J. K. Rowling

Dear J. K. Rowling,

I was so surprised to see you take such a regressive and dangerous position on the trans community in your recent tweets about the definition of “women.”

Like a lot of people, I’ve spent the past twenty or so years adoring the universe of creatures and characters you’ve created. I read your books to my son, until the day, around book four, that he was able to insist upon reading it aloud to me at bedtime. I tried to read them to my daughters, but having watched the movies during an especially virulent bout of stomach virus, wherein Dumbledore’s implacable steadfastness and McGonigal’s stern austerity were precisely what we needed as we heaved the contents of our addled bellies into buckets and ugly bowls, we couldn’t go back to the books. We’ve lived with these people you created as genuinely as if our fondness for them made them manifest: no mere line drawings or ephemeral caricatures meant to amuse and depart. We grew with them over the years, and return to them still, like visiting a distant relative’s weird and wonderful estate. I’m telling you all of this because it isn’t just the arc of each character’s story that makes them dear to us — it’s the way we’ve assimilated their stories into our own, and the ways those characters have informed our own experiences. For example, everyone in my house knows what house they’d likely be sorted into (I wish I was Gryffindor, but I’m Ravenclaw), and the ways we’d use magic, were we to develop it in the manner described in your books.

Isn’t that incredible? That we have identified with these fictional people and imbued our own sense of ourselves with the things you wrote about a concocted, magical world of witches and wizards? I think it’s the power of storytelling. I know the purpose is entertainment, really, but when an artist is responsible, we end up discovering some things about ourselves and our current human experience in the process of reading these stories. I suspect it’s why any given story becomes famous. I wonder if you knew that would happen? Do you marvel at it?

What a knack we have, as humans, to assimilate and internalize the stories we’re told, and what lasting power they have over our behavior. It’s part of our biological adaptation strategy. We constantly assess our environment and the feedback we’re getting from the people around us, and adjust our behavior as well as our understanding of our own reality in response to what we see. Over and over again, the new reality and expected array of responses become natural. That’s learning. It’s cool, and why, although we certainly started out doing so, we don’t keep pooping our pants. At some point, we witnessed that the people with access to the cookies were not pooping their pants, and figured it out: pants pooping doesn’t get you the respect and cookie-jar access you sorely desire.

We hoover up a host of other, less useful information, too, unfortunately. Perhaps we spend our weekends with casually racist grandparents, or go to college with a fraternity/sorority (fraternirority?) that thinks women’s rights mean those dances where the girls ask the boys to the dance as a special treat (like getting to vote or be the boss of a man). Maybe all the magazines we saw or television shows we watched featured a certain type of human as the ideal: thin, bubble-busted, white, muscular, straight, young, masculine for Boys, feminine for Girls, (the binary and inviolable states of sexual existence) and for the rest, invisibility, or worse, revilement. Maybe we grew up in a society that taught us violence was the final word in any conflict, the logical end of any disagreement, and the only way authority could maintain itself under scrutiny, challenge, or pressure. Maybe our own parents reinforced that message with their angry hands.

We are so dextrous, with our clever, adaptive brains, in internalizing the things we see and feedback we receive from our peers, society, and immediate environment, that we will eventually believe the stories we’re told, even and especially when those stories are not in our own best interest. We will hate ourselves, feel guilt and shame and fear for the very fabric that we’re made of, given enough encouragement and reinforcement to do so.

That’s a helluva thing.

The brain is remarkably adaptive, well after the explosion of learning we do in our early years, but here’s the thing: the older we are, the more say we have in the changes we make, the things we absorb. It’s harder to unlearn and relearn than it is to learn in the first place, but only for the things we’re really attached to (or things like which part of the brain we use to control our senses, but let’s not descend into the really complex stuff — that’s not what we’re here for). In the instance of trauma, the brain is plastic — the neural network can actually rebuild your neural circuitry in response to changes in the environment: you change your mind literally by changing your mind figuratively (which is not to say mental illness is an attitude problem or that rewiring a traumatized brain is the work of a weekend afternoon or for the faint of heart. It categorically ain’t, and I know fucktons about it, first-hand). This plasticity is the more dramatic name for what we do every time we acquire a new memory or master a Just Dance routine: learning.

In case you’ve never had the experience of attempting to rewire a traumatized brain that commands your body to leap backward three feet in response to any man raising his voice or moving his body in anger, or, more embarrassingly, actually attempted to master any Just Dance routine with your children, let me summarize the experience for you: it’s messy as fuck. If you’re rewiring that broken brain, you’ll cry until you throw up, sit in your car for a half-hour before you can drive it because you’re so dizzy, and struggle to remember the way back to your house. You’ll be hungover for days or even weeks afterward, while your brain heals, and the traumatic events join their place in the chronology of your life, assembled woefully, heavily, but recognizably, instead of the chaotic maelstrom of images they were before. And if you’re learning a Just Dance routine, you’ll probably knock one of your kids over, nail your toe on the stupid fucking chair leg, and get the absolute lowest score anyone has ever gotten for that dance, ever, except for a person who was so stoned they literally sat and watched the neon figure they were meant to shadow, like some slack-jawed statue, the only points on their player awarded ungainfully, as accidents because their consumption of Cheetos sort of resembled one scoring arm movement.

Learning is messy. It was messy when you were a baby, but now there’s a new dimension: shame. Embarrassment. Culpability. Because now, learning something new almost always means replacing something wrong or incomplete with new information. Being alive is a gruesomely iterative process.

It’s tempting to hide this bloody mess, to attempt to learn in secret, or better still, claim to have known all along what the right thing was. This is actually a psychological phenomenon called Hindsight Bias, and you’re not an asshole for experiencing it — everyone does, to varying degrees. What you do after it’s pointed out, however? That’s another matter, entirely.

Here’s why I’m writing you this letter: you, better than most people, should acutely understand the persistence of story. Your story created a whole world that has entered the zeitgeist, has been internalized and personalized by several generations of humans. Your words were so powerful that you called a whole world into being in the minds of millions of humans. The story you told took on its own life, beyond you, beyond the pages of your books. That work has made you both rich and famous, and that combination has made you powerful. Not because you did anything that makes you a moral authority, not because you were born to lead, not because you are intrinsically more qualified than any other human to do these things: you’re absolutely not. (You’re talented, just like everybody else.) But nonetheless, you stand in a position of power and privilege. And right now, you’re using this elevated position to defend an increasingly destructive position, at the expense of some of the most vulnerable people in the world.

The timing feels viscerally poignant.

You have both the platform and the visibility, the power and the privilege to do something absolutely critical. I’m certain that you know you’re wrong. I’m certain you feel cornered, offended, frightened, and ashamed. Maybe you’re still able to muster indignation, but I doubt you really feel it.

What you can do right now is be wrong. Admit it. Be vulnerable, apologize, and learn, right in front of everybody. Take responsibility for your wrongdoing, wrong thinking, and its consequences, and then be accountable for it. Let it take a gigantic bite out of your reputation. You earned that. Your ignorance is widely shared, but your privilege is not. That means your body should shield the more vulnerable. Your reputation should field the bullets. It’s not meant to be easy or painless to change the world.

If you don’t, you perpetuate a world in which the people with power keep it by using their privilege to insist that the people they’ve wronged — deliberately or not — deserve to be treated the way they are treated. Maybe you’ve got a black/gay/Jewish/trans friend who thinks you are absolutely right and can say whatever horrible thing you want because you’re a good person underneath it all. But you know the truth. You’re just a person who stumbled into a position of authority because the world was designed for you to win more than the people you’re mistreating, whether you mean to be mistreating them or not. And believe it or not, reinforcing this system has catastrophic implications.

The moment you were born, you took your place in the social hierarchy. No one is responsible for the provenance of their birth: it’s not fair for anyone. But it’s better for you, and every book you sold pushed you higher up that ladder. That system is pernicious and insidious. It’s ruinous and terrifying, and winds its way all the way from side-of-the-mouth comments about trans people right to the last precious blood struggling through one terrified man’s neck.

I realize that it’s curious how all that power can be in your hands, and yet you can still have struggled, worked, fought and withstood veritable cyclones of bullshit to get where you are. None of that changes this moment. The trans people you’ve maligned and misrepresented? In this moment you’re the caretaker of their stories. What you do next is how you’ll tell them to your audience of millions. Will you malign and discredit them? Or will you validate them and tell the story a different way?

That’s why you have to do this, now. Apologize. Carefully explain what you did wrong, why it was wrong, what you should have done, and learn. In front of everybody. And then do better. Over and over forever. It’s why every person of privilege, every celebrity, police chief, city councilor, mayor, governor, president, prime minister, queen, duke, pope, whatever needs to do the same. It’s why I’m writing you this letter.

One white lady to another.



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