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Letters from Proxima Thule

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Dumbledore's Theory of Early Childhood Education
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.

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To be fair, I think that "deeply wounded individual so desperate for love they will do anything they're told to by the first person who hugs them" is not far off the mark as far as descriptions of Harry go. If you subscribe to a particularly Machiavellian interpretation of Dumbledore, this was exactly his intention - to make sure that Harry was so starved for love and acceptance that he'd latch on to dear life the minute these were offered to him, which translates into lifetime loyalty to Hogwarts and Dumbledore. It's not a bad way to go about molding the kind of person who will lay down their life when you tell them to, which was of course the endgame where Harry was concerned.

I've also been inspired by the movie to reread the books, and what I'm noticing this time around is how much life with the Dursleys affects who Harry is throughout the books. It's not that he magically emerges from their house a well-adjusted person - his lack of self-esteem, determination to prove himself, and unshakable belief that it is always, at any time, no matter what the situation and who else is around, his job to save the day are all rooted in the lessons they taught him.

Actually, I'm not sure that the latter is--the Dursleys don't think Harry is capable of anything, much less that it's his job to save the day. See my above comment about how willing H is to go against authority in all sorts of ways (they turn out later to have been often manipulated, but from Harry's POV he chooses to disobey A LOT) rather than being desperate to fit in and avoid punishment.

I see Harry's inflated sense of responsibility as the flipside of his low self-esteem - he always needs to prove himself and therefore it's always his job to step up. And far from making him cowed, the Dursleys' abuse teaches Harry that he has no one to fall back on - no parent figures who will make everything better if he just reverts to 'kid' mode and asks for their help - so he never does.

I'll grant that--doesn't change my point that the odds were long against such admirable qualities.

Children of neglect, rather than children of direct abuse (and Harry was most definitely neglect, albeit horrific neglect) often end up more like the Harry we see in the books than a cowed thing. They learn to take care of themselves first, and often clash with authority because, well . . . authority never really did anything for them, so why should they bother? And then at the same time when they find someone who cares, they cling like nobody's business.

Which is a too-long way of saying I agree with you, because neglect and abuse are different, and often have different results.

I disagree. Harry is locked in his cupboard and Dudley regularly beats him up with no consequences at all. That's physical abuse. He's expected to serve the Dursleys (check him cooking breakfast in the first book, for example) and is constantly the target of remarks about his uselessness and the uselessness of his parents. That's verbal abuse. He certainly is neglected, but he's also abused.

Fair enough on the verbal abuse. Technically, the attacks by Dudley would fall under neglect-- awful and nitpicky as that is-- because it is the responsibility of the Dursley's to stop the attacks, and they don't.

Of course all of this is assuming US standards, which certainly aren't applicable here, and modern ones (HP was set back int he early 90s), and Rowling knowing all these distinctions, which I highly doubt she did.

Really, I agree with a commenter below-- that Rowling was trying to invoke the old English tale standby that Dahl and others use to invoke a certain type of story, and tromped all over these fine distinctions in the process.

What does one call armchair psychology for fictional characters, anyway?

The Harry Potter books weren't set that long ago. The first one came out in 1997, and the fact that abusing kids, both verbally and physically, results in fucking them up was well known, believe me. It's not been some kind of groundbreaking psychological breakthrough in the past 10 years.

She did teach young children, so I'm sure she had some knowledge of shades of grey.

Also, I'm sort of surprised that you don't think sibling abuse happens and still counts as abuse. Even younger siblings. It happened to me, and I can tell you it's just as horrible and damaging. It just hits you pretty hard--not only will adults not protect you, but your peers and other human beings can't be trusted. And when adults witness it and smile, that's a special evil, and you can't call it anything but abuse.

Also, the adult Dursleys were actively involved in the physical abuse. In the first book, when Harry isn't doing what Mr. Dursley wants him to, Mr. Dursley tells Dudley to "hit/poke [I can't remember which one] him with your Smeltings stick [a sort of baton that's part of Dudley's school uniform, specifically used for beating the crap out of one's classmates with]."

Honestly on the reread I see abuse--Dudley definitely physically abuses Harry and I find it impossible to believe Vernon and/Petunia doesn't either. Also, emotional abuse all over the place. Neglect would be different. Isolation under the stairs and constant verbal abuse, coupled with bullying and likely home punihsments of arcane variety--that's not neglect.

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