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Adults Don’t Read ‘Harry Potter’ to Escape, But to Cope

“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.'”

01.19.17

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.

Harry Potter Fan Man Repeller-34

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 jacketTo 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

More people imagining better: National Co-Chairs of the March on Washington spoke with us about the movement, and these women have hope for Planned Parenthood.

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  • Alex S

    After the election results, for a reason I couldn’t quite explain at the time, I had Harry Potter on the brain. I guess the parallels felt tantamount, and whatever spec of my brain that stores my memories of reading Harry Potter went into overdrive, seemingly both as a coping mechanism, but also as a call to action.

    • Katy

      That happened to me too!

  • Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series works for me that way, too. Harry Potter’s of course great (thx for this post!!) and so is Terry Pratchett’s Discworld.
    I have still never stopped wishing extreme stupidity and vanity didn’t rule the world – I am strange like this.

    • Amelia Diamond

      I’ve never read those! I will check out 🙂

      • A friend of mine told me her dislexic son’s reading abilities (and success at school!) improved vastly after HP books appeared 🙂

        I am also a big fan of JK Rowling’s tweets , I hope she can survive the stupid trolls and keep on tweeting.

  • Samantha Lee

    I started rereading the series in September, and it is basically the best decision I’ve ever made. It warms my soul in a way that nothing else can. Also, can we talk about how “the cuddle hormone” nickname is EVERYTHING?
    http://www.wonderlandsam.com

    • Amelia Diamond

      it’s like that cute smiley emoji with both wavey hands on either side

  • Martyna

    Just finished the whole series again.
    Was in a place where I really needed something magical in my life. It saves me every time. Love the fact, that I’m not the only one who finds magic there.

    • Amelia Diamond

      how long did it take you!

      • Martyna

        It was kind of a ritual – I was living and working abroad, feeling very lonely and I hated the job. So I would walk 40 minutes to and from work and listen to the audio books. It helped me to replace 40 minutes of thinking ‘God, I can’t believe I’m going there / It’s going to be awful’ into 40 minutes of magic and light. It took about 6 months to listen to all of them 🙂

  • Courtney Cartier

    I think everyone should enrich their lives by reading the HP series. It’s life changing. I can’t wait to pass down my paperback copies to my kids and hope they love it as much as I do.

    • Amelia Diamond

      Writing this actually made me so anxious because I was trying to find my old books and am missing a ton. WHERE ARE THEY??

      • Courtney Cartier

        Accio books!! 🙂 Mine are in tubs at my parents house, also filled with other HP memorabilia. Now that I have my own place, I can’t wait to re-discover everything I kept.

    • My mother always read stories (Wizard of Oz, Roald Dahl etc.) to me before bed when I was little – and I cannot wait to do the same with Harry Potter when I have my own kids. It’s literally the main reason I am enthusiastic to procreate.

  • Haley Nahman

    Amels <3 <3 <3 this is so good u r making me want to reread!

    • Amelia Diamond

      do it!!

  • Holly Laine Mascaro

    Love Love Love this piece. <3

  • rebeccarolnick

    I re-read the third and fourth (arguably the best in the series…) while planning my wedding. The books offered a familiar, engrossing distraction from the frequently-stressful process. I highly recommend this coping mechanism!!

  • Bunney

    Adults fans have always been here, since the beginning. The focus has remained on children or young adult fans, so don’t pretend to think that adults are only just now picking these books up to read. I started reading them in 2003, at 38. Over the years, I have attended many HP themed events and the numbers are overwhelmingly in the 30+ category. The article is excellent, however. I had the opportunity to meet and talk with Dr. Scarlet at a conference in 2015. Her presentation was profound and life-altering and, fortunately, not driven by the age of the fans.

  • Amelia! I always love your articles, but this one rings especially true.

    I have read Harry Potter on a pretty much perpetual loop since first discovering the books at about 8 or 9 years old. Back then Harry Potter was only an escape, a land of magic that despite its darkness contained so much wonder and appeal. Now at 27, I find myself drawn to Harry Potter for the reason you stated above – it helps me cope. The strength and reserve of the characters to persevere despite the odds and despite some of life’s greatest challenges has reminded me that I, too, have the same internal reserve and that “Happiness can be found even in the darkest of times if only one remembers to turn on the light”.

  • Amanda

    I am a huge Harry Potter nerd. I, like the author, have re-read the series before each new book and movie release. We used to have parties to celebrate the events. I grew up with Harry (I was more or else his age throughout the series) but I still enjoy them as an adult in my late 20s.

    Recently, my partner and I have listened to them in the car (we are on book 5) during road trips. It is a great way to make time pass. Sometimes we stay in the car when we arrive to our destination to listen to the end of a chapter.

    I hope the magic can continue and we take the lessons in the book and use them in real life.

  • Alexia

    I have always been a huge reader–but I’ve never read Harry Potter! I’m kind of tempted to start now but am going to be embarrassed when I buy them at the bookstore for the first time and have to admit to never having read them.

  • I’d also highly recommend the audio version by Stephen Fry. I always seem to revert to listening to his dulcet British tones narrate Harry’s story when life gets a little overwhelming.

  • Blanche

    I’ve just discovered Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, which is a podcast that reads each chapter based on a theme – it is the most fantastic way to cultivate this inner peace! I highly recommend it, http://www.harrypottersacredtext.com/

  • Katy

    Yes!!!
    I’m going to graduate college in May and as soon as I do I’m going to reread the whole series start to finish. Who knows what the world will look like by then, but I have no doubt that Harry will be inspirational as always.
    In the past few weeks I have imagined creating a real-life Dumbledore’s Army so many times. “The weapon we have is love” has echoed in my head so many times, as has one of my favorite quotes in the whole series:
    “It is important to fight, and fight again, and keep fighting, for only then can evil be kept at bay, though never quite eradicated.”

  • Re-reading Harry Potter as an adult opens your mind to a whole new world… instead of focusing on Harry, Ron and Hermione I noticed McGonagal, Molly Snape and Dumbledore – their struggle, hope and perseverance was real! Seriously some of the stuff Dumbledore says is life changing

  • stinevincent

    Related: at the Women’s March in St. Paul, MN, on Saturday, I saw an excellent double-sided sign: A – Trumpemort has got to go! B – What would Hermione do?