The Witch Trials of J. K. Rowling

Yesterday (21st February) a new podcast dropped. Provocatively titled “The Witch Trials of J. K. Rowling” it is billed as “an audio documentary that examines some of the most contentious conflicts of our time through the life and career of the world’s most successful author.” The host is a remarkable lady called Megan Phelps-Roper, an ex-member of the Westboro Baptist Church. Remarkable not least because she is an example of someone who changed their mind via the medium of social media. Join me after the jump for links to the episodes, and a few of the nuggets that I’ve found.

Megan Phelps-Roper is a writer, host, and producer with The Free Press. Born and raised in the Westboro Baptist Church, Megan left a life of religious extremism in 2012. She has spent the past decade using her experiences to work with schools on anti-bullying campaigns, with law enforcement organizations investigating deradicalization, and with tech companies on the intersection of safety, free speech, and the value of dialogue across ideological divides. Her journey has been chronicled in The New Yorker, a trio of BBC documentaries, a TED talk, and her memoir Unfollow.

The Podcast is set to run for seven episodes and the first two were released yesterday. The first episode ‘Plotted in Darkness’ follows Phelps-Roper as she asks for and gets an interview with Rowling and covers the years from her mother’s death to the early years of Potter-mania.

The second episode ‘Burn the Witch’ deals with the Potter-panic of the early 2000’s.

Both episodes are worth a listen, particularly episode 1 where Rowling talks at length, and very movingly of the death of her mother and her unhappy first marriage. I don’t think there is very much revealed that was completely new, but this is the first time that I have heard Rowling speak in her own voice, and at such length about this time. I am extremely grateful to Patricio Tarantino of the Rowling Library for his excellent transcript of Rowling’s voice.

I never set out to upset anyone. However, I was not uncomfortable with getting off my pedestal. And what has interested me over the last ten years and certainly in the last few years, last two, three years, particularly on social media, “You’ve ruined your legacy.  You could have been beloved forever, but you chose to say this”. And I think: you could not have misunderstood me more profoundly. I do not walk around my house, thinking about my legacy. You know, what a pompous way to live your life walking around thinking what all my legacy be. Whatever, I’ll be dead. I care about now. I care about the living

This foundational passage has been widely misquoted and misinterpreted in the popular press. Although widely quoted, that Rowling claims her comments have been misunderstood, it is clear from the transcript that she is speaking of her motives. Rowling’s legacy, while obviously important to many, is of secondary consideration to her sense of duty. There is no discernible benefit to J. K. Rowling, or Rowling Inc. entering the sex and gender debate, except for her sense of duty (whether right or wrong).

And then I became pregnant accidentally. And while pregnant, he proposed to me. And then I lost the baby. I miscarried. Which was hugely traumatic. It was traumatic physically and it was traumatic emotionally. And that was another massive loss. And I think at that point, I really was in a very… I was certainly not in a balanced state of mind. And when I lost the baby, I do remember having a moment in my grief for the baby. I do remember having a moment where I thought, “so we’re not going to get married.” That’s clear, right? And I’m almost speaking to myself: “That’s clear, Jo, we’re not going to marry this guy”.

I think he knew he’d also suspected that I was going to try and bolt again. It was a horrible state of tension to live in because you have to act. And I don’t think I’m a very good actor. I don’t have a very good poker face. And that was a huge strain to act as though I wasn’t going. That’s a terrible way to live.

And yet, the manuscript kept growing. I’d continued to write. In fact, he knew what that manuscript meant to me because at a point, he took the manuscript and hid it. And that was his hostage.

When I realized that I was definitely going to go, this was it. I was definitely going. I would take a few pages of the manuscript into work every day. Just a few pages, so he wouldn’t realize anything was missing. And I would photocopy it. And gradually, in a cupboard in the staff room, bit by bit, a photocopied manuscript, grew and grew and grew and grew. Because I suspected that if I wasn’t able to get out with everything, he would burn it or take it or hold it hostage.

That manuscript still meant so much to me. That was the thing that actually I prioritized saving. The only thing I prioritized beyond that obviously was my daughter. But on that point, she’s still inside me. So she’s as safe as she can be in that situation.

Of all the most moving parts of this first episode are the details of her time in Portugal. I think this may be the first time we have heard how close we came to loosing Harry Potter at this formative stage. It is also clear that in the final fight between Rowling and her husband, she was pretty badly beaten.

And I call Jessica “Decca”. So Decca and I were sharing a bedroom.

I think this is the first time that we have heard Jessica called Decca. Decca was also the nickname of Jessica Mitford, for whom Jessica Rowling was named.


After the success of Potter she was able to buy a house of her own, but this didn’t last long: 

And then, well, to tell you the truth, the reason we left that first place was that my ex husband arrived and broke in. So, moving became quite pressing issue at that point.

You see, this is the insanity of it. I’m trying to retain, like an eyewall around my location, as well, because everyone wants to come. “Can I photograph you?” “No, you can’t photograph me at home.” “Why not? You’re being so precious, you’re being so starry.” And it’s not that at all. It was quite the reverse! It’s because the last time my ex husband knew my address, he turned up and broke in.

Episode two concentrates on the Potter-panic of the 2000’s but does close with this summation of Rowling’s world view:

In my worldview, conscience speaks in a very small and inconvenient voice, and it’s normally saying to you “think again, look more deeply, consider this.” And I was struck early on actually in the “Potter” phenomenon by how the two characters that cause the most furious debate, and I’m actually using the word furious quite literally there at times, were Dumbledore and Snape. People wanted Dumbledore to be perfect. He’s deeply flawed. But to me, he is an exemplar of goodness. He did wrong. He learnt. He grew wise. But he has to make the difficult decisions that people in the real world have to make. Very difficult decisions.

Meanwhile, you have Snape. Incontrovertible a bully, he can be mean, he can be sadistic, he’s bitter. But he is courageous. He is determined to make good what he did terribly wrong. And without him, disaster would have occurred. And I have had fans really angry at me for not categorizing Snape in particular. Just wanting clarity in simplicity, let’s just agree this is a really bad guy. And I’m thinking when I can’t agree with you because I know him. But also I can’t agree with you, full stop, because people can be deeply flawed.

People can make mistakes. People can do bad things. In fact, show me the human being who hasn’t. And they can also be capable of greatness. And I mean greatness in a moral sense, not in a fame or an achievement sense.

Join me next week for a summation of the next episode where we may start to hear more of the last few contentious year in the fandom.


  1. Excellent article Nick (and thanks for your kind words, as always).

    Jo did called her daughter Decca publicly back in 2007, in her public letter just before the publication of Deathly Hallows:

    “The fact that ‘Deathly Hallows’ will sit beside Jessica’s bed until it becomes dog-eared and falls apart means more to me than anything else, more than the huge print run, more than all the publicity in the world. So thank you, Decca. (And tidy your room. It’s disgusting. Mum X)”

    I always loved this quote, by the way, that’s why I always remember it.

  2. JK Rowling remains a powerful voice for courage and conscience who is not afraid of the mob of envious and angry people who hate her. They claim it’s because she herself is a bigot, but they betray themselves as those who can’t abide people who are different and have different ideas.

  3. Nick Jeffery says

    It is a wonderful quote! Thank you Patricio for remembering it.

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