?

Log in

No account? Create an account
entries friends calendar profile Previous Previous Next Next
PoA and mental illness - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
fernwithy
fernwithy
PoA and mental illness
I was going to write a big, formal essay, with lots of quotes and so on. But it's 1:08 am, and this is a LiveJournal. I think I'll stick to informal observations. I was thinking about this from a post at parauque's journal earlier.

On the formality issue, I found an article on lycanthropy as a mental disorder. Pretty interesting.

First, as was pointed out to me in a chat last night, mental illness is a theme that runs through all of the HP books in one form or another. We see it in actuality with the Longbottoms, of course, and I'm willing to argue that Bella, along with being evil, is genuinely insane. And Voldemort actually does fit the diagnostic model of a sociopath, as JKR calls him.

But it's the metaphor I want to look at more than the reality, and what is metaphorically so of someone is almost never also literally true. Tom may be mad, but he's not a metaphor for madness. Remus may be a metaphor for madness, but he's not mad.

Just to draw that distinction.

While real madness appears more prominently in other books, I think the metaphors of mental illness show up most prominently in Prisoner of Azkaban.


I think that JKR herself has said that Dementors are a metaphor for depression, and even if she didn't say it, it's really true. Anyone who's suffered from depression knows that feeling of stepping off the edge of the world into a cold place and feeling all the lights go out, feeling like you'd never be cheerful again.

For the first two books, Harry behaves very normally, despite his highly abnormal environment. But come PoA, he begins to feel singled out, to have his bad experiences dragged through his mind repeatedly. His enemies are plainly revolted by his behavior, and even his friends are uncomfortable with it. He's deeply ashamed of it, but can't help it at all. Finally, he seeks professional help and is given the wherewithal to fight these attacks--though it's notable that even as far in as book five, the Patronus Charm isn't easy for him when he's actually confronting a Dementor.

Sirius, of course, has been surrounded by Dementors for twelve years, and manages to not be totally consumed by them by becoming fixated on a thought that is anything but happy. His behavior throughout PoA is irrational and totally focused on his idee fixe about catching Peter. (Sirius as a character, I think, is one of the few that goes back and forth between the reality and the metaphor of mental illness--the best metaphorical use with him is in OotP, when he literally becomes imprisoned in the worst part of his past.)

The Dementors are really incredible metaphors for affective disorders, anyway.


The Time Turner itself isn't, I think, symbolic, but Hermione's repeated use of it to do more than any human being should be capable of doing--and at the instigation of an admired teacher!--is a halfway decent metaphor for obsessive-compulsive behavior, and ultimately ends up pushing her over the brink in anxiety. Harry compares her to Lupin at one point, and I think that Lupin is the biggest metaphor for mental illness that we see. Which brings me to...


I know that mental illness isn't the most popular notion for what lycanthropy means, so I want to address the most popular before I begin.

I don't think it's a metaphor for homosexuality. (That's not addressing the question of whether or not Remus is gay. Myself, I vote not, as any regular reader of my journal knows--I ship him with Tonks and have a mad crush on him myself!--but as far as the metaphor goes, it's neither here nor there, and in fact, if it's not a metaphor, there's more chance of it being the reality of the character.)

For one thing, there are no holds barred on the description of lycanthropy--it's a violent, dangerous, painful disease that causes a person to act inhumanly, and to be a vicious predator. I'll grant that I'm not part of the LGB community, but last I knew, that was exactly the metaphorical connection that they wanted to get rid of. I would think a more positive metaphorical connection might be Parseltongue--unfairly classed as "something only Dark wizards" (read, Sinners) do, causing Harry incredible anxiety when he realizes this connection, and causing even Ron and Hermione to be momentarily freaked out... but ultimately being morally neutral, and even helpful to him. It's a part of who he is.

Another point is that the sexual angle of lycanthropy, though present, isn't a major part of the werewolf idea. It's lumped in with violence and gluttony as part of the id run wild, but it's the violence--the wildness--that really stands out about werewolves. Vampires tend to be better metaphors for sexual issues. Werewolves are about evil inside of each of us.

Okay, so that's what I think it's not.

What we have in HP as far as the portrayal of lycanthropy goes is:
  1. A condition which is usually in remission, but can be actively dangerous to self and others when in its acute phase.
  2. An implied loss of ego and superego control over instincts during acute phases.
  3. A disease that is defined by behavior, which is frightening and inexplicable to both the sufferer and those around him.
  4. The magical equivalent of psychopharmaceuticals which have been recently discovered. (Wolfsbane Potion)
  5. A magical equivalent of the kind of padded room, straight-jacket approach that was used in the past (the Shrieking Shack).


"Lunacy," of course, also derives from the Latin for "moon," so the metaphorical connection is longstanding. And lycanthropy outside of fantasy literature is a recognized mental disorder.

All of that together makes me think that what we're dealing with here is a metaphor for psychosis, and a rather kind one at that. It's stated repeatedly that the stigma attached to werewolves when they're not even transformed is unfair and cruel, but it does reflect social attitudes toward psychotics--there's an almost instinctive revulsion. Lupin is portrayed as being eminently reasonable most of the time and very good at what he does, and quite kind (if a bit irresponsible from time to time). The character is portrayed as someone who deserves chances that are taken from him repeatedly because of circumstances beyond his control, and this behavior is shown in a terrible light.

But Rowling doesn't shy away from the monstrousness of the acute phase. When he's drugged, he's all right (though the Wolfsbane seems to leave him very, very tired... a not uncommon effect of anti-psychotics), but when he misses a single dose, there's no doubt that the werewolf is genuinely frightening and needs to be controlled. Remus himself would certainly not say otherwise. And if parents found out that a psychotic was teaching their children, the response would be the same as the one Remus assumed they would have when they found out that a werewolf was.

So basically, I think that both the symptoms of the disease and the social attitudes toward it point to a metaphor for mental illness. And yes, I did just take that long to repeat myself at length.

At any rate, while the theme of abnormal thinking comes up repeatedly in the other books, I think it's PoA where it's most clearly highlighted in a symbolic way.
15 comments or Leave a comment
Comments
equustel From: equustel Date: June 22nd, 2004 11:27 pm (UTC) (Link)
You know, I friended you cos I so love your SW fanfic and insight (I'm TheVioletBurns in that fandom) but now, as I get deeper and deeper into Harry Potter as well, I'm finding your comments on it (predictably) just as refreshing and interesting. Please, never stop rambling! :) I love reading your thought processes.
glitterdemon From: glitterdemon Date: June 23rd, 2004 12:50 am (UTC) (Link)
I admit to finding the idea of lycanthropy=homosexuality appealing, just because it's what I identify with. (Though I will say that I think it still stands as a more general metaphor for 'otherness', and that if Remus is gay -- to reiterate all the debates going around -- we're probably never going to hear about it because it would still be too close to making the metaphor literal.) I know JKR intended it as a metaphor for mental illness, but, well, I suppose I never thought too deeply about it, and figured that authorial intent didn't necessarily have to come into play in my interpretation. But I have to say, you've converted me with this.
From: pandora_hyde Date: June 23rd, 2004 06:07 am (UTC) (Link)
What we have in HP as far as the portrayal of lycanthropy goes is:

A condition which is usually in remission, but can be actively dangerous to self and others when in its acute phase.

An implied loss of ego and superego control over instincts during acute phases.

A disease that is defined by behavior, which is frightening and inexplicable to both the sufferer and those around him.

The magical equivalent of psychopharmaceuticals which have been recently discovered. (Wolfsbane Potion)

A magical equivalent of the kind of padded room, straight-jacket approach that was used in the past (the Shrieking Shack).


Did you see the movie As Good as It Gets? I thought it was dreadfully depressing, but raises the whole idea of mental illness in a way which can be somewhat applicable to lycanthropy/mental illness parallel. As long as the person with the mental illness is on medication, he can be a pleasure to be around; when he forgets his meds or simply refuses to take them, all hell can break loose and he is capable of doing quite a bit of damage. Does this mean the people in his life stop loving him or stop seeing him as worthy of love? Of course not. But it does mean all those around him are in for a rather bumpy ride.

Lupin hates what he is, fights it, but can't stop from becoming it. That is mental illness. Those of us who are sane can decide to behave psychotically at any time (and oh so many do -- just add alcohol and football) but in most cases we don't choose to. The mentally ill person can not choose. I have a somewhat-near relative who is bipolar. How many times has it been said that she should just "take her medicine" or "do this" or "stop doing that" and it's quite frustrating for all the non-bipolar (would that be polar?) to understand. Obviously, she CAN'T stop or she would.

So I don't see lycanthropy as any kind of metaphor for homosexuality. I don't see that she's tackling homosexuality in any of her books beyond remarks about Grubbly-Plank's pipe and severe haircut. Wouldnt' that be something -- to NOT raise an issue about one's sexual choices? To simply allow it to be or not be.

As for the 'shipping', I am a R/T shipper, too. That would mean Tonks is in for a bumpy ride in the future but I suppose we'll see that she thinks he's worth it. JKR has written Tonks as cheerful, easy-going and accepting of people. Those personality traits would play well in living with someone with the illness of lycanthropy. I don't forsee a "cure" for Remus in the future -- I think it matters more how he (and those who love him) live with and deal with the illness than in giving him a happily ever after. Well, happily ever afters are much sweeter when they win out over trials anyway, aren't they?
~Pan

kizmet_42 From: kizmet_42 Date: June 23rd, 2004 08:03 am (UTC) (Link)
I read the first part of the article on lycanthropy and wondered when Stephen King was going to use it for a story. Rural community, every twenty eight days another victim, three kids start sleuthing... Perfect SK novel, no?

I think that you're right, Remus isn't being written as a gay character, he's been written as a person with a recurring mental illness. I did take the stigma that werewolves are smacked with to be an allegory of what AIDS victims, particularly in the early 1980's had to endure. Those whom I know with moderate to severe schizophrenia are also ostracized, as are those like my sister who are mentally retarded. The wizarding world is indeed a fun-house mirror that reflects back our own culture with some twists that more clearly show our own strengths and weaknesses.

...but it does reflect social attitudes toward psychotics--there's an almost instinctive revulsion.

Well, if by psychotics you mean those people who are unable to deal with the here and now and instead are living inside their own world (as opposed to fanficcers, who occasionally dwell there) - then yes, we as a society do hold that in abhorrence and want the psychotic to come back to a place where we can interact with them. I suspect that a great many of those who deal with family members who are severely mentally ill get burned out because there is this natural desire to love a family member and the psychotic, being out of touch with reality, is often hard-pressed or incapable of responding. This differs from those with a physical illness or a mental disability.

Perhaps lycanthropy might be also compared to epilepsy. For a period of time, self-control is totally lost. Management of this condition generally runs the gamut of drugs and possibly surgery. Oh, now there's a really nasty plot bunny.

Kizmet
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: June 23rd, 2004 08:42 am (UTC) (Link)
I read the first part of the article on lycanthropy and wondered when Stephen King was going to use it for a story. Rural community, every twenty eight days another victim, three kids start sleuthing... Perfect SK novel, no?

Cycle of the Werewolf. ;) And even better, King's own adaptation of "Cycle," Silver Bullet, which is one of the few extremely changed movies that I prefer to the book--I think because the author did it himself and used it as a chance to take another bite at the apple. "Cycle" started out as a piece that was meant to be a vignette-a-month calendar, which was a great idea, but not suited to King's style. "Bullet" is a unified story. And hey, Corey Haim before he gave up on the notion of acting when he was in front of the camera. He was good.
lync From: lync Date: June 23rd, 2004 08:40 am (UTC) (Link)
I don't really have anything to say other than what an interesting read! I don't have any real knowledge about any mental illnesses other than depression because that's what I have. I never thought about the Dementors as a metaphor for depression but now that I have read what you wrote, I can easily see that. :)

This was very interesting to read. YAY! :D
likeafox From: likeafox Date: June 23rd, 2004 10:21 am (UTC) (Link)
I always love it when you post "informal observations." :) Very informative, and I agree with you on the lycanthropy/mental illness comparison.

I was wondering what you thought about lycanthropy in the HP world in regards to times other than the full moon. Fanfic authors approach this many different ways, from Remus being completely normal and unaffected except when he's transformed, to him being a raging ball of angst with the "wolf" always just below the surface, fighting to get free. I suppose comparisons to mental illness work better with something more like the latter. Not necessarily that intense, but rather lycanthropy being something Remus struggles with all the time, not just around the full moon. After all, most mental illnesses don't run on a regular schedule.

Of course, it could also be that between full moons Remus doesn't feel effects of the Lycanthropy directly, but rather the psychological impact of it.

Also, I can see the comparison between Lycanthropy and homosexuality, though I don't think JKR meant it in that way specifically. I think the comparison comes less from the actual effects of Lycanthropy and more from the social and psychological ramifications. It is clear that in the wizarding world children grow up believing that werewolves are bad, much like how many children in today's society grow up surrounded by the belief that homosexuality is wrong. For someone to suddenly discover that they are what they've been raised to dislike has to be incredibly scary.

Another reason for the parallel is probably the marauders themselves. Remus is a werewolf, a fact he tries to hide from all his classmates for fear they would no longer like him if they knew, but when his friends do find out they not only accept him for who he is, they go to extraordinary lengths to help him.

I don't think the parallel stems so much from Remus becoming a wolf once a month, but from the fact that he is different and still his friends are loyal to him.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: June 23rd, 2004 10:41 am (UTC) (Link)
I was wondering what you thought about lycanthropy in the HP world in regards to times other than the full moon.

I think Remus is always accutely aware of his illness, to the point where it warps his life even more than its natural symptoms should. I don't think that the Wolf is always there, stretching to get out--but I do suspect that every time Remus is on the verge of losing his temper, or letting his passions overwhelm him in any other way, some part of his mind starts screaming, "Wolf! It's there! It's trying to come out!" I actually--though I haven't said it in so many words--write him as a total celibate because of this fear (as opposed to someone who is celibate by choice). Those anxiety dreams that I gave him in "Shifts" have nothing whatsoever to do with his lycanthropy, even though he dreams that he transforms--he's just associated any animal-like instinctive behavior with The Wolf, and can't separate them very well.

There are a lot of things society looks down on with otherness. Lycanthropy would have to be a metaphor for one which isn't entirely baseless. Most psychosis doesn't create violent behavior, but when people are unplugged from reality, they can be dangerous to themselves and others even without violent intent. And having shared an apartment with a psychotic for two years (no one I cared about; just a rent-split scheme), I'll definitely cop to the creepy factor. When she explained to me about how all the evil forces in the world had converged on her one day and forced her into poverty, and how when it was revealed that she was chosen by the gods (or something), all these mathematical formulae of evil would balance out... it was freaky. I wondered where in the equations I fit, you know?

High intelligence (or any sort of high skill not involved in sports) is also frowned upon by society--I tend to look at Hogwarts and the magical world as being metaphoric of giftedness in general.

I just don't see a lot of sexuality metaphors in it.
likeafox From: likeafox Date: June 23rd, 2004 11:50 am (UTC) (Link)
I guess I see the parallel to homosexuality not as "preferring people of the same sex in relations= becoming a werewolf once a month", but more in the sense that being gay is a part of someone that is unchangeable and others often dislike or even hate someone for and how this is the same response typically given to a werewolf in HP. Of course, I can see this parallel working for almost anything were someone is different from the norm.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: June 23rd, 2004 12:18 pm (UTC) (Link)
Right--my point is that the idea of "difference" is too broad to have any specific metaphor attached to it. There are different ways of being different, and society will react the same way to all of them, so social reactions aren't really a good measure--by social reaction, it could be any unusual sexual practice, any special talent, being of a racial or ethnic group different from the majority, having political opinions different from the majority, psychosis, obesity, a taste for science fiction and fantasy, poverty, bad taste in clothes, incurable diseases, inability to speak a predominant language, or accents that don't reflect the local culture. People will respond to any of those things by stigmatizing and condemning and doing all the things that Remus experiences. It's hardly something that's unique to issues of sexuality, so to read the metaphor, I think you'd need to look at what's specific to it to see what particular kind of otherness it represents. And the specifics, to me, don't seem to point to sexuality.
From: anatomiste Date: June 23rd, 2004 10:24 am (UTC) (Link)
Do you know that this is linked on Daily Snitch? http://www.livejournal.com/community/daily_snitch/11105.html
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: June 23rd, 2004 10:42 am (UTC) (Link)
Yeah, I noticed. Thanks, isiscolo!
From: prettypuddle Date: June 23rd, 2004 12:41 pm (UTC) (Link)
But Hermione's repeated use of [the Time Turner] to do more than any human being should be capable of doing--and at the instigation of an admired teacher!--is a halfway decent metaphor for obsessive-compulsive behavior, and ultimately ends up pushing her over the brink in anxiety.

Again and again and again until it all comes crashing down... that makes sense. And while the Turner may not be symbolic of the behaviour itself, one could say that the artifact may as well be a tap or a door-frame for all that it could be representing. Interesting point.

Furthermore, we are also offered the thought and fear behind the behaviour. Her terror after facing the McGonagall bogart mirrors the phobic tendencies that often accompany any obsessive-compulsive behaviour, and thus her fear of academic failure becomes symbolic of the obsession behind the compulsion. Personally, I would argue that Hermione's stressful year in PoA actually tips over the edge of symbolic and tumbles into being literately characterized by obsessive-compulsiveness. Certainly, her desperate attempts to keep up with her schoolwork even if it means staying up until all hours and eventually breaking down is not far from the "have to - or else..." mind-set that goes with obsessive-compulsive behaviour.
instrumentality From: instrumentality Date: June 23rd, 2004 04:53 pm (UTC) (Link)
not only was this extremely thought-provoking and well presented, i'd like to say that, in my own very biased opinion, it's bang-on. with so many theories about lycanthropy that i just couldn't get behind, it's great to find one that rings so wonderfully true. brilliant work.
violet_quill From: violet_quill Date: June 24th, 2004 01:39 pm (UTC) (Link)
I think that this is a very well-formulated argument and that, actually, you're absolutely right. I personally think that the parallels are much more clear here than as a metaphor for homosexuality, even though it could be true for both.

When I first read PoA actually, I drew an analogy in my head to bipolar disorder - one creature one moment, another the next. And lithium did have that "wonder drug" appeal when it was first introduced, rather like the way wolfsbane is presented. Though, hmmm, I think that a treatment for schizophrenia may fit the analogy even better - it allows you to "keep your mind." And of course, the other parallel is - drug treatments for schizophrenia work by blocking dopamine, but too much dopamine is what generally causes Parkinson's disease, so if it's not at the exact correct level, Parkinson's symptoms can overshadow the schizophrenia. Similarly, Wolfsbane the plant in too heavy doses can kill a werewolf, which is why the potion is so difficult to brew, right?

So those are my thoughts on specific mental illnesses. I'll have to think on this some more... I did really enjoy reading your analysis.
15 comments or Leave a comment