Last December, I re-read the entire Harry Potter series. From the illustrated edition of the first book, right on to Quidditch Through The Ages. It was interesting to reread these books as an adult, since I hadn’t really read them for quite a long time (in fact, I’d only read Deathly Hallows once, when it was released.)
And let me tell you, as a teenager I did not pick up on how bad the abuse is in these books.
Of course I know these books are fictional, let me get that out of the way. However, abuse is a very real thing, that needs to be talked about more often. Books are a reflection of real life, and as such can point out problems in society – and in fact often have more liberty to do so.
First off, something important to remember for this blogpost: abuse does not always come in the form of beating and other physical and/or sexual abuse. Abuse can be mental, it can mean being ignored, it can mean having to do all kinds of work just to “earn” food and attention. It’s easy to think “but surely if you get food every day and you don’t get hit or sexually abused, it’s not actually abuse”, which I know is definitely something I’ve thought when I was younger and still sometimes struggle to remind myself of.
The British government defines child abuse as:
Child abuse includes physical, sexual and emotional abuse.
Examples of abuse or neglect include failing to:
- meet a child’s basic needs, eg not providing food, a home, supervision appropriate for the child’s age
- get medical or mental health care
- educate a child or ignoring their special educational needs
- provide emotional care
I’ve been in a situation before where I suspected child abuse was happening. I never made a call, I never checked up on the child, and by the time I was considering to make the call it was too late. The family moved away, and I didn’t even know their names. I will forever regret not just picking up my phone.
Like I said: fiction reflects everyday life, even – or especially – in fantasy books like Harry Potter. It adresses very real life issues, and give us a mirror to look into, and a hand to hold on to while we learn about terrifying things. Fiction can teach us, and it can help us, and it’s very dangerous to dismiss fictional events without ever considering if maybe it does really happen.
And with a book series as massive as Harry Potter, it’s incredibly disturbing that so few people pick up on and comment on the abuse rampant throughout the books. And before anyone says “but at least Harry got out on time, and got moved to a safe place”: Hogwarts is literally the least safe place children can be. From abusive teachers (yes, I’m looking at you, Snape, you vile person who treated children as idiots and tested potions on pupils’ pets as a punishment for not doing well in class) to frankly ridiculous punishments (sending 11 and 12 year old children to an off-limits forest full of magical and dark creatures – at night? Sounds like there could be more appropriate choices of punishment) to bringing dangerous creatures into the castle and its grounds on purpose, to a complete lack of supervision in the hallways and common rooms.
Let’s go through that list of signs of abuse again, shall we, except this time apply it all to Hogwarts:
- meet a child’s basic needs, eg not providing food, a home, supervision appropriate for the child’s age: Hogwarts doesn’t even really manage this. Where’s the supervision? 11-year-olds (especially those surrounded by 15 to 17 year olds!) need WAY more supervision. Is there anyone making sure these children eat the right things? Or if anyone’s eating too much or too little? Are there other sports outside of one Quidditch team per House? Who’s making sure these children get enough sleep?
- get medical or mental health care: medical, yes. Sure, only one nurse in an entire school is questionable, though what seems like direct communication with St. Mungo’s is good. Mental health care in the entire wizarding world, however, definitely raises a ton of question marks (mostly notable in its apparent absence).
- educate a child or ignoring their special educational needs: Hogwarts is a place of education, so you’d think they’d nail this one. However: a lot of the teachers seem to have no qualifications whatsoever, some even being hired seemingly more out of spite than out of actual educational skills* or because Dumbledore needs them close for war-related or personal reasons.
- provide emotional care: either we don’t know anything about this because Harry’s remarkably bad at observing his environment and caring about anything outside of his direct group of contacts, or Hogwarts does not have a system for emotional care. Considering how often teachers seem to ignore children’s remarks of what’s going on and what they’ve noticed, the lack of supervision in the common rooms, and the lack of mental health care, I’d say Hogwarts fails abysmally at this point.
I know a lot of people say they’d love to go to Hogwarts, but frankly, I think I’d come out traumatised. I would definitely never allow my child to go there for 7 years. It’s not a stable environment that properly cares for its pupils.
Besides, being moved to a ‘safe place’, does not mean that suddenly you’re actually 100% safe and free forever, nor does it mean you just suddenly stop needing help. This has always been something that disturbed me about the books, even as a teenager: how come Harry never gets any professional help, even as he gets older. How come he’s encouraged to go into a very dangerous profession despite showing clear signs of PTSD at age 15. Chocolate, great as it may be, does not, in fact, solve mental problems. (A friend of mine with PTSD would like to point out that chocolate does help alleviate some of the symptoms, but my point still stands).
I still love the books to bits. I love this magical world and it’s silliness (although I can give you an entire list of questions I have for JK Rowling). They’ve always been and will continue to be a formative experience in my life, one that has given me many great things and has effectively decided on the course of my life. I cried at the Harry Potter studios in London when I visited a few years back, and I would probably cry again the next time.
And in all honesty, I’m glad that rereading them as an adult makes me realize these things about the books. Not only is it OK that the books are flawed (it definitely doesn’t make me love them any less!) it also shows that I have grown and learned more as a person, and that I can recognize deeper issues. Which is definitely good!
It’s also a good thing to be disturbed by this portrayal of abuse. It’s a good thing to be aware of it, because now I can pay more attention to it IRL. And hopefully next time, I will make the call and not let another child potentially suffer.
*Here’s an actual quote about why Dumbledore hired Lockhart:
Albus Dumbledore’s plans, however, ran deep. He happened to have known two of the wizards for whose life’s work Gilderoy Lockhart had taken credit, and was one of the only people in the world who thought he knew what Lockhart was up to. Dumbledore was convinced that Lockhart needed only to be put back into an ordinary school setting to be revealed as a charlatan and a fraud. Professor McGonagall, who had never liked Lockhart, asked Dumbledore what he thought students would learn from such a vain, celebrity-hungry man. Dumbledore replied that ‘there is plenty to be learned even from a bad teacher: what not to do, how not to be’.