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Dumbledore's Theory of Early Childhood Education
menchi
catvalente
I was knitting and listening to Harry Potter on audiobook (I should be sleeping! Instead, not.) like a good geek girl tonight, because after seeing the final film I was filled with nostalgia for the first four books, the ones I actually liked. Stephen Fry reads them, and I gotta go with Vonnegut on this one because I was sitting in a plush chair with a glass of wine knitting azure lace and listening to a beautiful British man tell me a beautiful story and if that's not nice I don't know what is.

But it occurred to me, whilst listening to Harry's hilariously over the top horrible treatment by the Dursleys, that this whole plan of Dumbledore's really could have gone very wrong. Because while, yes, it is true that being raised by normal people (albeit awful and they did know the Dursleys were awful, it just fit into a vague handwavey wibbly wobbly timey wimey protection spell sort of thing) instead of in a nonstop fame factory MIGHT create a gentle, humble, sweet-natured boy, it could also, quite easily, create a sociopath.

I mean, seriously. The cupboard under the stairs? This is the kind of shit that makes serial killers. It's the banality of evil, and though Voldemort's childhood was impressively Dickensian/Bret Easton Ellisian, Harry's is pretty much textbook on how to break a little kid. And though many kids come out of abusive homes relatively even-keeled and stable if defensively cynical (I did) just as many come out permanently broken, unable to make meaningful connections or even understand the concept of love, and certainly unable to perform the All Important Magical Feat of Believing in Yourself, which is Required for all Protagonists. In fact, that is kind of a problem with a lot of abused children--the inability to see themselves as protagonists in their own lives and stories, since they were treated in formative personal epochs as NPCs at best, villains at worst, and usually some kind of horrible side character who needs to be put down for the good of the Real People, ie, the abusers and those they deem part of their tribe of worthies.

I certainly see that growing up famous, rich, and adored/believed to be super powerful and important by all is a great way to raise a Gossip Girl-style horrorshow of a person, and often kids who have been raised just couched in comfort and unconditional love with no chance to fail or struggle on their own can be listless and spoiled and generally the worst. Sorrow and trauma is what makes us complex and compassionate, the experience of it personally allows us to predict, empathize, wish to avoid, and desire to protect others from it, and thus most social interaction is made. But that doesn't mean that in order to make the Most Compassionate Child, the Superhero of Being Really Nice, you should just beat down and crush a kid underfoot.

Which is more or less what Dumbledore does, and everyone is horrified that he's doing it, but he is Gandalf the White and None Shall Argue. I get that he is Wise and Male and Has a Job in School Administration, but really? (Don't even get me started on the absurd importance of a single public school in that world--and I honestly think it is a public school and not private, within the wizarding world any child with magical ability can go, there doesn't seem to be tuition beyond basic supplies, and the government is SUPER INVOLVED in the running of the place. Anyway.) Seriously, that is a DICE ROLL, YO. It could have gone the other way. Harry could have made Draco look like a kitten with a daisy in his paw.

File off the names and serial numbers and this could, easily and with great tragic muscle behind it, be Voldemort's origin story.

Now, now, I know that Harry and Voldemort are meant to have a lot in common, there are intended parallels, but the fact that the Dursley Shuffle is done deliberately, pretty much to make Harry not turn out to be a shithead makes it sort of darkly hilarious to me. Yes, you can turn out Ok. I like to think I have. But Not Ok is on the table at all times with this sort of thing. It is always in play.

Because if you lock ten children under the stairs for the first eleven years of their lives, I'll bet you a Time Turner that you'll get four supervillains, three deeply wounded individuals so desperate for love they will do anything they're told to by the first person who hugs them, two completely shattered psyches incapable of meaningful speech, and one Harry Potter, a basically normal, gently dented boy who is good at sports, naturally likeable, and willing to sacrifice himself for the group of your choice.

Them's some long odds, D-man. Glad that worked out for you.


I love the way you get me thinking, because it never occurred to me before, but it's so true. It could have totally gone horribly wrong. Even without the kind of abuse the Dursleys dished out, being a kid is rough, and you can never tell what choices they will make about how they view the world. Even kids who grow up in stable average households can develop attitude and cruelty on the basis of peer pressure alone. So assuming that that kind of situation would produce Harry Potter is a big risk indeed.

While what you say is true, "Cinderella" stories are traditional. The "Abuse creates Abusers" theme is more recent addition.

I don't mean that so much as abuse creates damaged people.

It's kind of like how Charlie ends up "nice" in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, despite a crushing poverty-filled childhood. Put Harry in with Dursleys and he's not going to excel at futbol, school, theatre, anything, and therefore is not going to attract any attention until he's old enough to be put under the wing of Hogwarts.

I suppose that one could argue that Dumbledore was trying to forge Harry in a crucible a certain way, but even he told Harry that he could have been a great wizard of Slytherin. We are meant to be horrified by the Slytherins, but then we have to wonder why have Slytherin at all? Has Hogwarts just institutionalized the bullies, the brutes and the bastards?

Or are the Slytherins humanized by their close contact with the other three houses? After all, Draco Malfoy ends up Not All Evil, even if he and Harry aren't best buds in the end.

But I did wonder, as you have, about Dumbledore's motives here. And he was one to go for long-term long-odds machinations.

Dr. Phil

I always regarded Dumbledore's decision to keep Harry with the Dursleys as the first in a line of examples that indicate that Dumbledore is a flawed character, and that Rowling deliberately wrote him that way. He's powerful and has good friends, but he makes tons of bad decisions. Allowing Harry to participate in the Triwizard Tournament, shutting him out for most of Book 5, giving one student an invisibility cloak and another student a time-travel device, keeping useful information from Harry even when his life is repeatedly endangered... these aren't good decisions. Harry survives despite Dumbledore's well-intentioned but poor choices.

Given the existence of Felix Felicis and Dumbledore's position of power, maybe the headmaster kept a flask of the stuff in his desk for those times when he had to make an important decision regarding Harry?

I'm trying to remember, but did Dumbledore have to meddle on an ongoing basis to keep Muggle Protective Services from noticing what was going on with Harry and thereby keep him with blood kin? I mean, he was in Muggle school up until he switches to Hogwarts (wonder whether the Dursleys or Dumbledore informed the local authorities about the change in school), so that's a fair number of teachers to potentially notice the signs of abuse. While it's by no means certain that any would notice and push the issue to high enough levels for an investigation to get kicked off (especially if Vernon was good at only hitting Harry where bruises wouldn't show, and scared Harry enough about talking about it), neither would it be a safe bet for the Dursleys to keep him under the stairs in case a social worker did come calling one day.

I have often wondered about the whole "Harry was psychologically and physically abused by his adopted family" story line. When I first read the series in high school I thought to myself, "Wow, he's extremely well adjusted considering he was living in a closet all his life." I read "A Child Called It" and a novella called "What Child Is This?" in middle school and both books address foster families and child abuse. Some might say "A Child Called It" sensationalizes to the extremes the problem of child abuse for either shock value or publicity but I doubt anyone can deny there are people out there who do things just as sick or worse to children. You can find them in America. In your own state even.

In retrospect, I think that Rowling could have explored this conflict more. It often felt like she swept it under the rug or gave Harry friends and assumed everything would be fixed. But real kids who have been abused or neglected from infancy to two digit years don't miraculously adjust to boarding school living among "normal" kids. There are at least SOME social tics or odd behaviors they adopted to cope with their situation which would be considered strange among his peers. Instead Harry turned out perfectly fine. Of course there are people like that, but I would have admired Rowling more if she'd added a greater sense of pathos beyond "My family was murdered and I'm an angsty teenager" to Potter. Granted, that's quite enough for many heroes across many genres but there's an added psychological element to being abused and neglected which she sort of touched on with Voldemort that was absent with Harry.

Plus, I feel that if you're going to use a thing like abusive parents to flavor your character, the author has a responsibility to treat the whole idea with more than passing interest. She could have very well made the Dursleys kind loving people who were more than happy to take in this poor orphaned boy and raise him as a second son. She made a creative choice to turn Harry's foster family into monsters. Fat, puffy, nearly irreconcilable monster. She never skirted around the horrors of war, the cruelty of the cruel, or the ideas of genocide and eugenics. She went as subtle as "mudbloods" and as jarring as hunting down and killing mudbloods. It's a children's novel, yeah, but kids aren't idiots. They can handle a realistic but still compassionate portrait of a boy who was abused but was able to muscle through his experiences to become a heroic and caring man. Rowling need not have been as graphic as "A Child Called It" but I do think she could've done more. It feels like she made the Dursleys do terrible things to Harry and then shied away from what that meant for her as a writer, how she could explain away their behavior and make Harry ok after living through it. So instead they were mean and Harry just became "on of those kids" who just somehow turn out ok.

I think the trouble with Harry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, is the major shift in tone between the first books in the series to the final ones. The first three (or two-and-a-half) books are very Roald Dalh-ish, where everything is over-the-top daffy and pun-based and it would not be at all surprising to learn that Harry was orphaned because his parents were run over by a stampeding rhinoceros. We don't question how Charlie Bucket shrugged off his crippling poverty; we don't question how Matilda learned to love books in an anti-literacy household, and we don't question how Harry grew up so goshdarn well-adjusted after eleven years in a coat cupboard. It's only when the story became more serious and character motivations became part of the plot that Harry's emotional well-being became a glaring issue.

This is exactly what I was thinking, but you said it far better than it was being composed in my head! :)

I think your psychological critique re “what abuse actually does to kids” is a fair cop, but my reading of the series is that Dumbledore et al. were ignorant of just how abusive the Dursleys were, rather than deliberately putting Harry in an abusive environment as a gambit. My wife has learned to be circumspect about who she tells about her relationship with her parents, because so many people have the first response of “they can’t really be that bad”.

And if Harry were shuttled off to a foster home, bye-bye protective spell, so the wizards and witches in a position to care about the issue would be motivated to not-notice any reason to believe that his home is unsafe.

Nope. McGonagall tells him right off they are the worst kind of people and probably will be horrible to Harry. Later, it's clear he knew. Mrs Fig kept an eye on and gave reports as well.

In fact, that is kind of a problem with a lot of abused children--the inability to see themselves as protagonists in their own lives and stories, since they were treated in formative personal epochs as NPCs at best, villains at worst, and usually some kind of horrible side character who needs to be put down for the good of the Real People, ie, the abusers and those they deem part of their tribe of worthies.


This. I have felt this way throughout my life until I turned 30 and decided to become a Real Live Girl who is also the protagonist of her own story. Sometimes it's hard being real, it's duller but ultimately more rewarding I've found.

yep yep yep. I wonder if there's something about turning 30 that helps one decide to become a Real Live Girl?

Because if you lock ten children under the stairs for the first eleven years of their lives, I'll bet you a Time Turner that you'll get four supervillains, three deeply wounded individuals so desperate for love they will do anything they're told to by the first person who hugs them, two completely shattered psyches incapable of meaningful speech, and one Harry Potter, a basically normal, gently dented boy who is good at sports, naturally likeable, and willing to sacrifice himself for the group of your choice.

Yup. This is why when my friend told me my past was "ok, because it, like, totally made you a stronger person, yo" I erupted with rage. I'm mostly functional if you don't pay attention to the anxiety, PTSD, eating disorder, and control issues. My other 4 siblings? Not so much. Those are shitty odds.

Also, even if it were true, it's an ends-justify-the-means argument, and when it's your childhood and your suffering at issue, that is not anybody else's determination to make.

That's part of why I always thought NEVILLE was supposed to be the answer to the prophecy and Harry was just a decoy. Neville grew up with a seriously weird, but seriously loving Grandma. But he knew what Voldemort was capable of, and exactly why and how hatred and cruelty were wrong. I would have LOVED it if in the last book it had been Neville who finally delivered the killing blow, rather than all that bit about Harry being a Horcrux.

Not to go against anything you've said because it's all definitely true, but I do think Harry's first year of living with his parents and being loved and treated well was supposed to counter the harsh treatment he received at the Dursley's. Not that I think it actually *would,* just that JKR (though Dumbledore) seemed to think that first year of being an ordinary child, neither "the Boy who Lived" nor a victim of abuse, was supposed to counter the rest. He did get a year (was it a year and a half?) with his parents and for that year, he grew with the expectation of being treated decently and that the world was a sane, safe place. I think his internal monologue for the Dursleys was supposed to have gone something like "Wow, these people are really weird and awful," as opposed to "They treat me like crap because I deserve it."

(Not that I think it'd really work that way in any but the most extraordinary cases, but Harry's supposed to be one of those cases.)

And also agree on Umbridge being way scarier than Voldemort. She was the subject of my one and only fanfic. You don't see a lot of stories about her, for some reason. She's nightmare fuel for me.

I don't think infancy to age 1 makes much of a difference at all, it's baffling, developmentally. Many more children are abused than infants.

I need a reread but I thought it was clear by the end that Dumbledore wasn't interested in raising a hero or even a person. He was just interested in making sure Harry stayed alive long enough to get killed when the time was right. The game changer seemed to be when he met Harry and realized he actually liked the guy enough to be kind of bothered by the whole thing. Which is not to say that Dumbledore is any more capable of handling children or that Harry turning out OK is not kind of (completely) implausible. Just that I don't think Dumbledore was ever really hoping for much.

I could just be making stuff up. I REALLY need a reread (especially now that you point this out).

You know what else occurs to me? That whole keeping-Harry-with-blood thing that supposedly was the only/best way to protect him from Voldemort is a load of crap that makes no sense anyway. How often are we told that Voldemort feared Dumbledore, that Voldemort never dared to attack Hogwarts?

Just keep him at the school and raise him your own damn self, Dumbledore. Problem solved.

About Neville: I don't think there is anything in the books that contradicts the notion that the prophecy really is about him. He beheads the snake, right? The final horacrux thingy?

About Dumbledore: As folks have said, and as I have muttered and ranted on many occasions, Rowling is sloppy. I think that she did intend for Dumbledore to be imperfect, although I'm not sure if this was from the beginning, starting at book 5, book 6, or what. So, I think what we're seeing is a combination of two things:

1. Not thinking about assumptions in the story she's set up.

2. Meaning to make Dumbledore morally ambiguous and not doing it well enough.

There is one point where Harry notes that saying Dumbledore was young when he did whatever it was that he did just doesn't cut it -- the protagonists are young, too. That's a good moment.

But, it's one moment, coming late enough that there isn't room to weave in whatever Rowling is trying to weave in. She wants a certain amount of depth and ambiguity, she's trying for it -- and she's not quite pulling it off. And, one of the reasons she's infuriating is that she often comes so close that the near miss hurts more than utter crap would hurt.

About Dudley Dursley: There is this fascinating moment in the last book where Harry says that Dursley saying "I don't think you're useless" is the equivalent of saying "I love you." And, I think he's right about that, or right enough. At the very least, it's "Thank you for saving my ass in book 5."

And... it's dropped. There is never another reference to Dudley Dursley or his parents. This is the moment where something interesting might blossom -- and it doesn't.

This doesn't in any way contradict the points you're making, of course. There's a certain type of humor that I just don't care for, and that's the type I see in the way the Dursleys are portrayed in the earlier books, especially the first.

About Harry (well, really, about Slytherin): The Sorting Hat almost puts him into Slytherin. And, this would mean so much more if there were any good, or even interestingly morally ambiguous Slytherin students who were Harry's peers. I would have loved for at least one Slytherin to join Harry, if only because s/he thought Harry was obviously going to win. A Slytherin ally who never betrayed Harry, but who did all sorts of uncomfortable things in keeping with the original Slytherin virtue of ruthlessness would have been interesting.

Indeed, when book four came out, a friend of mine noted that the important thing was not that half of the Slytherin kids didn't raise their glasses in toast to Cedric, but that half did. We wanted to hear about the half that did.

Instead, Slytherin changed from the house of Ruthless Ambitious people to the house of Stupid Bigots, becoming far less interesting as a result.

Not that Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff fare particularly well. Ravenclaw in particular comes off badly. It's the house of smart people, but no one is allowed to be smarter than Hermione, and, really, the Ravenclaw kids we see are about average smarts, no more.

There is no earthly reason Hermione shouldn't be a Ravenclaw.