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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.)