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Clinical and Research News
Analyst Discovers Lessons In Harry Potter’s Ordeal
Psychiatric News
Volume 37 Number 5 page 33-33

Who is Harry Potter, the young hero of J.K. Rowling’s books and now the latest darling of moviedom? Laurie Pahel-Short, M.D., a Chapel Hill, N.C., psychiatrist and candidate at the University of North Carolina-Duke Psychoanalytic Education Program, decided to put Harry "on the couch" to find out.

As she reported at the December meeting of the American Psychoanalytic Association, Harry is a boy wizard, yes, but also much more—a boy who was abused by his caretakers, yet who finds recovery through kind teachers and hard work and by facing fearsome challenges. All of these factors contribute to his appeal, she believes.

But what is especially interesting about Harry Potter from a psychoanalytic point of view, she noted, is that there are striking parallels between Harry’s painful childhood and those experienced by a number of patients in psychoanalysis, as well as between Harry’s reformation and patients’ recovery in analysis. Here are some examples.

When the Harry Potter series starts out, Harry is experiencing a rough childhood. His caretakers, the sadistic Dursleys, make him live in a dark cupboard, ignore him on a daily basis, forget all of his birthdays, withhold food from him, and isolate him for prolonged periods as punishment. Such childhood abuse, of course, also occurs in the real world.

In spite of the abuse that he experiences, Harry draws upon innate psychological strengths to survive. In the real world, some people who experience similar torments also find the strength to survive.

Harry finally has a chance to escape from child abuse—by going to wizard school. Yet deciding to leave the Dursleys requires courage on his part because he doesn’t know what he’ll find at the school. Or as Pahel-Short put it: "It requires extraordinary courage to forego what’s familiar, even when it’s abuse, for the unknown."

Along the same lines, when people who experienced child abuse decide to enter analysis to recover from that abuse, they also exhibit courage. "Patients cannot predict what awaits them as a consequence of treatment," Pahel-Short said.

Even after Harry decides to go to wizard school, he almost doesn’t make it because of sabotage by the Dursleys. In a similar vein, some patients who decide to pursue analysis because of childhood trauma sometimes almost don’t make it because of obstacles placed in their way by family members.

Once Harry enters wizard school, he has contact with Professor Dumbledore, an all-knowing, all-powerful, paternal figure. Dumbledore resembles the analyst for the person entering analysis.

Harry shows an unwavering trust in the professor’s goodness and power. Similarly, patients with a history of abuse will engage in treatment only if they believe that an analyst is trustworthy.

Now that Harry has entered wizard school, he must start rebuilding his life. Similarly, once a patient who was traumatized in childhood starts analysis, he must begin the hard work of discovery and reconstruction.

Lord Voldemort personifies evil in Harry’s world. He will not die and reappears in different, vaguely recognizable forms. Similarly, when a person enters analysis in hopes of coming to terms with bad childhood experiences, he or she must deal with unconscious, painful childhood memories that will not die.

Harry learns to recognize signs of Voldemort’s reappearance—say, through dreams. Along the same lines, a patient in analysis uses dreams to recognize unconscious painful memories.

Just as Harry seeks the help of Dumbledore in dealing with Voldemort, so the patient in analysis seeks the help of the analyst in dealing with unconscious, painful memories.

Fantastic feasts at wizard school and tasty care packages from the mother of another student help compensate for the nutritional deprivation Harry experienced while living with the Dursleys. Similarly, Pahel-Short pointed out, "the patient may experience enough sustenance in psychoanalytic treatment to begin to acknowledge and to recover from a past tainted by insidious cruelty."

In every Harry Potter book, Harry encounters a daunting ordeal, yet prevails. One reason he prevails is because he is in the safe confines of the wizard school. Patients in analysis also need to feel that they are secure if they are to make progress.

Nonetheless, the wizard-school environment defies clear definition and changes as the needs of its inhabitants change. Similarly, Pahel-Short explained, "The analytic holding environment must evolve with the individual course of a patient’s treatment. . . .A more complex structure develops as characteristics of the therapeutic dyad become increasingly nuanced."

All in all, Pahel-Short concluded, "Harry Potter’s story serves as a useful metaphor for childhood abuse and neglect and for recovery through psychoanalytic treatment. The psychoanalytic sojourn can be as exciting, mysterious, and arduous as Harry Potter’s transformation at Hogwarts’ School of Witchcraft and Wizardry." ▪

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