As an eight-year-old white boy, my son has a binary moral imagination. It’s the kind apparently engineered for the good-vs.-evil saga of Harry Potter, whose books became my key reference point, abruptly, at the start of summer 2020. We live on a precinct block in Manhattan, where my son Calder has seen NYPD all day every day of his life. So by the third or fourth time I hustled him through the ‘81-Belfast checkpoint at end of our block, as we watched riot-helmeted cops bulldoze women and children carrying signs, I realized I couldn’t think of a single thing that Tolkien, Dahl, or Silverstein wrote about state-sanctioned domestic terror. For chokeholds, nightsticks, and tear gas, the Dementors are an apt fantasy metaphor.
The Dementors are by far the most striking figures in the supernatural universe of Harry Potter. They appear early in book three — The Prisoner of Azkaban — to signal a psychic downturn in events at the twee, cloistered, slightly goth-ed-up prep school of magic known as Hogwarts (Maybe you’ve heard of it). A spectral hybrid of banshee and zombie, the Dementor debuts on a train full of students bound from London for Hogwarts. Silencing chatter with bone-chilling cold and an opaque, enveloping darkness, these hooded, Jungian doom-archetypes emerge from the blackness: faceless under grim-reaper hoods, extending scaley limbs and claw-like hands, descending on a nearby student before they’re repelled by a wizard teacher. Later, this teacher explains these to the still-neophyte Harry Potter.
“Dementors are among the foulest creatures that walk this earth,” says Professor Lupin, a shaggy tenured radical. “They glory in decay and despair, they drain peace, hope, and happiness out of the air around them… If it can, the Dementor will feed on you long enough to reduce you to something like itself…soulless and evil.”
Then Lupin drops a much more devastating, sociological bomb: these horrific, inhuman monsters are actually law enforcement. The Ministry of Magic employs Dementors as guards at max-security Azkaban prison. An Abu Ghraib for errant wizards, Azkaban is the fantasy of a sadistic autocrat, a prison with no pretense of rehabilitation, or even long-term incarceration. The entire gen-pop is death row, all of the inmates driven mad through long-term exposure to Dementors. The primary effects are recognizable to any survivor of clinical depression: a bone-chilling void of all light, happiness, and peace, with the certainty that not only won’t these ever exist again but that they were never there before.
Such use of Dementors is, at first, controversial. In a relatively stable period, governmental functionaries call them necessary evils. And when the forces of alpha-terrorist Lord Voldemort are on the rise, law-and-order ministers approve Dementors for ad-hoc civilian use: torturer-guards as enhanced police, sending them out into society to apprehend an escapee from Azkaban, who provides sufficient hysteria to garner support for deadly force. The more powerful wizards, like Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore, oppose their use in society. He bans their presence inside their Hogwarts, although he permits them to rove the school grounds in case the escaped prisoner should appear. And when he doesn’t appear, the Dementors are flexible enough in their targets that they wind up assaulting Harry Potter.
I tell my son he should try to see both sides of this. For all we know, Dementors are weaponized, former humans. It’s not their fault they’re Dementors. It’s our fault for expecting them to protect us from people we fear are worse than they are. Azkaban remained useful throughout the summer of 2020 when we decamped to New England to spend two months with my formerly blue-state parents, now Fox enthusiasts in their golden years. Whenever my no-politics mandate was violated, which was often, I’d wait for a private moment to try to make sense of the conflict.
If people get really scared, I’d reason to myself; they confuse terror for protection. At times like that, you need a leader as strong and wise as Dumbledore to set things right. Someone who’s strong enough to risk being seen as soft on evil. Wise enough to see Dementors for what they are. It takes someone as wise and powerful as Dumbledore is to convince others that they can’t allow inhuman, uncaring, indiscriminate soul-eaters to protect citizens and maintain order.
My son doesn’t expect Dumbledore for a leader, but he had trouble processing the leader we actually had in 2020. A leader whose response to protesters outside the White House was to send out the National Guard and Bureau of Prisons.
“Why send prison guards after protesters?” my son asked, in a conversation, I now recall with something like nostalgia.
“Well, he wanted to go where they were marching.”
“Go there why?”
“So he could walk down that street with a Bible and perform a kind of…play.”
In October, Calder and I read H.P.’s Houses of the Holy, book five Order of the Phoenix, hoping the Ministry of Magic would defund Dementors. In November, we began H.P.’s Physical Graffiti, The Half-Blood Prince, and things definitely didn’t look good. A racist faction allied with Voldemort gained power in the Ministry and was shaping wizarding media, sewing fear in the populace and, effectively, deregulating Dementors entirely. By December, as we started The Deathly Hallows, there wasn’t much solace in Harry Potter. For one thing (spoiler alert) Dumbledore had been killed in his chambers. And as Trump insisted that, other than getting more votes, he won the election big, the Ministry of Magic fell to the Voldemort bloc and sent Potter and friends into hiding.
As American carnage played out on TV, the world of Harry Potter wasn’t much different. Since the passing of January 2021, there’s been talk of restoring hope and faith, but the Dementor-effect clearly remains. At the end of The Deathly Hallows, there’s a nearly two-decade jump into the future, a time when Harry and his friends are all parents, with children of their own, and the incredible divide between Slytherin and Gryffindor seems to have been healed. What no Potter book (or play) has managed to do yet is to show us the work it took to get there. The Deathly Hallows ends on an upbeat note but conveniently flashes through the difficult years in between. The years we’re living in now. Harry’s greatest magic trick isn’t time travel or teleportation. In the end, he simply lived long enough to see the world change. Too bad any wizards who ran afoul with Dementors didn’t get the same chance.