I almost died once. At age 16, I was sitting in the hallway of my high school in southern Alabama when a tornado tore through the structure, killing eight students, classmates I’d known since I was a child. I could have been one of them, which feels dramatic to say, but when I look at photographs of what used to be my school after it was reduced to a pile of rubble, I know it’s true. I’ve been grappling with post-traumatic stress disorder since that day.
Years before my own brush with death, I read about Harry’s. I watched him struggle with grief and rage as he sought to gain control of his life and to do what he believed to be right. Because of Harry—who saw people his age die, who learned that mortality is not something to fear, and who worked through his anger to find strength even when it was hard—I eventually had something to map my own experience onto. As a result, Harry Potter tends to mean something different to me, as it might to others who’ve endured trauma. In many ways, the books have always been an echo.
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The Harry Potter series is, of course, about an orphan who happens to be a wizard. It is about mythical creatures, and magical castles, and found family. It is also a story absolutely filled with images of death. The seven-part series is bookended by loss, beginning with the murder of Harry’s parents by the evil Lord Voldemort when the boy is a year old, and culminating in Harry’s own (brief) death at age 17. He grows up in an abusive household with his aunt, uncle, and cousin, but starting when he’s 11, Harry spends most of the year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, a place where violence abounds, ranging from spells gone awry to wizard duels to all-out war.
Perhaps the most important moment in the series comes at the end of the fourth book, The Goblet of Fire. Harry has just fought his way through a labyrinth, the final task of the Triwizard Tournament. He reaches the end only to find it’s all been a ploy by a newly resurrected Voldemort. Harry is tied to a gravestone as the wizard who killed his parents coldly orders the death of his classmate, Cedric Diggory—who is then murdered in front of him.
When The Order of the Phoenix, the fifth installment, was released in 2003, the reader responses to the book departed slightly from the usual revelatory praise. There were mixed emotions—happiness about having a new book, and also outrage that a favorite character, Sirius Black, had been killed. But another sentiment reverberated through both the fandom and the critical community: frustration over Harry’s new personality.
Indeed, the Harry Potter of The Order of the Phoenix is not the Harry Potter of the earlier books. The novel introduced a 15-year-old wizard who was tortured, emotional, and much less relatable to many readers. I can recall fan forums at the time nicknaming him “emo-Harry” or “CAPSLOCK-Harry” (referring to Rowling’s copious use of all-caps during Harry’s dialogue in the book). A few weeks after The Order of the Phoenix was released, the English novelist A.S. Byatt wrote for The New York Times a critical essay in which she explained Harry’s personality change the way many people have—by blaming the unpredictable seesaw of teenage emotion:
In Order of the Phoenix, Harry, now 15, is meant to be adolescent. He spends a lot of the book becoming excessively angry with his protectors and tormentors alike … Harry now experiences that rage as capable of spilling outward, imperiling his friends. But does this mean Harry is growing up? Not really.
Even Stephen King, a writer who understands the complexities of childhood trauma, seemed to misattribute Harry’s temper in an otherwise glowing review of the novel: “As for Harry himself, he speaks quietly, automatically, nervously, slowly, and often—given his current case of raving adolescence—ANGRILY.”