Harry Potter’s Scar, or Book Recs from a Columbine Grad

I graduated from Columbine in 1999; I was a senior at the time of the shooting, 19 years ago today ...

I graduated from Columbine in 1999; I was a senior at the time of the shooting, 19 years ago today. As a 36-year-old English professor, it seems to me that day was like that moment in George Eliot’s Middlemarch when Casaubon learns that he will not get better, transforming the vague notion that “We must all die” to the vivid awareness that “I must die—and soon.”

Eliot calls this “one of those rare moments of experience when we feel the truth of a commonplace, which is as different from what we call knowing it, as the vision of waters upon the earth is different from the delirious vision of the water which cannot be had to cool the burning tongue.” (You know, one of those rare moments.) We are definitely all going to die, but some people feel that more acutely than others, and that takes some getting used to.

High school shootings are still relatively rare, but since it happened to me and all the kids I went to high school with (and, according to the Washington Post, to another 187,000 students exposed to gun violence at school since then), I have often wondered what on earth I—as a grown-up—might have to offer these kids and younger adults.

In the years (and years) since the shooting, I’ve been getting used to living like all the people who don’t know, for sure, that it can happen to them. I wanted to take the occasion of the 19th anniversary of the shooting to review a couple of books that have helped me see that “after” part of the experience more clearly: psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score, which describes the challenges that face survivors of trauma in the years that follow, and the iconic narrative of a boy growing up after trauma, Harry Potter.

Harry Potter offers two models for dealing with life after a trauma: the most obvious is the Patronus, which wards off the flashback through the power of happy thoughts. The more helpful model, though, is not foregrounded in the novel as a response to trauma at all—it is, instead, Harry’s resistance to the Imperius Curse, which is not a metaphor for possession by traumatic feelings or memories, but instead a model for resistance to the pleasures of numbness. It is through the Imperius Curse and its remedy that Harry Potter connects with van der Kolk’s understanding of the effects of trauma.


Gun Studies Syllabus

By Caroline E. Light et al.

Harry Potter is The Boy Who Lived, yet he is left with a scar that is not only a visible trace of that near miss with death, but also a source of searing pain. Everyone can see the scar that connects him with the book’s villain, Voldemort, but his response when he encounters dementors—who feed off human misery and fear—shows that he is different from other children on the inside. The first time he encounters his first dementors in the Hogwarts train, a space which has previously been safe, Harry is the only one to pass out. Here’s the aftermath:

“Are you okay?” Ron asked nervously.


“Yeah,” said Harry, looking quickly toward the door. The hooded creature had vanished. “What happened? Where’s that—that thing? Who screamed?”


“No one screamed,” said Ron, more nervously still.

Harry’s big question is: Why only me? Why am I the only one to hear the screaming? To faint when they come close? Finally, the sexy werewolf Lupin explains: “The dementors affect you worse than the others because there are horrors in your past that the others don’t have.”

It turns out that no one else can hear the screaming Harry is hearing a kind of reverberating echo of his mother’s screams at her death. Lupin’s comment is helpful for Harry because—in light of what Harry experiences when the dementors are near—his response to them is perfectly appropriate. Because of the earlier “horrors” he has experienced, Harry’s response—passing out, experiencing flashbacks—is as reasonable as the more mild fear and discomfort of the others.

The dementors seem to be the perfect metaphor for living with trauma (there’s a whole book out there called Expecto Patronum: Using the Lessons from Harry Potter to Recover From Abuse), because they show up unexpectedly and trigger a terror that initially robs Harry of his power to think straight and act rationally. Dementors, who lie in wait even at times of apparent happiness, draw Harry back to his worst experience. In the novels, chocolate helps a person calm down once the dementors are gone (which, amen), but to defend himself against the dementors Harry learns to conjure a silvery Patronus. According to Professor Lupin:

The Patronus is a kind of positive force, a projection of the very things that the dementor feeds upon—hope, happiness, the desire to survive—but it cannot feel despair, as real humans can, so the dementors can’t hurt it … [You conjure it] with an incantation, which will work only if you are concentrating, with all your might, on a single, very happy memory.

The limitation of this defense as a metaphor for responding to trauma is, obviously, that it is magical, but also that its magic depends on the mind alone. That is, the sheer force of a positive memory can drive away the demons.

Lucky Harry. Even though his experience with the first dementor is sensual as well as intellectual, all he needs to defend himself are thoughts. In my experience—and according to van der Kolk’s book—the strategies for dealing with an experience like that must also involve the body.

Trauma is, by definition, an experience that exceeds a person’s ability to cope with it, and trying harder is often not enough. The research in The Body Keeps the Score suggests that more people end up with strategies (say, alcohol or opiates) that merely dampen the effects of the dementors, rather than manage to ward them off in spectacular shimmering triumph. As a doctor friend who used to have serious trouble flying told me, Ativan didn’t make the fear go away, but it reduced the bodily sensations that made it impossible to be rational. Unfortunately, too many of the strategies that effectively mute the screaming can also disrupt the elements of life that make it sweet. Even people only affected “psychologically” by trauma are still affected physically, in their body chemistry and especially in their stress responses.

Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score reveals that what people call the “road to healing” is as much a physical recovery as it is a mental one. To read van der Kolk’s research now is to recognize the physical component of what can seem to be merely sad, and to emphasize the importance of educating the traumatized about some specific, chemical ways in which their lives have been changed forever. As Sarah Albert, who holds a national certification in Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, put it to me, trauma changes are embedded in the structure of the autonomic nervous system, which controls the body’s chemistry (i.e., stress hormones). The effects of trauma are not “merely” mental but physical, embodied.

Traditional talk therapy, which involves the rational brain, misses crucial ways that the body internalizes stress.

van der Kolk’s book lays out a diagnosis of Developmental Trauma Disorder because not recognizing the effects of trauma on “children who have developed in the context of ongoing danger, maltreatment, and inadequate caregiving systems” can lead to a focus on shaping behavior rather than addressing the “developmental disruptions” behind them. It considers abuse as a cause of child behavioral disorders as well as many adult problems; a cultural epidemic that is best addressed through real safety nets and prioritizing child safety. The book cites a study by Robert Anda, which suggests that “eradicating child abuse in America would reduce the overall rate of depression by more than half, alcoholism by two thirds, and suicide, IV drug use, and domestic violence by three quarters.”

Roughly sketched: trauma reshapes the body’s responses to stress, and “the more intense the visceral, sensory input from the emotional brain, the less capacity the rational brain has to put a damper on it.” That means that traditional talk therapy, which involves that rational brain, misses crucial ways that the body internalizes stress.

van der Kolk cites a study by Dr. Spencer Eth of 225 people who escaped the towers on 9/11, who said the most helpful therapies were acupuncture, massage, yoga, and EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing).1 This, for van der Kolk, “suggests that the most helpful interventions focused on relieving the physical burdens generated by trauma.”

The book is down-to-earth in its preoccupation with how a body might learn to meet minor stresses with an emergent response that shuts down key functions:

Breathing, eating, sleeping, pooping, and peeing are so fundamental that their significance is easily neglected when we’re considering the complexities of mind and behavior. However, if your sleep is disturbed or your bowels don’t work, or if you always feel hungry, or if being touched makes you want to scream … the entire organism is thrown into disequilibrium. It is amazing how many psychological problems involve difficulties with sleep, appetite, touch, digestion, and arousal.

van der Kolk’s focus on physicality leads him to emphasize the importance of learning to slow down the emotional response and give the prefrontal cortex a fighting chance to recalibrate. This is a book that includes both pictures of brain scans and a discussion of asana, yoga poses that create inner stillness through movement (that gloss is not van der Kolk, but my own amalgamation of explanations embedded in years of online YogaGlo classes). In the final two-fifths of the book, he discusses, among other things, EMDR, yoga, “brain/computer interface technology,” and theatre.

It bears mentioning that van der Kolk’s book is much more concretely helpful than Harry Potter: in terms of offering strategies for learning to keep the body calm; how to connect with others in order to learn; how to tolerate the memory of what was, by definition, an intolerable experience.

The strategies offered by The Body Keeps the Score are especially important because many survivors of trauma end up checking out of the body altogether.

One of the ways the memory of helplessness is stored is as muscle tension or feelings of disintegration in the affected body areas … The lives of many trauma survivors come to revolve around bracing against and neutralizing unwanted sensory experiences, and most people I see in my practice have become experts in such self-numbing. They may become serially obese or anorexic or addicted to exercise or work. At least half of all traumatized people try to dull their intolerable inner world with drugs or alcohol. The flip side of numbing is sensation seeking. Many people cut themselves to make the numbing go away, while others try bungee jumping or high-risk activities like prostitution and gambling. Any of these methods can give them a false and paradoxical feeling of control.

Because the body holds the pain, it is through work with the body that pain can be borne. van der Kolk’s work suggests that recovery can be less about summoning a happy thought to shoo away dementors or even engaging in actual battle with an actual Voldemort than it is about becoming aware of the body’s sensations: learning to experience them and to live with them, without being dominated by them. For me, and perhaps for other people living with trauma, a helpful metaphor for this is when Harry learns to resist the sweet emptiness of the Imperius Curse.


Reading to Children to Save Ourselves

By Daegan Miller

For my non-Potter-reading-readers: wizards are not allowed to hurt people, control people, or kill people: these are the effects of the three Unforgivable Curses. One such is the Imperius Curse, which puts one person under another’s control. Harry’s teacher tries to teach the students to resist the curse one at a time, raising his wand against each and saying, “Imperio!” This is how the curse affects Harry:

It was the most wonderful feeling. Harry felt a floating sensation as every thought and worry in his head was wiped gently away, leaving nothing but a vague, untraceable happiness. He stood there feeling immensely relaxed, only dimly aware of everyone watching him.

What I love about this is how good it feels to Harry to be, finally, out of his body—butterbeer warms you up, but there’s no indication it feels like this. Finally, “every thought and worry in his head was wiped gently away,” and we see what we rarely see: Harry feeling “immensely relaxed.”

The Imperius Curse is important not as a metaphor for traumatic experience (like the dementors), but as a metaphor for the common strategy of self-numbing, or checking out. Harry recognizes the relief it offers, but chooses to resist it. The Imperius Curse seems to offer Harry peace, but it is not peace at a price Harry is willing to accept. Rather, he chooses to stay fully present—observing the sensation, but not giving himself up to it. Despite the respite offered by the Curse, Harry stays grounded enough to listen to a bit of his brain:

And then he heard Mad-Eye Moody’s voice, echoing in some distant

chamber of his empty brain: Jump onto the desk … jump onto the desk …

Harry bent his knees obediently, preparing to spring.

Jump onto the desk …

Why, though? Another voice had awoken in the back of his brain.

Stupid thing to do, really, said the voice.

Jump onto the desk …

No, I don’t think I will, thanks, said the other voice, a little more firmly … no, I don’t really want to . . .

Jump! NOW!

The next thing Harry felt was considerable pain. He had both jumped and tried to prevent himself from jumping—the result was that he’d smashed headlong into the desk, knocking it over, and, by the feeling in his legs, fractured both his kneecaps.

Harry wants to jump on the table. But he shouldn’t jump on the table. A littler voice tells him it’s not a good idea. By listening to that awake voice, he stays aware enough of his body to begin to resist the curse. The kneecaps, I would argue, figure the price of staying present and in himself.

When Harry refuses to listen to Moody’s voice, he learns to stay connected with the part of himself that can think and can hurt despite the wonderful feeling that promises to deliver him from pain. When Harry learns to resist the Imperius Curse, readers can choose to learn how to be present in a painful and uncertain world rather than seek to escape it.

As the kids out there learn their way into adulthood, I’d like to tell them—like Harry—to be careful about what helps. To tell them to make sure they find strategies (some of van der Kolk’s, perhaps) that allow them to learn to tolerate their physical responses to trauma in the knowledge that it will pass, that it is not happening right now. The Imperius Curse takes many forms, and the price of that numbing is high. The small, skeptical voice in Harry’s head is resistance enough, the sharp pain in his knees a mark of his presence in the present.

I wish for them a similar commitment to feeling, in the mind and in the body, through the long process of getting used to knowing Eliot’s truism—that we must all die—in as urgently physical a way as knowing what it means to be thirsty.


This article was commissioned by Ben Platticon

  1. Of this method, van der Kolk initially had heard “only that {it} was a new fad in which therapists wiggled their fingers in front of patients’ eyes,” but he ultimately goes on to compare it to penicillin: “Almost four decades passed between the discovery of its antibiotic properties by Alexander Fleming in 1928 and the final elucidation of its mechanisms in 1965.”
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