Hedwig and the Angsty Witch

You feel compelled to support great writing…


I can’t even remember the first time I read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, or even the first time I read its sequel, Chamber of Secrets. My copy must have been in the initial printing, though, because there’s an extra “r” in the word “Professor” on the bottom of page 283. I do remember getting the third Harry Potter book, The Prisoner of Azkaban, for Christmas in third grade and reading it by the fireplace that evening.

Two years later, my fifth grade teacher caught me “covertly” reading the fourth book under my desk in class. Let me say that again – I was trying to hide a 734-page hardcover beneath a kiddie desk. Luckily, my teacher thought it was hysterical. My Hogwarts letter didn’t come that summer, but I didn’t lose faith, and the fifth book was my favorite hidey-hole during the emotional roller coaster of middle school.

[pullquote]George [Weasley] really lost his twin brother… He can’t step back from that. And so I’d feel bad stepping back…[/pullquote]

The sixth book came out while I was coming back from a homestay in France, and I cut my foot open running through an airport to pick it up while on layover in London. And when the seventh Harry Potter book came out, it was the summer before my senior year of high school. I was seventeen, just like Harry, and I was working at a bookstore, so I got to unload and stack those boxes marked in familiar spidery font: “Do not open until July 21.” I passed the books out to my fellow fans, cleaned up the Bertie Botts Beans wrappers and Butterbeer bottles on the bookstore floor, then scooted home to my pre-prepared reading nest and settled down to read all night.

I have so many stories about my adventures as a Harry Potter fan – some funny, some boring, some just the teensiest bit embarrassing, but they all pretty much make sense in an “all right so you like fantasy” kind of way. And, to be honest, my “Harry Potter thing” didn’t ever get too much bigger than my “Star Wars thing” or my “Legend of Zelda thing” or any of the various minor “things” that had occupied my days and months and years. It wasn’t until the eighth Harry Potter film came out, in summer 2011, that my love for the Wizarding World of Harry Potter took a turn for the weird.

That was a pretty big summer, and I had a lot going on. I was a senior in college, living alone in Brooklyn for the first time, working for a place I loved, and there was no way in Hogsmeade I was going to miss the midnight showing of the last Harry Potter movie on July 11.

So on the evening of July 10, like a bunch of modern-day witches and wizards ourselves, we gathered to await the midnight hour. Our conversation, however, gave away our true Muggle parentage:

“I can’t wait for the scene where Neville kills the snake!”
“Yeah, that’s going to be so AWESOME!”
“I know! I can’t wait!”
“Or the scene where Ron and Hermione kiss.”
“I know, right?”
“OMG they’re my OTP, for RLY.”
“I think you’re misusing that abbrev.”
“You guys, I am going to bawl when Fred dies!”
“I know, right?”

And bawl we did. And laugh. And cheer and squeal and complain and generally have lots and lots of feelings. Even though almost nothing in that movie was surprising (at least surprising in a good way – I mean, Voldemort hugs? Really?), it was still a whole big mess of feelings from start to finish. That’s the weird thing about Harry Potter movies: taken alone, they’re probably terrible, because taken alone they’re all but meaningless. For me at least, every scene, character and set detail was (to borrow a computer science metaphor) nothing more than a pointer, a reference to the literature already downloaded from the books and stored in our head, a literature inextricably entwined with our childhood and teenage years. We saw the movies not for any inherent work they might have, but only for the series of titillating “Oh Yeahs” elicited by the panoply of Harry Potter references from which the films were compiled.

We applauded when the screen went dark and stayed through to the end of the credits, because people who leave nerd movies before the credits end just think they’re so cool, and then we went to the bathroom because we all really, really had to go. As I sat outside the restroom waiting for my friends to finish up, I turned to the woman standing next to me and said, “I can’t believe they totally skipped over Fred’s death.” At any other time, if a bleary-eyed 20-something crouched outside a ladies’ bathroom in a Brooklyn theater at 3:30 a.m. said that to you, you’d be totally freaked out. But it’s a mark of the power of Harry Potter that she merely turned to me and said, “I know, right?”

I got to sleep around 5 a.m. that morning, then got up at 8 a.m. for work. When I got home from work that evening, the plan was to have a quiet night in and go to sleep early. I was, after all, exhausted. But though my body was tired, the Harry Potter high had yet to completely wear off, and I found myself dwelling on questions about the characters and the world that neither the book nor the movie had quite answered.

So after dinner, I hopped on my laptop and started Googling. First, I found this interview with J.K. Rowling where she talks about some of the characters’ lives after the end of the seventh book. Of George Weasley (Fred’s twin), for example, she says he “never really got over” Fred’s death and could not produce a Patronus Charm (a spell that requires the caster to think happy thoughts) for the rest of his life.

Wow, that’s pretty dark, I thought. That’s actually really sad.

A few clicks later and I was watching an interview with James and Oliver Phelps, the real-life twins who play the Weasley twins, talking about how having to pretend that one of them had died got them a little more emotional than they’d expected.

It only took a few more clicks to go through every piece of canonical or film-related information about the Weasley twins. I just didn’t feel like I could leave them. Maybe it was that I didn’t want to leave Harry Potter yet. In a videogame, you can forestall the end of a game with side quests and pointless grinding and item collection. You can express love for favorite characters, however minor, by levelling them up, doing their side quests and buying them the best items.

It was like that with the Weasley twins. I wanted them in my party. But there’s no such thing as a side quest in literature. The closest thing to it is fanfiction.

So I did it. I Googled “George Weasley post-DH fanfiction.”

I know you’re all thinking it, so let me say this now: it’s not all porn! Fanfiction is a lot more than creepy sex fantasies, though that’s the reputation the term’s earned itself with creepy shit like Fifty Shades of Grey and its ilk. The plain truth about so-called fanfiction is if you have an opinion about whether the top at the end of Inception fell or not, you have written fanfiction just the same as those loony yaoi Snape/Draco shippers have.

But even nonsexual fanfiction is often emotionally pornographic. In other words, it depicts excessive, contrived drama that values the ability to provoke a response from the audience as more valuable than its own artistic integrity. That’s why so much fanfiction is just a character internally monologuing about his problems, often going through severe physical as well as mental pain, dwelling obsessively over plot points that were only half-formed or alluded to in the actual story. This type of fanfiction is cathartic to write, I’m sure, and I’m equally sure that reading it can be just as cathartic, but I’ve always found that “death fics” and the like only depress me.

I came in search of truth. Of canon. That was my first mistake. I wanted to know what George Weasley, the “real” character as he existed in J.K. Rowling’s mind and the Harry Potter universe, was feeling after his brother’s death. Instead, I got the emotional equivalent of a Stupefy spell to the face: the first fic I found was an angst-ridden sob story about how George was so miserable without his twin that he ended up writing a farewell note and then killing himself.

There are a few things I could have done after I read that. One option was to submit a critical review via the website’s comments in which I could lambast the story’s completely OOC portrayal of George. I could have found another, better story. I could have just gone to sleep. But I didn’t.

I panicked.

A few minutes later, somewhere in Connecticut, “Zelda’s Lullaby” started playing on my friend Sam’s phone. She picked it up with a cheery “Hey, Jill!” In response, she got an incoherent sob.

You see, trying to explain something that you are both very upset about and ashamed of being very upset about never gets easy, let me tell you. BUT Sam is no stranger to the wild world of fanfiction, nor to me, so she quickly managed to turn the conversation from “How could George do this to the people who love him” to a spirited concern for the sanity of any fan who could so grossly misread Harry Potter as to think that George Weasley would ever kill himself. We spent several minutes agreeably trouncing such interpretations and agreeing with each other’s, until the conversation was starting to resemble the one I’d had the night before, while waiting in line for the movie (“I know!”). Then Sam asked, “Why don’t you write your own fanfiction about George?” “Don’t say that!” I wailed. “I might actually do it!”

About a week later I was sitting in my therapist’s office, feeling guilty. The meeting started off like usual, with the same two questions: “How are you doing?” That was easy: I could quite honestly say I was doing well, that I was loving Brooklyn and was much happier than I’d been even a few months before.

Then the second question: “And how are we doing with the characters?”

“It was Harry Potter this time,” I admitted. And with that horrible mix of embarrassment, and indignation at my embarrassment, and defensiveness, I proceeded to tell the story of the Weasley twins, Fred’s death and my concern for George. My teary phone call to Sam I tried to spin into a funny story, which, honestly, isn’t hard to do. But when talking about the Weasleys I was quite serious, solemn even.

I was prepared for her first question, “Why does it bother you so much?” Plenty of suspects there: lack of sleep, being triggered by talk of suicide, the weird way that Harry Potter had become, as with so many others in my generation, a metaphor for our childhoods. Or even just the fact that I grew up with the characters of Harry Potter, watched them go from goofy, naive tweens into grim-eyed young heroes, and I couldn’t bear the thought of a friend’s suicide being added to their list of trials.

But then she asked me again: “Why does that bother you so much? Why can’t you just take a step back and recognize, ‘Hey, this is fiction. I don’t need to get torn up about this’?”

That one kind of stumped me. The therapist tried to explain: her job required her to get personal and emotional with lots of different kinds of people, and she had to be able to take a step back from all that or she’d get overwhelmed. She’d be unable to help herself, much less help other people. Stepping back from people’s emotions doesn’t mean she didn’t care about them. But it was something she had to do to take care of herself.

That made a lot of sense to me. So when I thought about “Why does it bother you?” this time I found a new answer. “I understand that Harry Potter, that the characters and stuff, aren’t ‘real,’” I said. “It’s just a story. But that story constitutes a little reality in which those characters are real to each other. Insofar as they’re “real” in that way, George really lost his twin brother, and he’s really upset about it. He can’t step back from that. And so I’d feel bad stepping back when I know he can’t.”

I kind of surprised myself with that answer. We talked about it for most of the rest of the session. The therapist wanted me to stay away from Harry Potter stuff for a bit, get some equilibrium before I returned to it. But I wasn’t so sure. See, that fanfiction that Sam had suggested I write – I’d already begun it. The mental plan had been forming even as we’d talked over the phone, and I’d committed the outline and a few lines and passages to paper the next day. Could I stop now? Part of me wouldn’t have minded, would have been happy for the excuse. But a bigger part of me wasn’t ready to leave.

So in the next few days I finished up chapter one of a Harry Potter fanfiction entitled “Never Really Got Over It,” a quote from the J.K. Rowling interview in which she discussed George’s future. After that I pushed out a chapter or two more every week, and took a strange pleasure in the messages people sent me describing the tears my writing had elicited. “I made people cry,” I would think with glee – even though the whole thing started because someone else’s fic had made me cry. The difference was, I knew I wouldn’t be leaving my audience in the emotional lurch. I was their little anonymous Internet-based guide through sadness toward an ultimate happy ending. It was a small thing, to be sure, but it was important for me. But even better than making someone else cry was making someone change their mind. “You’re almost convincing me that this is how it’d happen!” people would write me.

That’s the power of fanfiction; just by posting it online I made my version of Harry Potter events as “real” as that of the suicide story and all the rest of the “Post-DH George Weasley fanfictions” in my Google search. Any clout that another writer’s headcanon could have over me was expunged by my own addition to the fandom. And not only was I happy with the way my George turned out – I was also pretty proud of having written something that fellow fans and fanfiction readers seemed to so favorably receive.

But perhaps most important, writing it all down actually helped me get the distance that my therapist had wanted for me in the first place. Committing my thoughts to paper meant expunging them from my head, locking them into a linear trajectory separate of my own moods and whims. It meant making Harry Potter, and my thoughts about Harry Potter, separate from myself, and by making it separate I could enter and leave it at will. I could “step back” without guilt. Maybe it was just a fanfiction, but it meant something to me, and for me, and when I finished I felt like I had created something I could be proud of.

I’m doing just fine now, by the way. I’ve moved on from fanfiction to original fiction, and I haven’t lost it over a fictional character since – well, since the Les Misérables movie last week. But that was just a few tears in the movie theater and I wasn’t the only one, so I guess that’s a socially acceptable level of emotional engagement.

The reason I bring all this up isn’t just to entertain you with a story about a loony fangirl, or to soapbox at you about my abiding love for Harry Potter. I share this with you because I think more than a few of you can probably relate. Part of being a geek, a gamer, a reader or a consumer of culture is our engagement with fictional worlds, these little pockets of sub-reality that dot the landscapes of our lives. You can’t tell me that you haven’t, at least once, been surprised by the strength of a touch that you know, in the rational part of your mind, isn’t real. I think sensitivity to that touch is part of what makes us human. Or maybe I’m just crazy. I’ll let you decide.

I was with my friend Sam the other day, and I asked her about that time I called her in such a panic about Harry Potter. “I was freaking out!” she laughed. “‘Oh shit, oh shit, how do I get her to calm down?’” But, I asked her, wasn’t it kind of a letdown that the reason I was so upset was something so trivial? Was she at all irritated?

“No, not at all!” Sam returned. “Stories are important. They affect the way we understand the real world. Being upset about a story just means you’re able to empathize with people. I like that about you.”

“Thanks, Sam,” I said. “I like that about me, too.”