisonment and Regulus sacrificing himself as a teen with no guarantee it would work — and that was in the children’s version of this story.  The adult version, Fantastic Beasts, is about the treatment of humans and beasts — about “freaks” and “underbeings.”

Nagini’s story seems to fit right in, to me.  Is the Asian woman somehow not allowed to have a role in this story about the prejudices that led to World War II?

Here is what I really hear:

This role should have gone to a white woman for the comfort of viewers who are uneasy with the images in their own heads of Asian women.

What I hear is:  People were happier when there was no Korean woman in Potterverse.  They don’t want us if it makes them feel uncomfortable.

What “strong, independent” narrative for a Korean woman in 1927 would these critics suggest?  How do they want us to be for their approval?  Because we have an example like that, with its own issues, in Seraphina Picquery, who seems to be the only black woman holding high office in magical New York, and yet somehow she’s president.  The white characters in Fantastic Beasts have some degree of real-life historical context, but this black female character doesn’t seem to.

Some people objected to making an Asian woman into a “slave.”

Don’t people who died while enslaved by others deserve to have their stories told?

Some people objected that a character identified as Indonesian should not be played by a Korean actress.  I can see that.  But here’s how I saw that play out in real time:

A Korean actress joined the Potterverse, turned in a performance about resisting dehumanization and escaping trafficking, and then faced criticism, even mockery, on the press tour.  It made my stomach hurt to watch her go through that.  I’ve had the visceral experience of entering the room as the only Asian woman and feeling waves of disapproval, murmurs that my presence has turned something into a disaster for reasons that have nothing to do with my worth or my performance, with nothing I can do to fix it, only that they didn’t want a Korean woman there.

I hope more people take a minute to see more of the character Claudia Kim created.  I liked Nagini in the movie, but I loved her in her two beautiful deleted scenes with Ezra Miller.  They’re on the DVD extras — meaning the fullness of her character felt relegated to the margins.  They’re clearly lovers in those scenes.  In one, she encourages him to release his Obscurus peacefully and proves that it can pass through her without harm.  In the other, he sees the skin on her hand turning scaly and he kisses it.  They’re about the core of this Fantastic Beasts story.

2.    What are some examples of how the quest for representation negatively impacts true inclusion and equity?

I believe there were Korean fans recoiling from the thought that the first time a Korean body is represented in the wizarding world, it’s in a degraded status as a doomed young woman.  I can see that it might be better to be safely invisible to this Western film franchise, as usual, than to be portrayed on an international stage according to stereotype and fetish.  There’s plenty of Korean media doing a better job of projecting the image that Koreans want represented to the world.

There’s a different Korean narrative going on there, though, one that I can’t imagine was intended by Rowling and Yates, who created Nagini as Indonesian.

What was going on in Korea in 1927?  For one thing, there was no Korea.  Korea was brutally colonized by Japan from 1910 to 1945, and that included slavery and trafficking of Korean girls on a massive scale.  Japanese schoolteachers were recruited to select victims from Korea’s most established families in a deliberate move to demoralize and destroy the culture, similar to the Lestrange storyline with the Kama family.  This issue was silenced for decades and it remains unresolved and a source of diplomatic conflict between Japan and Korea.  A few of the survivors are still alive.  A lot of them never told their own husbands and children.

For its many flaws, Fantastic Beasts is an international story about the oppressions that led to World War II.  The two films we’ve seen so far have been about the stories that those places don’t want to acknowledge:  witch hunts and politicized capital punishment in the U.S., racism and colonialism in France.  I can understand not trusting Rowling and Warner Brothers to tell the story of Korean women during that time.  However.

It is a destructive trap to hold that it’s somehow wrong or improper to tell in public the stories of Korean women who endured slavery and trafficking in the first half of the 20th century.  We’re not the only ones that happened to – not even in this movie series – and the survivors and their younger generations continue to pay the cost, like a blood curse.  Shame and silence only lead to more damage, with the greatest burden on the people who have suffered most already.  This is part of the global story that Fantastic Beasts is telling about then and about now.

Sons of an Illustrious Father, Teragram Ballroom in L.A., June 27, 2019

That beautiful photo of Sons of an Illustrious Father from the June 19, 2019 issue of Vogue Mexico has been making me happy all week.  These busy musicians are in the middle of an insane touring schedule and I had the bliss and privilege of seeing them play in Los Angeles tonight at the Teragram Ballroom.  It’s joyous to see performers beam at one another adoringly, mid-song.

I have fingers crossed that the band will release lyrics soon for the two new songs from tonight’s set.  One of them had Miller on lead vocals and instrumentals that sounded like they had been developed by all three band members in collaboration.  The other might have been, I think, a post-breakup song with Larson on lead.  From what I could tell of the lyrics, there was a temperate note to them, self-possessed but not angry.  I look forward to hearing them both again.

The crowd greeted the band’s cover of “Don’t Cha” with glee.  The revelation of that performance was that Larson is an underrated treasure on keyboards.  There is apparently nothing that this musician can’t do.

It’s a good time to be a Josh Aubin fan.  The man was aglow.  Literally, with glitter on his cheekbones, and pewter lipstick.  The hair right now is longish with a swoon-worthy flop.  All eyes were on his dancing, so light-footed that he appeared almost to float a few inches above the floor.

They ended the set with “Crystal Tomes,” which sounded more knowing this year, more at peace, not as anguished as last year.  It was so good to see artists who are at the top of their creative game together.  At one point, watching them, I thought about projects I’m working on and exciting collaborations I’m fortunate enough to be part of — their performance reminded me that this is the best of being human, what makes us a beautiful species.

Thank you to the musicians for making me feel like my blood is rich with inspiration now.  Looking forward to seeing them perform again in Philadelphia next month.

For Pride: “Don’t Cha” covered by Sons of an Illustrious Father

Happy Pride month.  Want to see something that feels really queer? Not rainbow-themed platitudes from otherwise anti-gay corporations, but the kind of nervy, wary seductiveness that makes you think of lipstick and riots?

Sons of an Illustrious Father’s cover of “Don’t Cha” by the Pussycat Dolls dares you to look, to desire but not approach — unless you’re willing to join. If you’re just going to watch, and you’re not sure how you feel or why you can’t tear your eyes away, then be warned. The longer you stand there, undecided, the riskier this becomes. Maybe vines will grow around your feet and you won’t notice until it’s too late.

Just kidding. It’s only a music video. Go ahead and watch it. Nothing will happen to you.

Band member Lilah Larson told Another Man magazine that they thought up the cover and video in response to “ostensibly hetero couples, who were sort of uncomfortably ogling the frolicking queers – including us – in a way that belied their envy and lust.” There’s danger when they look at you like that and you see in their gaze that they don’t know if they find you beautiful or if they might attack you because they find their own desire repellent.

In such moments, you glow twice as beautiful, ten times as beautiful, and there’s a knowing smirk that goes with this power. It’s in the last shot of this video, at the 5-minute mark. Take a look.

And listen to the song. There’s a hypnotic hook that band member Ezra Miller calls, in an ecstatic bit of wordplay, “the descending catatonic scale.” The melding of music and madness in that description is a rapture in itself.

Happy Pride.

Sons of an Illustrious Father is currently on tour.

Mini Adventure Mapping with Xandra Robinson-Burns of Heroine Training

I met a magical cartographer at Granger Leadership Academy in March 2019.

Xandra Robinson-Burns is an essayist who runs Heroine Training, providing lessons on how to apply love of fiction and magic to daily life, becoming the heroine of your own story. I was introduced to her by Grace Gordon, who said firmly, “You will love each other.” Xandra told me that my book had been recommended to her by her Jane Austen mentor. (Jane Austen mentor? Magic already.)

At GLA, Xandra was offering 10-minute “mini adventure mapping” sessions:

Bring me an obstacle, and I’ll help you turn it into a mini adventure. It can be big or small. I’ll help you narrow it down to a daily life scale and get you excited about facing it (yes really!).

I brought Xandra a fairly big obstacle. I need to write Chapter 9 of Snape: A Definitive Reading so I can include it in the second edition.

At present, the book has eight chapters, one for each of the Harry Potter novels and one for “The Prince’s Tale.” In the month that the Snape book was published, July 2016, the script to Harry Potter and the Cursed Child was also published, to decidedly mixed reviews. Cursed Child adds to Snape’s story and completes it. I should write that ninth chapter, revise the earlier eight chapters, and release the second edition. I want to. Once I write it, my publisher can go ahead with the German translation and the audiobook. But for the past two years, I have not started writing this ninth chapter.

Xandra asked what obstacle was in my way. I said for one thing, I feel like I’m the only person in the world who loves Cursed Child and thinks it was brilliantly written. I don’t know if I can stick to focusing on Snape for Chapter 9, as I did for the other eight chapters. I’m afraid I’ll be tempted to digress into my comprehensive reading of the entirety of Cursed Child, instead.

Xandra, who has studied literature at Oxford and has a background in theater, said she would have liked to see Cursed Child condensed into a single three-hour play. Ohhhh…yes, I can see how that would work. She asked me, “Can you tell me what you love about Cursed Child — ”

“Yes,” I started to say.

“— briefly?”

I laughed and said no, not briefly. Over half an hour later, we had to take a break for programming.

We met again the next morning and resumed discussing how big I’m afraid the Cursed Child chapter will be. Xandra asked why I had to try to condense this chapter. Couldn’t it be its own book?

In considering that question, I discovered that I think it would take about 2.5 chapters to cover what I have to say about Cursed Child and Snape’s story in it. It’s not a whole book in itself. Primarily, I want to discuss the posthumous shift in Snape’s characterization. Famously, before his death, all of Snape’s words and actions could be interpreted in at least two opposing ways. In Cursed Child, that double characterization became a single, unequivocal one, a character shown to have a steadfast and knowable self.

Xandra had already helped me define my obstacles better.

I said my obstacle to beginning the writing is that I can’t imagine starting unless I know I have a full six weeks to immerse myself in the thoughts and the writing, interrupted by nothing at all. This method would be neither sustainable nor good for my family; I ought to take pauses for, say, meals.

But I am always scared of being interrupted midthought. So many nascent and tenuous notions rush my mind simultaneously, and it takes time to articulate and record them, one by one, in some sort of retrievable form. If I’m interrupted, some will dissipate permanently, and I feel grief over the loss. I will have to make my arguments using whatever wisps I managed to capture, stretching them over the holes left by the missing ideas and hoping they don’t tear. When I try to recover the thoughts I had before interruption, I might retrieve 45% of them, if I have the time and leisure to start the immersion over again completely, without interruption.

It does sometimes happen that I have the uninterrupted time to get down every single interconnected thought. I can tell when it’s worked and I have everything. My feelings subside into calm. It is not an impossible thing, what I want.

Xandra suggested that I write notes to myself about the fleeting ideas, maybe on Post-Its. I’ve tried that, but sometimes, when I reread what I jotted down, I have no idea what I meant. Xandra brainstormed a few different ways to make these notes less cryptic. What about pictures?  Yes! I could draw pictures as well as write code words! That might be a different way to help myself remember how some ideas connect, and the novelty of adding a graphic element would make it a fresh and fun challenge. Xandra had formulated a mini adventure for me.

She said she kept getting the image of Dumbledore’s Pensieve for me, a way to store thoughts until I could resume them. This image settled uneasily for me, though. Pensieves aren’t secure. It makes me nervous to think about how Dumbledore left his Pensieve unguarded when he was called away and failed to close the cabinet door, so that the light of his thoughts caught Harry’s attention. It makes me nervous to remember the one mistake Snape ever made in his usually impenetrable defenses. Rushing to care for Montague, the Slytherin student who nearly died in the Vanishing Cabinets, Snape left Harry unattended with the Pensieve full of the three memories that would get them all killed if Voldemort read them in Harry’s thoughts.

“Pensieves can’t be secured,” I said to Xandra.

Delicately, she asked, “Is that an issue?”

Yes! Xandra had asked the right question! She had identified my real obstacle.

So I need to feel secure that my Pensieve can emit a glow without attracting the attention of someone who will heedlessly violate my boundaries and disrupt my thinking. I know why this is important to me. It’s not enough to imagine putting a cover on the Pensieve or tucking it away in a cabinet. Thoughts cannot be protected from intruders that way.

I will need a secure box. Something that is strong with magic and cannot be violated. Carved wood, maybe, or set with gems, human-wrought and not fragile at all. Secure not because it has locks but because of my own calm.

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I tried to picture the box more clearly. One inviolable image that came to mind was the locked door in the Department of Mysteries, the one I associate with Snape, the one that melts the magical knife that Sirius gave Harry. But that was about love and this is about ideas; not the same. I looked up carved wooden boxes for sale and discovered the phenomenon of treasure chests with some sort of octopus decoration. Normally, I would bond with octopuses, but they’re the opposite of what I need here, those wily escape artists who cannot be contained.

Ah. I’ve got it. I have a plush toy lobster who is majestically secure in his armor, an enlightened being. I bought him for myself on my eighteenth birthday. He can sit calmly atop my box for me and none will be able to pass him.

I don’t know yet what box I will use. It might be something I already have. I will have to tidy my space and look through my things. Xandra has some inspiring KonMari videos on her site. I’ll know it when I find the right box. It doesn’t have to be right away. It’s a mini adventure and can take a little time.

Xandra left, but I continued to get new ideas from the adventure mapping. I thought about containing my Cursed Child thoughts within a chapter of reasonable length. I would start by drafting my Cursed Child general reading first, then move to a close-up on Snape…

Oh. Wait. I could do two chapters. I don’t have to stop with a Chapter 9 if I have more to say.

The meaning of Snape changed in 2016, the year my first edition was published.

Alan Rickman died that year. Cursed Child debuted onstage and in print. Hate groups rose to greater prominence in the U.S. and Europe, groups similar to the one that Snape joined as a young man and later gave his life to dismantle. At his trial in 2019, Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, explained his loyalty to Trump in terms that resembled why teen Snape would have been drawn to Voldemort: “Being around Mr. Trump was intoxicating. When you were in his presence, you felt like you were involved in something greater than yourself — that you were somehow changing the world.” In the current political climate, people who have renounced hatred and use their insider knowledge to bring hate groups down, as the Snape character did in fiction, are more vital than ever.

Ah-ha. This would be a good topic for a talk, and writing that talk could help narrow down what I want to include in the book.

So I can do one chapter on Severus Snape and the Cursed Child and another on the posthumous Snape. Like an Epilogue, if you will.

Thank you to Xandra for identifying my true obstacle and mapping out this adventure for me.


Want your own mini adventure mapping?  Xandra Robinson-Burns offers them online through Floo powder or Skype.  Email xandra (at) heroinetraining.com to set one up.

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