A Permanent Scar from J.K. Rowling

This author taught us that hateful speech can be an Unforgivable.  The targets of Unforgivables must defend themselves, if possible, but do not owe the caster forgiveness.  Forgiveness would not remedy the caster’s harm.  The only hope for the caster is to undergo remorse.

On the morning of December 19, 2019, J.K. Rowling broke a long Twitter silence to post support for someone who actively promoted anti-trans harassment in the workplace.

Many fans instantly recoiled.  Within hours, longtime Potter fans posted reactions ranging from the Harry Potter Alliance’s dedication to “a better, safer, more loving world for trans people” to recommendations of works by trans and nonbinary authors to the Potter Puppet Pals‘ succinct “BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO.”

Some fans felt so sickened that they knew they would have to withdraw from Harry Potter fandom.  Some said they had separated the fandom from the author long ago and planned to remain active in HP fan communities and activities, although this tweet outraged and grieved them.  Some mentioned the phrase “death of the author,” drawing on Roland Barthes’ critical theory to argue that the Harry Potter stories now belong completely to the readers; the author had forfeited ownership because she was violating the very ideals of acceptance that formed the core of her bestselling stories.

Reluctantly, I looked at the tweet itself.  Rowling mischaracterized Maya Forstater’s position as “stating that sex is real.”  That is a heck of a way to describe Forstater referring to trans women as “male people” or stating, as “objective reality,” that there are exactly two sexes, which is wrong at the most basic factual level.  Forstater has the right to say what she likes, of course; an employer also has the right not to renew her contract in order to keep her transphobic hostility out of the workplace.

Rowling’s support prioritizes someone’s desire to spew bigotry, without consequences, over the rights of people to be who they are without workplace harassment.

If the author were truly dead, in the Barthesian sense, Rowling’s tweet would not affect a reader’s feelings about the Potter stories.  But for many fans, it does.

Some fans expressed shock at Rowling; others noted, bitterly, that Rowling has always shown signs of anti-trans prejudice.  This highlighted an uncomfortable dynamic:  we’re all more sensitive to some kinds of hostility and oblivious to others, this often has to do with privilege, and discussions about this can get touchy and defensive.  We have to have those discussions anyway.

After Rowling’s transphobic tweet, can you really say “the author is dead” and read, without discomfort, the passage in Prisoner of Azkaban where Lupin coaches third-years to avenge themselves on Snape by imagining him in women’s clothes and then mocking him?  “Snape deserved it,” some people argue.  Did he?  He did deserve workplace consequences for bullying a child in ways that had nothing to do with sex and gender.  Did he deserve to be recast into a scenario with transmisogynistic harassment overtones?  Did the children deserve to be taught to channel their outrage into creating such an atmosphere?  Did the reader deserve to be told that this is an appropriate response to abusive teaching?

“Death of the author” would attribute this transmisogynistic harassment entirely to Lupin, the character.  But I can’t shut out information that way.  Rowling’s tweet changes my reading.  It makes me think that it was the author’s prejudices, more than the character, that were responsible for the gratuitous direction that Lupin’s teaching takes.  This is different from, say, the character of Snape ridiculing Neville’s classwork; I read that as the author being intentional and in control, disapproving of the character’s choice.

I wince to think that I might find many such changes in my understanding of the series on my next re-read.

I once left a fandom over irreconcilable differences.  Sixteen years later, it still feels sad.  Leaving a fandom meant losing friends and events that had become part of my life.  All that love and knowledge didn’t go anywhere.  It just sits in me, still.

I don’t want to do that with HP.  I don’t want to be so revolted by the author’s strident prejudice that I have to give up contact with the (very queer) people and events I know only through this fandom.  The author has never been present at those events.  Disinviting her now doesn’t change that.  My connections in the fandom never went through her.  They formed over more than a decade.  Could I disconnect them all, even if I tried?

Could I undo the ten months that my older child spent reading the series, the first novels she ever finished on her own, progressing from finding Sorcerer’s Stone difficult all the way to reading Deathly Hallows to herself?

Could I undo the hours and hours that my kids have spent Sorting themselves and their friends into Houses?  The Sorting panel that my younger child ran at a conference, by herself, when she was only 11?  The wizard rock songs that they grew up singing?

Could I erase my fond memories of getting through labor by imagining that Professor Snape was going to brew me something for the pain?

Could I undo telling my kids that Polyjuice Potion teaches empathy by putting you in someone else’s skin?

My thinking has become entwined with J.K. Rowling’s words, grown around them.  I don’t think I could uproot them all if I tried.  I think in terms of her stories.  When I read of trans teens and young adults who identified with her stories, then were stricken to learn that she advocated a kind of harassment that denied their very selves, the damage she was causing to these readers reminded me of something.

It reminded me of the dead unicorn:  “Harry had never seen anything so beautiful and sad.”

It is “a monstrous thing” to hurt “something pure and defenseless,” very young readers taking in stories of love and acceptance and being formed by them.

What have trans people done to deserve this from Rowling, this completely unprovoked breaking of her social media silence that nobody asked for?

McGonagall cries out to the Ministry workers attacking Hagrid, “Leave him alone!  Alone, I say!  […]  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…”

That’s what Rowling is defending when she tweets #IStandWithMaya:  the desire to attack someone who has done nothing, just because they exist.

And then, when Lily defends Snape, he calls her “the unforgivable word: ‘Mudblood.'”  Yes, it’s Rowling who equates the gravity of hateful words with crimes like torture, enslavement, and murder.

He knew the dangers that faced Muggle-borns.  He knew the philosophy behind that particular slur.  He called her that name.  Rowling must know, has no excuse not to know, the dangers of anti-trans prejudice.

With sorrow and resignation, I have to recognize that with her words denying the reality of trans existence, she has committed an Unforgivable.

She herself taught us what must be done after an Unforgivable.

Lily tells Snape, “I’ve made excuses for you for years.”  Over 20 years, Potter fandom has dealt collectively with Rowling’s fat hatred, with the racial tokenism in her stories and the dismissive racism in the Ilvermorny backstory, with the marginalization of any queerness in her books.  The bitter dialogues between fans about how long it takes some of us to acknowledge these things reminds me of Dumbledore in King’s Cross:  “Did I know, in my heart of hearts, what Gellert Grindelwald was?  I think I did, but I closed my eyes.”

I don’t think I closed my eyes, but I drew my own boundaries, uncomfortably.  After all, one does not have to approve of a creator to study their works.  I know what I think of Thomas Jefferson, but I am not giving up my love for the Declaration of Independence, nor my claim to its contents, even though they were definitely not written with my Asian American cis female self in mind.  I draw the line somewhere different in each case, based on how to preserve my own love in life.  BBC Sherlock produced an astonishingly racist episode called “The Blind Banker,” which I decided to ignore while embracing the rest of the series.  When I learned some things about Marion Zimmer Bradley, though, I couldn’t do that.  The Mists of Avalon was formative for me as a teen, the version of the Arthur legends that is canon for me, and I don’t want to give up my memories of loving that mind-opening book.  But if I reread it now — even though the author is, in this case, actually dead — I would see, in her fiction, disturbing traces of the horrifying things I learned about her as an adult.  I decided that I will keep that book, not throw it out, but I will not open it ever again.  Not if I want to preserve both my ecstatic teen reading experience and my adult knowledge of the author.

I don’t want to give up my love.  It was real, and it formed me.

Lily tells Snape, “I can’t pretend anymore.  You’ve chosen your way, I’ve chosen mine.”

On the day of Rowling’s tweet, in a mailing list email, the Harry Potter Alliance wrote, “We know that trans women are women, trans men are men, non-binary people are non-binary, and that affirming and respecting people’s gender is kind, loving, and literally saves lives.  We know, too, that a story and a community this big and this magical belongs to all of us and always will.  To our trans community: we love you, we see you, and we will continue to uplift your voices and stand with you.

With those words, the HP Alliance parted ways with Rowling.  They chose the many trans and nonbinary members of the HP fandom over the author.

According to the story that Rowling taught us:  when someone casts an Unforgivable against you, their guilt is not your burden.  You are not required to forgive them, although you certainly may, if that is right for you.  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 true and 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 prejudice has the effect of splitting this story’s soul.  I will look in, periodically, as Dumbledore did with Snape, to see if this author ever shows signs of remorse, as long as I have natural curiosity about it.  If my curiosity fades, that will be okay, but I will not push myself to ignore her or her work as long as I feel interest.  I don’t think it harms my soul to retain, as belonging to myself free and clear, every bit of the love I have ever felt because of this author’s creations or the people I met because of them.  I don’t think it makes the ideals in her stories any less true because she cannot live up to them personally.  It certainly doesn’t make Cursed Child or Fantastic Beasts any less rich and compelling, and I will continue to delve into them.  I am as thankful as ever to witness the growth of her oeuvre in real time, the way I always imagined readers felt about serial releases from Charles Dickens.  I am as fascinated as ever that the success of Harry Potter has given the world an international shared text, a common story, which has been especially useful in the past few years as political allegory.

We didn’t ask to be scarred by the words from her prejudiced tweet, but we will have to deal with that wound for as long as Rowling’s work is part of our culture.  According to BuzzFeed News, on the day of the tweet, Rowling’s publicist declined GLAAD’s offer of an off-the-record conversation with members of the trans community.  I doubt this will be the last such offer.  I hope someday she accepts.

ETA:  Many thanks to Lynn Roy for pointing me toward this valuable Twitter thread from ScienceVet about biological sex! 

Lethal White: Worth the read

Remember the Opening Ceremonies for the 2012 London Summer Olympics?  They were a feast for any fan of British culture, combining the real Queen of England with James Bond, the real NHS with greats of British music and theater such as Paul McCartney and Kenneth Branagh, and a bedtime story read aloud by J.K. Rowling.  This was a brilliant strategy for a display of national pride from a kingdom that has seen the decline of its infamously bloody empire, but whose arts remain world class.

The events of Lethal White take place during those Olympics, creating a pleasant double effect of a fictional world, written by Robert Galbraith, operating within the timeframes of a real world that includes authorial alter ego J.K. Rowling.  Galbraith/Rowling revealed the title a year ago; I wondered, idly, if the central crimes of the book would have something to do with drugs, perhaps.  Turns out that they don’t, and “lethal white” means something different.  Does “lethal white” also refer to the United Kingdom’s brutal, race-inflected imperialist history?  A little bit, yes, in a background but ever-present sort of way.

Speaking of race, Rowling demonstrates, once again, noticeable but limited progress in her writing of people of color.  Characters who are people of color read as more natural and fleshed out than in her earlier work, but she still includes a few instances of tokenism, specifying race for people of color and more personal traits for white characters.  She has also made noticeable but incomplete improvement in the anti-fat bias that was arguably the most disturbing element of her Harry Potter writing.  There are still instances of an anti-fat authorial gaze, but it’s far less severe than the bullying tone she used to sustain.  A sensitivity beta could be a big help.

For me, the strengths of this book far override any shortcomings.  One passage in particular is worth the price of the book for me.  It takes place in Chapter 55, pages 488-9, and I read it with eyes wide, heart rate elevated, like the most gripping of suspense scenes — but it is completely domestic, not part of her thriller writing.  It calls back to some of Rowling’s most intense writing about Harry Potter struggling with PTSD flashbacks or fighting Legilimency or the Imperius Curse, and it is related to her personal history of fighting back against sexist domestic conflict, as well.

She knew she was on the edge of a panic attack, but she held on, and every second she did not dissolve was giving her strength, and she stood her ground.

The mindful way that Robin Ellacott asserts herself reminded me of Jane Eyre’s most ringing declarations to Mr. Rochester, and indeed, there’s a reference to Jane Eyre in the very next chapter.

In addition to such step-by-step tutorials for feats of inner strength, several other J.K. Rowling specialties make their welcome reappearances.  As usual, she builds cliffhangers into her dialogue when characters on the verge of revealing secrets are suddenly, maddeningly interrupted.  Delicious.  She exposes the horribleness of everyday people, our petty satisfaction in malice, and especially our hypocrisy; it’s especially funny when she reveals that the most unforgivable insult among some protesters is “middle-class.”  But many of her most repellent characters are complex creatures who elicit sympathy as well as revulsion.

And then, first and last, there is the writing.  The playfulness:

So plosive was the ‘p’ of ‘protest’ that a small piece of potato flew out of his mouth across the table.

The manipulation of imagery, deft and haunting:

The shadow stems of the roses closest to the window stretched like bars across the carpet. The Brahms symphony crashed stormily on in the background.

And finally, on page 505, this stunner:

...recognized in Billy’s imploring expression a last plea to the adult world, to do what grown-ups were meant to do, and impose order on chaos, substitute sanity for brutality.

This comes close to perfection as an expression of one of Rowling’s central themes.  All of her stories chronicle this plea, and the horror if it cannot be answered.  Dumbledore always answered it; this is why so many people loved him and were bereft when he died.  Infant Tom Riddle never got an answer; the resulting horror made him a monster.  Adult Harry Potter came through for his son when Albus Severus made this plea.  Credence begged of Grindelwald, “Help me,” and reverted to chaos and brutality when he was rebuffed.  The job of adults is to answer this plea.  Reading how Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott detect order out of chaos feels both satisfying and soothing.

“One of the most joyful experiences of my life”: JK Rowling on working with Jack Thorne and John Tiffany on Cursed Child

Lavishly in-depth interview with the three creators of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

Addresses several fan questions about that script:  Yes, she had veto power over the entire script and production, so anything there is there with her blessing.

No, it wasn’t for the money.  She has enough money.  She was excited and nourished by the challenge.

Yes, she gets told constantly that people are not happy with something she’s written or done.  “That’s the way it goes.”  She’s going to keep writing what she wants to write, because “I know full well, I have limited time left on this Earth.”

Ten years later, an apology for killing Snape! Never more timely.

Rowling apologizes for killing Snape!

In July 2007, when I read Snape’s death scene and realized his author wasn’t going to give him any life beyond the unimaginable struggles of the war, and he would die without the grace of any acknowledgment from a fellow human, without rest or mercy or the sweetness of love or thanks… I was so angry that my face burned from the inside.  I could feel the temperature of my cheeks rising detectably.  I noticed it with wonder and a bit of detachment because it surprised me so much.  It was completely involuntary.  I’ve never before or since had that kind of reaction to a piece of fiction.

I was so sure that the story, the real story, would be about how this man did all of these strenuous, superhuman tasks and then survived.  How could that not be the story?  The tale of how he took the remainder of his time on earth to unpack from the years of unrelenting, mounting stress, the danger that had passed into supersonic levels of pressure?

His labors were harder than I had been capable of imagining.  I had naively thought that there would be some reward for him.  I hadn’t acclimated to the reality that this character had, himself, accepted:  it’s difficult to do things knowing, for absolute certain, that you will die without your sacrifices ever being acknowledged or even recognized.  To go to your grave accepting that people will wrongly spit on it, accepting that this will be worthwhile.

Please let there be someone in the current U.S. government who has the inner strength to do what Snape died doing.  I accept the author’s apology for Snape’s death.  She showed us what is necessary in times when mastery of the Elder Wand is at stake.