The literature that resonates most deeply with people holds up a mirror to their experience. The struggle to rise above adversity isn't new, but J.K. Rowling offers a new take on an old theme. The titular character in the Harry Potter series is not only faced with the abuse and neglect of his family or the death of his parents, he also learns at age eleven that he is a wizard. The magical world has always known what Harry is just learning – that the dark wizard who killed his parents was allegedly destroyed when he attempted to murder Harry. Readers might not relate to the supernatural elements of the story, but good and evil take many forms. In the real world, trauma sometimes leaves scars as real as the lightning bolt on Harry's head. Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is most often associated with war veterans, but can affect people who have experienced other disturbing situations as well. Harry Potter is a trauma survivor whose symptoms and salvation have real world allegories based in practical psychology. Harry's symptoms manifest in realistic ways and the things that affect his resilience are based in legitimate treatments for PTSD. While Rowling may not have intentionally created a trauma narrative, certainly her work was influenced by her own struggles with depression and anxiety, which are comorbidities of PTSD. Regardless of her intention, readers have identified with and found solace in a story not unlike their own.
The American Psychiatric Association (APA) defines PTSD as “the development of characteristic symptoms following exposure to an extreme traumatic stressor” (APA 462). The APA goes on to specify that PTSD requires both the experience of trauma and the subsequent feeling of fear (467). Harry's early life is profoundly affected by his parents being murdered. He
“had somehow survived a curse from the greatest Dark sorcerer of all time, Lord Voldemort, whose name most witches and wizards still feared to speak. Harry's parents had died in Voldemort's attack, but Harry had escaped with his lightning scar, and somehow - nobody understood why – Voldemort's powers has been destroyed in the instant he had failed to kill Harry. had been brought up by his dead mother's sister and her husband.
He had spent ten years with the Dursleys … believing the Dursleys' story that he had got his scar in the car crash that had killed his parents” (Chamber 4).
If the violence surrounding his parents' death weren't enough trauma, the Dursleys routinely neglect and abuse Harry owing to their fear of magic. Once Harry begins school at Hogwarts, it seems as though he will have a safe environment to grow and learn, but from his first year on, he is confronted with the threat of Voldemort's return. In his first year, while Harry is still reeling from the shock of learning that he is a wizard and trying to establish a baseline for what constitutes a magical norm, he is attacked again by Voldemort. And again in his second year, he faces Voldemort as well as a basilisk who shatters his arm with a fang. His third year is relatively calm, and the Dark Lord doesn't make an appearance. In Harry's fourth year, the narrative for the series shifts and he is faced with dragons and merpeople in the Triwizard Tournament after witnessing a show of loyalty by Voldemort's Death Eaters at the Quiddich World Cup. As he is poised to win the competition, he is whisked away by dark magic and watches his classmate be murdered and Voldemort return to power. This marks a change in the series in which death is a reality that Harry and his friends learn to deal with a part of life and war. Trauma, grief, and loss are a huge a part of Harry's story after this, and in subsequent books he loses a mentor and the only family member he's ever felt loved by.
The APA's diagnostic criteria specifies that the “traumatic event [must be] persistently re-experienced” through reoccurring thoughts, dreams, flashbacks or physiological or psychological distress when presented with triggers. There are hints of memories even before Harry goes to Hogwarts. He mentions dreaming about a flying motorcycle to the Dursleys in the first book, (which is, of course, Hagrid, delivering him to Little Whinging). Harry's primary triggers are, unsurprisingly dementors and the prior incantatum spell. Harry's first experience with dementors comes on the train back to school in the beginning of the third book. Dementors are the creatures that guard the wizard prison, Azkaban, and they have a horrific effect on everyone who encounters them:
"Dementors are among the foulest creatures that walk this earth. They infest the darkest, filthiest places, they glory in decay and despair, they drain peace, hope, and happiness out of the air around them... Get too near a Dementor and every good feeling, every happy memory will be sucked out of you. If it can, the Dementor will feed on you long enough to reduce you to something like itself... soulless and evil. You will be left with nothing but the worst experiences of your life” (Azkaban 187).
And they do. In the presence of a dementor, Harry hears his parents' final moments. It's awful, but it's complicated. In addition to fear, Harry feels “angry with himself, guilty about his secret desire to hear his parents voices again” (Azkaban 246). Fighting Voldemort after he has risen to full power again is a fresh new trauma that triggers a spell called prior incantatum when their wands meet. The ghosts of the last several people killed by Voldemort emerge from the tip of his wand, and in it Harry meets his parents, who guide him to the successful end of the deadly duel.
Another of the APA's symptoms is avoidance of stimuli and “persistent symptoms of increased arousal” (468) (such as anger, hypervigilance, or an exaggerated startle response). While Harry doesn't back away from conflict, he certainly doesn't seek it out. One of his most well recognized forms of stimuli is the ache in his scar that happens when Voldemort is present or active, and yet over the course of the series, he tries to hide this from the people in his life who care about him, lest they overreact. However, in Harry's fifth year, his anger comes to a head and manifests in shouting at his friends, “pouring out of him; his frustration at the lack of news, the hurt that they had all been together without him, his fury at being followed and not told about it. All the feelings he was half-ashamed of finally burst their boundaries” (Phoenix 65-6). At the end of term, following the death of his godfather, Harry flies into a rage at Dumbledore. He is unable to control his grief and anger and in a destructive fit, he breaks many of the items in the headmaster's office. Despite claiming not to care, Dumbledore is wise enough to recognize this emotional outburst for what it is, even if Harry does not, and explains that “You do care … You care so much you feel as though you will bleed to death with the pain of it. …. You have now lost your mother, your father, and the closest thing to a parent you have ever known. Of course you care” (Phoenix 842).
While Harry has all of the symptoms of Post traumatic stress disorder, he also has a strong support network at Hogwarts. One of the primary treatments for PTSD is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). The Mayo Clinic defines this technique as “work[ing] with a mental health counselor … in a structured way, attending a limited number of sessions. CBT helps [patients] become aware of inaccurate or negative thinking so [they] can view challenging situations more clearly and respond to them in a more effective way” (Mayo). If there was a more specific magical version of CBT than Lupin's anti-dementor lessons, it's hard to imagine what it might be. The idea was for Harry to be able to confront his fears with “the nearest [they'd] get to a real dementor. The boggart will turn into a dementor when he sees [Harry], so [they'd] be able to practice on him” (Azkaban 236). Eventually, Harry is able to produce a corporeal patronus “which is a kind of anti-dementor – a guardian that acts as a shield between you and the dementor” (237). Lupin isn't the only one who plays a theraputic role in Harry's life. Hermione and Ron both help Harry to deal with the trauma of being constantly attacked by Voldemort and his Death Eaters, as well as the long summers of abuse and neglect he endures from the Dursleys. No one is more of a mentor than Dumbledore, whose goal is always Harry's best interest. Even the things he does that put Harry in harm's way, he does for his own good. Every time Harry is forced to look death in the face, he debriefs with Dumbledore, despite being freshly devastated from a fresh new trauma. Dumbledore explains:
“It I thought I could help you … by putting you into an enchanted sleep and allowing you to postpone the moment when you would have to think about what has happened tonight, I would do it. But I know better. Numbing the pain for a while will make it worse when you finally feel it. You have shown bravery beyond anything I could have expected of you. I ask you to demonstrate your courage one more time. I ask you to tell us what happened” (Goblet 695).
This, coupled with Dumbledore's willingness to allow Harry to fight his own battles, is a good example of exposure therapy, which the Mayo Clinic defines as contact with what a patient “find[s] frightening so that [they] can learn to cope with it effectively” (Mayo). Dumbledore states that even though Harry “met challenges even grown wizards have never faced” (Phoenix 838), he didn't tell Harry about the prophecy that would shape his life because he “cared about [Harry] too much … cared more for [his] happiness than [his] knowing the truth, more for [his] peace of mind than [Dumbledore's] plan, more for [Harry's] life than the lives that might be lost if the pain failed” (838). Despite this, allowing Harry's “struggling under more burdens s than any student who has ever passed through this school” (839).
Last, but certainly not least, Harry finds comfort and healing in recreation – something that more and more therapists, like Lynn Notesteine from Temple University. She says:
“Play therapy is a specialized area of practice and a way to relate to clients who are unable to verbalize their feelings. Because of this, therapy happens through play. It gets to the emotional functioning of children and that expression of emotion through play” (Getz).
Harry quickly learns quiddich and wizard chess during his introduction to the wizarding world. His first real broomstick ride is as liberating for Harry as living with the Dursleys must have been restraining. It was effortless and joyful and “he realized he'd found something he could do without being taught – this was easy, this was wonderful. He pulled his broomstick up a little higher and heard screams and gasps of girls back on the ground and an admiring whoop from Ron” (Stone 148). Harry's aptitude for flying lands him on the house quiddich team, the youngest player in a century and a seeker, just like his father. Being part of a team is the antithesis of the marginalization he experienced in the home of his aunt, uncle, and cousins. Being celebrated for a natural talent is a welcome contrast to having been bullied at his muggle school by non-magical peers.
Quite a different example of play therapy is wizard's chess, which Harry learns from Ron over Christmas break at Hogwarts. The difference, Rowling explains wizard chess is “exactly like Muggle chess except that the figures were alive, which made it a lot like directing troops in battle” (Stone 199). As a novice, Harry “wasn't a very good player yet and [the pieces] kept shouting different bits of advice at him, which was confusing. 'Don't send me there, can't you see his knight? Send him, we can afford to lose him” (Stone 199). Like quiddich, Harry's chess lessons have a specific practical payoff when he and his friends are forced to play a real life game of chess on a giant board in order to stop Voldemort. After Ron sacrifices himself so that Harry can earn a checkmate “the white king took off his crown and threw it at Harry's feet. They had won. The chessmen parted and bowed, leaving the door ahead clear” (Stone 284). In the end, their sacrifice “for the best-played game of chess Hogwarts has seen in many years, [Dumbledore] award[s] Gryffindor House fifty points” (Stone 305).
The Harry Potter books have been hugely cathartic to people from a wide variety of backgrounds. Perhaps this is because writing them was so helpful to Rowling herself during times of emotional distress. The author lost her mother to multiple sclerosis at the age of forty five and channeled some of the longing of orphaned Harry into her writing (Adney 7). It might well have been her mother Rowling was thinking of when she had Dumbledore explain the Mirror of Erised, saying that “It shows us nothing more of less than the deepest, most desperate desire of our hearts. You, who have never known your family, see them standing around you” (Stone 213).
If the Mirror weren't enough, Rowling also created thestrals as a way for her readers to identify with the grief and loss that becomes more and more common as the series progresses. Rowling describes them, through Harry's eyes as:
“ horses, although there was something reptilian about them, too. They were completely fleshless, their black coats clinging to their skeletons, of which every bone was visible. Their heads were dragonish, and their pupil-less eyes white and staring. Wings sprouted from each wither – vast black leathery wings that looked as though they ought to belong to giant bats. Standing still and quiet in the gloom, the creatures looked eerie and sinister. Harry could not understand why the coaches were being pulled by these horrible horses when they were quite capable of moving along by themselves)” (Phoenix 196-7).
Later during a Care of Magical Creature lesson, Hermione explains that “The only people who can see thestrals … are people who have seen death” (Phoenix 446), which explains why Harry is only able to see them in his fifth year, following the death of Cedric during the Triwizard Tournament.
Later, Rowling's apartment was robbed of all her mother's things, she lost her job, and moved to Portugal to teach English. There, she met and married Jorge Arantes after briefly dating and having a miscarriage. She gave birth to their daughter some time later. The pressure of parenthood and Arantes absence due to work caused a lot of tension in the marriage and mental distress for Rowling. “I simply felt like a nonperson. I was very low and I felt I had to achieve something” (Adney 8). Arantes evicted Rowling from their apartment after she told him that she was no longer in love with him. Things escalated quickly and Rowling required police intervention to return for her daughter and possessions. Unemployed, with no money or other resources, she returned to England to stay with family and find work. There, she famously worked on Harry Potter in cafes and college computer labs when possible. Through all of this, Rowling struggled with depression, suicidal thoughts, and feelings of worthlessness. She created dementors as a “way of showing depression through characters” (Adney 9). When Harry first encounters these horrors of the wizarding world, he's on the Hogwarts express headed for school. Rowling describes them as such:
“a cloaked figure that towered to the ceiling. Its face was completely hidden beneath its hood. Harry's eyes darted downward and what he saw made his stomach contract. There was a hand protruding from the cloak and it was glistening, grayish, slimy-looking, and scabbed, like something that had decayed in water …
But it was visible only for a split second. As though the creature beneath the cloak sensed Harry's gaze, the hand was suddenly withdrawn into the folds of its black cloak.
And then the thing beneath the hood, whatever it was, drew a long, slow, rattling breath, as though it was trying to suck something more than air from its surroundings.
And intense cold swept over them all. Harry felt his own breath catch in his chest. The cold went deeper than his skin. It was inside his chest, it was inside his very heart ...” (Azkaban 83)
Even a boggart has this effect on Harry. Again, Rowling:
“A dementor rose slowly from the box, it's hooded face turned toward Harry, one glistening, scabbed hand gripping its cloak. The lamps around the classroom flickered and went out. The dementor stepped from the box and started to sweep silently toward Harry, drawing a deep rattling breath. A wave of piercing cold broke over him” (Azkaban 238).
As is true of mental health issues in general, dementors affect people in different ways. Lupin tells Harry that the “dementors affect [him] worse than the others because there are horrors in [Harry's] past that the others don't have” (Azkaban 187). Dudley, a muggle with an arguably blessed life, is unable to see the dementors when they attack he and Harry in Little Whinging, he is rendered speechless and left in a ball on the ground for Harry and Mrs. Figg to deliver back to the Dursleys. Later, Mrs. Figg is asked to testify on Harry's behalf and says that “everything went cold, and this was a very warm summer's night, mark you. And I felt … as though all happiness had gone from the world … and I remembered … terrible things” (Phoenix 145).
Most stories involve adversity. Regardless of genre or audience, stories are about overcoming obstacles and growing as humans. Harry Potter is challenged with not only the normal rites of passages of growing up, or with the abuse and neglect of his aunt and uncle, like non-magical humans might be. He is faced with dark magic, with the adjustment to a whole new society, and with the fresh hell of attempted murder over and over again. There's no question that a life that begins with loss and progresses with violent trauma is a landmine of emotion and horror. But with the help of his friends and mentors, Harry gains the needed tools and resources to dig deep within himself for the resilience and courage that marks him as a Gryffindor. His salvation was in the support of his friends and the magical community. He did great things, achieved overwhelming success and saved the wizarding world. But he didn't do it alone. His courage came from the people who loved him most – his triumph over adversity came because Dumbledore, Ron, and Hermione taught him that love was like a phoenix. It could be extinguished, but not killed. And in the end, for Harry, for Rowling, and for millions of readers … that has made all the difference.
- Adney, Karley, and Holly Hassel. Critical Companion To J. K. Rowling : A Literary Reference To Her Life And Work. New York: Facts on File, Inc, 2011. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 29 May 2016.
- Desk Reference to the Diagnostic Criteria from DSM-5. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric, 2013. Print.
- Getz, Lindsey. "The Power of Play Therapy." The Power of Play Therapy. Social Work Today, n.d. Web. 29 May 2016.
- Mulholland, Neil. Psychology of Harry Potter : An Unauthorized Examination of the Boy Who Lived. Dallas, TX, USA: BenBella Books, 2007. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 20 April 2016.
- "Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)." Post Traumatic Stress Disorder- Mayo Clinic. Mayo Clinic, n.d. Web. 29 May 2016.
- Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone Book 1. Toronto: Scholastic, 1998. Print.
- Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. New York: Random House, 1999. Print.
- Rowling, J. K., and Mary GrandPré. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. New York: Arthur A. Levine, 1999. Print.
- Rowling, J. K., and Mary GrandPré. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. New York, NY: Scholastic, 2002. Print.
- Rowling, J. K., and Mary GrandPré. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. New York, NY: Arthur A. Levine, 2003. Print.
- Rowling, J. K., and Mary GrandPré. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. New York: Arthur A. Levine, 2006. Print.
- Rowling, J. K., and Mary GrandPré. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. New York, NY: Arthur A. Levine, 2007. Print.