Shared Text/MailBag: Using Harry Potter in Therapy

I spend more time answering mail, believe it or not, than I do writing blog posts, which is understandable. Responding to kind letters — and most of the e-owls I get are very kind — is a treat and putting together my thoughts here requires significantly more effort. Answering mail is easier, too, in that there is almost always a specific question or three to focus on and respond to quickly.

Sometimes, though, the mail includes a remarkable item that throws new light on the depth of the Hogwarts Saga as a cultural phenomenon, even a game changer. The notes below the jump from a Family Therapist reminds me what a boon the decision to include my email address in each of my books has been. More after you read the therapist’s notes —

Dear John,

I just wanted to send you a quick note to say that I thoroughly enjoyed your book, How Harry Cast His Spell.  I’ve loved the Harry Potter series and, in reading your book, have a deeper understanding as to why.  To understand more about the christian symbolism and meaning behind the stories offers me a deeper appreciation of what J.K. Rowling created.  Your book also offers me a better answer to the frustrating people I’ve met who refused to crack the book (and worse, refused their children the experience) on the basis of religious belief.  These stories speak to the very essence of being human, struggling with what’s right and wrong and making the tough choice, even at great personal cost.

As a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, I’ve used the books to help clients (especially the children I see in a family setting) confront topics such as grief and loss, depression, and betrayal.  I love the imagery of things like Dementors, the Mirror of Erised, and the Sorting Hat, because I’ve found its the images from a session, shared in metaphors, that stick with people.  They become the touchstones of therapy that people hold onto long after their time in therapy is complete.

The moment in Dumbledore’s office at the end of Chamber of Secrets that is echoed in the Epilogue of Deathly Hallows is perhaps my favorite passage and one I’ve read to clients frequently.  It is not our skills or abilities (or even our circumstances) that define us.  It is our choices that make all the difference in the world.

So, thanks again for an excellent and challenging read.  It has only deepened my love of the Harry Potter series that, in a few years (my children are 4 and 2), I look forward to sharing with and discussing with my own family.


[Name Withheld]

From the same therapist (with identifying details removed):


Not sure if you are interested, but I thought I’d share a moment from a counseling session last night.

I was talking with a  man who was struggling with the breakup of a romantic relationship.  He seemed to be ruminating over it and this rumination was contributing to a depressed state, shutting him off from life.

I asked him if he were aware of the Harry Potter series and he had never read the books and had only seen the Chamber of Secrets movie (and hadn’t liked it very much).  So, given his circumstances, I shared with him the image of the Resurrection Stone and some of Dumbledore’s comments about how it could be misused.  I suggested to him that he was in relationship with a memory of his love rather than actually loving someone real.

His words?  “Doc, you have just blown my mind!”

Yet another example of how images and stories, told well, create a profound impact on those who hear/read them.

My best,

[Name Withheld]

Three quick comments before asking for your reflections:

(1) This isn’t a discovery or anything innovative on the therapist’s part, however insightful and thoughtful I think this person is. Psychologists have been discussing their use of the Potter novels in helping clients since at least 2001 (see ‘Harry Potter and the Shrinks’). It hasn’t been universally embraced; some Harry Haters have decided this use is just one more sign of Ms. Rowling’s demonic quest (see ‘Psychobabble’s New Bible’). But it has been part of the counselor’s tool kit for some time. Whole books have been written about the utility of Harry’s experiences in grief counseling.

(2) Having said that, this continued use speaks to its effectiveness which points in turn first to the ubiquity of the story. If you read the ‘Shrinks’ AP report from 2001, you know that the tool worked because therapists were able to ask questions about characters their troubled clients and patients knew well, even identified with. Except for profound engagement that was a commonplace among many people essentially illiterate, the use of the books in therapy is not possible or effective.

(3) This second note from the therapist, though, points out the value of the symbols, images, and story line of the Saga in use with people seeking help who are not familiar with the books or even those who don’t like them. as my correspondent notes, this is no small testimony to the power of story well told in general and to the ‘wow’ quality of Ms. Rowling’s work specifically.

Your comments and corrections are coveted, as always.


  1. The Pensieve is a terrific image of therapy itself, particularly cognitive therapy: taking another look at events, examining your own reactions to them, looking for connections….

  2. Rebecca S. says

    As parents we use the examples of the “riddikulus” and “expecto patronem” spells to discuss with our children how to deal with the fears. In fact, in a weird twist, it is true that thinking of something funny can help dispel fears and thinking of the scene in the movie when the kids deal with the boggart, in and of itself often is funny enough to calm my kids.
    Pop psychology maybe, but if it helps us all get back to sleep in the middle of the night, thanks JKR.

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