As the overwhelming response to a sort-of eighth book in the series shows, Harry Potter is a major staple of contemporary culture. Even those haven’t read the books, seen the films, played the board games or visited the theme park are familiar with the story: An ordinary boy finds out he’s a wizard and gains entry to a secret school of magic.
But for some of us who have read the series as adults, there’s more going on in these books. Harry Potter is clearly about much more than just wish fulfillment. It’s also about the horrors of war, the pain of loss, and most especially the emotional scars that are inflicted by prolonged trauma.
These days, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other manifestations of psychological trauma are widely recognized as normal. Any traumatic event, from war to assault to natural disaster, can trigger it. To put it in words a muggle can understand: people who experience really hard stuff tend to carry the impact of it around with them for a long time.
When you read Harry Potter through the lens of trauma psychology, what you start to realize is that these books explore the aftermath of trauma in a surprisingly deep and compelling way. To explain this, it is necessary to get quite heavy about books you may have previously associated with cozy childhood reading.
So as not to make reading the story a traumatic experience in itself, there will be some emergency cute animals sprinkled throughout to help get you through it. Like this little guy:
Book 1: Being Identified by Your Trauma Is Terrible
There’s a reason many survivors, myself included, prefer not to discuss the details of their trauma: They don’t want to be identified by it. When strangers know about your trauma, life gets weird.
When strangers know about your trauma and it involves a dark wizard killing your family while you inexplicably survived, life gets weirder still — especially if those strangers start identifying you as “the boy who lived.”
This, of course, is what happens to Harry in the first book in the series, Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone. Everyone who sees his scar — the physical marker of his trauma — treats him differently. They mean well, but they also ask him probing questions; they touch him without permission; they take his photograph and call him names. They think they know his life because they know what he’s been through.
This is a trauma survivor’s nightmare. Imagine if everyone you met knew all about the worst thing that ever happened to you. That’s what Harry Potter’s life is like, all the time, once Hogwarts summons him.
It’s almost enough to make you wish for a nice, cozy cupboard under the Dursleys’ stairs.
Book 2: Trauma and Self-Blame
Let’s move away from Harry for a moment to look at his friend (and later girlfriend) Ginny Weasley. In Book 2, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Ginny befriends a sentient diary controlled by Very Dark Magic. It possesses Ginny, making her hurt people.
After she’s rescued, Ginny is terrified she’ll get in trouble. Let that sink in: her body has been invaded, her free will dismantled, and her power used to harm people she cares about, and she thinks she’s the one in trouble.
Ginny’s fear is not unfamiliar to survivors of prolonged emotional abuse. It’s easy to anticipate and internalize blame for trauma and abuse, even if nobody explicitly says the words “it’s your fault”. You expect them to blame you, and to get ahead of the pain that will cause, you blame yourself.
Book 3: Remembering Can Hurt
In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, we meet perhaps the most traumatic characters in the entire series. We speak, of course, about dementors. These dark creatures force Harry to relive the moment his parents died.
In real life, flashbacks can be anywhere from little (a scar hurting) to big (a screaming, crying blackout). The dementors trigger the latter in Harry.
The book also introduces boggarts: creatures that take the form of whatever their victims fear most. Harry’s boggart takes the form of a dementor, meaning Harry is most afraid of fear itself.
From the perspective of a survivor, this has another, sharper facet: the fear of being forced to relive your trauma. Part of trauma survival — and part of Harry’s arc in Book 3 — is learning to manage not just the fear that the Awful Thing will happen again, but fear of having to remember it for the rest of your life.
Book 4: People Would Rather Doubt Than Believe You
Few survivors of serious trauma will read the excerpt above — from Book 4, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, page 707 — and find it far-fetched that an authority figure would prefer to deny a problem rather than face terrible things happening in their jurisdiction.
If Harry’s story of Voldemort’s return is true, then Cornelius Fudge must risk his own security and comfort. He is required by his position as Minister of Magic to fight those who would inflict the same trauma on others.
That’s a scary prospect, and it’s easy to understand why Fudge would rather insist that nothing happened. It’s harder to understand when this happening to you in the immediate aftermath of trauma — but then, what is fiction for, if not to help us come to this kind of understanding?
Book 5: Flashbacks
Every so often a friend will ask me what it feels like as a trauma survivor when you get triggered. To explain better, I should just carry around Book 5, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.
In chapter 1, a post-traumatic Harry exhibits all these symptoms:
He hears a loud bang and immediately prepares to fight.
He recovers, and shifts rapidly into a feeling of isolation, wondering if his friends care about him.
He cycles through self-doubt — did he actually hear a bang at all? Is he overreacting?
He distracts himself by instigating a fight with his bigger, tougher cousin.
That’s what it’s like. It’s going from heart-pounding fear to loneliness to self-doubt to anger to outrage, all within a few minutes.
After it is over, I’m left asking: what just happened? Why am I angry? Do I even have a right to feel this way? Why can’t I just get over it?
Book 6: The Things That Help Don’t Always Help
In Book 5, Harry takes occlumency lessons with Professor Snape in order to build up his mental defenses against Voldemort. The sessions leave Harry exhausted, emotionally vulnerable — and susceptible to the very mental intrusions the lessons should prevent.
This is a fantastic description of trauma therapy. It’s like breaking bones in order to reset them; the pain is immense, and you hope that when you have recovered from the treatment the result is less painful than before.
But it’s not always effective. Sometimes the therapy just doesn’t help.
In book 6, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, we discover that occlumency training hasn’t fixed Harry’s problem. He keeps hoping that on the other side of the suffering, things might be better.
In fact, he is even more vulnerable than he was before — it’s easier than ever for Voldemort to get into his head, influencing his thoughts and actions.
For many people, trauma therapy works brilliantly. But the processes involved in that therapy are taxing, and it can be hard to even imagine that reopening wounds and exposing vulnerabilities could possibly lead to healing.
Book 7: Support Systems Matter
Throughout Harry Potter’s pre-Hogwarts childhood, he lives with an abusive family, the Dursleys. Via Hogwarts, he finds a surrogate family in the Weasleys, who themselves experience significant trauma throughout the books. The way they handle it starkly contrasts to how Harry handles his own:
[George Weasley, upon learning he’s lost an ear. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, p. 74]
[Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, p. 501]
When the Weasleys endure trauma, they recover in ways that reflect and strengthen their support network. A subplot throughout the books is how Harry learns to let the Weasleys support him, too.
In Book 5, he’s constantly trying to hide his pain and fear; but in Book 7, he talks to his best friend Ron about it whenever he can.
He learns — as many trauma survivors learn — to lean on others when he can’t carry the weight of trauma alone.
By the epilogue of Book 7, he’s not “all better”. The people who died are still dead, and he still has the same scar he started with. But he’s living a better, fuller, happier life, because of the support from people who love him. And that’s a pretty damn good finish to a series about trauma.