The Pensieve of Jo Rowling
(This essay deals with J.K. Rowling’s recent decision to defend the casting of Johnny Depp for the second time in a Harry Potter franchise film, the upcoming The Crimes of Grindelwald. Depp has admitted in a legal suit to domestic abuse against his ex-wife, and the topic of domestic abuse both real and fictional will come up in this blog post. As I am writing about the author of the Harry Potter series, I will discuss the child abuse and suicide themes in the books themselves, and reference ongoing real world cases of child abuse, including child sexual assault. I will also make reference to a sexual assault I suffered as an adult.)
In Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, most readers likely remember the central dynamic of the storyline: Harry Potter’s ill-fated relationship with his long-time tormenter and nemesis, Professor Severus Snape, who is in fact the titular Prince as a result of an accident of birth. What fewer likely remember is what I would argue is the most evocative visual metaphor of the series (perhaps tied with the Dementor as demonic avatar of depression): Albus Dumbledore’s Pensieve, a tool for exposition which doubles as a deadly drug that clearly contributes to Dumbledore’s effective suicide at the end of the novel (in a “twist” ending which was in fact declared at the very beginning of the book, and which was obviously to everyone except the viewpoint character a planned double-agent act designed to allow Snape to get the Dark Lord Voldemort’s trust and to spare the conscience of the young Draco Malfoy.)
It’s not obvious when one reads Half Blood Prince for the first time that the Pensieve is an addictive and harmful influence in Albus Dumbledore’s life. Like much of Dumbledore’s story, his struggle with addiction is revealed somewhat suddenly and with clear awareness of the metaphoric potential and its potential for political impact (most famously, this occurred with the not only posthumous but post-end of series revelation that Dumbledore was gay, a revelation which was not so much shocking as anticlimactic and, in context, somewhat pathetic. More on that in a bit.) But Dumbledore is not just putting memories into the Pensieve so that Harry, and therefore the reader, can access them — he is doing that, as Snape will also do dramatically at the moment of his death in The Deathly Hallows. Dumbledore is offloading his memories — memories the depth and darkness of which we don’t even fully know at the point when Dumbledore is last seen alive — into the Pensieve. Dumbledore is choosing to forget that the wizarding world’s equivalent to Adolf Hitler was once his lover. He is forgetting that, according to Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, during his tenure as allegedly benevolent teacher at Hogwarts, the august wizarding academy left students with permanent physical marks from corporal punishment — namely, chaining students to the ceiling and leaving them overnight. He is forgetting that he forgot to save Harry’s parents, and that he is planning to allow Harry himself to be a literal sacrifice to stop the student he couldn’t bring back from the edge of evil.
To offload trauma from one’s mind is not in itself harmful or addictive — to say so would be downright puritanical. All of us have moments we regret, relationships we wish we’d said no to, and pain we would dearly love to forget. Sometimes we find ways to forget that could be addictive for some, but are vital strategies to survive for others. The Pensieve, for me, reminds me of the clonazepam (Klonopin) that I take for my post-traumatic stress disorder — it’s a potentially addictive substance, and one that I have struggled at times with relying overly much upon, and yet I don’t think I could do without it. In any case, for Dumbledore to have an addiction is a relatively minor character flaw, even from the list of flaws that Dumbledore himself has, which I’ve made just a small and incomplete accounting of above.
The true curse of the Pensieve, for Albus Dumbledore, is not that it allows him to live a life which has been punctuated by past trauma, but that it allows him to be blind to ongoing trauma that he has the opportunity to stop. Because of the Pensieve, Dumbledore forces another man to take on the responsibility of a death he clearly desires. Because of the Pensieve, Dumbledore is able to behave — without lying — as if he truly loves a child who he is setting up to die. Because of the Pensieve, Dumbledore is able to do evil without feeling trauma.
You see where I am going with this. Jo Rowling has her own “Pensieve,” and she was buried deep within it when she wrote yesterday that she would defend the casting of known domestic abuser Johnny Depp as Dumbledore’s former lover and would-be world-domination partner Grindelwald.
Harry Potter learns about the world by accessing Dumbledore’s (and later Snape’s) thoughts through the magic of the Pensieve. However, these revelations appear to be the ones that Dumbledore wishes Harry to see — they reveal, for instance, that Lord Voldemort has constructed a horcrux, but they do not reveal until the moment he is expected to sacrifice himself that Harry’s path was always fated to end in death. In short, the Pensieve is a weapon that Dumbledore uses to bring about Harry Potter’s suicide, just a year after his own.
We, the readers, overwhelmingly learned about the world from J.K. Rowling’s books — books that I think it is increasingly clear are the pensieves through which Rowling has perpetuated an increasingly callous and prejudice classically-liberal aristocratic worldview. Most of us who grew up with Harry and friends reject nearly every tenet of that ideological description, and Rowling nods to this incapacity of the elder generation, even through intimate confession, to absolutely and firmly influence their spawn by having Harry name his own child for both Snape and Dumbledore, and then telling a story in which that child disappoints his father by taking more after the former than the latter. (The Cursed Child is itself a deeply ridiculous story, and the better parts were already told in fan fiction — but this has been the case with Rowling’s work for a very long time. It’s known in fan circles that she started reading Harry Potter fan sites somewhere around Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the series’ fourth installment, and that her desire to react to fan expectations drove the narrative — likely not for the better.)
The first novel in the Harry Potter saga starts with an in-depth depiction of an ordinary man — and when I say ordinary, I mean complicit in some of the worst evil that exists in real, contemporary Western society. Vernon Dursley is a batterer of children, not just his stepson but his own son as well, and is implied to have abused his wife as well. In short, Vernon is a man much like Johnny Depp, except without the alleged good looks (honestly, I’m not sure which of them I find less appealing, even leaving moral issues aside). Rowling never sympathizes with Vernon. Petunia, the sister of the near-saintly Lily Evans/Potter, yes — but, again, she is implied fairly heavily to be a battered spouse, and thus complicit in the abuse of her children as a result of that trauma. Petunia Dursley is perhaps pitiable rather than contemptible because she has no pensieve and no mundane equivalent either — not even something self-destructive like drinking or drug abuse.
J.K. Rowling displays in the earliest Potter novels a deep horror with British middle-class life. This is the only explanation I can come up with for setting details like chaining students to the ceiling, or the horrific invisibility of the non-magic-capable individuals who nonetheless are aware of magical society, or the enslavement of house-elves, or the slur “Mudblood” and the Nazi-like Death Eaters who use it. And trauma is an everpresent theme — while by Cursed Child Rowling had forgotten why she paired Harry with his eventual wife Ginny, the reason is clear: they, alone among the living characters at the end of the story, have had Lord Voldemort literally inside them, violating and controlling their mind. Chamber of Secrets and Prisoner of Azkaban both present psychic violation — by Voldemort’s diary, by the Dementors (who are as terrifying to read about as a 29-year old as they were when I was 13, the same age as Harry when he first encountered them) — as a threat, while the fourth book makes Harry literally and directly responsible for the death of another student, despite his repeated efforts to act responsibly and to protect others.
Perhaps this shift toward heroic responsibility (and failure) was driven by Rowling’s engagement with fan forums. Surely if she was reading forums she had to realize that many young people who had home situations just as bad as Harry Potter circa Philosopher’s Stone were reading and looking up to her characters. If she didn’t, then she had a monumental failure of awareness, given that the issues of power and its proper and improper use are absolutely intrinsic to every layer of the Potter stories. From Number Four Privet Drive, where Harry is like far too many children subject to an effectively infinite domination by the pater familias of the household, to his confrontation with Voldemort for the first time (“there is no good or evil, only power — and those too weak to seek it”), to the ultimate realization that Harry’s faith in his beloved mentor was misplaced and that he was a sacrificial lamb, the use and misuse of power are part of the Harry Potter saga.
Rowling certainly failed to realize this after a point. The “heroic” exit of the older Weasley twins, Fred and George, from wizard academia leads to their creation of a business, Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes. As a result of their products, Ronald Weasley, their brother, is literally given a date rape potion. This is played for laughs, not the abject horror of the dementors or the diary that committed a similar psychic violation against Ron’s sister. The choice of the main characters, as if they were regulars on the cursed television show 24, to repeatedly use the magical curses that Rowling had declared canonically to be “Unforgivable” was, certainly, itself unforgivable.
Today, J.K. Rowling finished the job of betraying her fans just like Albus Dumbledore. Much like Joss Whedon, who wrote himself over and over again into his ostensibly feminist work as a loathsome, sex-craving nerd who objectified women, Rowling puts in her most sympathetic villains the flaws from which she herself suffers. This hurts — it already did, as someone who was given trazodone and alcohol and raped by someone I believed to be a friend, when I reread the segments where nearly the same thing happens to Ron. Of course I would never ask an author to not reflect reality — I also lost a dearly respected mentor to suicide, and subsequently learned a number of prurient facts about his sexuality from tabloids. Having experienced this in fiction alongside Harry already, the Potter books became a survival skill, and I tried to remember my mentor the way the Harry Potter who names his son for Dumbledore did, and not with the sense of stinging betrayal that is portrayed so realistically.
But if an author must reflect reality, they must also accept a responsibility to, at the very least, not make reality worse. This doesn’t mean not depicting horrific or even sensationalistic or trashy content. I’m not someone who rips on “guilty pleasures” like Fifty Shades of Grey, and in fact I enjoy plenty of “problematic” content. What I consider far worse than fiction which contains some nasty things is fiction that exists to perpetuate nasty things — and I cannot help but believe that the newer Potter films and content are a way for J.K. Rowling to hand off her responsibility, to tell a story about a war criminal played by a domestic abuser and mostly allow the uncaring, cruel middle-class society that she so bitingly critiqued when she was more recently rich to continue its cost in lives. Far too many Harry Potters trapped in cupboards under the stairs will grow up unable to benefit from the inspiring aspects of Rowling’s work, and will instead learn that there is yet another storyteller who puts money and friendship before their victimization and pain.
Eleanor A. Lockhart is on unpaid medical leave and writes as a private citizen. While sharing these blog posts is done from the heart, any financial support at this crucial time is deeply appreciated. Normally, Ellie suggests pledges (of any amount, no matter how small) via Patreon; this is still appreciated, if it is something the reader finds valuable. However, recent changes to Patreon’s fee structure have led her to suggest that donations via ko-fi or PayPal are also deeply appreciated and may incur lower fees for the donor.