Since the late 1990s, most parents in the English-speaking world (and by now, far beyond) have met Harry Potter.
At least ten years ago, before my adopted son entered our lives, I read the first book in the series—Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone—just to see what all the fuss was about. I enjoyed it. But I decided to wait to read the rest of the books until my own child came along and was of an age when we could go through them together.
Now my eight-year-old son is ready to jump in, and we've begun the great Harry Potter reading marathon. But revisiting the first book has confronted me with a familiar challenge: How much should I protect my son from negative images of adoption and orphans—and how much, in general, should I censor his access to popular culture?
Harry is not strictly an adoptee; he's the poor orphan, fostered and mistreated by his remaining biological ( or "Muggle") relations. But there's much in his story that real-world adoptees will recognize.
Early on in The Sorcerer's Stone, for example, his aunt lies to him, saying his parents died in a "car crash." Harry learns "the first rule for a quiet life": "Don't ask questions."
My son is still young for reading these books. More to the point, he doesn't want to read them by himself. If he had his druthers, he'd just watch the movies. But I want to slow this process down. I figure that if we read through the books before he sees each movie, then he'll be older as the series proceeds and becomes more disturbing.
He's predictably hooked on The Sorcerer's Stone. We're halfway through after a few days. But the first night, he also had nightmares.
It's not that I was clueless about the orphan theme when I originally read this book. Yet now I'm seeing it through my son's eyes—and author J.K. Rowling's handling of this standard plot device seems deeply satirical—and wonderfully unvarnished—and also unexamined.
Whether that lack of examination is a problem is the question. Ultimately, I don't think so, but I've been doing some pondering as we race through the chapters, and Harry is confronted with one secret after another about who he really is.
This past weekend, I had a bit of an "ah-ha" moment when I attended an academic conference at MIT put on by the Alliance for the Study of Adoption and Culture. The topic was "Adoption: Secret Histories, Public Policies." An array of historians, social scientists, memoir and fiction writers, and documentary filmmakers were on hand. (Click here for the program and participants. It was a terrific conference.)
Of many fascinating sessions I went to, "Adoption in Film," with panelists Kim Park Nelson (a multicultural studies scholar) and Joyce Maguire Pavao (a well-known clinician), had me leaping back to Harry. The Harry Potter movies figured in neither of the panelist's presentations, yet his orphan status is connected to their discussions.
Kim Park Nelson's topic was "The Horror of Adoption," in which she detailed pernicious images in some recent horror films that involve an adoption premise. She didn't focus on more well-known fiascoes like last year's Orphan, which generated a letter-writing protest campaign, but on genre movies like The Ring and Silent Hill.
In her analysis of these films, adoptees are either bad seeds or shattered beings trapped between their good and evil selves. Birthparents are evil incarnate or victims of fate. Indeed, almost anyone connected to the triad seems to be a victim of fate, driven to discover the horrible secret of a child's identity. Adoptive parents are victims, too, walking into danger to save their kids.
Compare this with Harry Potter, who begins not knowing he's a wizard and certainly has to grapple with his fate but is allowed an active part in the process. For example, when students first arrive at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, they're "sorted" into houses (dormitories) in front of everyone. They put a sorting hat on their heads. Here's an except from The Sorcerer's Stone:
"The last thing Harry saw before the hat dropped over his eyes was the hall full of people craning to get a good look at him. Next second he was looking at the black inside of the hat. He waited.Rather than horror films, Pavao focused on a list of her ten favorite movies in which adoption is part of the storyline.* She noted that orphans appear in many children's stories and movies because the experience of family loss can feel so universal. Readers and viewers identify with such loneliness.
"'Hmm,' said a small voice inside his ear. 'Difficult. Very difficult. Plenty of courage, I see. Not a bad mind, either. There's talent, oh my goodness, yes—and a nice thirst to prove yourself, now that's interesting.... So where shall I put you?'
"Harry gripped the edges of the stool and thought Not Slytherin, not Slytherin.
"'Not Slytherin, eh?' said the small voice. 'Are you sure? You could be great, you know, it's all here in your head, and Slytherin will help you on the way to greatness, no doubt about that—no? Well, if you're sure—better be GRYFFINDOR!'"
But I think orphans also serve a basic story function. From the Boxcar Children to Harry Potter, kids without parents are the protagonists. A few reassuring adults may pop in, but the kids get to have adventures. Harry does come to terms with his birthright as a wizard, but his actions very much determine the story. He is not acted on in the same way as the helpless bad seeds of those horror movies.
It's a compelling image: a lonely orphan, who feels different from all the Muggles around him, learning he has power within. Harry Potter confronts many barriers in discovering his birth history—just as adoptees do—but he always feels he has a right to do so.
At past non-academic adoption conferences, I've gone to sessions in which speakers talk about which books are "good" or "bad" for young adoptees. I've bristled at the censorship implied.
While I may cringe at the image of Harry stuck in a cupboard in his aunt and uncle's house, and while my son may ask how they could treat him that way, I think talking about our responses can be more illuminating than any spoon-fed message.
I suggest another test: Are the main characters of a story or movie in charge of their own fates? Are they determined to learn the truth?
If yes, then let the Muggles parade and stinking potions brew, the secrets revealed may well be magic.
*A Few of Joyce Maguire Pavao's Top Adoption Movies
- "The Miracle"
- "High Tide"
- "The Official Story"
- "Second Best"
- "Catfish and Blackbean Sauce"