What’s in, what’s out, how it tells your story, and failing to parallel Hamilton’s subversive structure
Content warning: rape, anti-abortion rhetoric
On June 26, I left Richard Rodgers Theatre with an embarrassingly big grin - after all, I had just experienced Hamilton. Like many others, I'd listened to the soundtrack many times before even acquiring tickets to the musical, and I'd heard praises for the costumes, the acting, the staging from my friends who had already seen it. It lived up to the hype.
That giant smile wasn't primarily about performance, but about the racial subversion that underscores the story. Lin-Manuel Miranda painstakingly researched Alexander Hamilton's life to create a transformative work (read: fanfic) that bent race to elevate those who were left out of the formation of my country despite the reality that the oppression of people of color was integral to its creation.
Of course, not everyone got that, but none missed it as poorly for me as Alex Nichols complaining that Miranda's choices "ducked the question of slavery". So when Todd VanDerWerff replied that "it's not a work that tries to excuse Alexander Hamilton’s failure to do anything substantive about slavery" but a "rumination to make a better story", I smiled because someone directly responded to Nichols's criticisms with Hamilton's transformative nature. VanDerWerff speaks to how Hamilton's "story about stories" presented a platform to stories too often robbed of that platform and describes how Miranda picked what to include and what to exclude didn't remove slavery from the narrative - "the story that seemed like the most important one" didn't have to be the most important one - but ultimately I think he missed the point in a way that left me feeling sour.
VanDerWerff draws parallels between the circumstances of his birth - namely his mother possibly being raped by his father and her choosing not to get an abortion - and his father's story to Miranda's approach to Hamilton, but where Miranda's choices change the common narrative of our society, VanDerWerff's continue it.
Miranda chooses not to linger on the Founding Fathers' tacit acceptance of slavery, but that decision wasn't one that meant Hamilton sanctioned slavery. Unlike with Miranda's swift exclusion of slavery, VanDerWerff lingers on never getting his father's side of the story, how he chooses to "never, ever call his father a rapist". Miranda approaches the inexcusable exclusion of people of color from having a say in the conception of the United States subversively, but VanDerWerff continues the status quo by repeating the need for the (usually male) rapist to condemn himself instead of pausing to deeply reflect on the woman victim's story. I do not begin to think it would be easy to think that someone related to you so closely could be guilty of the terrible act of rape, but he could have dropped the subject just as easily as Miranda did the details of slavery in Hamilton instead of repeatedly circling back to the night in question. VanDerWerff could have written the untold story of his father instead of continuing an often told story that damages women.
Inspired by the series of accidents surrounding Alexander Hamilton's involvement in the American Revolution, VanDerWerff discusses the happenstance of his mother's choice not to get an abortion. I agree with his insight that "We are, all of us, accidents, in a sense" like Hamilton. But Miranda's Hamilton subversively focuses on accidents surrounding an immigrant in a time where immigrants are systematically denied the respect they deserve, while VanDerWerff plays up the dominant narrative that not getting an abortion ushers joy into a mother's life - the same narrative prioritizes the possibility of a dependent fetus becoming a child that is incorrectly used to pressure a woman out of considering the needs of her own life and body, the story used to pressure women out of getting abortions. It's the same story that incites violence against the women who exercise their right to one despite that undue pressure.
The beauty of Hamilton lies in using catchy beats and phrases to help us think critically about the world we live in, to think about how it could be better by including people of color, respecting immigrants, and praising the works of marginalized groups. Hamilton works specifically because it focuses on important things missing from the narrative we're overwhelmingly taught - instead of picking pieces from the narrative in a way that highlights already common, and damaging, beliefs like VanDerWerff's article.
 and the failure of the other Founding Fathers, too.
 I also jumped for joy because someone found beautiful, cohesive words that embody my feelings on how Eliza deserved the final number.
 Hamilton certainly was when John Adams called him "creole bastard" despite all the Founding Fathers being recent immigrants to America.
 and I don't doubt for a second that his existence in his mother's life and the world at large are treasures
In Harry Potter, Dementors are some of the scariest foes - they feed upon human happiness, causing overwhelming surges of depression that can leave a person an "empty-shell" with extended exposure. The Patronus Charm is the primary defense against them: witches and wizards can ward the Dark creatures away by concentrating on their happiest memory.
In interviews, J.K. Rowling describes how her struggles with depression inspired the soul-sucking Dementors. I continue to be extremely impressed by people who are able to talk openly about their depression, no less channel it into stories that can speak to others, too.
But I have to wonder: if Dementors are a physical representation of depression, what message does needing to cast a Patronus to fight them send?
Depression has been many different sorts of nasty spirals for me, and I certainly haven't always been able to reach a happy enough memory to cast a corporeal Patronus to climb out of it. Fortunately, I haven't always needed to latch onto a happy memory to defeat it because depression likes to work in wacky, unpredictable ways. The main thing I've learned from beating depression on more occasions than I'd like to admit is that there isn't a single surefire way for me to sneak past it.
So when I reread parts of Harry Potter with Dementors, I get a little jumpy. Not all of the characters' experiences involve them successfully sending the creatures away, and I'm grateful that the story offers that up as okay. But every time I see one of the characters defeat them by finding solace in happy memories to pull themselves past the draining hopelessness that is depression, I also want to scream into the pages that this can't be the only way to defeat Dementors.
I fear readers will feel intractably stuck with their Dementors because they can't conjure that elusive Patronus - I want to make sure those readers don't lose hope because they might not be able to find their way past depression with happy memories.
I want us to have a library of stories that explores the wide variety of ways we beat our various fights with our varied depressions, so I've started crafting some of them as short stand-alone chapters for a fanfic I'm calling "Natural colds". I'm cross-posting these discussions of the many ways, beyond just the Patronus Charm, that characters deal with Dementors on Archive of Our Own.
Fandom: Harry Potter
Rating: teen and up primarily for discussions of depression, later chapters will have specific warnings for other difficult topics or specific difficult experiences with depression
People didn't just deal with Dementors by casting the Patronus Charm - the missing, more diverse ways of handling the shrouded Dark creatures and depression.
i. Lisa Turpin
Lisa Turpin accidentally left her potions textbooks at Herbology. Fearful of losing house points for being unprepared for class later, she snuck away from the line of students Professor Sprout was leading back to the castle. Maybe she should have been more concerned about the Dementors everyone was buzzing about. Maybe she should have felt a little more guilty for failing to care about Ravenclaw's standing in the House Cup, but nothing could distract her from the mortifying prospect that the other students would remember her existence as Professor Snape would mention her name.
One foot in front of the other, keep your head down, focus on the ground. Focus on slipping farther and farther into your robes and away from view.
She had been told they floated slightly above you before closing in on you fast as hawks; she thought keeping her head away from the clouds could help to keep her safe. She had been told they were physically imposing as well emotionally tolling; she couldn't have expected one to be half her height. Yet, this little one crept into her view along the hems of her robes, hovered around her feet dancing.
The Dementor's dark, bony finger stuck towards her mouth then curled back towards whatever face was hiding behind its tattered, black hood as it floated up to meet her height.
For a moment, what must have been its face looked like a mirror staring back at her, her features fully intact. Abruptly, the image vanished; in its place was the vivid reality of nothingness.
Her friends had guessed nothingness to be the deepest black, a chillingly dark sensation, but she knew that wasn't nothingness. Nothingness was whatever was hid behind it until it flashed white to a blur of colors too tangled to latch onto anything specific; nothingness was the confusion of time - the breath-stealing realization there was no tomorrow, no today.
The hypnotizing kaleidoscope of every color all at once hiding behind that drooping black hood circled to her right, her gaze obeying the command to follow. After the Dementor spun her around seven times, she could have sworn it smirked at her before mouthing something that wasn't quite a kiss to abruptly release her eyes from its trance.
A sharp chill ran up her spine, and the tiny Dementor slid back under the back of her robes. It pulled away its hold on her thoughts in its retreat, left her body quivering, her mind reeling.
The cold dissipated through her limbs; her scattered thoughts cleared. In their place, a small ball of dread knotted into her gut. She mustered the little strength left at her disposal to push it deeper from the surface and walked back to the castle for class.
Luna Lovegood was buried in the latest issue of The Quibbler when she heard the common room door creak and watched Lisa Turpin walk in with her head pointed directly towards her toes, shoulders slouched.
"Hey, Lisa," Luna offered with a smile. "Everything alright?"
"I'm fine." The Dementor hiding beneath her stirred to lightly tickle her ankles. "Just tired."
"Okay, if you need anything..."
The almost soft tickles became aggressive - Lisa twitched forward and hastily turned towards the dorms. No one caught that, right? She felt the Dementor shift left then right as though it was replying with a firm "no" then looked over her left shoulder back towards Luna and quickly mumbled, "Thanks."
As she stepped up the stairs, the little Dementor relented.
Hours turned into days turned into weeks, and the little bugger wouldn't leave her alone.
The tickling, the bouts of sudden colds grew unremarkable then unnoticeable - everything blurred into a hardened, all-encompassing nothingness.
Even though her grades didn't slip, her interest in charms slid away. Essay topics she used to approach with vigor became mechanical; her wand flicks lost their luster.
Luna worried more and more as Lisa withdrew more quickly from her meals to the common room before others got there, then to her room as soon as her housemates turned in for the evening. She smiled and tried to engage her with the latest from The Quibbler or her favorite moments from Care of Magical Creatures. Luna offered an eager ear and big, patient eyes day after day or just quietly sat nearby when she could, but she just couldn't get through.
One day, Lisa was staring listlessly out her dorm room's window - the Dementor sitting at her side, its fingers playing at her shoulder - when one of the castle's owls dropped the letter it was carrying on the lawn. Frantically, the barn owl dove down towards the puddle where the note landed.
As the letter floated down the puddle, the owl scampered towards it, tripped over its legs twice. The letter reached the edge of the puddle and shored onto the grass. Instead of picking it up, the owl lingered to twist and shake as if to take a bath - forgetting there was no way for it to get clean in the dirt-filled water.
Unamused, the Dementor shifted to its right, pulled Lisa's arm towards it, away from the sight of the now dirty owl writhing around in its muddy bathwater.
"I'm watching that!" She snapped at the dark, little form. Unable to look away from the owl's movement, she broke out in an exuberant laughter - the kind that comes from the bottom of your belly.
The Dementor kept tugging at her sleeve, but minutes passed - Lisa kept chuckling. Inspired by the barn owl, she peeled away towards the girls' bathroom to sing through a long hot shower, and bored, the Dementor waltzed away.
ii. Sirius Black
No one really expected Sirius Black to survive in Azkaban for long. Sure, Sirius had exuded confidence and determination to a fault, but Dementors never failed to break down those walls.
But Sirius was also exceedingly clever and had a dirty little furry secret on his side: when he felt his excitement, his compassion, his sense of humor, his humanity slip away from him, he'd morph into his animagus form, the fluffy dog his godson would later call Snuffles.
That particularly furry, big black dog had a peculiar immunity to the Dementors feeding: the creatures didn't know how to prey on non-human thought processes. Maybe someone else, like the Hermione he'd meet years later, would publish something about how animagi had a natural resistance to their feeding. Even if Sirius could develop the patience for that kind of scientific writing, he wouldn't want these "tricks" to become public so freely, to fall into the hands of the wrong people; the Death Eaters who were fully devoid of compassion deserved this punishment. Surely, this technique was intended solely for people like him - people who could think back to first moment they sat next to James, his future best friend, on the Hogwarts Express at eleven; people who could remember the relief painted on Remus's face when Wormtail, Padfoot, and Prongs showed up at the Shrieking Shack as animagi; people who could recall with perfect clarity the smile on his face when his best friend told him Lily enthusiastically proclaimed "yes"; people who could tap into these memories to produce a full corporeal patronus had the ministry not unjustly seized their wands.
Sirius would swear left and right that he had been transforming into Snuffles all those years he was locked up to perfect his escape plan, but if he was being truthful, he'd admit that it had nothing to do with escape at first, just self-preservation, survival. That first hooded void peering into his eyes, poring through his memories, picking out his conversation with James about getting Harry a broomstick for Christmas, sucking it away. He could see the frames from his memory flow out of his body, the continuity between them peeling apart, until they became just a small set of fading photos barely outlining the story - the end of a letter from James and Lily, a page out of a Quidditch catalog, kneeling on the floor and seeing a coal face in his fireplace. Losing the moving pictures was depressing; gaining the intense urge to sob but lacking the physical will to do so was devastating.
As that Dementor pulled away, Sirius's forehead involuntarily alternated between stretching past its edges and constricting back into itself, and he became suddenly aware that he couldn't quite feel his fingers or his toes. Snuffles rarely suffered his physical ailments - headaches from hangovers disappeared; he could keep warm while running away to the Potters’. Now Sirius learned that Snuffles could push out emotional trials as well.
As time went on, the Dementors wore down on him more and more, broke him. His pleasant memories, his hope for vindication, his desire for freedom slipped away, leaving him alone with the despair of his wrongful conviction. Locked in the moment with James’s body lifeless across the floor, Lily’s merely feet away, Harry’s screams. Hallucinating James’s spirit holding Lily in his arms, bawling at the sight of Harry, shrieking at Sirius for letting it happen.
So his anxiety rose; Snuffles itched more. He grew skinnier, more pale; Snuffles lost weight, too, and his fur lost its sheen. Transforming for about a half hour only after meals turned into an hour, then two; later, he started becoming Snuffles after waking up, too. Eventually he was Snuffles whenever he was away from Dementors, even during sleep.
As the amount of time he spent as a human dwindled, his memory faded. Deeply fearful that the core of his humanity would follow - well, more specifically, he was afraid he'd lose his wit, his cunning, his good looks, his charm, or worse, his desire for mischief and his lust for women - if he stayed Snuffles too long, he tried to keep what he started to call "mutt time" to a minimum.
One day in 1993, he didn't wake before a Dementor brought him breakfast - he was still asleep as Snuffles. He immediately panicked. Before he could even realize that the additional crime of being an illegal animagus would ensure his punishment went on even after his name was finally cleared, an emaciated Snuffles darted through the cell door, out of the prison, started swimming across North Sea.
When he finally reached the shore, the hole in his mind dug out by the Dementors filled itself with the sudden reality of his future - Harry.
iii. Henry Hicks
Henry Hicks possessed a natural knack for charms, the inexplicable youthful energy of a second year, and that stereotypically Slytherin ambition - a convenient combination for someone determined to learn the Patronus Charm.
Last night when he entered the dungeons, Draco, Vincent, and Gregory had sat strewn across the couches, mocking the day's Defense lessons on the subject.
"It's not even like those sad animal shaped flicks of light can do more than shew a Dementor away; they can't actually kill them."
"Plus, how scary can something actually be when it's afraid of illusions?"
"Who cares? Those tricks won't save them from the Dark Lord."
Professor Flitwick caught wind of Henry's plan and worried about how he would handle failure - Henry was already having a tough time in Slytherin after some certain other students had found out his father was a Squib - but those same difficulties reassured the professor of Henry's resilience.
Henry wasn't actually afraid of Dementors - at least not in any immediate sense, as they'd been driven out of Hogwarts a couple of years ago. His interest in the Patronus Charm grew from conversations with his father, who having lacked magical powers became a Muggle psychologist. Starting when Henry was a young boy, his father had emphasized the importance of "practicing happiness". Henry wasn't entirely sure what this meant yet, but he liked being encouraged to occasionally linger on moments where he felt engaged, contented, loved.
After hearing about the charm a few weeks ago, he owled home asking about it. His mother responded that she had cast it occasionally just because - they were fortunate enough to have stayed safe despite the war - and that if he channeled his father's happiness exercises, he would be most of the way to supplying the memory needed to cast it.
When Henry found moments to himself, he would attempt to cast the spell. "Expecto Patronum" rolled easily off his tongue, but even after a dozen or so attempts, the best he got off was a steady stream of light he could circle around his body.
He didn't mind - despite failing to cast a corporeal Patronus, he enjoyed the warmth the charm left flowing throughout his body. Someday, he was sure, he'd find out what shape his guardian took, but for now, this was enough.
Liz rides the subway is a series containing thoughts I have on the subway, mostly as an experiment to get me to write more. On today's commutes to and from work:
A Fine Frenzy's "Rangers" is a much more poetic song than Taylor Swift's awkwardly similar "I Know Places". A hunted rabbit is a tighter analogy than a hunted fox. Also, I sure haven't looked for any new music lately...
Naomi Novik writes fanfic! Fanfic is my new favorite commute buddy.
It would be really rad if Matt Levine's daily Money Stuff email was sent out before I got on the subway each morning instead of after I got off it.
I feel lucky that it made more sense to drive than take the train every time I left the house last weekend, since I certainly would have been a lot grumpier about not getting a seat then than today. The bruises from falling down a flight of stairs last Friday does not a happy standing Liz commute make. Dreaming of a passive, low effort way to signal invisible pain that is easily understood and widely respected.
Cate Huston's recent article on saying "no" comes at a time when multiple women I care about have hit the same wall from putting in unsustainable amounts of emotional labor to improve tech for women. A choice quote from Huston's writing that can apply to anything:
Saying no is a powerful thing. Refusing obligations and choosing your own priorities is an act of self care and an expression of hope. Saying no is an act of strength. A peaceful resistance. I embrace it, and as with all things, the more I do it the easier it gets.