At the top of Professor Anne J. Mamary’s syllabus sits a J.K. Rowling quote from the author’s 2008 Commencement speech: “We do not need magic to change the world; we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already; we have the power to imagine better.”
The course for which this banner is hung is called “Harry Potter & The Philosopher’s Soul.” Mamary is a philosophy professor at Monmouth College who has been using Harry Potter for the sake of education since 2011.
I called to speak with her about the original angle of this story, “The escapist magic of Harry Potter.” I’d noticed a lot of adults around me were revisiting the original series or discovering it for the first time. Bound manuscripts for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them were held between grown hands on every airplane and subway I took. Where did all of these adult fans come from?
Yes, this sudden spike in interest could be tethered to the cinematic release of Fantastic Beasts. I used to reread every single book before a new one came out, and again once the movies started, so it’s possible others were continuing their own similar tradition. There’s also a thing that psychologists call the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon, where once your attention is brought to something you see it everywhere.
Either way, I noticed a trend. And based on nothing more than my own projections (plus a slew of tweets that encouraged them), I wondered if adults were suddenly seeking out J.K. Rowling’s fantastical worlds as a means to avoid the…I have no better words for this: political shitstorm at hand.
To exist for lost hours among Rowling’s witches, wizards and other flying creatures, to willingly suspend your disbelief in the name of magic — it certainly feels like an escape.
But Professor Mamary quickly redirected my way of thinking when she said that rather than think of Harry Potter as escapist, she believes the books help its readers cope.
“They offer a way to face the difficult things we encounter in our own lives,” she said. Harry Potter and his fellow characters endure bullying, heartache, loss, danger, terrible fear, marginalization, terrorism, oppression. There are pure evil characters, but mostly there are those who house the duality of human nature. (“We’ve all got both light and dark inside us,” Sirius Black tells Harry Potter in The Order of the Phoenix, the movie. “What matters is the part we choose to act on. That’s who we really are.”) Those in the latter category demonstrate loyalty, bravery and compassion. They learn that love is more powerful than than the darkest of forces.
Dr. Janina Scarlet is a licensed clinical psychologist who practices Superhero Therapy. By incorporating characters and concepts from science fiction, video games, comic books and fantasy into evidence-based therapy, Superhero Therapy helps patients better understand their struggles, express themselves and recover. “I specialize in treating patients with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder,” she told me. “I use Superhero Therapy to work with them as they overcome trauma and experience post-traumatic growth. It helps them make sense of trauma and find meaning in their recovery.”
“Harry Potter experiences symptoms of PTSD in the books,” she said. “Ultimately, what helps him recover is connecting with his core values, the things he cares about the most: his friends, the magical community. He finds meaning in his trauma. He finds a way to continue because he has a purpose: to stand up to Voldemort and the Death Eaters.”
Dr. Scarlet believes that “people are drawn to Harry Potter not to escape, but to find hope and healing.”
“People are not taught to express feelings,” she explained when I asked her why we might seek connections through fictional characters, why we’d want to read stories that parallel the tougher parts of our lives. “What happens when we’re exposed to trauma or going through depression or anxiety is that we feel alone, and we tend to shame ourselves. ‘What I’m going through is wrong.’ When we find connection — real or fictional — we realize, ‘My feelings are okay, they are normal, there is hope for recovery. I can go through this.'”
It’s not just psychological, either. It’s physiological, too. Our bodies secrete a hormone called Oxytocin, “the cuddle hormone,” when we provide comfort to others or when others — again, real or fictional — provide comfort to us during times of distress. Dr. Scarlet told me that Oxytocin regulates our nervous system, improves heart function, and added that there’s a suggestion it might extend our lifespan. (More reasons to make close friends with books.)
One thing that fictional heroes like Harry Potter have in common, Dr. Scarlet said, is that they’ve overcome something atrocious and found meaning, a way to use their struggle to help other people. “I think that’s ultimately what people need now. Hope. Connection.”
Where Dr. Scarlet’s patients think of Harry Potter as a superhero, Professor Mamary likens his stories to that of fairy tales. “Fairy tales,” she said, “the old ones, meet some kind of human need. They empower our creativity. Rather than help people escape, they embolden us to imagine a better world into being.”
One example she gave was from the Sorcerer’s Stone, where “the meaning of value is transfigured.” First take Dudley Dursley, who, on his eleventh birthday, was furious to learn that he only received 36 presents. “That’s two less than last year!” Then there’s Harry, who went from being abused and sleeping in a broom closet to inheriting a room of gold. Finally, there’s Ron: cash poor but rich in family, who has known nothing other than devoted, smothering love. Harry and Ron meet on the train, Ron has no money to buy candy and Harry, who never had a dime to his name, can suddenly buy a chocolate frog for his new friend. Ron’s glad for the sweet; Harry, meanwhile, is just happy that he finally has a friend to share with.
Throughout our conversation, she repeated this sentiment a few times: “Harry Potter helps us rethink the world to make it better.”
Each time she said it, I thought of the closing line from Maggie Smith’s poem, “Good Bones,”
Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.
“We do not need magic to change the world,” Harry Potter‘s creator J.K. Rowling told that lucky graduating Harvard class. “We carry all the power we need inside ourselves already; we have the power to imagine better.”
Photos by Krista Anna Lewis; featuring a Barrie cardigan, J.Crew shirt and tie, Gentle Monster glasses and AYR jacket. To learn more about Superhero Therapy, check out Dr. Janina’s book on the matter, Superhero Therapy: A Hero’s Journey Through Acceptance and Commitment Therapy