“Have you any idea how much tyrants fear the people they oppress?”
The headmaster goes on to say, “All of them realize that, one day, amongst their many victims, there is sure to be one who rises against them and strikes back.”
I listened to this quote in the blackout-curtained darkness of my bedroom in August 2017.
That month, I had been suddenly diagnosed with epilepsy after two stress-induced seizures, one of which left me with a concussion and black eye.
I took medical leave from my job as a social media editor for The Daily Beast—a role which required me to keep up with the relentless stream of news, most of which was disheartening.
Advised by my neurologist to avoid bright lights and screens, I lay in bed, listening to readings of my favorite series, Harry Potter.
I’d never tried audiobooks before. I was struck by how Stephen Fry’s voicing caused me to pay attention to J.K. Rowling’s writing in a new way. I dug out Crayola markers and began to draw the quotes that stayed with me most. This one, this question about tyranny and oppression, was my first choice.
Because while I cocooned myself in my room, my country burned with alt-right hate and murder in Charlottesville, Virginia. While I consumed the teachings of a child’s resistance against those who sow discord in a nonsensical world, my president batted threats of “fire and fury” with the furor of a child.
As my surroundings shook, personally and politically, I escaped into the security of the wizarding world—a security built not on the comfort of the world working out the way I wanted it to, but on how to behave when it did not.
Harry Potter has long served as a personal roadmap through turbulent periods of my life. As a girl, the stories of someone my age navigating the complexities of truth strongly resonated.
I was 11 when the books hit the American mainstream. My friends and I wore graduation robes to Barnes & Noble midnight release parties, bickered over which of us was truly a Gryffindor, and together grieved the loss of Fred Weasley.
These same friends who I debated over the pronunciation of “Hermione” spent our middle school years trying to convert me.
I was raised agnostic in our ultra-conservative South Carolina town. My friends took turns having their parents drive me to church three times a week and passed notes in class that bemoaned my “sinful” state in glittery gel pen. For my part, I wore a WWJD? bracelet, attended youth-group meetings, and observed the way my friends found safety in biblical text during times of turmoil.
Still, I struggled to fully believe in their faith because I could only see contradictions: how my friends promised that their god was all-loving, all-forgiving—yet a clear symbol of hate, the Confederate flag, flew proudly outside our State House. Anonymous online trolls threatened my beloved history teacher, calling him a “filthy infidel” and “radical” for his Islamic faith. A “war on terror” was unfolding. My friends diligently reminded me that swearing was a strike against God; that I should push my parents to vote against our state’s education lottery; that global warming was a hoax. But when I questioned why certain brands of hate seemed permissible, they said nothing.
At the end of the day, if I didn’t completely accept that these discrepancies were all part of a higher power’s plan, I was going to hell. My friends and I could share a love for Lizzie McGuire and oatmeal creme pies, but I was going to “H-E-double-hockey-sticks.”
None of this made sense, but Sirius Black’s words did: “The world isn’t split into good people and Death Eaters. We’ve all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the part we choose to act on. That’s who we really are.”
What matters is the part we choose to act on.
I eventually changed schools and made new friends. I moved to New York after college and became swept up in endless subway rides, Instagram-worthy weekends, in the real and invented demands of my work. I lost a seventh of my soul the night of November 8, 2016. Months later, I suffered a major seizure on the A train.
Once more, I returned to my faithful guide.
As I read, I felt immense pity for little Petunia, a Muggle watching her sister, Lily, leave her for a magical life that she will never share. I ached over the image of gawky, least-loved Ron standing shaking and alone in his “too small” pajamas. I wept, as I always do, when we meet Neville’s mother at St. Mungo’s Hospital, and he quietly pockets the candy wrappers that she, a shell of a woman who will never remember her son, discards.
For magic aside, isn’t Neville, the forgotten boy buried amongst the narrative of a more famous forgotten boy, the true hero of these books? Isn’t it Dobby, the house elf who proves himself the most loyal of friends? Isn’t it Hermione, the genius girl dismissed for her devotion to fact? What about Hagrid, Luna Lovegood, Regulus Black, or Remus Lupin? Aren’t the real heroes the underdogs marginalized for their differences, yet who choose to act on the light inside them? Isn’t that decision what matters most?
To me, yes.
Ultimately, Harry Potter’s power lies in its ability to make us remember that we always have a choice to seek happiness and hope—even in, as Dumbledore would say, “the darkest of times.”
If we’d only remember to turn on the light.