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The Witch Tribulations of J.K. Rowling
A new podcast asks: Is the Harry Potter author being burned at the stake?
I liked Harry Potter, sure.
Like most millennials of my vintage, I dutifully went and bought each book as it hit the store shelves — even as each volume seemed to expand exponentially. I set out to the movie theatre for each new instalment, even though both halves of the last entry asked for four-and-a-half hours of my time.
But, if I’m being honest, the books had no obvious impact on my adolescent psyche. There are some people who insist that the book franchise taught them an enormous amount about the fight between good and evil, or about the importance of friendship, or about overcoming grief. Good for them! I think the most powerful lesson the books taught me was: Avoid any real person who claims to be into Quiddich.
The books series that did shape my younger years was the dark comedic stylings of A Series of Unfortunate Events. The books, crammed full of literary and historical references, certainly did a tremendous amount to stretch my young brain like saltwater taffy. (If you’re fond of or curious about the books, skip the pretty-good 2004 movie and go straight for Netflix’s unbelievably-good adaptation from recent years.)
I’ve been thinking about Lemony Snicket’s 13-part series, recently, while listening to The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling, a new podcast from Megan Phelps-Roper and The Free Press. One line in particular:
“There is no wrong side of the schism.”
The line, firmly tongue-in-cheek, summarizes the whole book: Good people can wind up on the wrong side of a schism, bad people can be on the right side. Even the most well-intentioned, and well-read, heroes can do evil. Even those who think of as the blackest form of evil can do good. Schisms can bring out the worst in the best, and the best in the worst. Sometimes the problem is the schism, not the people. Sometimes it’s hard to know which side of the schism you’re even on.
A main character, in trying to encapsulate the struggle to keep true to oneself, even amid a schism, quotes Nietzsche: "Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you." It’s a recognition of how easy moral relativism can be when you’re in the midst of a fight.
Harry Potter has no time for meditations on schisms. Sure, there are flawed heroes, but there is also irredeemable evil. Everyone fighting that evil is, in some way, good. The books imbued a deeply moral sense of right and wrong into its readers.
Perhaps that’s part of the reason why the fight over J.K. Rowling herself has become a battle for our times. This week, on Bug-eyed and Shameless, I dive into Rowling’s witch trial and ask: Is there a wrong side to this schism?
He who hesitates is lost. Subscribe now.
Part One: Joanne, the good witch
The opening minutes of The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling makes powerful use of the emotional power of audio.
Set to an eerie, tinkling piano, we hear some unidentified and disembodied voices, serving as a kind of chorus of the damned.
“J.K. Rowling is literally putting trans lives at further risk. She just is. It's disgusting. And it's problematic. I mean, let's face it, Hermione would punch this woman in the face right now.”
“The Harry Potter franchise is literally making this world unsafe for kids today.”
“God hates this. I mean, he really hates it. It's darkness, and he is light. It is evil.”
“It's a stepping stone. Kind of like marijuana leading to crack…It’s a shame on those parents that have their little kids read it. When their kids commit suicide. I told them so. They've been warned.”
And we meet our narrator: Megan Phelps-Roper. She grew up, we learn, in a fundamentalist Christian sect. Yes, she’s one of those Phelpses, of the odious Westboro Baptist Church. The God Hates Fags people.
Phelps-Roper, thanks to the connecting power of the internet, escaped the cult-like sect. And now she’s here to navigate the strange position that Harry Potter has taken in our cultural zeitgeist. Given her family’s intense belief that the books promoted witchcraft, she has a particular interesting window into a part of that phenomenon.
Harry Potter, she says, is “among the most banned books of the 21st century.” Their author has faced “intense, widespread, and vocal backlashes from peoples whose politics could not be more at odds.” Phelps-Roper tells us that her job is to “figure out why.”
It’s a hell of an opening. We’ve met the religious zealots, some of whom protest the funerals of those who have died from AIDS. It’s not hard to figure out their motivation. But we’ve also heard from those who think think the book franchise, and Rowling herself, is a threat to trans kids. Why? Because the author, we’re told, “waded into a conflict about transgender rights.”
I’m no stranger to leveraging the emotional resonance of audio to manipulate listeners’ emotions. (You can find The Village wherever you get your podcasts.) But you have to use that manipulation responsibly and sparingly. Phelps-Roper’s pump priming in the first five minutes of the show bodes very ill for the rest.
But, the pressure of the opening few minutes releases, and we’re off to Scotland to join J.K. Rowling in her castle a minute later.
For the next few episodes, we listen to Rowling take us back to her early career: A young woman, adrift, coping with the death of her mother as she begins putting to paper this idea that came to her one day on the bus, about a magical orphan boy.
If you are unfamiliar about Rowling’s backstory, as I vaguely was, it’s quite a harrowing listen. Literally trapped in an abusive relationship, she recounts how her ex-husband held both her manuscript and her daughter, essentially, hostage. But Rowling would sneak her own book into the office, pages at a time so her husband wouldn’t notice, and photocopy them. Eventually, she left with a copy of the book and with her daughter.
A single mother on welfare, determined to publish her book, she was pushed into adopting the pen name J.K. to obscure the fact that she was a woman — young boys do not want to read books written by women, publishers told her. (Joanne Rowling doesn’t even have a middle name. The K stands for nothing.)
Even as her books become a cultural phenomenon, she tried to remain relatively private. “Not because I thought that was Salinger or Greta Garbo, but because-” Phelps-Roper jumps in: “For your own safety?” Rowling replies: “Yeah.” (Her dirtbag ex-husband is in the media this week, claiming he helped write the book.)
The podcast, through the first two episodes, weaves Rowling’s difficult backstory through her unexpected, and meteoric, rise. As a straight biography, told with the help of the author herself, it’s a pretty engaging listen.
The podcast is particularly sharp when it tackles the moral panic that dogged the books, driven by religious zealots convinced that the books presented a hazard to children. Phelps-Roper makes the obvious connection to the full-scale assault on the presence of LGBTQ themes in American schools right now. She goes so far as to suggest that court battles over making Harry Potter available in schools laid the legal groundwork for Queer people to prevent bans on books that feature, say, two daddy penguins.
Megan Phelps-Roper: When you would see these people burning your books —literally burning them — and trying to get them banned and removed from schools and libraries, how did you understand what was going on inside of them?
J.K Rowling: Well, I think that this is something I explore in the Potter books. A sense of righteousness is not incompatible with doing terrible things. Most of the people in movements that we consider hugely abhorrent — many, many, many of the people involved in those movements understood themselves to be on the side of righteousness, believe they were doing the right thing, felt themselves justified in what they were doing. I suppose for me, book burners, by definition, have placed themselves across the line of rational debate: I'm simply going to destroy the idea that I don't like. I can't destroy it, so I will destroy its representation. I will burn this book. There is no book on this planet that I would burn. No book, including books that I do think are damaging. Burning, to me is the last resort of people who cannot argue.
MP-R: One theme that really jumps out right at the start of the books is how people like Harry's aunt and uncle keep saying to him: Don't ask questions. And I'm just wondering, what's the significance of having this whole seven book journey start with that theme?
JKR: Well, you see, we've just returned immediately to the book burners. They are completely certain that they are doing the right thing. And that justifies cruelty, unmerited punishment, telling him his things he's not — you know, he's bad, he's wrong — and hiding information, and the don't ask questions and the burning of the letters. There you are, you have it right at the start: You are not allowed to look beyond what we say is normal. What we say is the world.
What is so disorienting about this podcast, as will become clear in a minute, is the cognitive dissonance. Listening to the early episodes is like staring at a Rorschach test until it stares back at you. Is she talking about Christian zealots, or trans people and their allies? Or both?
But, in a vacuum, who could disagree with Rowling’s spirited appeal to information, here? It’s wonderfully put. She even wades into this idea that there is no wrong side of the schism.
Outside of a vacuum (because inside, it’s too dark to read) Rowling has been entirely silent on the scourge of books bans that have swept across America. Others, like Stephen King, have spoken up: “Find out what they don’t want you to read,” he challenged youth. (Rowling, incidentally, blocked King on Twitter for insisting that trans women are women.)
But back inside the confines of this podcast, Phelps-Roper takes us through an abridged history of two decades of Western culture. Goth subculture, Prozac, Marilyn Manson, the 24 hour news cycle, Waco, the Oklahoma City bombing (The Flamethrowers is available wherever you get your podcasts), Columbine, the internet, fandom, Tumblr, 4chan, trolling, gender identity, cancel culture.
As Phelps-Roper careens from one issue to the next, we get little snippets of very useful insight. She addresses, for example, the moral panics of the 1990s: Parents were convinced that witchcraft had taken hold amongst the youth, and that anti-Christian hatred had spurred school shootings. Or maybe it was Big Pharma and their quest to push pills on the kids. Or maybe it was a wave of youth depression, where teens were adopting nihilism in a quest to seem transgressive.
And then, she largely dismantles these moral panics. The kids were, in the end, alright.
She does it again, later, in delving into the emerging woke politics of Tumblr. She even features the wonderful Natalie Wynn, a.k.a Contrapoints, a massively successful Youtube host, philosopher, and trans woman. (Who you heard from in Dispatch #20.)
Phelps-Roper raises the panic around the ever-growing list of pronouns — and situates it in a pretty reasonable space.
Megan Phelps-Roper: How much of it was just playfulness, and how much appeared to be sincere self discovery?
Natalie Wynn: Well, I think that playfulness is part of self discovery. […] For a lot of young, queer people, engaging in this imaginative play about all the possibilities of gender was a way for them to experiment with different imaginative possibilities for what's possible with gender.
While Phelps-Roper gets into some of the externalities of that kind of thinking — chiefly, that when you get so hung up in a fluid identity you are still building for yourself, you become incredibly sensitive and even hostile to people who don’t appreciate or understand it — this is nevertheless a pretty refreshing way of addressing something that frequently gets misunderstood.
Phelps-Roper’s jaunt through the 90s counter-culture and the Queer internet happens largely without Rowling. We return back to the conversation with the author periodically for little bits of wisdom.
J.K. Rowling: If you take an all-or-nothing position, on anything, you will definitely find comrades, you will easily find a community — I've sworn allegiance to this one simple idea. What I tried to show in the Potter books, and what I feel very strongly myself: We should mistrust ourselves most when we are certain. And we should question ourselves most when we receive a rush of adrenaline by doing or saying something. Many people mistake that rush of adrenaline for the voice of conscience. I've got a rush from saying that I'm right. In my worldview, conscience speaks in a very small and inconvenient voice. And it's normally saying to think again, look more deeply consider this.
It is, again, wonderful advice.
Just like the caution she gave at a 2008 commencement speech at Harvard, which we hear in the podcast:
Those who choose not to empathize enable real monsters. For without ever committing an act of outright evil ourselves, we collude with it through our own apathy.
By the end of episode 3, Phelps-Roper, and Rowling herself, have built a redemption arc for the author. She has set out to build understanding, not foment distrust or hate. She is pleading for space to have a discussion, not a witch-burning. Readers of this newsletter will know I find those ideas very appealing.
And then the house falls down.
Part Two: Joanne, the wicked witch of the TERF
Episode 4 begins with a pretty simple question: What’s a TERF?
We get the acronym, Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist, and a bit of an emotional definition from Helen Lewis, a staff writer at The Atlantic and a renowned feminist author.
Helen Lewis: Think about it like the word ‘Queer,’ which some people are very happy to self describe as — and, for other people, it's the term that a skinhead shouted at them before trying to beat them up outside a nightclub. And that's how a lot of women feel about TERF. You know, some feel that they've reclaimed it, others feel this is a word that they associate with people who wants to slit their throat. So it's one that I would handle with tongs, as it were.
This is where the show truly goes off the rails.
On one hand, Lewis is right. TERF has become an easy out to shut down all good-faith conversations about gender. Lewis, for example, has both spoken out against some legal changes that would codify rights for trans people, while still fervently repeating: Trans women are women, trans men are men. She penned a column grappling with the idea of “birthing people” that came to a fairly reasonable conclusion. She has edited a whole week of content by trans authors, about gender issues. She is not a single-dimensional person.
On the other: No, being called a TERF is not akin to being called a Queer by a gang of skinheads. A TERF, in short, believes that womanhood does not include trans women. They, often, are not dogmatic and hateful to the trans people themselves, but generally do not believe in the idea of sharing women-only spaces with trans women and, at times, argue that the trans community presents an existential threat to feminism.
Is J.K. Rowling a TERF? The podcast never bothers to ask it out loud, but the conclusion seems to be: Yes.
But the podcast never asks because there is never any attempt to challenge Rowling’s views on anything. While it constantly challenges the motivations of everyone else, the show — this episode in particular — is a safe space. It features cisgender women of a certain political viewpoint talking to each other. Natalie Wynn does not make a reappearance, despite being a brilliant and nuanced voice on the topic. Instead, we hear Rowling and her defenders defining the issue on their own terms, and maligning their critics in broad strikes.
A real act of journalism would bring up these salient facts about Rowling:
She has endorsed Sex Matters, an organization that recommends schools out children to their parents if they opt for new pronouns and which consistently uses the term “male transsexual” to refer to women.
She has argued against human rights protections for trans people in the U.K.
She has promulgated the totally unfounded idea that making spaces, like women’s washrooms, available to trans women meant opening “the door to any and all men who wish to come inside.”
She devised a character in one of her adult fiction books who murders women while wearing a dress.
She initially tried to co-opt Lesbian Visibility Week and, when criticized by the founder of the movement, fired back with a bizarre transphobic tweet.
She opened a women’s shelter that excludes trans women.
This podcast gives us the response from trans people without presenting Rowling’s initial transgressions.
But we get plenty about Rowling’s motivations. The podcast gives us a winding history of Rowling’s feminism — touching on her own experiences as critical influence, and marrying it with the powerful activism of Take Back the Night. It then sweeps through a brief history of the push for Queer rights, and includes a fairly selective read about exactly what this fight is about.
Helen Lewis: I think the hardest thing for outsiders to understand is that there are two different arguments going on. One is the traditional conservative-right argument, which is anti-LGBT. So someone like Viktor Orbán in Hungary doesn't think people should be allowed to transition and wants to take away that that right from them — which is part of a broader idea, that LGBT identities are decadent, and postmodern and are going to sort of sap the vital life or side of the country. That is one criticism of modern LGBT politics. The other one is a criticism from the left, which it says sometimes male people and female people have different interests, no matter how the male people identify, and we need to work out those conflicts in policy and law.
Phelps-Roper gives us two of those conflicts: Sports, wherein letting trans people compete with their true gender “is not fair”; and in women-only spaces.
In particular, these gender-critical feminists argued that allowing trans people to identify themselves as trans — that is, instead of having a doctor perform a series of medical interventions in order to stamp someone as sufficiently trans — would be a danger.
“I think I have a very realistic view, not a scare-mongering view, on what may happen when you loosen boundaries around single sex spaces for women and girls,” she says.
“It's been claimed that nobody has ever abused dressing as the opposite sex and no trans woman has ever presented a physical threat to a woman in an intimate space,” Rowling continues, constructing a massive strawperson in the process. She explains how she went and looked, and found a single example: Karen White. (Rowling uses a male name for them — which is not entirely inappropriate, as there are allegations that White is faking their identity.)
And, to Rowling’s credit, she’s right. White was arrested and incarcerated inside a women’s prison, and went on to attack female inmates. The U.K. prison system has apologized, and admitted the transfer was inappropriate, given White’s history of violent sexual offences.
This case, of course, proves nothing. There are criminals, abusers, and rapists in our society. They exist across gender, race, sexuality. To hold up a trans person, or a person claiming to trans, and exclaiming “a ha! They can be predators too!” is responding to a claim that nobody has ever made.
Nobody disagrees on the problem. But Rowling’s public stance has been that there needs to be a class designation for trans people to keep them out of women’s prisons, punishing all trans people for the crimes of vanishingly few. (Lewis, it’s worth noting, offers a fairly reasonable argument for more case-by-case analyses for those who self-identify as trans but have not changed their official documentation.)
To this point, Rowling, Lewis, and Phelps-Roper have, pointing outside the window to the trans activists way over there, made their critics out to be the unreasonable ones. They have set up a one-sided debate and criticized an absent opponent for shutting down the conversation.
Without stopping to unpack any of that, they move onto a topic that seems to stray from Rowling’s stated concern about the safety of women. Phelps-Roper dives headlong into a conversation about medical and pharmaceutical transitioning that is, at best, horribly simplistic and, at worst, is just factually incorrect on a bunch of fronts.
She turns to Dr. Erica Anderson — the only trans person interviewed for the episode. Anderson also happens to be intensely critical of healthcare for trans youth and is offside with every major medical and psychiatric association on her views.
Through this, Anderson and Phelps-Roper paint transitioning as being as simple as walking into a doctor’s office, proclaiming “I’m trans!” and getting hooked up to puberty blockers and, eventually, surgery instantly. That is simply not the case. Every stage of medical transitioning requires consultation with psychologists, social workers, and doctors over a period of months before any procedure even begins.
They spend about five minutes covering the entire topic of medical transition — from puberty blockers to hormones to surgery to detransitioning — without once actually referencing the medical guidelines. It is an absolutely worthless exercise.
She brings Rowling back in to offer some armchair advice.
Megan Phelps-Roper: So is it your position that it's too big of a decision, essentially, for a child to make, to transition and experience these long term consequences that they can't yet comprehend?
J.K. Rowling Personally, I don't believe even a 14 year old, can truly understand what the loss of their fertility is. At 14, if you'd said to me: Do you want children? I would have said: No, I don't. But it has been the most joyful, wonderful thing in my life. That doesn't mean I think everyone should have kids. It doesn't mean, I think, to be a woman, you need to have kids. I'm talking very personally for me, my children have been an unmatched joy. And I wouldn't change a thing. And I couldn't have comprehended that at 14, I would have had no idea what I was giving up.
This isn’t true. The earliest medical intervention for trans youth tends to be puberty blockers — no evidence to show that puberty blockers cause infertility. Hormone therapy comes later, generally for 18 and 19 year olds, although it depends on the case The internationally-recognized guidance on trans also recognizes that most youth who initially present gender dysphoria do, in fact, grow out of it. So much of the medical guidance hinges on that reality. The idea that we are sterilizing kids, en masse, on a whim ignores the medical science.
JKR: My feeling is, and it's the feeling that was strongly expressed in the Potter books that as many diverse life experiences as possible should be explored and expressed. And having felt like an outsider in several different ways in my life, I have a real feeling for the underdog. And I have a real feeling for people who feel they don't fit. And I see that hugely in the particularly among younger trans people, I can understand that feeling only too well. […] Gender dysphoria exists, it causes massive distress. I know it's real. And I know there will be, I believe, a minority of people for whom this will be a solution. But in the numbers we're currently seeing, particularly of young people coming forward, I find calls for doubt and cause for concern. So I did what I always tend to do when in that situation, I read a ton of books. That is my instinct.
And so Rowling did exactly what she cautioned others against: She failed to question herself when she grew certain.
It’s rather galling to hear Phelps-Roper and Rowling imply that the rise of trans youth is some kind of hysteria, when just two episodes prior, the host was explaining how society went overboard in fearing the rise of the nihilist, violent, goth subculture. She was dismissive of how adults, in the 90s, seemed so distrustful and suspicious of the youth and the impact that mass media had on their developing brains. Now, she’s falling into exactly the same patterns.
By the end of episode 4 — the most recent episode available — Rowling does no particular introspection. She doesn’t hear from that inconvenient voice of conscience. She doesn’t face any hard questions or fact checks. She spins her opinion, even when it is flimsy and unsupported, and condemns those who don’t share it. She insists that “my feminism must remain grounded in my sex class” and never really offers a reason for why.
No social movement can remain rigid and exclusionary and succeed. The reason the Queer community is identified, often to some chagrin, by an ever-lengthening acronym is because it keeps expanding the grounds of its class: Gay, bisexual, lesbian, transgender, 2-spirit, questioning, and so on.
Feminism, of course, used to mean equality for white women and white women alone. Many suffragists panicked at the idea of integrated washrooms, because their version of feminism was inherently racial. Keeping women’s-only spaces safe was a particularly odious argument in favor of segregation.
So much of Rowling’s position turns on a feeling that expanding her version of feminism weakens her political power. Historically, we have always seen that expanding social movements does precisely the opposite.
This podcast, to borrow a word from the Washington Post review, is exhausting. It’s not hard to figure out that Phelps-Roper took an interview with Rowling and built a podcast around it. She constructed scaffolding around the conversation to better support Rowling’s arguments, which don’t carry much water on their own. She puts popsicle sticks together with gum to do so.
It could have been a fascinating study, if it weren’t so myopic. Every beat in the show is in service of the idea that Rowling is being unduly cancelled and censored. The fate of the author today, the host tacitly argues, is exactly the same as the religious book-burning that followed her in those early years two decades ago. It is an argument that wouldn’t work if there was a single critical voice offering the counter-point.
But, then, why wasn’t there those critical voices? Maybe that’s the most interesting question of all.
Part Three: The flying monkeys
Why do we care this much about what J.K. Rowling thinks about trans people?
Her positions, I think, are bad. But they are not hateful, and least not intentionally so. And that stems from a fundamentally earnest place.
Do those opinions, usually published on her Twitter, have an innate power, to the point where they need to be battled at the source?
Or do those opinions only gain energy when they’re attacked?
You can’t blame trans people for getting mad at her positions. To have your identity questioned, especially in such an off-handed way, by a world-renowned author — particularly if it’s one you grew up reading — it’s rage inducing.
Some have expressed that anger effectively and respectfully. Many have not. The podcast is rife with quotes and clips of trans activists, and their allies, saying truly horrid and abusive things. Rowling herself details the abuse she’s received.
J.K. Rowling: I have had direct threats of violence. And I have had people coming to my house when my kids live, and I've had my address posted online. I've had, what the police would regard as, credible threats.
That kind of abuse, we know, comes from a tiny minority of people. And it exists on both sides — trans people online get an incredibly vile deluge of torment and hate. That harassment, unfortunately, just seems to be a horrific outgrowth of being online.
But, listening to Rowling, it’s inescapable that the harassment helped crystallize her opinions. And failing to recognize just how mentally damaging and destructive that torrent of abuse can be does us no good.
Much in the same way that we can sometimes get a shot of adrenaline by arguing a particular point — adrenaline that can cause us to ignore our useful self-doubt, as Rowling herself explained — sometimes getting hate can generate the same kind of energy. Sometimes we keep saying the thing that provoked the harassment because we want to show the miserable bastards that we won’t be intimidated, without ever stopping to think about the initial statement at all.
We all do this. What struck me about the podcast is how much that feeling can isolate us from the other side. While Phelps-Roper alleges it’s trans people and the woke mob trying to silence Rowling, you can’t escape the fact that Rowling doesn’t seem very interested in hearing from trans people, beyond those who she sought out. Maybe that’s because she identifies those critical trans people with the threats she’s received.
It’s a thorny chicken-and-the-egg thing. Is Rowling so skeptical towards trans people because they were so rude to her initial, half-baked, opinions? Or did that rudeness grow in proportion to those bad takes? Did her opinion harden the more criticism it faced?
Whatever the reason, it’s hard to get away from the idea that we’re having this fight because we’ve instilled so much importance into her views. It’s easy to say that she should simply grow thicker skin, and push through that hate in order to have a reasoned discussion, but that’s not always a reasonable request. Clearly, for Rowling, a debate can’t happen on good terms, now. The schism has happened.
Are we better off with Rowling as an enemy? (As opposed to, say, an abstentionist.)
Because, after years of fighting with Rowling, the real monsters have come out and can point to her experience as an example of the intolerant progressive army. There is a legislative assault on trans people across the U.S. and Europe. And Rowling, a darling for her ability to withstand the woke witch-burners, has been cited as an inspiration for those laws. The far-right has generated a dizzying amount of disinformation about trans people, much of it centered around the idea that there is a totalitarian plot to destroy gender. Her mobbing, even if it is not representative of the trans community, is Exhibit A for Queer people’s intolerant tendencies.
I think we all have to sit and think about whether making a pariah of a children’s author was necessary, advisable, and worth it. Because, now, the real fight is on: And it is being led by people who are not thoughtful or earnest.
Sometimes, people can just be wrong.
And the members of V.F.D. have always been outnumbered, because the number of greedy and wicked people always seems to be increasing, while more and more libraries go up in smoke, but the volunteers have managed to endure, a word which here means "meet in secret, communicate in code, and gather crucial evidence to foil the schemes of the enemies." It does not always matter whether there are more people on your side of the schism that there are on the opposite side.
-A Series of Unfortunate Events; The Slippery Slope