Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Disability and Illness in Harry Potter

As a Ravenclaw--both in life and on Pottermore--I got early access to the second half of The Goblet of Fire on JK Rowling's Pottermore website. This section didn't have much in the way of groundbreaking new information, probably because of all the extras we got surrounding the Quidditch World Cup. However, at the very end it had a piece dedicated to Rowling's view on disability and illness in the books. 

I'm not going to quote as I don't want to spoil people, but the basic summary is that wixen* are immune to Muggle accidents and illnesses, but on the flip side, Muggles are protected from magical ailments and creatures. Some people have expressed dismay at what she says here, but I cannot say that it surprises me overall. I might have been more satisfied if she had said that Muggles owe their safety to the lack of magic in their blood--implying that magical beasts couldn’t attack them rather than the Statue of Secrecy keeps said beasts away from them. This is, after all, basically her explanation for why a wizard can't be felled by the flu--the magic in their blood makes them genetically immune. 

In a way, this solves the fundamental question of why involved in analyzing the relation between magic, illness, and disability. Why, if magic exists, don't wixen cure AIDS, cancer, or swine flu? The possibility exists, seeing as the Fat Friar got in trouble for treating Muggle plague victims by poking them with a stick (a fact revealed on Pottermore). The answer to this question, though, goes back to the basics of Muggle-wixen relations, and the misunderstandings on the wizarding side. 

It's impossible to know how much truth there is behind the history canon gives us for the Statue of Secrecy, but at this point that doesn't matter. Wizards believe that Muggles will persecute them if they reveal themselves, and they believe that keeping themselves hidden protects their Muggle brethren from magical creatures and illnesses. They see this as a win-win situation. Additionally, it has been in effect for 325 years. By this point, the majority of wizards probably don't know about/understand the debilitating effects some illness and disabilities can have. Undoubtably there are Muggleborns who do, and who would seek to use magic to treat friends and family members at the least. They would be limited, however, by three main factors:

1. Muggles and wixen split so long ago that they would probably have to invent new magic. Magical healing is adapted for the wizarding physique and Muggle diseases have adapted significantly since the Fat Friar's day. 

2. They would have to do this with no support--and indeed they would be risking arrest. I don't imagine there's a loophole in one of Arthur Weasley's laws that allows for experimentation on family members, much less the greater Muggle population. 

3. A factor that people often ignore when wondering "why don't Muggleborns x?" is that all Muggleborns have been indoctrinated in wizarding society since the age of eleven. Every witch or wizard who helps them adapt to their new world believes--to one degree or another--in the basic underpinnings of the Statute. It would be easy to assume that these people are right about the world at large, even if the child has an incredibly accepting, supportive family, especially if someone close to them--say a sibling--reacts more negatively than their parents. 

Basically, to have a Muggleborn take the helm in curing Muggle diseases they'd have to feel strongly enough about it to endanger themselves, this world of people that took them in at the age of eleven, and probably the people they are attempting to help. They'd have to be adept at adapting spells, understand anatomy, and research--and all of this on their own, in secret. I'm not saying these people don't exist, haven't existed, or won't exist, but chances are up to the time of canon their efforts would have been shut down before an effect was seen. I imagine that up until canon it may have been easy to adapt a potion or two for ailing relatives, but to think well, they're doing all right for themselves, really about society as a whole.

However, I don't think that attitude will last post-canon, and that's what I love about the Harry Potter World. Hermione Granger is an example of a Muggleborn who definitely got wrapped up in the Wizarding World and its issues. In many ways she's an example of that indoctrinated Muggleborn above. However, I definitely see her social justice tendencies shifting from House Elf Liberation to Muggle Support, perhaps with the help of her father-in-law. I think her experience with SPEW is a stepping stone on the road to learning to work with the affected group, and I see her and others slowly working with the Muggle government to reveal themselves to the Ministry of Health--for instance--and blend magic with science. (If this can be done. The Friar's example suggests it can, but there is the possibility that Muggle bodies and magic just don't mix, especially if someone has no magical genes.) I firmly believe that as the Muggle world enters the information age the gap between wixen and Muggles will close. (I have a deeply held belief/headcanon that Arthur and George Weasley will adapt or create magical artifacts that allow wixen to use the internet.) I also think the post-canon era is the time when it becomes most impossible for wixen to remain willfully ignorant of Muggle crises.

Just imagine the Muggleborn wixen who were barred from going to Hogwarts on September 1st, 1997, a time when their country--their world--was mourning two of the most influential advocates for social justice ever. Forget our more cynical understanding of Mother Teresa and think about Princess Diana's work to bring AIDS awareness to the world. These events--the deaths and kept from Hogwarts--would be tied together in the minds of these students, and I bet you anything they'd be warriors for justice for everyone. And for once the Wizarding World isn't going to silence them. Underaged kids who have spent the summer reading about Remus Lupin's noblity. Battle of Hogwarts veterans suffering from PTSD and other ailments not usually considered in their world, on top of numerous magic-induced disabilities. Hermione freaking Granger back for her eighth year and still ready for a fight, any fight. These are not people who are willing to let senseless deaths happen under their noses. However, they're also not going to start charming Muggles willy-nilly or take over the ministry because that's what he did. They're going to make change, but they're going to do it right this time. Everyone will have a voice, purebloods, Muggleborns, and hopefully even Muggles. 

Unfortunately, changes like this take time. Muggle scientists haven't cured cancer or AIDS** yet, and they've been working on it in the open for decades. I believe that there have been numerous new research labs opened by the Ministry dealing with issues of social justice, one of these being the Office for Augmentation and Creation of Muggle Medicine. There are scientists on staff, mostly Squibs and relatives of Muggleborns for the time being. (It's next to the Office for Promoting the Understanding of Magical Genetics.) They're part of an initiative founded on the premise that blending magic and technology will help level the playing field between wixen and Muggles, eventually opening the door for reintegration. 

And yet, in the midst of all of this advancement, one group will remain alienated: those of us who have been holding onto the belief that, unlike many fantasy worlds, Hogwarts could provide a place for us—those of us with disabilities and chronic illness.

I see how Rowling's justification for her treatment of disability and illness makes sense from the perspective of a physically able storyteller.*** By insinuating that wixen genetics protect them from Muggle ailments, she lets them off the ethical hook. In a way, Rowling is off the ethical hook--even in this world she created no wave of a wand could have cured her mother's MS.  Rowling's wixen aren't holding out on Muggles. They don't have a cure for cancer that they're not sharing. The reader can smile at the idea of a hospital hidden away in 1990s London without feeling tremendously guilty. However, that doesn't mean it's not still problematic. Making wizards immune to so-called Muggle illness and disability is a fundamental example of an ableist wish-fulfillment. Wouldn't it be great if there were a world where people couldn't contract the multitude of illnesses and disabilities faced in contemporary society? 

The trouble is, this erasure further alienates those of us whose disabilities weren't caused by magic. Rowling's solution to the so-called problem of disability relies on the ableist assumption that it's better to eliminate disability than to treat it--to live with it. It’s a curious stance to take, because it has broader implications in her work. If it is better not to have “Muggle” disabilities and illnesses, if wixen are stronger because of it, aren’t they better off with no disabilities? Shouldn’t Remus have spent his time continuing his parents for a cure, rather than using the Wolfsbane to mitigate the worst of his symptoms and having a life, the way those of us with disability and illness in the real world attempt to do? I think it’s safe to assume Rowling did not mean for this addition to Pottermore to alter the meaning behind the werewolf metaphor—but it does.

If, rather than exoticizing dragon pox and erasing cerebral palsy, Rowling had admitted that wixen--or even just half-bloods and Muggleborns--are susceptible to mundane disabilities and illness, which they then treat with magic, she would have reinforced the idea that treatment can allow one to live with disability or illness****. And perhaps some of these disabilities and illnesses can be cured, the same way some magical ones can. Genetics could then come into play, in that the magic involved in these treatment/cures could not be adapted for use on Muggles without breaking the Statute of Secrecy. With that established, the possibilities for expanding the—probably misguided—wixen viewpoint on disability increase Wixen believe themselves to be strong, so perhaps the disabled face the same stigma as werewolves. Some chronic illnesses are a mark of the distorted nature of Pureblood family trees, the way Metamorphamagery is. I'm not saying that Rowling should have integrated a person who is HIV+ for every werewolf. I just wish she hadn't erased disabilities completely. One asthmatic witch, one Hogwarts student replacing their magic prosthetic with a Muggle one over the holidays, I would be happy with any example of real disabilities and illnesses integrated with--rather than erased by--their exotic, metaphorical counterparts. This would not only have made sense in the corrupt and isolationist world, it would have been yet another change the reader could imagine being made post-canon. The series is so throughly grounded in Britain of the 1990s that these changes are not only totally plausible, they give hope.*****

Rather than believing our owls have gone astray and imagining ourselves attending Hogwarts with the proper accommodations,****** we are forced to accept that there is no magical blood in our veins. At this minute, some witch might be creating a potion that could replace the enzyme I'm missing in my collagen, or just one that will target and treat the chronic pain in my left hip, but even if that were true, it wouldn't mean more to me than if a scientist in Canadian were doing the same thing. 

After all, at least I could be Canadian, if I really wanted to be.

Addendum: She does phrase all this as a wizard "could cure" most illnesses, implying that perhaps there are wixen who are disabled until they join the Wizarding world, but the further assertion that they cannot be felled by things of a "mundane" nature suggests some amount of exclusionary immunity, and all of it at leasts advocates for cure rather than adaptation, unless such an illness/disability is caused by magic. Basically, get your leg blasted off by a Skrewt, you're good, but get bitten by a shark, you're a Muggle. 

*A gender-inclusive term for witches and wizards.

***I am confining this discussion to the physical because Rowling has admitted to having mental health issues, and because mental health in the Potter books is generally separated from physical health--with its own creature metaphor, the dementor.

****For what its worth, that's going to be my headcanon. Immunity is directly proportionate to the number of magical alleles. 

****I wish she'd done this even if it were a child who used a magical wheelchair because of a magical disability/illness.

****And for the reader in 2040 who wants to know why xx disease still hasn't been magically cured? Change is slow in magic, science, and government. That doesn't mean it won't come. To me, this allows more hope, not less.


  1. awwwww you give me so much inspiration, thank you :)

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