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December 2005

Reading Harry Potter

[This paper was first published in the Spring 2005 newsletter of the Colorado Center for Modern Psychoanalytic Studies.]

By Cathie Bird, PsyP

Finding people who love or hate J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter novels is much easier than finding someone who's never heard of them. By now, thousands of children and adults have read and re-read the first five volumes of Harry. Book review archives around the world hold at least a few snarling testimonies of critics who can't understand why anyone, especially adults, are wasting their time reading these books. (For example, see Byatt, 2003; Hensher, 2000, Holden, 2000.) What is it about these stories that generates such a strong desire to engage or protest? I believe that the lively responses―both positive and negative―suggest that Rowling's stories touch (or gouge!) readers deeply. In them we recognize, consciously or unconsciously, the most private, joyous and desperate experiences, feelings and fantasies of our being and our being-with-the-world, the same places that have been at the heart of psychoanalysis from the beginning.

            J.K. Rowling (1997) brings her readers into Harry's life at an unspeakably horrifying moment: in a magic world populated by wizards and witches, the dark Lord Voldemort has killed James and Lily Potter but has failed in an attempt to murder their infant son, Harry. Fellow witches and wizards have gathered to bring Harry to the home of his maternal aunt, Petunia, and her husband Vernon Dursley, who will raise him.  Unfortunately, the Dursleys belong to the world of non-magical folk (known as muggles) and they very much prefer to ignore the existence of the unseen world alongside their own.

Fearful of magic and of Harry they withhold the truth about his parents and refuse to help Harry reconnect to the magical world and his place in it. They treat him miserably, allowing him only a small space in a cupboard under the stairs, locking him in it, and reminding him at every opportunity that he should be grateful that they have taken him in. Harry is forced to wear the ill-fitting second-hand clothing of Dudley, the Dursleys pampered son, and while they shower Dudley with increasing numbers of birthday presents each year, the Dursleys have not once celebrated Harry's birthday.

As Harry reaches age 11, however, his wizard world rescuers again make contact on the occasion of Harry's acceptance at Hogwarts, the school in which young wizards and witches enter formal training in the magical arts. Free from the oppression of the Dursleys (at least during the school year) Harry begins to learn the truth about his past and discovers that he is a celebrity—"the boy who lived"—known to everyone he meets in the wizard world by the mark on his forehead, the lightning-bolt-shaped scar that bears witness to Voldemort's attempt to kill him. He learns that he is someone from whom much is expected, though he sees himself as himself just an ordinary boy.

Harry's development as a wizard continues to be tested as Voldemort, whose own powers were seriously weakened in his encounter with the infant Harry, returns again and again to try to finish him off. We begin to wonder, as does Harry, what has yet to be revealed about the nature of his relationship to the dark wizard. In the first chapter of the first book in the series Rowling (1997) takes us beyond the pleasure principle, exposing us to the polarities of life and death, love and aggression, good and evil. She gives us the opportunity to explore these opposing forces as we encounter them repeatedly, both internally and externally. As the stories unfold we learn that Harry and Voldemort have much in common: both are orphans, their wands contain feathers from the same phoenix, and both can talk to snakes. Harry suspects early on that Voldemort may in some way be part of him thus we, with Harry, begin to know our terrifying hate, our own murderous, shadowy selves reflected in confrontations with Voldemort. Rowling conjures up a host of other beings to serve the role of external monsters: huge spiders, serpents, boggarts (who take the form of whatever we fear most), and dementors, the wraith-like guards of Azkaban, the wizards' prison.

My approach to reading Harry was heuristic—I simply jumped into the pool of Harry Potter manifestations and followed the currents. I read Harry's books, watched his movies, surfed his websites, and searched newspapers and media networks for anything Potter-like. I talked not only to myself about him but to a dozen or more people from the US and Canada who initiated conversations about Harry in a local restaurant when they noticed what I was reading for lunch. My sister gave me a box of Bertie Bott's Every Flavor Beans[1] and in the spirit of adventure, if not research, I tried them all.

In this process I took note of whatever came up—thoughts, feelings, memories, fantasies, moods, impulses. All of these responses, and the questions generated by them, influenced the direction further research. In time, I began to notice a tension between two forces, two lines of thought, or maybe two positions of relationship to Harry, each of which seemed compelled to write a different paper. While questions inspired by Rowling's narrative drew me into reading Harry for pleasure, it was Harry's popularity that first aroused my curiosity as a psychoanalyst. The reading evoked both a playful child and a reflective, creative adult ready to take on this project and its audience and knock their socks off. Not only that, I had a delightful fantasy about putting one over on the faculty—that is, the conservative, no-parties-Baptist element of my superego—turning their demand for a "journal quality" paper into an irreverent exploration of a kid's book, a paper so brilliant that they'd have to approve it. Of course, as did Harry, I encountered edges of anxiety running through these fantasmic labyrinths that evoked doubt and vulnerability past which the playfulness and creative juices ceased their flow.

I strongly identified with Harry as a fellow apprentice—him as a wizard and me as a psychoanalyst. Wizards and candidates must leave known worlds for the parallel dimensions of magic and psyche. In these other worlds, we both encounter a play of language, of words, that we learn to use to effect magic or healing. I also identified with Harry's traumatic past, though the specifics of this resonance—other than associations to children and adults I've seen in my practice—were not clear until later in the process. I wondered if Harry finds life in the world of magic to be, as for me in the world of the mind, about path (process) as well as one's place in the order of things. Rowling's narratives suggest this path quality as Harry gradually symbolizes his early unspeakable trauma in repeated confrontations with Voldemort, other evil adults, and his own dark side.

My heuristic path in reading Harry led to new discoveries about unsymbolized aspects of my early traumas, especially a prenatal one. The scarier witches and monsters in Harry inspired me to reconsider one of my favorite books, So the Witch Won't Eat Me, by psychoanalyst Dorothy Bloch (1978). Based on her work with both children and adults, Bloch concluded that fear of infanticide is universal and that fantasy is a primary defense against it. Children are predisposed to this fear by their small size and psychological stage of development, and "the intensity of that fear depends on the incidence of traumatic events and on the degree of violence and love they have experienced" (p.3). Children displace terror onto monsters and imaginary creatures to preserve an idealized image of their parents from whom love is essential for survival. Her adult patients, on the other hand, clung to fantasies of winning their parents love, fantasies that "repeatedly concealed an unconscious fear of being killed by them" (p12).

I considered fear of infanticide as a possible focus for a paper on reading Harry. After all Harry, like many heroes of popular children's novels, had suffered exposure and abandonment as an infant, and hadn't old Oedipus himself been set adrift by his murderous parents? I talked myself out of this approach several times. There was always another possibility, another focus that I imagined would be more fun, more interesting, more acceptable to readers and to the mother institute. For me, it seemed overwhelming, requiring more time and research than deadlines allowed.

When I took a break one day to see Finding Nemo (Stanton, 2003) I didn't expect that it would become part of my research, bringing me both back to the idea of infanticide and further into the depths of my own prenatal trauma. Nemo is a little clown fish living in a coral reef with his father. Before he was born, the nest of eggs containing Nemo and his siblings were attacked. His mother tried to save them but in the end only Nemo survived. His very protective father then raises Nemo, whose trauma had resulted in a damaged fin. Thirty minutes or so into the film I caught myself in angry mental conversation with an impulse—barely containable—to walk out of the theater: "What a stupid movie! Why did I think this would be any fun to watch? Why would anybody bring their kid to see this?" 

What might be so scary as to make me want to run? I eventually worked back to the images that I guessed had evoked a need for defense, a scene involving an injured fish, blood in the water and a subsequent violent reaction to prey by one of the sharks. As I processed this experience further, it really hit me that from day one in the Potter series, adults are out to kill Harry. In all of my reading sessions with the paper-Harry the thought that so many adults wanted him dead had never been so scary as it was watching the filmic-Nemo. I had not identified with Harry as prey so much as with Harry as a powerful young wizard learning to overcome powerful enemies. What was it about Harry and me that kept infanticidal fears submerged while Nemo brought them so easily to the surface? I believe that the blood-in-the-water imagery resonated with an unsymbolized experience in the womb. Eventually I rediscovered the imagery in Harry that tied everything together: Harry's encounters with the dementors.

In his first encounter with a dementor, Harry has several sensory responses before losing consciousness: "drowning in cold…a rushing in his ears as though of water…being dragged downward…terrified, pleading screams [of his mother]…tried to move his arms, but couldn't…a thick white fog…swirling around him, inside him" (p.83). Professor Lupin, Hogwarts' Defense Against the Dark Arts instructor, agrees to teach Harry how to deal with the dementors and explains why Harry has such strong reactions to them:

The dementors affect you worse than the [other students] because there are horrors in your past that the others don't have….[The dementors] 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…soul-less and evil. You'll be left with nothing but the worst experiences of your life (Rowling, 1999b, p.187).

Symptoms of exposure to dementors can be alleviated with doses of chocolate, but to defend oneself from the Dementor's Kiss—an attack in which dementors "clamp their jaws upon the mouth of the victim" and "suck out his soul" (p.247)—a wizard must use the Patronus Charm. To conjure the Patronus, "a kind of positive force, a projection of the very things that the dementor feeds upon" (p.237), the witch or wizard must focus intensely on a happy memory while incanting "expecto patronum" (p.238). In the final chapters of Prisoner of Azkaban (Rowling, 1999b), Harry must use the Patronus Charm to save himself and others from the Dementor's Kiss. As the dementor lowers its hood, Harry sees its mouth, "a gaping, shapeless hole, sucking the air with the sound of a death rattle" (p.384). Harry manages to conjure a Patronus, which appears in the form of a silvery stag, an animal into which Harry's father often transformed when he was a student at Hogwarts.

Many of these images suggest research findings in pre- and perinatal psychology (DeMause, 2002). Before I was born, my mother developed pre-eclampsia, a condition the causes of which the medical community has only recently begun to theorize. Of interest to me in light of my fantasies is the theory of maternal-fetal conflict, an idea rooted in Haig's theory of genetic conflict in pregnancy (Odent, 2001). The fetus communicates its needs for maternal resources through placental hormones and the mother's body responds based on what she can provide without depleting her own body, thus the interests of mother and baby are not always harmonious. The foundation for this conflict of interest lies in the fact that the mother-baby relationship involves different gene sets—the mother's genes and those genes in the child that are contributed by the mother and by the father. Geneticists are now able to identify, through genomic imprinting, which of a child's genes are of maternal or paternal origin, and it may be the paternal genes that are implicated in the placental hormone production that signals fetal needs that the mother's system must read and respond to (Haig, 1996).

Thus, my mother's pre-eclampsia, and the eclamptic seizure after I was born, may have been an expression of a heated hormonal discussion about who gets what. Perhaps these and many other fetal experiences are the biological underpinnings of my fantasies of a "killer mommy."[2] My prenatal and birth experience was one of those additional traumas that up the ante in the fear of infanticide defense described by Bloch (1978). In reading Harry I read the dementors as killer mommies. Just as I may have conjured a hormonal patronus rooted in my father's genes to preserve my life in the womb, Harry draws on the essence of his father within him to conjure a stag patronus and defeat the dementors. 

How uncanny is it that Harry should learn to wave his wand and incant Expecto Patronum! to lay down the law with soul-sucking dementors while I study the consequences of the installation of the paternal metaphor and explore relations with killer mommies? Somewhere in this intertextual experience of Harry, Nemo and me, I happened upon myself as a reader—an interpreter. Rodriguez (1999) sees Freud's radical questioning of the ideas about childhood that prevailed late in the 19th Century as having shifted our conception of child to that of subject of the unconscious (p.212). "The subject of the unconscious," says Rodriguez, "is not a tabula rasa on which letters are written, but an active interpreter…and is regarded as an interpreter by the Other" (p.218).

Felman (1987) addresses the relationship between psychoanalysis and reading "in the light of Lacan's radical rethinking of the crucial psychoanalytic issue of interpretation" (p.19). Lacan's view is radical, says Felman, because interpretation (reading) is an activity of both analyst and analysand:

The unconscious, in Lacan's eyes, is not simply the object of psychoanalytical investigation, but its subject. The unconscious, in other words, is not simply that which must be read but also, and perhaps primarily, that which reads. The unconscious is a reader. What this implies…is that whoever reads, interprets out of the unconscious, is an analysand, even when the interpreting is done from the position of the analyst. (p.21)

Freud discovered the unconscious, Felman says, as a result of reading the hysterical discourse of his patients through the discourse of the Other in his own unconscious. He gave us not so much "a new meaning (the unconscious) but…a new way of reading" (p.23). From this point we can begin to grapple with what it means to be a reader, as Lacan demonstrates in his analysis of The Purloined Letter and his rereading of Oedipus (p.25).

In reading Harry I discovered that my first act of reading was likely in the womb, and I believe that I am, indeed, beginning to explore what it means to be a reader. I have many more questions than I started with. I'm sure I'll take these questions and many others into further readings of Harry, of Nemo, of my own life and of the lives of my patients in psychoanalysis. Who knows what we'll find?


Bloch, D. (1978). "So the witch won't eat me." Fantasy and the child's fear of infanticide. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Byatt, A. (2003, July 7). Harry Potter and the childish adult. The New York Times. Retrieved from

DeMause, L. (2002). The emotional life of nations. New York: Karnac. Available free online at

Felman, S. (1987). Jacques Lacan and the adventure of insight: Psychoanalysis in contemporary culture. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Haig, D. (1996). Placental hormones, genomic imprinting, and maternal-fetal communication. Journal of Evolutionary Biology, 9 (p.357-380). Retrieved on 3/1/05 from

Hensher, P. (2000). Harry Potter—Give me a break. The Independent. Retrieved from

Holden, A. (2000, June 25). Why Harry Potter doesn't cast a spell over me. The Observer. Retrieved from,6903,335923,00.html on January 6, 2004 at 06:41PM.         

Odent, M. (2001). Hypothesis: Preeclampsia as a maternal-fetal conflict. Medscape General Medicine, 3(3). Retrieved from

Rodriguez, L. (1999). Psychoanalysis with children: History, theory, and practice. London: Free Association Press.

Rowling, J.K. (1997). Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. New York: Scholastic Press.

Rowling, J.K. (1999a). Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. New York: Scholastic Press.

Rowling, J.K. (1999b). Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. New York: Scholastic Press.

Rowling, J.K. (2001). Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. New York: Scholastic Press.

Rowling, J.K. (2003). Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. New York: Scholastic Press.

Stanton, A. (Writer/Director). (2003). Finding Nemo [Motion picture]. United States: Pixar Animation Studios. 

[1] Bertie Bott's Every Flavor Beans are known in the wizarding world as jelly beans that come in the usual candy flavors as well as more disgusting ones such as booger, earwax and vomit.

[2] "The Killer Mommy is an alter, an early fear that babies and young children have when their real mommies are routinely not there when they badly need them, either because they are in post-partum depression or because they must do other things or because their husbands beat them up or because the mother just wished they didn't have them. The Killer Mommy is what Dorothy Bloch reports on as an infant psychiatrist in her book "So the Witch Won't Eat Me!" The Killer Mommy alter remains in the brain until adulthood, when, at times of growth and social progress, people self-activate more and are more independent, tapping memories of abandonment and Killer Mommy fantasies. Rather than re-experiencing these early Killer Mommy actual memories, people get together in society and act them out, in group-fantasies, and in fusing with the Killer Mommy and going abroad and dying for the Killer Motherland." (Lloyd DeMause, in a post to the psychohistory e-mail discussion list on 11/11/03.)

MOUNTAINTOP REMOVAL: New Threat from an Old Industry in Tennessee

In the summer of 2004 Save Our Cumberland Mountains (SOCM)—a grass roots organization with over 2000 members concerned with social, economic and environmental justice—organized a 400-mile canoe trip from the coalfields of east Tennessee to the state capitol in Nashville. The purpose of the trip was to ferry a bottle of polluted water from a stream that issues from a mountaintop removal mining site down the Cumberland River and give it to Governor Phil Bredesen. Our "message in a bottle" was this: mountaintop removal mining forever changes the landscape and destroys our streams and we want it stopped. Right now we have only four such mining projects ongoing in Tennessee, but we have identified more than 100 other potential sites that could suffer the same consequences. Mountain top removal mines threaten the health and security of those who live both near them and downstream. We have made a commitment to maintain a strong presence at all levels of government involved in permitting or regulating mining activities until these destructive practices are under control.

In Campbell County, Tennessee—where I live—the Zeb Mountain mine has been operating since July 2003. Before this permit was granted many of the people who live near the mine expressed their concerns to the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement. Several suggested that the project area was large, the issues complex, and that a full environmental impact study should be conducted. OSMRE responded to our concerns by granting the permit. To date, the mine has had a number of problems:

SOCM members caught the mine operator building an illegal pond outside the project boundary, and a cessation order was issued by OSM.

The mine's operators have received several violations for illegal blasting. One recent blast was so strong that it caused nails in a section of drywall in a house under construction to pop loose.

A 1,000-foot section of haul road collapsed causing large amounts of sediment to run into a stream. The mine operator received several citations for pollution, and eventually was issued a Commissioner's Order from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC), which required that he clean up this stream before extending operations into any other watersheds. The mess made by the mine operator was so complex that it took mining engineers, OSM, TDEC, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers several months to figure out how to clean it up and to formulate a drainage control plan that will work on the steep mountain slopes. In addition, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service warned that if the stream was not cleaned up soon, the blackside dace—a small, federally listed fish that lives downstream from the mine—would likely suffer. Two years later we are still waiting for mitigation of the damage, and we recently learned that the operator might be wanting to raise the elevation of the Dan Branch drainage by 20 feet in order to deal with the problem.

The sad thing is that people who live in the area, many whose families have lived in these mountains for several generations, predicted that the original drainage control plan would not work. The mountains here are much too steep for these destructive mining practices. The permits should never have been issued in the first place.

While coal mining in eastern Tennessee reached its peak in the early '70's, we are seeing renewed interest in extraction of remaining coal deposits by mountaintop removal and cross-ridge mining methods. The project area on Zeb Mountain is around 2,000 acres—mines of this size or larger have been predicted as mining rebounds in Appalachia. The federal government's own studies document, with solid scientific evidence, the threats to human, forest, water and wildlife resources posed by these mining practices.[i] Some government scientists are reluctant to speak out about their concerns for fear of reprisal from an administration that has dismantled many of the laws[ii] that might have protected us from the effects of mountain top removal mining.

On the other side of the smokestack, so to speak, is the problem of waste disposal from coal-burning power plants. Arsenic, mercury, chromium, lead, selenium and boron are just a few of the toxins found in coal ash, boiler cleaning waste and sludge from air emission scrubbers at these power plants. Regulation of the disposal of nearly 130 million tons of this toxic waste varies from state to state, and while the EPA promised to draft federal regulations in 2000, they have yet to deliver.

In the meantime, much of this waste is being dumped into landfills, storage ponds and old strip mines. As a result, many of these toxic substances are showing up in both surface and groundwater near the disposal sites. This is of tremendous concern since these toxins are known to cause cancer, reproductive problems and deformities in humans. It seems likely that we now will face clean-up challenges of heroic proportions for those disposal sites that already operate without adequate protections in place.

Many of the arguments in favor of mountaintop removal mining just don't hold up. Current mining and reclamation technology is not adequate for all geographic conditions, for example in the steep terrain of the Appalachians in east Tennessee. Neither is the willingness of mine operators to follow the law equal throughout the industry, thus the damages such as those I described at the Zeb Mountain mine are more of the rule than the exception. The mine operator frequently impacts the local community in ways that are not figured into the coal production costs. We would challenge the notion that coal is a cheap energy source. Many of the costs are absorbed by communities and governments around these mines and don't include the price exacted from citizens living near the mines who pay with increased health risks, loss of safety and security in their own homes, and sometimes with loss of life. Neither do these mines bring hoped for economic security. Experience here and in other states such as Kentucky and West Virginia shows that these destructive mining methods result in just a few highly specialized jobs for which many local people are not qualified. Few of these jobs go to women or anyone with physical limitations. Mine operators often hire more experienced people from outside the local area. U.S. Department of Energy statistics show that while coal production from 1928 to 1998 rose from less than 600 million tons to over 10 billion tons, the number of people employed in coal mining dropped from over 700,000 to less than 100,000. Mountaintop removal mining also destroys resources that might sustain a different type of activity and development, for example, tourism and outdoor recreation.

A poll in a West Virginia prior to the 2004 elections showed that two out of three voters are against mountain top removal and 56% of the voters say they would not support a candidate who would weaken mountain top mining laws.[iii] If you have traveled in mined areas of West Virginia lately and don't understand why people there would feel this way, you probably had your eyes closed. The message we get from history and more recently from the Bush administration is that our country is willing to sacrifice the health and security of its citizens in Appalachia to sustain the myth of coal as a cheap fuel and of coal mining as key to energy independence and economic security.

We in the coalfields of Appalachia are the canaries in the 21st century coalmines, and we're saying that mountaintop removal, cross-ridge mining, and the storage and disposition of solid coal waste is a hazard to our health and safety. From the point of view of those who have to live near a mine, it is a threat to homeland security far greater than any from overseas.

[i] See Mountaintop Mining/Valley Fill Final Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement, available online at 

[ii] Warrick, Joby. August 17, 2004. Appalachia Is Paying Price for White House Rule Change. p. A01. Washington Post

[iii]07/19/2004. Analyst Says Survey Results Say A lot. METRO NEWS, THE VOICE OF WEST VIRIGINIA.