The boy who never read ‘Harry Potter,’ but still lived

Wednesday, February 14, 2018 - 6:44pm

Daniel Radcliff in "Harry Potter"

Daniel Radcliff in "Harry Potter" Buy this photo
Warner Bros. Pictures

(Before we start, I just want to say one thing: Sorry Mom. But more on that later.)

I have never read a single Harry Potter book in my life. I’m not completely in the dark about the franchise — I know vague details about the ins and outs of the wizarding world J. K. Rowling has crafted, I know the main plot riffs and spoiler-worthy moments of the series (Snape kills Dumbledore?), et cetera. If someone said “Expecto patronum” in my general direction my Muggle mind wouldn’t think they’re speaking a foreign language.

While something simple like missing out on a piece of pop culture generally isn’t that big of a deal, being behind on one of the most internationally renowned and beloved franchises of all time is something my friends couldn’t help but poke fun at. Many a time “Harry Potter” has come up in group conversation and my buddies look towards me with ear-to-ear grins before condescendingly beckoning to change the subject for the poor sake of little old me. They were quite amused when I got Hufflepuff from a Buzzfeed Hogwarts house quiz, asserting “of course you would be a Hufflepuff” and refusing to explain the humor in that. Further adding to the confusion, when one of my friends finally decided to right these wrongs and get me to watch the movies, he unfortunately decided the best starting point would be the rerun of “Deathly Hallows: Part 2” we stumbled upon that was already halfway over.

As much as you would be led to believe distancing myself from the Potterverse was a conscious decision on my part, it was very much the opposite. I was born and raised Catholic, went to Catholic schools the majority of my life, went to Mass every week, all that Jesus jazz. Yet the biggest determiner in my own religious formation was not myself, but my mother. An amazing woman and important role model in her own right, my mom is one of the most ardent Catholics I know (more so than my dad, which I find slightly funny because she was the one who converted to marry into his Italian-American Catholic family). Faith obviously plays a huge role in my mother’s life, but she is not like the bible-thumping Southern Baptists, Presbyterians and other Christians I grew up around; quite the opposite, in fact. Despite being respectful of other religions and understanding of other perspectives, I will never quite understand why she banned me from reading “Harry Potter.”

I was allowed to play Pokémon as a kid. I could read “Lord of the Rings,” “Chronicles of Narnia,” any fantasy series with magical elements. My mom didn’t mind when I played the odd game of Dungeons and Dragons with my friend and his brother. Anything which Christian parents usually misconstrued as “demonic” was free-range for me. So never will I ever understand why “Harry Potter” was off-limits, while everything else was fine. She has never told me either; despite repeatedly asking, I usually receive a heavy-handed answer involving its connection to evil witchcraft and Satan that always flies over my head. Only my mom promotes this dogma; my dad will often chide my sister and I about “Scary Potter,” only to be greeted by my mother’s rolling eyes and an exhortation to take it seriously.

Since I figured I’m going to Hell anyways, I invoked my rebellious side with my newfound college independence and took matters into my own hands. I read the first “Harry Potter” book (*gasp!*). It wasn’t the first time I’d attempted to do so — back in fifth grade I clandestinely read the first two chapters in the school library but lacked the cojones to actually check out the darn thing.

Despite being over two decades late to the party, I tried to make the experience as magical as possible, in an attempt to recapture some of that childlike wonder and awe I had got from books like “Eragon” and the “Percy Jackson” series. Trying to find the book itself in the literacy maze of the Dawn Treader Book Shop was not unlike Harry, Ron and Hermione’s struggles combing through the library to find information on Nicholas Flamel. Instead of reading the book in familiarity of my dorm room, I made an effort to immerse myself in cozy yet subtly spellbinding places like the Union and the Michigan League to intensify the marvelous sense of amazement. While I attempted to absorb the Christmas atmosphere of Hogwarts by reading part of it in the snowy Diag, five minutes was all I could handle.

I felt it necessary to finish reading “Sorcerer’s Stone” in the Law Library, a real-life embodiment of Hogwarts’s Great Hall. Luckily my copy of the book came without a dust jacket and bares a crimson cover free of illustrations, so to my fellow students frantically studying next to me I looked to be feverishly devouring exalted literature or an English class rather than a book most of them had read as kids. And upon flipping the last page and closing it shut, I was greeted by an ending far more heartfelt and far less magical than I was led to believe after all these years. Despite my attempts to recreate the magic Rowling intended for first-time readers to experience, there was no spark. It was an amusing, fast-paced story with an intricate world and well-written characters, but I have not found myself pondering about what it would like to be a wizard in Harry’s world or hypothesizing about the next book like kids all around the world did in 1998.

Instead, I was more enchanted by how the book manages to stay grounded in reality despite the abundance of fantastical and magical elements. Sure, Harry whips around on a flying broomstick and uses an invisibility cloak to sneak a dragon into Hogwarts, but not everything’s happy-go-lucky for him; he struggles to fit in at a new school where everybody knows his name and expect great things out of him, still a terrified boy who was suddenly thrust into this whole new world. With the book starting by focusing on Harry’s miserable life with his abusive step-family and ending with him returning to that same family for the summer, Hogwarts seems more an escape for Harry rather than a permanent home.

I was pleasantly surprised by the book’s balance of reality and magic (rather than focusing too much on the latter), which brought me to the most important question I considered during reading. What in this book, or anything “Harry Potter”-related for that matter, is so terrible, so demonic, so anti-Catholic as to convince my mom to prohibit me from laying my eyes on any of it? While I don’t have an answer to that question, and maybe never will, I think at this point in my life I have a greater understanding of the complicated nature of religion and its influences on family than 10-year-old me ever did.

All my life Catholicism shrouded me like the heaviest blanket, comforting enough to stop me from questioning what it was shielding me from in the first place. I went along with what my parents told me was right and wrong, followed what I was taught in school, obeyed the general message preached on Sundays. Yet only now do I realize that I never gave my own religious beliefs any true thought. Somewhat ironically, what caused me to finally consider the meaning of religion in my life was being constantly taught the same thing over and over and over again in religion class in high school.

For years I had been told repeatedly one has to follow what’s said in the Bible — live like Jesus and all those other Catholic platitudes — to be a good Catholic. And to an unformed kid, one would naturally connote being a good Catholic with being a good person, like they were mutually interdependent. I had been advised to find solace in an eternity with God in heaven without ever considering if that fact was even comforting to begin with. I allowed other people make a choice for me which should have been mine and mine alone.

Most us are born into religion. We go along with what we are told from the start and accept it as fact. While this is not necessarily a bad thing, something as daunting and absolute as faith should ideally be a personal decision resulting from years of reflection.

In this way especially, I relate with Harry Potter and his predetermined destiny as the chosen wizard to defeat Voldemort. While I know eventually that this will happen by the final book, the details of the challenges he faces along the way and their effect on his growth will continue to be unknown to me. I will never read another “Harry Potter” book, not for dislike of the story, but because only one was needed to finally convince me to critically assess the beliefs I have mindlessly held for so long.

I know Harry eventually will accept his fate, but unknown to me now is whether or not I will accept my faith.  He tries to save the world. I’m trying to “save my soul” (at least according to my mother). Yet unlike him, I may never try to achieve the goal laid out for me at birth. There is no denying the strong, positive influence religion has on the lives of others, but I don’t personally believe it is necessary to reach my own goals and be the person I strive to be. Who would’ve thought that in banning a simple children’s book, my mom did not protect my faith as she had hoped, but instead provoked fundamentally profound religious introspection that I might have never considered if I was allowed to read it in the first place.