A long office Wednesday drew to a close as I shuffled mail into boxes. A group of co-workers taking an impromptu break in the hall between offices and kitchen began discussing Harry Potter just as I filed away the last credit card offer. I leaned against the wall on the group’s edge as we took turns describing when we discovered t the series. One mentioned she was in second grade when the books first came out and the rest of us took a deep breath, suddenly aware of how long ago that was.
I smiled. “Well, “I said, “I grew up in a circle of people really concerned about possible demonic influences in Harry Potter, because of the witchcraft.” I laughed and crossed my arms. One of my co-workers nodded, she knew someone else like that she said.
“My grandma gave my brother the first three books and then he started reading them so I read them to point out all the bad things.” I smirked. “I decided the kids challenged authority too much, but the witchcraft was okay. Then I read them in college and went, ‘What the hell was my problem?’”
“Well, it’s because you were brainwashed, right?” One co-worker asked, chuckling along with me. We’d talked before, she knew my story.
My smile tightened. “Yeah, I guess so.” I shrugged. Brainwashed? Crap, did I really make it sound that way?
I’ve called my former self plenty of things – naïve, judgmental, generally insufferable – but beneath those words lurks an assumption of control. After all, my brother was raised the same way and he picked up Harry Potter as if it were just another series. Meanwhile, I dissected each spell fearing I’d find some echo of real world Wicca which I’d been warned against in the pages of Christian magazines. Certainly, my choices were hobbled by the world I grew up in, but no one was holding a wand to my head. Or so, I’ve told myself for years.
My junior year, the K-12 private Christian school I attended sent notes home announcing a ban on Harry Potter, Dungeons and Dragons, Lord of the Rings, and Pokémon. This surprised our teacher, who’d been discussing his reading of Tolkien during opening exercises each day.
I remember cataloging the items on the banned list. Dungeons and Dragons? Didn’t that die out in the eighties? I assumed Pokémon made the list after some parents heard rumors that the Japanese title usually translated as “pocket monsters” actually meant “little demons,” something I’d heard from one of the nuttier callers on one of the Christian talk shows I’d listened to. I rolled my eyes.
Lord of the Rings? It was written by a Christian, for goodness sake. Okay, a Catholic which made it suspect, but it had undeniable Christian themes and I was sure Tolkien had made it to heaven. And why wasn’t anyone cracking down on the plethora of Star Wars backpacks, lunchboxes, and t-shirts? Why did the Force, which I thought reduced God to some kind of mystical energy, get a pass when Gandalf’s unexplained wizardry did not? I thought of the Yoda puppet in my youth pastor’s office. Bit of a double standard there.
I usually read during breaks at school and began bringing The Silmarillion, a collection of myths and tales set long before the events of The Lord of the Rings to school. I read it in the back corner of the gym where extra pews were stored or on a back stairwell. Am I’m being rebellious? I thought one day. I shook my head. It’s stupid, why would God give us imagination if he didn’t want us to use it? Still, I told my brother he couldn’t borrow my copy of Lord of the Rings if he were going to take it to school. Breaking the spirit of the law was one thing, actually violating it was another.
Near the end of my high school career, the youth pastor arranged a “pastor panel.” The church I attended was large enough to support the school and many pastors. Four of them showed up that night to answer questions the students wrote on slips of paper and stuck into a repurposed Kleenex box.
One of the questions was, “What do you think about fantasy books like Harry Potter?”
One after the other, the pastors declared them dangerous. “I mean, it’s an escape from reality.“ One said near the end, brows furrowed. He held out his hands, palms up, “Why would you want to escape from reality?”
I was taking anti-depressants at the time and coping with the aftermath of testifying in court against my former stepfather. Middle Earth had helped me survive the last three years. I created stories in my head in which a half-elf girl (who looked a lot like me) fought alongside Gandalf and the hobbits. An escape, I refused to condemn. I stared at the wall behind the pastor. Glad your reality’s been so good you never wanted to escape from it. Must be nice.
In the narrative I tell of my past, the forbidden books on the back step and the unspoken questions become key scenes in my narrative of escape. They are proof I wasn’t some unthinking drone so locked into a specific worldview that every book I read clearly fell into categories of moral or immoral.
Perhaps that’s why saying I was brainwashed feels too simple. Question by question, my world slowly collapsed and then reformed. Right or wrong, the questions and the answers were my own. Yet, I speak of my form self with eye rolls and smirks. Don’t you dare think I was her, I say with my body language. She’s a freak. My own attitude in my co-worker’s words pulls me up short. Brainwashed? Me? A part of me wants to be true.