In her new book The Ink Black Heart everyone’s favourite TERF J.K. Rowling decided to add ableism to her growing collection of bigotry. The Ink Black Heart is the sixth instalment in the series about Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott, two private detectives, that Rowling writes under the name Robert Galbraith. As most detective novels this story focuses on solving a murder case. The victim is Edie Ledwell, a cartoonist cancelled for ableism by her fans. Although the novel is strangely reminiscent of things that happened to Rowling, she claims that the story wasn’t inspired by her own life and she wanted to write about cancel culture for years.
Quite frankly, I don’t care if Rowling wrote a book about herself or not, what puzzles me is something else. Why did she choose ableism as the reason the author is going to get criticised for? Is Rowling herself an ableist?
Before I attempt to answer these questions, here is a quick disclaimer: I didn’t read the whole book. It is over a thousand pages long and it was written by a transphobe, so I am not going to waste more of my spoons on it than I absolutely have to. For the purpose of this article I watched a few in-depth reviews as well as interviews with the author about the book and I read the parts depicting disabled characters.
The case of a bigoted author
To answer the questions I posed we will have to turn into detectives, employing our own power of deduction and searching for clues in all Rowling’s works as well as the society’s general attitudes towards ableism. Take out your magnifying glass and let’s begin our investigation.
Edie Ledwell is a victim of the story for this reason Rowling probably didn’t want her to be accused of anything that would make her look too bad in the eyes of the readers. She also couldn’t use transphobia as the main focus (although it still gets mentioned offhandedly a few times) because she claims this story isn’t based on her own life in any way.
I think that she chose to use ableism because it is the most acceptable type of bigotry. Many people don’t even believe it exists. Disability is seen as a personal tragedy and there is nothing that society can do for disabled people. There are only three choices for us. We either overcome all the barriers on our own and become inspiration porn. Or we accept that we would never be able to do things we want to and find joy in watching life from the window in our room. This makes us gurus that teach you to be grateful for the little things in life. The third option is for us to die, which in your eyes is an understandable and compassionate choice since by killing ourselves we stopped being a burden. If we decide to reject these choices and instead demand equality, respect, full access and accommodations we are seen as angry, whiny, lazy and hysterical.
That’s how Kea, a disabled antagonist of the story, is depicted as well.
Before she was murdered, Edie got bullied by her fans online and so the detectives are looking for clues in tweets, chat logs and Tumblr posts. Kea is introduced to us via her Twitter bio that includes the list of her chronic illnesses, specifically fibromyalgia, PoTS and chronic fatigue syndrome. Kea’s only character trait is that she is disabled and it is made clear to the readers that she is the wrong kind of disabled. She is proud to be disabled. Her disabilities are invisible and she is hot but instead of using this to hide them she claims her identity openly. In her posts she calls out ableism both in society and in Edie’s cartoon. On her Tumblr page she talks about how it is alright to ask for accomodations, to use mobility aids, admit you are in pain and to reject society’s idea of productivity. All of these are valid points that disability activists have been making for ages. Did Rowling put them in her book to bring attention to an important issue? Unfortunately not. She put them there so she could show the contrast between Kea and Strike, who is an amputee. Strike doesn’t like to use a cane because ‘…the stick added another recognisable feature to an appearance that was already distinctive and in danger of becoming too recognisable, and secondly, because it invited enquiries and sympathy that he found generally unwelcome.’
Rowling just aptly described the feelings all disabled people have towards street ableists. Street Ableists are people who think it okay to stare at disabled people or even to stop us on the street and start asking intrusive questions about our disabilities and our lives in general. It is humiliating, annoying and often scary because those people don’t take no for an answer. Did Rowling call this behaviour out? No, her solution was for Strike not to use a cane regardless of the physical pain he was in without it. The message here is that if we want to avoid being harassed for being disabled we should strive to appear as able-bodied as possible. No one should be required to hide a part of themselves, nor to endure pain or isolation in order to not be abused.
When a different disability rights activist pointed out the use of ableist slurs and mockery of disabled characters in Edie’s cartoon, Rowling missed another opportunity to meaningfully talk about ableism. Instead of admitting that Edie was flawed and some criticism of her was valid (which would in no way justify her getting murdered), she had the fans that called Edie out immediately start attacking her on Twitter. This was done to completely divert the attention of the readers from their original points.
The message here? Disabled activists don’t have valid points; we are just bitter, angry, jealous trolls. This is a very dangerous stereotype because it teaches you that whenever we complain about something, we shouldn’t be listened to. It makes you believe that it is alright to discriminate against us or even abuse us and if we mind, that’s our problem. We should just change our attitude and pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. Rowling just told her readers across the world that it is okay to be ableist.
What are you saying? She didn’t mean it like that, she was probably just drawing from some of her own experiences with toxic fans online? And here I thought the book wasn’t supposed to be about her!
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Ableism
Our investigation now led us to a new question: Why would disability activists criticise Rowling in the past?
“I have no idea. Harry Potter wasn’t ableist, right? Mad Eye Moody was disabled and he was cool!”
When asked about disability in the wizarding world Rowling said that she decided not to include any real life disability, because wizards could cure any naturally occurring disabilities whether a person was born with them or acquired them later as a result of a non-magical accident. The only disabilities that exist in the wizarding world have magical origins. This wouldn’t be a problem if there were various magical disabilities in the story that would give us positive disability representation in a fantasy setting. As a disabled child reading Harry Potter I would love that!
Let’s have a look at what I got instead: disability as a result of dark curses. Mad Eye Moody, Lupin and Neville’s parents all became disabled because of their encounters with evil wizards and Wormtail lost his hand in order to resurrect Voldemort. This teaches the young and impressionable readers that disability itself is something evil that should be feared.
Next we have disability as a punishment. Lockhart ended up permanently disabled after his spell backfired when he attacked Ron and Harry in the second book.
Then there is the promotion of institutionalisation. Both Lockhart and Neville’s parents lived in a hospital despite the fact that this society had means to let them live at home. This reinforces a harmful stereotype that disabled people, especially intellectually disabled people, are better off in institutions. You can find out why this isn’t true in the first article I ever wrote on this blog.
You mentioned Mad Eye Moody being cool. As a character he was cool but as a disabled character not so much. He lost his eye and got a prosthetic that could see through walls and more. He effectively hasn’t lost any abilities on the contrary he gained new extraordinary abilities. If you have a disabled character and you use magic to basically erase their disability, you don’t have a disabled character anymore. When people in real life use prosthetics, mobility aids or adaptive technology, they don’t make us non-disabled. Sure, they make our lives easier, help us to regain lost abilities or reduce pain but they don’t make us non-disabled. We still face ableism in every aspect of our daily lives, we still struggle to obtain funding for our adaptive technology or its repairs, and we still encounter barriers because this world wasn’t built for the prosthetics or mobility aids we use.
Another problem with Moody is that his prosthetics were described as scary. Rowling had a wonderful opportunity to teach kids that visible disability isn’t something weird, disgusting or scary by having the muggle-born students to be the only ones scared by Moody’s apparence. The readers of Harry Potter could then internalise that looking different is not a bad thing.
She had a chance to wave a wand and change the attitude of an entire generation towards visibly disabled people and she didn’t.
Instead she chose to spread fatphobia. Most of the characters in the story that are described as fat are either evil (Uncle Vernon, Dudley, Aunt Marge, Crabbe and Goyle) or at least incompetent (Neville in the first few books).
The werewolf in the room
“But she also did some good with Lupin. She said that him being a werewolf was inspired by the stigma HIV positive people face!”
And what good has it done to challenge that stigma? The comparison is at best clumsy and at worst harmful. In the book Lupin was turned into a werewolf after being deliberately bitten by Fenrir Greyback. HIV positive people don’t go around deliberately infecting others. And if you are aware of having the virus there is no way you could give it to someone by accident. This means that unlike werewolves, HIV positive people don’t pose a danger to society. Implying that they do, doesn’t challenge the stigma, but reinforces it.
In the books the Marauders found a way to help Lupin to control himself in his werewolf form. This is a great example of how accomodations help us manage the negative effects of our disabilities. The problem is that after graduation Lupin didn’t share this knowledge with people in order to help other werewolves. Instead he took the potion and locked himself away every month. This teaches the readers that the only way to help disabled people experiencing a meltdown is to sedate them and lock them somewhere.
When Tonks fell in love with him, Lupin refused to date her, because he was afraid of being a burden. After she got pregnant, he ran away from his family out of fear that his child would share his condition. Despite the fact that thanks to the other Marauders, he knew exactly what accommodations his child would need to manage their condition.
Let’s get a few things straight here, shall we? Disabled people aren’t burdens, having a disabled child isn’t a curse nor a tragedy and disabled people can be good parents.
Rowling’s portrayal of Lupin reinforces harmful stereotypes about both HIV positive people and disabled people.
“Maybe you are right and her books really are ableist. I just don’t understand why you care so much, they are just books…”
I care because representation matters. For many people, fictional stories are the only source of information about disability. They form their opinion on us based on movies and books. Harry Potter books are hailed as one of the best children stories ever written and they are still incredibly popular. Teaching new generations that disability is a bad scary thing is harmful. And writing a thousand pages long book where you paint disabled activists fighting against ableism as dangerous entitled trolls is downright sinister.