The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling - Chapter 7: What If You're Wrong?

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And now, on to the show.

If you find yourself, as I did, in Edinburgh, Scotland,

and you walk west from Lawn Market, up a cobblestone street to Castle Hill,

there, in the shadow of an ancient castle, on most days, you’ll find a tour guide wearing a black, pointy witch’s hat.

Now, aren’t we so lucky? We live in a time where we’re free to say the word witch,

to even be witch, if we so wish. Others throughout the ages were not so lucky, as you will find out.

The tourists gather around her, forming a little half-moon, as they pull out their phones and cameras

to take pictures of a small stone monument.

Now, here we’ve got the Witches’ Well. This is a little monument put up in order to honour

all of those people who were executed as witches.

The Witches’ Well commemorates an especially deadly series of witch hunts,

and is dedicated to those who were put to death, many in this very place, centuries ago.

They were tied to stakes, they were strangled, and then they were burnt as witches.

Throughout Scotland, more than 4,000 people were accused of being witches,

and more than half of them were executed.

We don’t know exact numbers, because in some accounts it just says,

Sundry Witches, not even dignifying them with a name.

These sorts of witch trials have occurred throughout human history and around the world,

where someone, most often a woman, was accused by her community, by her neighbours,

sometimes by her own husband or children, of being a witch,

which left her with a terrible decision.

She could confess and beg for mercy from the authorities,

which, in some cases, spared her life.

But in others, only confirmed her guilt, and led to her execution.

Or, she could stand firm through her interrogation,

and often torture, and say to the crowd,

I am not what you say I am.

Though this was often seen as a prideful lack of repentance,

which could also lead to her execution.

Regardless of her choice, she was a witch.

Regardless of her choice, one feature of many of these witch hunts

was that the very accusation itself was ultimately her condemnation.

Hi, Megan.

Hi, Stacey. Thank you so much for speaking with me.

I’m delighted to join you.

This is Stacey Schiff, Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer

and author of The Witches, Salem, 1692.

Stacey, you published this book in 2016,

and I just wonder, was there something specific that made you want to

research and write this book about witch trials at this specific moment in time?

There just seemed to me to be so many obvious and not so obvious parallels

between that moment and basically what we do today on social media.

And I think what I was most struck by was the sense that

oral culture and social media were very similar,

and the ability to slander someone,

to just really decimate someone’s reputation very easily,

was something that was a constant between 1692

and the world in which we were then living when I started writing.

In America, the witch trials that occurred in Salem, Massachusetts

are by far the most infamous.

It was there that a zealous group of fundamentalists, the Puritans,

turned on one another,

and in the span of months, accused over 200 people of witchcraft.

And as Stacey writes in her book,

one of the forces behind this panic

was an almost paranoid sense of constant danger.

One can’t overstate how important was the concept of watchfulness.

You were meant to be always watchful, always vigilant,

not only for the sake of your soul,

but obviously in the Massachusetts incarnation,

for the sake of your safety.

The Puritans believed that evil was lurking all around them,

constantly tempting them with sinfulness that could damn their souls.

But also, because they were living on the edge of this new colony,

in a land whose native people were hostile to their presence,

they were also living constantly on guard

against a real threat of physical danger.

But there was always a sense that you were under assault,

or that you were likely to be infiltrated,

or that the enemy was just beyond your means.

So there is this constant sense of being on the watchtowers.

And needless to say, when you’re watching for something,

and you’re watching vigilantly for something,

you often see something.

But Stacy’s book makes clear

just how different the people of Salem were

from the image of the ignorant, pitchfork-wielding mob.

In fact, they could be obsessive about reading and legal theory.

And the witch trial judges themselves were well-educated men,

a number of them at Harvard.

I think one of the oddities about New England in the 17th century

and the question of witchcraft

is that you’re talking about one of the most literate communities

in the history of the world,

possibly the most literate community

in the history of the world until that time.

It was imperative that everyone pray,

and in order to pray, one had to read.

So the literacy rate was tremendously high.

Moreover, the people who were the witchcraft experts that year,

which is largely, to say, the clergy,

are all of them immensely erudite people,

who have read everything that was to be read

on the subject of witchcraft.

So it’s a funny paradox in the sense that you have

the members of the community who are invested most

in this, what we would today call, delusion.

Those individuals are, in fact, the best-read,

most highly-educated members of the community.

And what role did courts and laws

and the concept of justice play in this society?

Justice is central to Puritanism.

The court records from the early years of New England

were incredibly comprehensive,

and you see that even in the absence of lawyers,

because there were no lawyers yet at this point

in Massachusetts history,

you have a very, very law-loving, court-loving society.

And because they were so literate and so litigious,

Stacey Schiff, in researching her book,

was able to read their letters, their journals,

their court records, and gain a deeper insight

into how they understood themselves.

In your best judgment, what do you think

is the most gracious understanding

of what they thought they were up to

when they prosecuted these witches?

I think that what we tend to forget

is how strongly the belief in witchcraft

really penetrates this community,

and how thoroughly, and I think profoundly,

everyone involved believed that he was doing something

that was good for the community.

We have some indication that they were unclear

about how to prosecute witchcraft,

and they will at times, one justice in particular,

they at times will appeal to the ministry

to ask what kind of evidence they can rely upon

in the courtroom, and how a witchcraft diagnosis

could and should be made.

And obviously, there were people here

who must have trumped up charges,

but for the most part,

all of the judicial techniques

that should have been followed were followed.

It’s really fascinating, again,

because when we think about witch trials,

looking back, we assume, I mean,

the idea that they would be strenuously adhering

to the rules of evidence and things

that they had in place at the time,

that they were really trying to do the right thing,

in other words, that’s not the image that we get.

No, but you can see them grappling,

you can see them grappling with their consciences,

and you can see them grappling with the testimony.

I mean, Arthur Miller actually makes

an interesting point when he’s talking about the crucible,

and he talks about something which is so true

of that year in Salem, which is that you,

in the course of these kinds of prosecutions,

you can take on the characteristics

of the thing that you abhor.

You become the thing that you most fear.

That’s really the scariest part of all this, right?


You could have people who are, again,

very smart, very well-educated,

very dedicated to the idea of justice,

to the idea that they want to do the right thing,

and to be searching themselves so deeply

for what the right answer is and how they should behave,

and to still come to this kind of horrifying conclusion

where you have 19 people hanged,

and it’s a terrifying thing to realize

about what it means to be human.

After you have done all of your homework,

asked all of the authorities for their help,

and essentially scoured your soul,

and you still can make that kind of colossal error.


I was so ill-equipped for what happened to me.

I was living in a state of real tension

that I couldn’t express to many people.

So, looking back, would you say that

the Christian parents were maybe part of a moral panic?

Yeah, absolutely. It’s a scary world out there.

People can make mistakes. People can do bad things.

In fact, show me the human being who hasn’t.

You’re trashing someone, but you feel like you’re crusading.

I believe absolutely that there is something

dangerous about this movement.

Someone like her, she really is just truly at the heart.

Bigoted, hiding in this sheep’s costume,

pretending that she is an ally.

You’re trying to have your views challenged.

Completely. I’m looking at this,

I’m thinking, am I missing something?

Just the opposite of everything that she wrote into those books.

I have a lot of hope for her.

There’s a part of me that still cares what she thinks, you know?

Chapter 7. What if you’re wrong?

Months after my first visit,

my producers and I went back to Scotland,

back to Rowling’s home,

back to her drawing room

with her color-coordinated books

to have one more conversation with her for this series.

I wanted to ask her some of the questions from her critics

and to help me understand how she,

someone who has devoted so much of her life’s work

to exploring human nature,

grapples with the fact

that she might be wrong.

All right.


We’ve gathered here today.


To record round two.

Sounds good. Okay.

What do you think is the crux of the difference

between what you believe and what your critics say you believe?

Oh, my God.

I mean, the crux, there’s an abyss.

I’ve been accused.

I have to laugh because the hyperbole is so extreme.

I’ve been told I wish for the genocide of trans people.

I’ve been told, well, you want them to die.

You don’t want them to exist.

And that, I think, is where we become…

It’s not even infuriated.

Sometimes you feel a little despair.

You think, well, maybe we need the storm to break

and for people to say,

but wait a moment, we do need to ask questions.

We’ve seen thousands of percent increase

in young women trying to escape their physical bodies.

Should we not be asking why that’s happening?

I think the idea is that you have become,

for a lot of people, you know, the word is problematic,

that you might think of yourself as raising these valid concerns,

but they will criticize either the way you’ve gone about it

or the timing of it or the language you’ve used,

and much more.

But before we get into some specifics,

I did just want to ask, at this point,

how does it feel that there is this gulf

between how you see yourself

and how many other people now see you?

This will sound like an indirect answer,

but I promise you it isn’t.

If I think about the people I most admire,

actually, even the writers I most admire,

when it mattered, they stood up.

They didn’t sit at home and, you know,

worry about their royalties

or worry about their public image greatly.

Not that I seek to be controversial.

That’s as embarrassing as seeking to be some sort of perfect.

I never wanted to be famous.

If you’re very invested in that,

then, of course, this is going to destroy you.

I don’t say this in any self-aggrandizing way,

but I think it could have destroyed some people.

If that’s where you’re very invested,

what has happened to me in the last few years,

I think there’s no hope that you will come out of it

with your mental health intact

or that you wouldn’t be, you know,

offering fulsome apologies.

I’ve learned. I’ve done better.

Whether you mean it or not, you know that.

But no, I have learned.

I did my learning before I spoke.

Everyone can do better.

I don’t set out to cause pain,

but I see pain being caused

and I think damage being caused to women and girls,

and I just can’t sit here and not speak.

One of your critics is a trans woman named Natalie Wynn,

who goes by the name ContraPoints on YouTube,

and she made a long video essay critiquing your views

on trans issues.

And in it, she goes through how she understands bigotry,

which she breaks down into two categories,

direct bigotry and indirect bigotry.

Direct bigotry is the sort of thing that my family does,

being openly contemptuous and using slurs

and demonizing people, marginalizing people openly.

And indirect bigotry is things like

people are just asking questions.

They’re just concerned.

They’re engaging in debate.

Activists have gone too far.

Political correctness, cancel culture.

In other words, it’s the idea that there are bad actors

who can hide behind virtues or less extreme rhetoric,

but who are still undermining people’s rights.

I see this constantly,

and the most frequent example of that

is they’re pretending to be concerned about children.

It’s not about the children.

They really hate trans people.

Now, if you’re saying that indirect bigotry

is asking questions where you believe

significant harm is done, if you’re saying

indirect bigotry is standing up for women’s rights,

then you know what? Guilty as charged.

I think it is a very bad faith argument to say that people

who are asking questions are being indirect bigots

because, you know, that itself, in my view,

is a very bad faith position.

Do you think that some people do use those kinds of,

like, I guess I’m thinking here of, like, actual people

that most people would recognize as bigots?

Pretty much everyone in the world,

bar literal psychopaths and clear terrible predators,

are concerned about harm to children, okay?

So that’s a very common human trait.

It’s a human trait to want to protect the vulnerable.

And children are very vulnerable.

The trouble is, you see,

one may use concern about children

to justify other actions.

You know, QAnon felt that children

were being trafficked and raped.

One may be concerned about children and be correct.

People around Jimmy Savile,

the UK’s most famous predator,

believed children were being harmed,

but his celebrity and his ability to raise money

for charity was such that nobody wanted to look into that.

So I’m not sure it’s as simple as saying people are using it.

Some people may genuinely believe children are being harmed

and also genuinely not want anyone to be trans.

That is not my position.

You have said that you respect trans people.

You said that you would march with them,

that you think the transition is right for some people.

But you also say that there’s a real difference

between biological women and trans women,

and a meaningful distinction between the two

in their experiences.

And I think some of your critics point to that and say,

you’re essentially making trans women second-class women.

You know, like, you’re almost women.

Despite all of their efforts to live in the world as women,

as what feels right and authentic to them,

you are essentially saying, I’ll treat you as a woman.

You are an honorary woman.

But this distinction that you are emphasizing,

the biological distinction that you see as being so important,

it can feel hurtful to them.

Like, they are, you know, almost a thing, but not quite.

Like, something is being held back.

Can you understand the pain that that could cause?

Yes, is the short answer. Yes, I can understand that hurt.

The thing is, women are the only group, to my knowledge,

that are being asked to embrace members of their oppressor class

unquestioningly, with no caveat.

Now, on an individual basis,

and I think many people new to this argument

would see it on that level,

because many people of my generation particularly

think that we’re talking about old-school transsexuals,

sex reassignment, because of profound gender dysphoria.

And I feel 100% compassion for such people,

and I would absolutely respect their pronouns,

always have, always will,

and would want, as I say them, to have comfortable, easy lives.

This movement, though, is pressing for something different,

very different.

This movement has argued, continues to argue,

that a man may have had no surgery whatsoever,

that he feels himself to be a woman,

the door of every woman’s bathroom, changing room,

rape centre should be open to him.

And I say no. I’m afraid I say no.

And we are in a cultural moment where that individual’s hurt

is being prioritised over the hurt of women

whose rights and boundaries are under sustained assault.

And I think it’s interesting to ask why

the pain of one group is being prioritised

over the pain of other groups.

Yeah, maybe a simpler way to ask it is that,

is there a way in your mind to respect both pains,

even though at some point obviously there’s going to be

a moment where action or decision has to be made?

I do believe that there is a way forward

in which women and girls retain their existing rights,

and trans people are properly protected.

There is a way, absolutely a way, to respect both points,

but I think we’re currently unfortunately at a place

where that is very difficult to achieve.

I believe feminists have tried very hard

to have this discussion.

How do we ensure everyone’s rights and safety?

Where does fairness lie?

For example, in issues like sport,

this one that’s getting a lot of publicity at the moment,

feminists are asking for certain spaces,

rape shelters would be a very obvious example,

to remain female only, or to have separate provision

for both groups, because I don’t know a single feminist

who doesn’t acknowledge that trans people also, of course,

are victims of sexual violence.

But at the moment, there seems to be a very

black and white view on the other side of the argument.

It’s everything or nothing.

When it comes to the bathroom question,

we’ve heard from a lot of people that essentially

the risks just don’t seem very high to them.

Many of them can understand why males and females

shouldn’t be housed in the same prison cells,

but when it comes to bathrooms, there already aren’t

guards at the door and nobody’s checking before we go in,

and essentially a bad actor would come in regardless

I agree quite strongly on that. There is a social taboo.

There has been until very recently, historically,

there has been a social taboo, so that if my husband

decided that he wanted to use the ladies’ bathroom,

the women inside would feel confident in challenging

his right to be there, and I think,

in my view, most decent men watching

a man walking into the ladies’ bathroom

might well challenge him too. That is now being eroded.

So, we have statistics on this.

The Sunday Times issued a freedom of

information request from the government.

88% of sexual assaults happen in unisex spaces.

The Sunday Times data Rowling is referencing

specifically addressed reported sexual assaults,

harassment, and voyeurism in changing rooms

at sports centers and swimming pools,

and compared the rates of incidents that occurred

in women’s unisex changing rooms.

We have had multiple instances in this country

and in America, because I went and looked,

because I was thinking, well, does this happen?

And it happens. Voyeurism, sexual assault.

The men, particularly,

arguing that this isn’t a risk,

alarm me, candidly. Are they naive?

Do they not know what their fellow men do?

There are a lot of critics who say you

and your comments are giving fuel to the right.

Well, my answer would be, I think you’re giving

fuel to the right. This is why many

left-wing feminists in particular are sitting

with their head in their hands.

The right has wanted for years and years and years

to, not all of the right, but certainly

the further right and the religious right,

wanted to castigate the lesbian and gay

and bisexual movement as inherently degenerate

and part of the left’s broader degeneracy.

When you defend the placing of

rapists in cells with women, you are

handing the right a perfect opportunity

to say, you see, we told you the moral

degeneracy that would result if you say homosexual

relationships are okay. And I think for many

feminists, we are despairing of the fact

that people are, in our view,

colluding with a deeply misogynist movement

which is benefiting, politically speaking,

the far right.

And I worry very deeply

that as the left becomes increasingly

puritanical and authoritarian and

judgmental, we are pushing swathes

of people towards not just the right,

it’s pushing them to the alt-right. That’s what

scares me, that particularly young men,

when they’re being told everything in the world is their fault

and they have no right to a voice and they are

everything that is wrong with society,

it is unfortunately a human reaction

to go to the place where you will be embraced.

If the only place where you can make a joke or

be accepted is a place that is full of

poisonous ideas, then you’re likely to go there,

particularly when you’re young. So I think

that the left is making a tremendous mistake

in espousing this kind of,

in my view, quasi-religious, incredibly

witch-hunting behaviour because there will be people

who will just feel, when they’ve been shamed and abused

and feel it was unfair, where are they going to go?

That worries me very deeply. In my lifetime

we’ve seen such a shift on the left

and I still would define myself as of the left

but I was born in the 60s

when transgression really was the preserve of the left

when challenging authority and making the dark

joke and breaking societal norms was very much

the preserve of the left. I’ve lived

to see the left become incredibly

puritanical and rigid and

watching the alt-right, and this is a new phenomenon,

the alt-right is not the conservative right, with whom

I disagree on many, many things, but I’m just saying

we’re seeing the growth of something very much

facilitated by the internet that alarms

and disturbs me and it worries me that the left are

absolutely playing into that demographic’s hands.

You wrote a book, many books, where

young children have a lot of autonomy and

make very adult decisions and

some of them come with really great risks and

that’s like sneaking off into a dungeon or

running away to fight the most powerful wizard who has ever existed

and some of your critics wonder if there’s something

contradictory in saying that young people

are not old enough to know who they are

to make this decision about

whether to medically transition.

Those are fantasy books and the point of fantasy is

that we are allowed to explore in imagination

things that frighten us, challenge us,

we’re allowed to escape into a world that’s scary

but then we can come back, we can close the book, we can think about

what we’ve read, we can think about what it means to make irreversible decisions.

By contrast, we are dealing

with the real world here. We’re dealing

with children, in my view,

being persuaded

that a solution for

all distress is lifelong medicalisation.

That is real world harm.

There’s no closing the book and walking away, there’s no

playing with this, experimenting with this

and not suffering harm,

in my view. Now, people will say

perhaps that you’ve already said

that for some people this will be the answer and I will say

yes, for persistent gender dysphoria

I believe, I certainly hope

that for adults who have found no other way to resolve their gender dysphoria

transition may be the answer. I want to see those people protected,

I want their rights protected,

I wish them lives full of joy and fulfilment

but when we’re talking about children, I think that is

a very different question.

Now, you’ve said that you’ve been immersing yourself in a lot of reading,

memoirs and philosophy and academic literature

all around this subject and

I know that one thing that’s made this conversation about

minors medically transitioning so

contentious is that because it’s quite new

there aren’t a lot of authoritative studies

and so with the studies that are out there, the assertion is that

people on all sides are cherry picking

to fit their arguments. What evidence are you seeing

that makes you think that you are right to be worried?

I haven’t yet found a study

that hasn’t found that the majority of young people,

children and adolescents experiencing gender dysphoria

will grow out of it.

Now, I haven’t found a single study

that contradicts that and I have gone looking.

The majority of children will, if allowed to go through adolescence,

many of them will grow up to,

not all, but many will grow up to be gay and

their gender dysphoria will resolve.

Why then, if that’s the evidence,

are we immediately putting

children onto an affirmative path?

Can we follow the science?

There’s activism and

all activism isn’t equal.

I genuinely think that we are watching one of the worst

medical scandals in a century

and I believe that those who should have known better,

and I’m talking here not, God knows, about

trans people, gender dysphoric people, distressed young people,

I’m certainly not talking about them, I am talking about

medics and those who have cheered

this on unquestioningly, creating a climate in which

many people trying to raise red flags

have been intimidated and silenced.

And I would ask proponents of gender identity ideology

who are so militant, who are so determined

on no debate, I would ask them, what if you are wrong?

If I’m wrong,

honestly, hallelujah.

If I’m wrong, great.

People aren’t being harmed.

But if you are wrong, you have cheered on,

you have created a climate, quite a threatening climate,

in which whistleblowers and

young people themselves are being intimidated

out of raising concerns.

I think it was in 2018, Professor Carl Hennigan,

who is of the Oxford Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine,

and he spoke up publicly and he said,

we are watching an unregulated live experiment

on children. He was instantly

condemned as a transphobe by, I think,

the Oxford University’s LGBT society.

So when you say that people aren’t being harmed

if you’re wrong, you mean physically?

Because your critics say that you are harming people

with your words and with the ideas that you are promoting.

Well, actually, I received an email

right after I spoke out in which

a left-wing man I know emailed me and he said

a trans man had been killed

in Germany. And he said

to me, your rhetoric

contributes to an environment in which police are less likely

to investigate that crime.

Now, join the dots for me.

What I had said at that point is,

there used to be a word for people who menstruate.

Is he genuinely arguing

that by saying women menstruate,

police investigating murder

will say, well, better wrap up the investigation.

These hyperbolic

accusations are thrown at anyone who

challenges this ideology. Your words

will cause people to kill themselves. Your words

will stop police investigation.

Your words will cause men to be violent

trans women. Blaming women

for the violence of men is a hallmark

of something that is not normally seen as progressive.

That is misogyny writ large.

To go back to your concern

about the left feeding a backlash that might

help the far right, there has been a real

and rapid loss of public trust in institutions

of all kinds over the past few years.

And it sounds like this experience you’re having

is causing you yourself to have doubts about

the trustworthiness of some of our institutions

in this moment. Completely. And I think that this is

I mean, we’ve seen this play out in the last decade, this

undermining of experts. You know, the experts

can’t be trusted. The media can’t be trusted. Governments can’t be trusted.

And I would be lying if I didn’t say that I have

lost faith in certain institutions. I have

lost a degree of faith in what is

obviously the industry I know best, the publishing industry.

I’ve been shocked by the positions that

publishing has taken. I am

pleased and proud to say that my publisher has

taken, my editor in fact,

has taken a robust position on freedom of speech.

And I was relieved that he took that position,

not for my sake, but it was a declaration on freedom of speech

that I think publishing, if publishers stand

for nothing else, they should stand for plurality of views.

And the other institutions that I have

definitely lost faith in are educational institutions

who I think have taken a very dogmatic

position on this and are shutting down debate,

freedom of thought and freedom of expression. And I,

if we cannot look to those institutions to protect those very

precious things, we are in trouble. And I am

afraid I think we are currently in trouble.

Well, one of the concerns you voiced is around

language and institutions using phrases

like birthing people or cervix havers

or people who menstruate. And

some of your critics just don’t see a problem with this.

They see it as just making language more

inclusive. So for instance, in the world of journalism,

the Associated Press released a new style guide

explaining that when referring to transgender people,

phrases like is a woman are more

to the point than identifies as a woman.

Can you make the case to the skeptic,

why is this an issue for you?

That from the Associated Press is hugely

powerful. They’ve edged from identifies

as a woman. So a man identifies as a woman, which I think

we all understand what that means, into is a woman.

And that’s precisely the creep that I’m talking

about. We are using language

to make accurate definition

of sex difference unspeakable.

When I read news stories,

woman convicted of exposing her penis

on the street. Now I’m laughing, but it’s

not actually that funny. I hear myself saying the words and that

seems so absurd to me. But there is now a journalistic

convention that no matter the crime,

woman convicted of raping small boy. These are

real news stories. I see that

as political language.

I see that as an ideological.

I don’t believe it to be factual. There’s a body

of feminists who would say these are not our crimes. These are

not women’s crimes. And I would say something else.

I don’t believe you can accurately analyze sexual violence

or violence when committed by males. And we know that

98 to 99% of sexual violence is committed

by men. Women are

form 88% of victims of sexual violence.

How can we record accurate data?

How can we analyze this phenomenon without being

able to accurately talk about

who is the perpetrator and who is the victim?

So what you’re saying is that by changing the language there

to focus, especially around sex crimes,

to focus on gender rather than sex,

you’re obscuring an important fact, which is that

biology actually is implicated there.

Exactly that.

One of the things that your critics say often is some version of

I wish she would listen. Why isn’t she listening to us?

They think that nobody

could possibly disagree with them if they heard

what they were saying. And I truly

believe that the notion that I have listened and I have read

and I have learned and I’ve looked at the theory and I’ve looked

at personal accounts and still disagree is

simply anathema. So what you’re saying is they think

they want you to listen when really they want you to agree.

I’m afraid that is exactly what I think.

And then the other extremely common question that comes up

and it comes off almost like a plea

is just why? Why are you doing this?

Why can’t you just let people be who they are

and support them the way that you do for these outsider characters in your book?

If one of those people is listening right now,

how would you talk to them? What would you say to them?

Can you speak to them?

I would say to them, you as a human being,

the self that you are, I have the utmost

respect for you. I want you protected. I want you safe.

I would treat you with respect, always.

And I would say

I’m worried.

I’m worried that you

yourself may have got caught up

in something that may ultimately harm you.

But I’m asking some questions because I think

some vulnerable groups are being harmed

and that includes the gay community,

that includes vulnerable women

and it includes vulnerable youth.

Now, if you identify as trans,

if that is an answer for you,

then I’m with you 100%.

But we are seeing mounting evidence that this is not

the answer for everyone and that we may be living

through a cultural moment that we will look back on,

not with pride, but with puzzlement

that we let it happen.

We’ll be right back.

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I’m really interested in the question of discernment.

I think of this scene from one of your books,

it was Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,

and Hermione, the hero, and Professor Umbridge,

who is clearly in the wrong, have this showdown in class.

Hermione says in a moment of defiance

that she disagrees with something in her textbook,

and Umbridge berates her, like,

who are you to disagree with this expert

who wrote this textbook, and punishes her?

Now to anyone reading this, it is so frustrating and unjust,

but I venture to say that no one thinks they are the Umbridge.

No one ever thinks that. No one ever thinks they’re Umbridge.

And some people see you as the Umbridge.

You have these younger critics online,

and they see Hermione as standing up to an older person

with power, and they see themselves

as standing up to you.

Yeah, and I understand because they’ve told me

very explicitly why they have that interpretation.

How do you know if you are a Hermione or an Umbridge?

Well, if you’re having a lot of fun doing it,

and getting a huge sense of self-satisfaction out of it,

then I do believe you maybe want to stop and think,

am I getting a huge ego rush out of this?

That would be a good question to ask yourself.

You know, is this giving me pleasure?

Because I can say from my heart,

none of this has given me pleasure.

It has given me anxiety.

It has made me at times feel vulnerable.

So although I don’t regret anything,

I’ve had concerns for my family’s safety.

Some of the threats have not been too amusing to me.

There has been fallout in my life inevitably.

I still don’t regret standing up,

but it certainly hasn’t given me pleasure on any level.

You know, one of the key moments for me,

so you say, you talk about righteousness.

There was an incident in 2019, I believe, in which…

Here, Rowling mentioned the incident

that we spoke about in Chapter 4,

where in a nearby Scottish town,

a 10-year-old girl was sexually assaulted

by an 18-year-old trans woman in a public bathroom.

Some of the discourse I saw after that incident

really took me aback,

because one of the first things I saw was,

the TERFs love it when something like this happens.

Now, what thought process has led you to believe

that the TERFs, this demonised, evil group…

I mean, they just hate trans people.

They want them all dead. We all know this.

That’s who they are.

What leads you to believe

that we want 10-year-old children escape rape

by a hair’s whisker?

How has your black-and-white thinking evolved

to the point where you think that feminists like me

actively are gleeful when women are raped or attacked?

That’s great. We can use this to bash trans women with.

And I’ve seen that discourse,

and I think if you’re thinking,

is that it’s not just irrational.

That is such a bad faith position.

At no point do you stop and say to yourself,

there may be some nuance here.

Is this all moving pieces on a chessboard for you?

Is it all a game?

Does real-world hurt and harm not count at all?

There’s one other question that I had about discernment.

So how do you know if you’re fighting for something

that is truly righteous

or just something that appears to be righteous?

How do you know that the courage to call out an injustice

isn’t actually just a call to join an unjust mob?

So coming from Westboro,

where I believed so strongly that I was doing the right thing,

and then to leave and come to believe

that it was so destructive and harmful,

I had this moment in time,

and it lasted for many months,

where I was like, how can I ever trust my own mind again?

Because I was so certain.

And so I was looking for some kind of solid footing.

What leg do I have to stand on?

How can I trust my mind?

How do I not make the same mistake again and again going forward?

And so I basically came up with this list of questions

that kind of grew over time,

and a few of them you’ve alluded to already.

So these are the questions that I asked myself to see.

Am I starting to go down a bad path?

So the first question is,

are you capable of entertaining real doubt about your beliefs,

or are you operating from a position of certainty?

Yeah, and I think that that’s key.

I think it’s when we are most certain,

when we’re getting that rush of adrenaline that says,

God, I’m a good person.

That’s when we should most question ourselves.

That’s when you need to stop and ask yourself a question.

And the second point is, can you articulate the evidence

that you would need to see in order to change your position,

or is your perspective unfalsifiable?

We’ve discussed this already,

and I think that’s such a good question

because I asked myself that question on this issue.

What would I need to see?

And I could articulate what I would need to see

to move me from my position, my thought-out position.

Can you articulate your opponent’s perspective

in a way that they recognize, or are you strawmanning?

I think that’s excellent,

and I genuinely believe I could articulate my opponent’s position

because I’ve read their books,

and I think people need to read these things.

They need to understand what is being argued.

The fourth one was, are you attacking ideas

or attacking the people who hold them?

Always the ideas.

Are you willing to cut off close relationships

with people who disagree with you,

particularly over relatively small points of contention?

No, I’m not.

A difference of belief is nothing to me,

but I can imagine myself no longer wishing to have a relationship

with a person who behaved in certain ways towards me or towards others

because I do strongly believe it’s watch what people are doing,

not what they’re saying.

So certain behaviors would probably be a deal-breaker for me,

and that would include demonizing others for small transgressions.

That would be a revelation to me

that that person wasn’t who I thought they were probably.

And then the last one was,

are you willing to use extraordinary means

against people who disagree with you?

And by that I mean things like forcing people out of their jobs or homes,

violence or threats of violence,

or things like what my family and I did celebrating misfortune and tragedy.

I don’t know why, but that question has actually made me quite emotional

that you say that to me because I sit opposite you and I like you so much

and you’re such a humane and reasonable person,

and to hear you describing those behaviors is…

I can really understand why you had your long dark night of the soul.

One thing that you said to me earlier in our discussion really stuck with me.

You said to me that not long before you left,

you said to someone, an interviewer,

I’m all in, and you told me,

I believed that I had questioned myself and I was fine with everything,

but you said you hadn’t gone deep enough.

Trust and obey, right?

You’d never actually taken apart

the most fundamental three words of your belief system.

You’d never challenged those.

Can you talk about that? Because that really interests me.

Yeah, so I grew up in a family of lawyers, right?

So my mom is one of 13, and I think 11 of the 13 went to law school.

They were very, very smart, very analytical, very logical people,

which I think surprised a lot of people to learn

because it’s easy to assume that these are just kind of rednecks

with backwards beliefs or something,

and specifically with unexamined beliefs.

These are just their personal prejudices,

and they’re living them out in the world,

when in fact my grandfather was a well-known,

award-winning civil rights attorney.

He was somebody who had reason to believe

that he was on the right side of things on a lot of things,

and we were constantly looking around at what other people believed

and other understandings of the Bible

and then going back to the Word, right?

Going back to the King James Version of the Bible

and trying to show and memorizing chapter and verse

why everybody else was wrong, all the evidence.

So it was a constant process of examination, asking these questions.

But I realized before I left

that there were two fundamental premises of our ideology

that I never questioned.

I never truly questioned the idea that the Bible

was the literal, infallible Word of God

and that Westboro’s understanding of it was the right one

because, again, it was all laid out there for me.

And as many questions as I asked, from those two premises,

essentially everything else basically fell into place.

There were a few small contradictions

that outsiders were able to find on Twitter,

and I do wonder if not for some internal contradiction,

relatively small points,

if that had never revealed themselves to me,

if they’d never revealed themselves to me,

then I would have just accepted.

I would never have thought to question those two basic premises.

That actually is one of the reasons that I came up with this list

because if I asked myself all these hard questions,

what I imagined, I really thought I was digging in deep.

It was really terrifying to realize

even when you’re really trying,

even when it’s an earnest attempt,

and all of your intellect,

and, again, I’m surrounded by people

who are all incredibly intelligent and well-intentioned.

I know those people.

We would do anything for each other.

So it’s just the idea that such people

could still get to a place that was so wrong

and so harmful and so destructive,

it helps me, I guess, now

feel a lot of understanding and grace for people

even when they’re doing harmful things.

So it’s that question about,

are you talking ideas or the people who hold them?

That is very, it’s huge to me

because of the way that people were able to understand

that even though I was doing horrible things,

I was trying to do the right thing,

and that was something that they could tap into.

And so this is, for me,

even though it can be kind of scary

to see what people are capable of

even when they’re trying to do the right thing,

it’s also a hopeful thing because that desire to do good

is something that you can tap into,

which is why the desire to shut down debate and conversation

is so alarming to me

because that is the only thing

that can ultimately change hearts and minds.

And it’s, I think, the only real tool we have

outside of actual force and violence to make change.


Every crowd, every mob is made up of individuals,

and it’s reaching the individuals

and not allowing this to become mob on mob

that will change things for the best.

If we’re to have any hope,

and your story obviously is one of redemption,

and I love everything that you say

about the good in your family.

I truly do.

Okay, very last question.

Why have you been willing to talk to me?

What do you hope this does?

I’ve been willing to talk to you specifically

because you wrote me that incredible letter

and because I think I’ve had a hundred people at least say,

explain yourself, explain yourself,

but I felt that you and I could have a conversation

that interested me.

And in terms of what I hope this does,

I suppose I hope people enjoy the podcast, honestly.

I don’t mean this in any arrogant way,

and I don’t mean this in any self-pitying way,

but I feel that I’ve said what I’ve said,

and maybe when the mist clears,

some people will understand better.

Some will always hate me for what I’ve said.

I accept that.

I know I won’t ever regret having stood up on this issue, ever.

You know, that’s the price you pay.

If you want to be universally and eternally beloved,

then you must curate your image

in a way that I’m simply not prepared to do.

I’m not in the business of doing that.

And I’m not taking a long bet here.

I’m not thinking, oh, I think this cultural moment will pass

and therefore I will be vindicated.

I don’t know what the future holds.

I only know that I would have betrayed myself,

and I passionately believe I would have betrayed

a lot of women and girls if I had not stood up on this issue.

There are more important things in this world than being popular,

and that doesn’t mean it’s more important to me to be right.

It means it’s more important to me to do the right thing.

Jo Rowling, thank you so much for speaking with me.

Thank you.

We good?

Do you have anything else to say?

She haven’t got anything to say now.

Ha ha ha!

Ha ha ha!

You’ve been listening to The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling.

This series is dedicated to everyone out there

who’s trying to have difficult conversations,

trying to listen with empathy

and to speak with honesty and in good faith,

even when it’s hard.

So much has happened since we started our reporting,

and we’ll be back in a month or so with a bit of an epilogue,

so stay tuned.

But in the meantime, if this show has meant something to you,

if it has moved you or provoked you or inspired you

or maybe caused you to question some of your assumptions,

please share it with your community.

Share it with your friends or family.

Start a podcast club.

Discuss it.

Debate it.

Join the public conversation,

as messy as it can be sometimes.

And if you think we’ve missed something

or have recommendations for our team,

we’re always happy to hear from you.

You can send us an email at

or send me a message on Twitter,

at Megan Phelps.

And if you would,

please leave us a review on Apple or Spotify

to help others discover the show.

And now for some thank yous.


The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling

was produced by Andy Mills, Matthew Bohl,

and me, Megan Phelps-Roper,

with production and editing support from Candice Mattel-Kahn.

The series is brought to you by The Free Press.

The show was mixed by Matthew Bohl.

Sound design by Andy Mills and Matthew Bohl.

Editorial advising by Barry Weiss.

Additional editing support from Emily Yaffe.

Original music composed and performed

by Peter Lelish, Kobe Bienert,

John Ivins, and Matthew Bohl.

The wonderful readings from Harry Potter

and the Philosopher’s Stone in episode one

were performed by actor Crispin Letts,

with special permission from J.K. Rowling.

Our beautiful artwork was created by Eliana Blazer-Gould,

with art direction by Susie Weiss.

Fact-checking by Natalie Ballard and me.

Special thanks to Stephanie Roper, Kate Fjelland,

Rebecca Salt, Noah Phelps-Roper,

Laura Floyd, Lucy Biggers,

Jonathan Hunt, Isaac Grafstein,

Alex Burns, Camille Foster,

Aaron Bohl, Katie Herzog,

Jesse Singel, Joy Neal,

Kat Rosenfield, Lacey Green,

Noah’s dad, Jay,

Maya Sulkin, Buck Angel,

Corinna Kahn, Marcy Bowers,

and Jonathan Haidt.

And to many patient and supportive members of my family,

including Joyce, Marlon,

Tor, and Solvie Lynn Fjelland,

Josh Phelps-Roper, Nancy Taves,

and Tom Kennett.

And of course, our thanks to J.K. Rowling

for inviting us into her home.

Last but not least,

our most profound thanks goes to everyone

who shared their stories with us,

and to our friends,

who listened and gave us encouragement and feedback

along the way.

Goodbye for now,

but we’ll see you all soon in the epilogue.

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