Uh-Oh, It’s Magic

by Cantor Eric Schulmiller

A plain cardboard box sits outside of Ezra’s room. It is filled to the brim with Potterphanalia — U.K. editions of the novels brought back as gifts, an artsy poster featuring a taxonomy of magical implements, several wizarding robes, a Slytherin mug, two plushies (Hermione and Hedwig – the snowy owl, not the genderqueer glam rocker), The Unofficial Hogwarts Passover Haggadah, and three movie-accurate wands from Universal Studios (Narcissa Malfoy, Hermione Granger, and Professor Dumbledore). The box’s contents are on their way out the door to local families who are grateful for the freecycled haul. Families which, unlike ours, don’t include a sixteen-year-old trans kid whose childhood immersion into JK Rowling’s magical world was shattered by JK Rowling’s own personal (and stridently public) evolution from the patron saint of the marginalized to billionaire online bully, self-proclaimed free-speech martyr and unapologetic anti-trans activist.

We should have seen it coming.

Magic always involves some amount of betrayal. Much like humor, the goal of magic is to delight by subverting our expectations. But if a magician becomes too enamored of their own power, these misdirections can be used to cause harm instead of pleasure. Whether it is the three witches’ treacherous ambiguity in Macbeth, Morgan Le Fay’s theft of Excalibur, or the conniving machinations of “Agatha All Along” in Marvel’s Wandavision, what these magicians have made disappear is not the Statue of Liberty, or the ace of spades, but our own trust in the good intentions of magic-makers.

A perfect example comes from Rowling’s own books. In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Harry seems to have finally found a sympathetic, nurturing figure in the new Defense of the Dark Arts teacher, Alastor “Mad-Eye” Moody. Throughout the book, their relationship deepens as Moody defends Harry from bullies, taking him under his wing while encouraging a healthy John Keatingish skepticism of authority in his own classroom. But in the exasperating denouement, it is revealed that the real Mad Eye Moody has been locked in a magic trunk the entire novel, and Harry’s would-be mentor was actually a polyjuice potion-swilling, death-eating second-stringer named Barty Crouch Jr.. So not only was Harry betrayed by his advisor and confidante, we now see that JK Rowling had retconned (wretchconned?) the entire relationship into a cruel farce. Now you see it (a father figure for Harry), now you don’t.

In the cynical worldview of the magician, there is no such thing as true transformation – only trickery. Perhaps this is why Rowling has such difficulty envisioning a scenario where a fellow human being can actually discover, embrace, and transform into their truest selves – subverting rigid gender norms in a way that brings them true joy but also invites the threat of severe emotional, social, and far too-often, physical harm. In Goblet of Fire, the fake Moody growlingly dismisses Dumbledore as a naive believer in the true magic of transformation: “He’s a trusting man, isn’t he? Believes in second chances. But me — I say there are spots that don’t come off…”

Five years ago, I witnessed an amazing display of magic at an intimate, off-Broadway theater. It was a one-man show by master magician Derek DelGaudio, called “In and Of Itself.” Directed in wizardly fashion by Frank Oz, the show presents DelGaudio’s struggle, through a series of increasingly wondrous illusions, with the aphorism, “Every secret has a weight to it.” Using the metaphor of a gold brick thrown through a window, DelGaudio shattered expectations and static identities each night as he wrestled on stage with the hate he and his mother experienced when her secret gay life was revealed, and with his own ambivalence at being a master illusionist, for better or for worse. But he saved the real magic for the show’s finale. Earlier in the evening, upon entering the Daryl Roth Theather, audience members were confronted by a wall containing hundreds of “I am” cards (I am…a teacher, a father, an idealist, etc), and encouraged to pick the one that best communicated how they’d like to be seen. These cards were collected and shuffled, and the show’s incredible finale was DelGaudio’s eyes meeting each and every audience member as he peered into their souls and pronounced the identity written on their secret cards. In that moment, the magician performed an act of affirmation instead of betrayal, as he made each of us believe that we could be seen for who we truly are. This is what I try to do for my son every day, and I pray that the world will somehow find a way to do the same.

With hopes for a happy, healing, and healthy Pride Month,

Cantor Eric