Harry Potter in Copenhague




In 7-9th. July 2006, the Copenhagen Conference was the first academic European Harry Potter conference outside Britain.

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Doctor Eric Auriacombe Child Psychiatrist, France

Child psychology in Harry Potter
In a book published in November 2005, ("Harry Potter, l'enfant héros", Paris, Presses Universitaires de France), I proposed a psychoanalytic study about this literary hero. Harry Potter underwent a precocious traumatic experience, when he was one year old. He had a car accident ( for the Muggles) or attacked by Voldemort (for the Wizards). He keeps a trace of this traumatism registered on his body, a scar on his face which reacts in a painful way to the proximity of he who produced it. Harry Potter became an orphan child. His parents both died in this "accident". His aunt and his uncle (Dursley) collect him, but also, neglect him, maltreat him and prohibit to him to exist. Combine and superimpose thus the problems of the traumatism, early mourning and the ill-treatment. The texts of the first six volumes constitute a good support for an impact study of the early losses lived on a traumatic mode and without enough parental substitute secured. I will propose to present a synthetic text on the psychological mechanisms concerned in the operation of this hero, particulary the question of mourning, denial, splitting of the Ego, but also of more specific mechanisms like the "cryptophorie" or the haunting memory.



11-Harry Potter, at the age of eleven years, discovers that he lives in a double world, with two juxtaposed sights: the Muggles and the Wizards. These two worlds are placed, side by side, like the recto and the verso of a sheet of paper.

We have to consider this juxtaposition not really an opposition between children and adults.

-Indeed, Wizards represent, symbolize, childhood or, and that is better, infantile. Infantile correspond to the early development of the mind (mental). Freud said : " L'inconscient est une partie de notre personnalité qui, dans l'enfance, s'en détache, n'en suit pas l'évolution ultérieure et qui est pour cette raison refoulée : l'inconscient, c'est l'infantile en nous." "Unconscious is a part of our personality which, in childhood, go away, do not follow the evolution after and in consequence is repressed." "Unconscious, it is infantile inside us".

Therefore, we must evoke experiences of satisfaction, relations with parents, stages of development, beliefs and infantile theories with magical thought, magic words, importance of fancy and fantasy as reality…

Also, pain and fright experiences that the child tries to avoid at all costs: Fright, conflicts, and ideas that child is looking sometimes like a monster when hate and aggressive mind are coming foreground.

The bad must be localized outside by projection. The avoidance of the pain can also produce a kind of mind negativity.

Therefore, the novels of Harry Potter are like a fairytale, which show us the conflicts of the child life and a kind of monstrosity.

However, there is amnesia of the infantile (infantile amnesia). The muggles are adults (but also some children) who have forgotten, repressed their childhood. And who can't play anymore. Winnicott was speaking of "playing". A wizard has kept this faculty.

Harry Potter is a fairytale about childhood.

12-Who is Harry Potter ? What this story learns us about childhood?

Harry Potter underwent a precocious traumatic experience, when he was one year old. He had a car accident for the Muggles or had been attacked by Voldemort (for the Wizards). He kept a trace of this traumatism registered on his body, a scar on his face which reacts in a painful way when Harry is near Voldemort.

Harry Potter became an orphan child. His parents are both died in this "accident". His aunt and his uncle (Dursley) collected him, but also, neglected him, maltreated him and prohibited to him to exist.

Combines and superimposes together the problems concerning traumatism, early mourning and ill-treatment (bad treatment). In the first six books, the text constitutes a very good support to study early losses, lived on a traumatic way and without parental substitute enough secure, no permitting an efficient consolation.


2. Harry Potter appears like a boy enduring great pain, and who suffers from many disorders : anxiety, panic attacks, somatisation, sleep disturbances (insomnia), but also culpability, feelings of incompetence, of failure, and problems of depreciation, and so on.

- In fact, Harry depreciates himself regularly and he has a negative vision about his possibilities and competences. He always criticizes himself and estimates constantly that he will fail (IV, 308, I, 84).

He feels guilty. In volume II, when Harry and Ron take Mr Weasley's flying car to go to Hogward school ; in volume III, when harry have fun when buck, the hippogriff, is condemn (III, 294). In volume IV, Harry feels responsible when Sirius Black goes out of his hiding place (IV, 205).

Harry often repeats that it is not his fault if catastrophes happen around him (IV, 263). In volume IV, Harry feels guilty about the death of Cedric, killed by Voldemort in his presence. He fights against always sadness and pain, but Harry is a child who cannot cry (IV, 634).

In volume V, feelings of guilt increase (V, 197). Harry becomes irritable, he has fits of anger and he thinks that others children blame him (V, 54, 535). He feels negative affection for himself.

- Harry got also panic attacks. He lives in anguish (fear and dread), he cannot concentrate, reflect, think not at all. He wants to run and howl, call Dumbledore for help. (V, 524, 819) "Harry felt as though the panic inside him might spill over at any moment; he wanted to run, to yell for Dumbledore". (V, 412) "Panic expanding inside him like poison gas so that his head swam and he could not think what to do…" (V, 644)

He looks like confused and disorganised. In volume IV, when he must fight against dragons, Harry has intense panic attack (IV, 311).

- In volume V, Harry is frightened by the idea to go back to Hogwarts School. He has impression that fear transpierces his body like needles. Harry cannot speak to his friends because he thinks that his words can carry realization of his phantasms. When he has fifteen years old, he lives an intense crisis. He become angry, sensitive, persecute. He thinks that nobody could love him. Then, he has psychic hallucinations. He can hear the words of Voldemort, he feels his emotions. He sees himself hurting Mr Weasley.

- Harry often presents sleep disorders with night wakings and nightmares.

- Distress (Anguish) usually appears with body expressions (somatization): Nauseas, particularly when Harry is confronted to the "Sorting Hat".

- Sometimes, Harry endures depersonalization feelings. He has got impression that a "strange distance" separates him from the others. He feels also strange sensation as regards reality breaking. (IV, 311)

Well, we have see Harry is suffering from an anxio-depressive syndrome with feelings of devalorization, culpability, even self-accusation. All signs traducing a child depression, which look like an anaclitic depression (like abandoned child).


3. So how explain all these symptoms?

We could be divided them into three problematic parts:


31. First, the question from early mourning.

Survival culpability.

Children used to show specials reactions when their parents died brutally. They suffer from surrender feeling and distress. Survival culpability appears like an important factor, which involves reactions of atonement, punishment, and self-punishment.

It is because the child survives to his parents, which causes this culpability. For Harry, this idea is reinforced because his mother died trying to save him. His mother's love went until sacrifice. For example, Harry hears initially his mother's voice when he finds little by little a kind of memory of the traumatic scene.

In volume V (Harry Potter and the order of the Phoenix), Harry feels a sensation of vacuum (V, 341). He looks like depressed. He thinks that others children think that he is violent, in particular Percy, Ron’s brother, who works with the “ministry for the Magic” (V, 341).

Mrs J.K. Rowling evokes "a terrible hollow", "a dark hole" (V, 922).

"It was unbearable , he would not think about it, he could not stand it … there was a terrible hollow inside him he did not want to feel or examine, a dark hole where Sirius had been, where Sirius had vanished ; he did not want to have to be alone with that great, silent space, he could not stand it." (V, 721)

Dark hole, caused by early traumatic mourning, attracts the representations and provoked a mental vacuum, a psychic gap that Harry, in a second time, can fill by his godfather's presence, paternal substitute. Harry cannot announce Sirius' disappearance. He cannot pronounce the sentence because after the separation will be irremediable (V, 922). So, Harry keeps silent to stand the loss.

The crisis appears particularly deep. Harry feels an intense guilt which invades him like a parasite. He cannot support himself any more. He would wish to become somebody different (V, 928).

Unlike mourning, which is recollection, early mourning brings back to the vacuum.


Children are too young to understand that death is not reversible. Because of death denial in childhood, a great part of the perception is repressed. There is a denial of reality of the loss. A blank in the mind can attract representations like a black hole. It looks like Demoner's effects.

Death denial installs a possibility of "return" (ghost).


Splitting of the ego.

So, children want to avoide pain trying no thinking or with denial process or "splitting of ego".

The refusal is accompanied, in the same time, by a conscious recognition concerning the reality of the loss.

Splitting of the ego shows us an opposite function: on one side, Harry realise the parents' death, but on the other side, they are still alive. When Harry sees his parents in the "mirror of derised", he can look at his mother and his father who appear young and beautiful "at vitam eternam".

Harry has two different attitudes concerning the respect of external reality: one with his life in the house of his uncle, the death of his parents in an accident. The other one attitude denies this Muggles' reality with a world where Harry is a hero fighting against the evil, following his parents'model.

So, Harry Potter is a book built on and about death and mourning.


32. Trauma: “Differed action” and repetition.

Concerning the traumatic question, we have to consider the two times of this mechanism. Effectively, there are two periods for the trauma:

-The first time is the time of fright. When Voldemort attacks Harry and his parents. Harry can remember only a green light. When Dumbledore carried baby Harry, in Dursley’ home, he gave them a first letter.

-The second time is obtained by an event, which looks like the first event in several points. The “letter of nowhere”, which is the second letter, constitute the message of that traumatic past of the death of his parents.

Repetition, proximity of the danger and death appear important in Harry's life. Harry carries the trace of the tragic event on his face, indelible scar; point of central call, around Harry's life is organized.1

This scar, registered on his body, inside his flesh, used to become painful with the proximity of Voldemort and prevent Harry from danger. Scar represents the unknown and mysterious past, in the form of a flesh inscription coming from his origins. Harry must translate his scar like a symbol, a hieroglyph because it is the reactive point of the trauma.

Harry Potter is a fairytale about pain.





Harry Potter dysfunctions because of ill-treatments. The Dursleys kept him in a solitary confinement. Harry is a boy who must not exist. He keeps silent and believes invisible. He must not think. We can consider this like a denial of existence.

"No cards, no presents, and he would be spending the evening pretending not to exist." (eng. II, 13)

Dursleys are ashamed of him. He becomes "disgusting". He must pay the fact to be still alive.

Harry Potter is a child ill-treated with both physical and psychological ill-treatments.

-Thus, Harry is living in a dark cupboard under the staircase, full of spiders (I, 24).

- In volume III (Harry Potter and the prisoner of Azkaban), he must keep hide to do his wizard's studies. If not, he is punished and he must spend summer locked in his cupboard (III, 8).

- Harry is beaten by his cousin (I, 25). He receives blows of fist, blows of cane. He has no friends. (I, 31)

- Harry seems small and thin for his age because of the consequences of malnutrition (only dry bread and piece of cheese). (II, 16)

- Harry is often famished (II, 29).

Harry appears struck, badly nourished, badly equipped, neglected, and sequestered. Harry is "treated like a dog that had rolled in something smelly." (Eng II, 11)


Who can we explain that ill-treatments?


The Dursleys seek to destroy his magic world, heritage of his parents. Their efforts are useless and they live in the obsession that somebody could discover that Harry is a pupil in Hogwarts School (III, 9).

1. For Dursley's family, Harry is different because of his wizard mother, sister of Mrs. Dursley, the shame of the family.

2. But Harry is also different from the others wizards children. He presents strange symptoms. He can speak "Parceltongue". Both, in the Muggles' and Wizards' world, Harry Potter is strange.

3. The maltreated children feel responsible from their own misfortune. They have shame to be still alive.

Refusal of existence is caused not only by the Dursleys'maltreating attitude, but also still by the interdict of knowing his origins: who were his parents, how did they die?

Silence constitutes a psychological operating mode prevail for Harry.

He uses defence mechanisms on a silence mode.

Thus, we have to consider the silence like a mode of primary avoiding defence for pain, like a refuge or a narcissistic fold.

Meanwhile, it can also involve formation of psychic vacuum.



4. Chambers of secrets and crypt.



In volume II, a mysterious inscription, registered beside the petrified cat, indicates that "The chamber of secrets has been opened. Enemies of the heir, beware." (eng., II, 151)

There is a secret room, which contain a terrible thing that only the heir can make obey.

This secret room seems like a crypt and can show us Harry's psychic structure. Harry carries secrecy inside his psychism. This psychic place got effects, which appear in spite of him.

In his search of the origins, Harry must think that he could be the Serpentard's heir. (II, 208).

Magic Hat” says Harry can go with Serpentard house.

For Harry, inexpressible mourning installs a secret vault, a crypt, in which the lost object is reconstituted like a person still alive.

There is an unconscious fantasmatic world, which lives a separate and occult life. We can tell us that is the ghost of the crypt.

The phantoms come when there is no mourning possible. The dead loved persons are not recognized as lost, so Harry cannot cry them.

Because of the reception of "the letter of nowhere", written by Dumbledore, the Harry's secret crypt can be half-opened.


Let us consider that Harry, the child plunged into a shameful mourning because his parents are "monsters", has incorporated, in a psychic gap, in a crypt, the elements inherited from their magic world: the ashamed abnormality of their life.



However, Harry can resist. He has a capacity to regain shape after the blows.

With Dumbledore, he learns to call for help (from the bottom of his help ness).

Is Dumbledore in psychoanalysis position for Harry ? He takes place of the idealized father and gives a speaking space to Harry for a memory work.

Mrs J.K. Rowling tells us about the curative result of the narrative action. (IV, 619)

Dumbledore's intervention prevents Harry about fascinated pictures of the past (derised mirror).

In splitting of the Ego, the crypt is like a melting pot, with painful elements, but also with the idealisation of his parents, beautiful, young, and immortal.

We have to consider this division like a reparation process, which give hope and permit the survival. It is a protected psychic operation.

In conclusion, we must say that these books show solutions for children who live these problems or phantasms. The tales give to the children solutions to grow: ethics solutions with confidence, friendship, love, hope …

These elements can explain the success of the magic books of Mrs Rowling.

1 As of the first chapter of volume I (Harry Potter at the school of the wizards), entitled "the survivor", Mrs Rowling evokes the topic of the child who has escaped with death. Harry Potter survived died of his parents and escaped a traumatic situation of which he keeps few remembering.

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