THE BLOG
01/09/2016 05:44 pm ET Updated Jan 09, 2017

What 'Harry Potter' Taught Me About Trauma

Thalita Carvalho ϟ/Flickr

When I was in the 8th grade, Harry Potter and I were the same age.

My English teacher was the one to introduce the books to us, predicting, rightfully, that they were about to take the hell off.

"Here is something you can grow with," she said, standing in front of the class, holding the muted purple and navy book. "Here is something you can take to high school."

It might have been her one cool moment. She wasn't a popular teacher; she was renowned for wearing paisley maxi skirts, making us spit out our gum, having bats in her air-conditioning unit (not her fault but odd nonetheless), and turning the corner at the exact moment one of us said fuck. And although she didn't realize how on point she'd been the day she introduced us to Harry Potter, she might have intuited that the books were something some of us needed--not only as an escape, but also as a frame of reference.

I'm not entirely sure why all of the popular narratives of my childhood involved orphans. Have you ever been an orphan? It's not glamorous. Contrary to popular belief, it doesn't grant you magical powers, or a guaranteed iron-clad constitution. Yet orphans are always saving the world, somehow. They're always endowed with amazing selflessness and an air of cosmic wonder. Orphans are always learning how to fly (you'll never need the feather, Dumbo!) or having bluebirds braid their hair and shit. What is it about that? Is it perhaps that unencumbered by the tiresome restraints of parental authority, orphans are able to live up to their true, wizarding potential?

As strange as the obsession with parentlessness was in the '80s and '90s, I did feel validated and seen by the books I read, even if I'm still trying to shake off the disappointment that I'll never be able to truly play Quidditch.

Here's the thing, though. My obsession with Harry Potter--which I confess, as an almost 30-year-old, still exists--has served me well.

The more I think about it, the more similarities I can see between the realm of Hogwarts/the wizarding world, and the way the brain works when it has experienced trauma. If you've read my essay on sexual assault and dissociation--or even if you haven't--you may be familiar with the way the brain fragments memory following a traumatic event.

Imagine, for the sake of this essay, getting mugged. A person who has gotten mugged may not remember their assailant's face in specifics, nor the time or place of the incident. The shock and fear manifest by allowing the brain to black out a little, take a break, save the self from experiencing and re-experiencing a terrible moment. But it's unlikely that all of the senses were obliterated. So if the mugger was, say, wearing a particular kind of hat, you may see that hat on someone else later, and immediately be taken back to a part of your brain that contained fragmented memory of the time you were mugged.

Well, then. Isn't that kinda like a horcrux (an object used to store a fragment of one's soul)? The difference, of course, being that Voldemort consensually chose to embed himself in ephemera, while traumatized people have their brains to thank for that work being done for them.

"I sometimes feel as if you're Snape," I tell my therapist, who, before she can stop herself, responds with a look of indignation. "But in Snape's best days," I add hurriedly.

She still looks a little skeptical, but tilts her head to the side, signaling me to explain.

"He does teach Defense Against the Dark Arts," I continue. "And the Dark Arts can essentially be paralleled to truly terrible ways the brain deals with traumatic events."

I'm thinking here, too, about the time Lupin teaches Harry to develop his Patronus--he summons dementors (or, for our purposes, soul-sucking memories, feelings, sensations that zap the life out of us) for Harry to ward off, using his strongest power.

The three-year anniversary of a harrowing event in my life recently passed, and I found myself reflecting. I was surprised at how little I mourned the actual loss of the person I'd lost, and how my anxiety about the event was more directed at the fallout from the loss--the way my body responded by falling into depression (which I called The Doom), the loneliness, the shutdown, and very, very slow healing. The Doom was the dementor I didn't have the Patronus to deal with. And snail-like, through therapy and EMDR, I developed the animal-like Patronus that now helps aid me in times of crisis.

I explain this all to my therapist, who then likens herself more to Lupin in an attempt to shed the Snape resemblance. (For the record, I don't think she's wrong, I just think that her brand of teaching is more holistic, like Snape's, and doesn't just teach the Patronus charm, though she is of course allowed to identify however she wants without my policing.)

"Regardless of if I'm Snape or Lupin, the important thing to note here is that, though there will be other difficult times in your life, you won't ever be as vulnerable to dementors," she finishes, with a slight gleam of satisfaction in her eye. After all, we've just wrapped something up nicely in a bow, and that's so rarely the case with therapy.

In my aforementioned article on EMDR, I also talk about how sometimes, unintentional triggering can lead a person to feel as if they've taken the wrong floo powder route and ended up in Knockturn Alley instead of Diagon. Muggles can be likened to people who have not experienced a good deal of trauma in their lifetimes, and are unaware of the magical world of traumatized wizards and witches that exists just beyond their purview.

But my favorite reference has to be the Mirror of Erised. Remember when Harry stumbles upon it in his early years, and looking into it, sees his dead parents beside him? Remember how, when Harry asked him what he saw when he peered into the mirror, Dumbledore evasively replied that he saw himself with a new pair of socks? (Clearly a total lie, btw, and one we never get to fully explore.) The mirror shows viewers what they want most in the world, and many, many men (as Dumbledore soberly points out) have wasted away in front of it.

My own Mirror of Erised was also part of that recent anniversary of my trauma. I'd finally, after 21 years, been granted access to the storage unit containing my mother's belongings. They had been packed there, with years of dust, since her death in 1992. And as I'd poured over her photo albums, newspaper clippings, shoes, and letters, I felt as though I was looking into something I wanted more than anything in the world, and could fruitlessly waste away in front of it.

The application, of course, is not a perfect one. I'm still not entirely sure what to do about Voldemort himself, or his Death Eaters, though there exists a plethora of symbols they could represent. And why (whhhhyyyy) did Rowling have to kill off one of the twins? I imagine that had more to do with book sales than anything else, though I can't be certain. But what I do know is that the transformation of thought surrounding trauma into a magical world, with non-traditional or non-existent governing rules, was a liberating one.

I not only didn't have to follow a template or measurement of my brain's responses in comparison to the people (Muggles) around me, I also got to satisfy the child-like part of myself that was raised to believe that parentless people (or kids with serious PTSD) could be heroic.

This piece by July Westhale originally appeared on The Establishment, a new multimedia site funded and run by women.

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