Delivered October 16, 2020 at the Harry Potter Conference of Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia, PA.
The way we read Harry Potter in the U.S. changed with the 2016 election. For almost 20 years, many of us were able to fall in love with this series as comfort reading. Monstrous tyrants who rounded up ethnic groups and tortured their own followers could be read as allegorical figures. In 2016, when the protective magic in our system of checks and balances was attacked on so many fronts that we couldn’t keep track, Americans turned to dystopian fiction to help combat the lag created by our inconvenient disbelief: this can’t be happening here. People could use Harry Potter as a common cultural text to warn each other: we’re at that point in the story where we need to form Dumbledore’s Army. In 2016, some people said, dismissively, that you couldn’t compare Trump to Voldemort — at least, “not yet” — revealing that they had an internal meter for which people Trump could threaten, and how many of them, before they would object. Others of us, like Hermione, had reason to recognize what we were seeing, and wondered nervously if our half-privileged and full-privileged friends would stand by us or leave us in the forest.
Checking the news was like Ron Weasley’s question about the Daily Prophet: “Anyone we know?” When Trump proposed a database to register U.S. Muslims, the Muggle-born Registration Commission didn’t seem far-fetched anymore. After his talk of raids by ICE, our own version of Snatchers, hate crimes rose against people of color. Suddenly, it hit differently to remember that Parvati and Padma were among the first students whose parents pulled them out of Hogwarts. It was more frightening to remember that 12-year-old Draco once said, “Bet you five Galleons the next one dies. Pity it wasn’t Granger —“ when we knew that actual children were being taunted with their parents’ deportation by their classmates and teachers.
After Trump’s team spurned transition help in 2017, the New York Times reported, “Aides confer in the dark because they cannot figure out how to operate the light switches in the cabinet room. Visitors conclude their meetings and then wander around, testing doorknobs until finding one that leads to an exit.”
I pictured the Head’s office sealing itself against Umbridge. When we had to learn about Trump’s meetings with Russian officials from Russian news outlets, we knew: “The Ministry has fallen.”
Trump’s eerie absence of empathy recalls Voldemort. The article about Trump calling soldiers killed in action “suckers” and “losers” reported, “Several observers told me that Trump is deeply anxious about dying or being disfigured, and this worry manifests itself as disgust for those who have suffered.” We see the same disgust in Voldemort when he says, “There is nothing worse than death.”
Trump’s fear of appearing weak recalls what Voldemort taught Quirrell: “There is no good or evil, there is only power, and those too weak to seek it.” When Trump was asked to commit to a peaceful transfer of power, he answered, “Get rid of the ballots and you’ll have a very peaceful — there won’t be a transfer, frankly. There’ll be a continuation.” He sounded like Voldemort jamming the Sorting Hat onto Neville’s head: “There will be no more Houses… Slytherin […] will suffice for everyone.”
Even the mainstream knows that Betsy DeVos is Umbridge.
For the role of Wormtail, though, everyone gets a turn. Bill Barr looks like Peter Pettigrew, according to Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Trump treated Jeff Sessions like Wormtail, belittling him in public. He brought Sean Spicer to the Vatican, then deliberately shut him out of meeting the Pope, which was “all he wanted.”
Spicer lied daily for Trump; Trump still despised him. No matter how well you serve Trump, he might make you cut off your limbs or choke yourself to death.
The clearest Death Eater character in Trump world, though, is his consultant, Roger Stone. He doesn’t even need a turban.
Before 2016, I thought of dementors only as the personification of depression. But when Jeffrey Epstein died in prison, I remembered Fudge bringing a dementor with him to question Barty Crouch, Jr. and the dementor losing control. Fudge didn’t see the problem — “By all accounts, he was no loss!” Dumbledore said, “But he cannot now give testimony.” That was on my mind when Epstein’s partner Ghislaine Maxwell and Trump’s former fixer Michael Cohen were put in prison. I’ve thought of it again when police, or unidentified militia, have turned peaceful protests dangerous. Dumbledore warned Fudge that dementors would not remain loyal to the Ministry: “Voldemort can offer them much more scope for their powers and their pleasures than you can!” In light of some of the phone camera footage we’ve seen this summer, I’m more conscious of Dumbledore’s stance that dementors have no business at a school.
The moment that Harry Potter stopped being allegory, and U.S. reality achieved parity with its fictional horrors, was in 2018, when this administration began separating migrant children and infants from their parents at the border. Family separation is what the entire Potter series is about.
Voldemort both caused it and felt it: “He did not like it crying, he had never been able to stomach the small ones whining in the orphanage — ‘Avada Kedavra!’ And then he broke.” I will not play the recording from June 2018 of migrant children at a detention center, crying for their parents. Rowling started her foundation Lumos in 2004 after she had to force herself to look at a news photo of a child in a cage. Voldemort profited from the dark energy generated by the splitting of souls. This administration profits from the splitting of families.
There came moments when our real-life horrors surpassed anything in Harry Potter and it was no longer adequate as an allegory for our times. One came with the 3000 fatalities from Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, when in an act of racist genocide, this administration withheld routine emergency aid to our own citizens. Another has come with Trump lying about the Covid-19 pandemic, like Fudge denying the return of Voldemort. Fudge’s deputy, Umbridge, forbids students to learn defensive spells, claiming, “There is nothing waiting out there, Mr. Potter.”
In April, the Department of Health and Human Services drafted a plan to send five reusable masks to every address in the country, but the White House opposed it because “households receiving masks might create concern or panic.” The difference is that Fudge changed his mind when he saw the evidence. Trump already had the evidence about Covid-19. He lied that the virus would just “disappear like magic” in full knowledge. Trump’s disregard for hundreds of thousands of his own people’s lives is far beyond the scope of Voldemort’s evil. With the subsequent ruin of the U.S. economy, our downtowns have become Diagon Alley in Deathly Hallows, with shops boarded up and destitute people pleading, “Where are my children? What has he done with them?”
In May, after the murder of George Floyd, protesters risked injury and even death to fight racist police brutality, like Neville and Seamus resisting the Carrows. In the midst of this global reckoning on race, in June, Rowling drew focus with a lengthy manifesto against “the new trans rights movement,” compounding damage from December 2019, when she tweeted support of an anti-trans activist. Longtime fan groups such as Mugglenet, the Leaky Cauldron, and the Harry Potter Alliance broke ties with Rowling.
Rowling’s groundless statements against trans identity have changed how U.S. fandom relates to Harry Potter. Many fans have attempted, over the years, to proclaim a Barthesian “death of the author,” an intellectual stance that requires constant upkeep when the disobligingly undead author keeps trending on Twitter. Is it realistic, or fair, to keep asserting that the author’s statements have no bearing on the meaning of the text? As one trans friend said to me, pretty much everyone in the trans community is aware of Rowling’s bigotry and now must warily assess every Potter fan they meet to see if that person is okay with it. Can we re-read, without discomfort, the passage where Lupin coaches third-years to avenge themselves on Snape by imagining him in women’s clothes and then mocking him? Did the reader deserve to be told that transmisogyny is an appropriate response to abusive teaching? “Death of the author” would attribute this inspiration entirely to Lupin, the character. But the author’s statements intrude on my reading and change it.
Many queer and trans Potter fans reported feeling stricken to learn that Rowling supported a kind of harassment that denied their very selves, when her series, with the emphasis on every person finding magic in themselves despite being different, had been central to their coming-out journeys. To find now that Rowling conflates legal recognition of trans people’s genders with “throw[ing] open the doors of bathrooms” to cis men who will assault women reminds me of the “odd, sick, empty feeling” in Harry’s stomach when Percy Weasley told Ron to “sever ties” with Harry: “He had known Percy for four years, had stayed in his house during the summers… yet now, Percy thought him unbalanced and possibly violent.”
The bewildered hurt reported by many fans reminded me of the dead unicorn in the forest. Rowling wrote that it is “a monstrous thing” to hurt “something pure and defenseless,” in this case, very young readers who thought they were included in her stories of love and acceptance. What have trans kids done to deserve Rowling grouping them with violent criminals?
McGonagall cries out to the Ministry workers attacking Hagrid, “Leave him alone! […] On what grounds are you attacking him? He has done nothing, nothing to warrant such —“
Lily says to James of teen Snape, “Leave him ALONE! […] What’s he done to you?”
And James tells her, “It’s more the fact that he exists, if you know what I mean…”
And then, when Lily defends Snape, he calls her “the unforgivable word: ‘Mudblood.’” It’s Rowling who equates hateful words with crimes like torture, enslavement, and murder. By attacking the realities of trans existence, she has committed an Unforgivable. Her fiction taught us that when someone casts an Unforgivable against you, their guilt is not your burden. You are not required to forgive them, although you certainly may. But your forgiveness is your own business and does not absolve them. They have damaged or even split their souls, and the only remedy is remorse, their own full recognition of the harm they have caused.
The soul of Rowling’s story is love, acceptance, protection. For me, the author’s anti-trans words have the effect of damaging this story’s soul. Lily tells Snape, “I’ve made excuses for you for years.” Over 20 years, Potter fandom has dealt collectively with signs of anti-trans prejudice in her books, as well as marginalization of queerness, fatphobia, and issues of race. The bitterness of fans who saw this coming reminds me of Dumbledore saying, “Did I know, in my heart of hearts, what Gellert Grindelwald was? I think I did, but I closed my eyes.”
Some fans have walked away from Harry Potter. As Lily told Snape, “I can’t pretend anymore. You’ve chosen your way, I’ve chosen mine.” But what about the many fans whose histories are too entwined with Harry Potter to leave the stories behind, even if they disavow the creator? Fan artist Fox Estacado worked with me to create this graphic, free for the personal use of any Potter fan.
A month after Fox released that graphic, I read Troubled Blood, my first new Rowling material since her manifesto. It felt a bit like having dinner with a relative or old friend whose politics have grown hopelessly toxic. I remembered why I loved her so deeply, but also how badly she has broken my trust. I found myself scanning for clues: how is her anti-trans bigotry going to play out in her fiction? Where is the author I loved?
In Troubled Blood, after acrimonious divorce proceedings, Robin has one last thing to say to her ex:
“I’ll never forget… how you were, when I really needed you. Whatever else… I’ll never forget that part.”
It may feel a bit like a divorce, what much of Harry Potter fandom has been going through, this self-protective response to Rowling’s bigotry. That doesn’t mean readers have to forget what she once was to them, when they needed her.
And then, last month, her stories spoke to me again, when Trump’s former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, published his book, Disloyal. There are parts of Harry Potter lore that the collective fandom is still working through, topics of vigorous engagement that have not been put to rest, and of course, as the author of a book on Snape, I think comprehending Snape’s arc is a major one. Disloyal showed me that I’m not finished thinking about Harry Potter yet.
Some of us thought the Prince’s Tale chapter of Deathly Hallows, in which Harry views Snape’s memories, could have been its own book. Some of us wished Snape could have told Voldemort he’d been fooled. Disloyal is the real-life version. What if, when Voldemort decided to kill his own right-hand man, Snape had survived?
Cohen used to harm people on Trump’s behalf, unbothered by his conscience until Trump betrayed him, the same way that Snape supported Voldemort until someone he loved was the target. Once Cohen finally recognized his wrongdoing, he considered suicide, then chose a second chance to take responsibility for the damage he’s done, naming his new podcast Mea Culpa, dedicating his insider knowledge to blocking Trump’s ambition to be dictator for life. His testimony to Congress sounded like Snape’s story. Rowling said of Snape: “He craved membership of something big and powerful, something impressive.” Cohen testified, “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.”
Like Snape, who chose to serve a murderer who dismembered and buried parts of his own soul, Cohen is permanently marked by his association with Trump but therefore also credible: “I know where the skeletons are buried because I was the one who buried them.”
Cohen writes with awe of the late Representative Elijah Cummings, who “understood that the least of us deserve the opportunity to seek penance, redemption and a second chance in life,” “the lone politician I encountered in all my travails who took an interest in me as a human being. […] He even took steps to ensure my security in prison.” Like Dumbledore with Snape, Cummings thought Cohen’s life worth protecting.
Cohen’s first guest on his podcast was Rosie O’Donnell, whom he had once helped Trump harass, who wrote to him and visited him in prison, an act that he said made his soul hurt, the way Hermione says remorse after splitting one’s soul into Horcruxes is supposed to be excruciating. Cohen said, “Her kindness broke me into a million pieces, shattering what was left of my ego and pride. And when I put the pieces back together, I rediscovered the man that I used to be…the man who could look at his wife and children in the eye and not be ashamed.”
That quote resonates with Snape’s final words, “Look…at…me.” I disagree with those who read this as an uncomfortable wish about unrequited love for Lily. I think Snape spent the second half of his life trying to atone enough to be able to look Lily’s son, and Lily, in the eye and not be ashamed.
Cohen wrote, “As you read my story, you will no doubt ask yourself if you like me, or if you would act as I did, and the answer will frequently be no to both of those questions. But permit me to make a point: If you only read stories written by people you like, you will never be able to understand Donald Trump or the current state of the American soul.”
There are some Harry Potter fans who argue that Snape’s original choices were so abhorrent, they disqualify Snape’s atonement from consideration. It is true that Snape only turned against Voldemort because his own loved one was targeted, and would not have cared about baby Harry if he’d been born to anyone else. It is also true that Cohen only turned against Trump because once Cohen’s office was raided by the FBI, Trump stopped returning Cohen’s calls, stopped paying for his lawyers, and expected Cohen to keep lying for Trump and go to prison. But it is also true that this is what makes their knowledge crucial to fights between evil and wholeness. Only someone who has cast Dark Magic and then felt remorse, like Snape or like Dumbledore, knows how to reverse it. Even those of us who have split our souls have the right to try to do good, though the pain of it might kill us.
The words in the Harry Potter books don’t change, but we do. The Potter stories are the shared text of a pre-Trump, pre-Brexit generation. The stories hit differently now. However we engage with Rowling in the future, the Harry Potter books have encoded within them our collective past. It’s been difficult, the past few years, to keep track of the upheaval. But when we reread these books, we remember how we reacted to them in the past, compared to how we react now, and that is how fiction helps us keep the measure of how we’ve changed.