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I Must Not Tell Lies} ?> The first time I read Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, I found Harry’s constant anger, especially at Ron and Hermione, annoying. I wanted to tell him to chill out: didn’t he understand that there were bigger things going on?
At the time, I didn’t recognize his trauma for what it was.
Marcelle Kosman and Hannah McGregor, hosts of the most delightful podcast Witch, Please, have a fantastic discussion about this in “Episode 9: The Cleansing Fire.” Their answer to Harry’s anger is that he is suffering from PTSD, and it totally makes sense. Harry has just gone through the traumatic experience of watching Voldemort come back to life and kill Cedric, and is then made to spend the summer with his aunt and uncle, who barely acknowledge his existence. To make matters worse, he doesn’t receive any news from his friends, who are under orders from Dumbledore not to share anything lest their owls are intercepted. Add to this the mysterious Dementor attack and the subsequent hearing to prove his innocence so he will not be expelled from Hogwarts, and it quickly becomes clear that Harry’s anger is justifiable.
Just when we think things are going to get better for him—he’ll be back at Hogwarts and all he’ll have to worry about is Quidditch and OWLs—he discovers that, all summer, the Daily Prophet has been printing lies about him, under order of the Ministry for Magic, in an effort to discredit his story about Voldemort’s return.
There’s a term for this: gaslighting. Gaslighting is a form of mental abuse in which victims of trauma are made to doubt their own stories through others (often the perpetrator of the abuse) twisting their information. The term comes from the 1938 play Gas Light, in which a husband attempts to convince his wife that she is insane by manipulating the environment around her. It is a form of victim-blaming that happens all too often today, mostly to women. For example, when rape victims are told they were asking for it by dressing provocatively.
It also shows up in more common, every-day situations, like when women are told they’re being “too emotional” or “too sensitive” when they react to inconsiderate behaviour. These phrases all have the purpose of making women doubt their own reactions. Hermione is actually on the receiving end of this a few times in Order of the Phoenix: when Fred and George are testing their candies from their Skiving Snackboxes on first-years and Hermione tells them they can’t because it’s inappropriate, Lee Jordan tells her to “calm down” to dismiss her concern over student safety.
So why does the Ministry gaslight Harry? Sirius explains to the kids that the Minister for Magic, Cornelius Fudge, is afraid. During a discussion about why Umbridge won’t let them use magic in their Defence Against the Dark Arts lessons, Sirius tells them that Fudge doesn’t want them forming an army against him; he’s convinced that Dumbledore is going to try and overthrow the Ministry. Ron exclaims that this is the stupidest thing he’s ever heard, and he’s absolutely right. But fear of Voldemort’s return has driven Fudge to fabricate a story that makes sense to him, something that he can fight against. And so he spreads the word that Harry is crazy and can’t be trusted so that no one else will believe that Voldemort has returned.
But there’s something else here at play, something Sirius doesn’t bring up. Fudge may be afraid, and that may make him want to discredit Harry, but the reason he can do it so successfully is because he is the one in power; Harry is only a child and a student whereas Fudge is the Minister for Magic.
Power dynamics are so crucial to gaslighting because those with power are able to perpetuate abuse. Cornelius Fudge can influence the Daily Prophet and Delores Umbridge can oppress the students of Hogwarts because they’re the ones in power.
The incredible thing about Order of the Phoenix, though, is that Harry never gives up on his story. If anything, the Ministry’s attempts to silence him only make him more determined to fight back, and once he publishes an interview with Rita Skeeter in The Quibbler, more people start to believe him. This is a powerful thing for kids, or any of us really, to read. We may face trauma in our own lives and come up against people who want to discredit us, but here is an example of someone going through that same experience and leaning on the support of his friends to get through it, all the while not giving up on what he knows to be true. The sad truth is that many victims of trauma do not have the support they need because we live in a culture that is more likely to believe the perpetrator of abuse rather than those who have it visited upon them.
This is my challenge and hope for myself and for readers. Do not dismiss the powerless when they come to you with hurt. Do not assume that children don’t understand what they saw. Do not blame a person’s anxiety on a mental illness rather than real stress over a situation. And do not dismiss a woman’s claims of rape by saying, “we don’t want to ruin that young man’s reputation, so we’re going to let this one slide.”
And, maybe one more: do not make light of any of this by making jokes. Those, too, can be a form of gaslighting.
Delores Umbridge says, “I must not tell lies.” Neither should we—if we want to be people of compassion and kindness—spread lies told to us by those in power when they want to save their own skins.
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