books

Who Did J.K. Rowling Become?

Deciphering the most beloved, most reviled children’s-book author in history.

Photo-Illustration: Walter McBride/WireImage/Getty Images/2018 Walter McBride
Photo-Illustration: Walter McBride/WireImage/Getty Images/2018 Walter McBride

Edinburgh Castle, many centuries old, has been called the most besieged place in Britain. In 2005, on the night Melissa Anelli arrived, it was besieged primarily by children. The cover of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was projected on its outer walls. Inside, J. K. Rowling, a longtime Edinburgh resident, was celebrating the midnight release of the sixth Harry Potter book.

Anelli was then the 25-year-old web mistress of a Harry Potter fan site called The Leaky Cauldron. Rowling had personally summoned Anelli, along with Emerson Spartz (the proprietor of another fan site, MuggleNet), for an interview in her home. It would take place on the afternoon of the day the book came out. And so, after collecting their copies at the castle, Spartz and Anelli had some 12 hours to read the Potter series’ 650-page penultimate installment. “We were sleepless and dizzy and euphoric,” Anelli told me. By the time a car arrived to ferry them to Rowling’s house, Anelli had a 66-page sheaf of questions prepared.

Rowling lived in an ivy-covered Victorian stone mansion set within landscaped gardens, and, like Edinburgh Castle, it was something of a picturesque fortress. After a stalker had taken to showing up at the house, Rowling and her husband had, despite their neighbors’ objections, implemented increasingly strict security measures: first an eight-foot-high wall and an electronic gate, then CCTV security cameras. Anelli and Spartz were ushered into Rowling’s office, an outbuilding with honey-colored wood and floor-to-ceiling windows.

Rowling arrived: She gave them hugs, and when her husband walked in with their 6-month-old baby, she made introductions all around. Then the family cleared out and the interview began. Anelli and Spartz asked Rowling everything they could about the world she had created. For example, the Sorting Hat — it peers into the thoughts of each new Hogwarts student who arrives, then assigns them to one of four school houses.

“Has the Sorting Hat ever been wrong?” Spartz asked.

“No,” Rowling said, unequivocal.

The interview wound up running close to two hours, and on the car ride home, they opened the presents Rowling had given them: Anelli received a gold ring shaped like a snake with emerald eyes. The ring, Rowling wrote, was to thank her for her “invaluable protectiveness towards Harry and his fans.”

That weekend, Anelli had lived a fan fairy tale: She had gotten everything she wanted. Rowling had too. Her authority was, indeed, the whole point of the exercise. Anelli and Spartz were there to receive authorial pronouncements ex cathedra.

Anelli stayed in touch with the author for years after that first visit and interviewed Rowling for her own book, Harry, a History. But over time, something changed — possibly for the author herself, certainly for Anelli and many other fans. By the summer of 2020, when The Leaky Cauldron and MuggleNet once more joined forces, it was to condemn J. K. Rowling.

In the past few years, Rowling began to share her skepticism of transgender identity online. She seemed to have aligned herself with a camp of people who often call themselves “gender-critical feminists”; opponents tend to call them TERFs, or “trans-exclusionary radical feminists,” though they are not necessarily very radical. Then, in June of 2020, she posted a 3,670-word essay titled “J. K. Rowling Writes About Her Reasons for Speaking Out on Sex and Gender Issues.” Here, she eliminated any lingering doubt: Yes, she did in fact believe the trans-rights movement was “doing demonstrable harm in seeking to erode ‘woman’ as a political and biological class and offering cover to predators like few before it.”

Outcry followed. Fans, including many trans and nonbinary fans, felt betrayed. Rowling, meanwhile, felt she was the victim of online harassment by a mob hostile to her free speech. By the fall, her attitude toward trans people had become perhaps the first subject on which both Judith Butler and Pete Davidson were asked to opine.

“What’s wrong with her, Colin?” Davidson asked “Weekend Update” co-anchor Colin Jost. “She creates a seven-book fantasy series about all types of mythical creatures living in harmony with wizards and elves, and the one thing she can’t wrap her head around is Laverne Cox?”

“I confess to being perplexed,” Butler told a New Statesman interviewer, “by the fact that you point out the abuse levelled against J. K. Rowling, but you do not cite the abuse against trans people.”

“Perplexed” was a common reaction. Rowling had never been a particularly controversial figure. Her books sold hundreds of millions of copies, they inspired films that brought in billions of dollars, and she used the money she made to save children from orphanages. In 2012, she gave enough to charity and paid enough in taxes to knock herself off the Forbes billionaires list. In 2020, she was tweeting links to a store that sold pins that said F*CK YOUR PRONOUNS.

Read another way, though, the latest turn in Rowling’s story looks perhaps less perplexing than inevitable. It is the culmination of a two-decade power struggle for ownership of her fictional world — the right to say what Harry Potter means. The Harry Potter books describe a stark moral universe: Their heroes fight on behalf of all that is good to defeat the forces of absolute evil. Though the struggle may be lonely and hard, right ultimately beats wrong. For fans, when it came to the matter of trans rights, the message of Harry Potter was clear. For Rowling, this was no less the case.

“She absolutely believes that she is right, that she’s on a mission, and that history will eventually bear her out,” Anelli told me. “She thinks she’s doing good work right now.”

Rowling completed the first Harry Potter book in 1995 in a modest apartment in the Edinburgh port neighborhood of Leith. The period of her life spent there has been a longtime fixture of the Harry Potter press — before Scholastic paid her an unheard-of $105,000 for the American rights to the first book, Rowling was a single mother on public assistance, nursing cups of coffee so she could write in cafés. This Cinderella story proved irresistible, as did the parallel to Harry himself. Like the orphaned boy wizard who slept in a cupboard, his creator had been recognized and swept off to well-deserved glory.

Rowling’s circumstances were in some ways not quite so dire as this story may suggest. She was a college graduate from a solidly middle-class background considering a teaching career. Still, she moved into the Leith apartment during a turbulent stretch of her late 20s and early 30s in which she was eventually diagnosed with depression. When Rowling was 25, her mother died of complications from multiple sclerosis; grieving, Rowling moved abroad and took a job teaching English in Portugal. She married a Portuguese journalist, but the marriage, she has said, was “catastrophic.” (Her ex-husband later told the tabloid press that he had slapped her the night she left.) Just over a year after the wedding, Rowling took her baby daughter and moved to be near her sister in Edinburgh.

She completed the seventh and final Harry Potter book at Edinburgh’s five-star Balmoral Hotel. J.K. ROWLING FINISHED WRITING HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS IN THIS ROOM (652) ON 11 JAN 2007, she wrote on a marble bust in her suite.

As the series progressed, book tours and readings took on the pitch of Beatlemania. Rowling hired her own PR sentries and earned a reputation for guarding her privacy vigilantly. (In the fourth book, she introduces an unscrupulous tabloid journalist named Rita Skeeter, who is described as having heavy makeup and “mannish” hands. This is as good a place as any to mention that Rowling declined to be interviewed for this story.) She remarried after being set up with a Scottish doctor named Neil Murray, and she had two more children with him.

Rowling had resisted Warner Bros.’ initial offer for the movie rights because she was far from completing the series and the studio hadn’t promised that any sequels would come from her work. By the time they reached an agreement, Rowling was no longer an unknown debut author; she had a growing fan base the studio didn’t want to alienate. She secured a deal that future films would hew to her books.

When Oprah included an interview with “the billionaire mom behind the Harry Potter empire” in the final season of her talk show, such access was a trophy. Rowling had turned Oprah down once before, during the first flush of Potter publicity. This time, the author chose the Balmoral for their interview. As the two women spoke, a 1,300-square-foot suite stretched behind them; a tea service sat ornamentally in between. The red of a rug picked up the soles of Rowling’s beige patent Louboutin pumps. Her hair was sleek and blonde, her delivery polished. The 13 years that had passed since her first TV spots seemed not to have aged her but buffed her to a higher sheen.

Winfrey did her best to probe personal trauma; Rowling responded with polite restraint. In her unhappy first marriage, she allowed, she had “repeated patterns” from the family in which she had grown up. She and her father were estranged, she confirmed — “It wasn’t a good relationship, from my point of view, for a very long time.” Surrounded by the opulence Rowling could now treat as office space, Winfrey also wanted to talk about success.

“Are you in a place now where you can accept that you will always be rich?” she asked.

“No,” said Rowling. “Are you?”

Winfrey said she was (“Kinda. Getting there”). Perhaps Rowling’s immediate reply had been British self-effacement, but it also suggested a certain alienation from the circumstances she had attained. Rowling had found herself an Oprah-level celebrity — but her idea of the perfect day, as she once said, was waking up in the morning two-thirds of the way through a book and knowing exactly where she was going, with nothing to do all day but write. Her fantasy was to be left alone in a world where she made the rules.

Finishing her work on the Harry Potter books was an occasion Rowling mourned like a death. Harry’s world had been a reliable refuge, and she now seemed reluctant to depart. The final book concludes with an epilogue that stretches out her characters’ futures — their marriages, their children, their children’s prospective marriages. (She later told Anelli she tried to include more — more characters, more children, more details — but her editor had gently reined her in.) Shortly after the last book was published, Rowling made it clear that she wasn’t quite finished yet. Addressing an audience at Carnegie Hall, she announced that, though it hadn’t come up in the books, the Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore was gay.

At the time, this revelation caused a stir that was enthusiastic — mostly. “Oh, lady, you had your chance!” Roger Sutton remembers thinking when Rowling unleashed the Dumbledore news. “I thought that was a real intrusion upon the reader’s experience. And I’m gayer than five Dumbledores.” Sutton is editor-in-chief of the American children’s-literature journal The Horn Book Magazine, and when the Harry Potter books were first published, he was a rare dissenting voice (The Sorcerer’s Stone was “likable but critically insignificant,” he wrote in 1999.) What repelled Sutton was precisely what had attracted many others: the way the author seemed determined to map and describe every corner of her fictional world. “Rowling showed you everything you would see. She told you everything you would hear,” he said. “I need more air in the books I read.” Down to the level of the sentence — her penchant for adverbs became a well-known foible — Rowling eschewed ambiguity.

One of the fans most devoted to Rowling’s exhaustive world building was a former Michigan school librarian named Steven Vander Ark. His website, The Harry Potter Lexicon, had won Rowling’s praise; it catalogued the minutiae of her books in such detail that she said she occasionally consulted it to fact-check her work as she wrote. In the months after the series concluded, Vander Ark contracted with a local publisher to turn his site into a print volume, and Rowling’s appreciation soured. Suing Vander Ark’s publishers for copyright infringement, she said, “I believe that this book constitutes the wholesale theft of 17 years of my hard work.”

Representing Vander Ark’s publisher, the executive director of Stanford Law School’s Fair Use Project pointed out that publishing companion guides to existing works was a practice that had been accepted “for hundreds of years.” But Neil Blair, one of Rowling’s agents, said that people who wished to produce such companions typically approached Rowling’s representatives first. Before publishing anything, they would seek her approval and make changes where requested; they would, in other words, “fall in line.” The judge ruled in Rowling’s favor, awarding $6,750 in damages. Vander Ark had broken down in tears as he testified, but after the trial, he avowed that he would always be a Harry Potter fan.

Blair was working at Warner Bros. when he got into the business of Harry Potter. He was quick to sense the books’ commercial promise and the potential for its author to play a powerful role. He left Warner Bros. to work for Rowling’s agent; then, in 2011, he started an agency of his own and took Rowling with him. This inaugurated a period in which, books complete, the business continued to grow. Warner Bros. would eventually announce a Harry Potter Global Franchise Development Team. Two Harry Potter theme parks had already opened; plans were under way to expand and open others. Pottermore, an online publishing hub launched in 2012, allowed Rowling to control her own e-book rights and share her writing with fans. But what exactly the fans wanted from her remained to be seen.

“Rowling was very much an untouchable goddess in the 2000s, at the height of her power,” Ebony Elizabeth Thomas told me. Thomas is a professor of children’s literature at the University of Pennsylvania; back in 2000, she was a recent college graduate teaching fifth grade. That was when she discovered Harry Potter and soon became immersed in the fandom taking shape online. She had just led a 2003 fan panel on postcolonial readings (“Imperial Harry”) when a Dr. Seuss scholar in the audience suggested she consider academia. From the fifth-graders she first taught to the graduate students she teaches now, Thomas has spent years following the millennials who grew up alongside Rowling’s characters. It’s the last cohort with any memory at all of a world where they couldn’t read a story and fire off a public critique — or, for that matter, rewrite the story in a way its author never imagined, share it publicly, and find readers of their own. Thomas is only a decade or so older than her students, but she still marvels at the agency they claim as readers. Rowling fashioned herself an untouchable goddess at the exact moment untouchable goddesses became obsolete.

Rowling knew her books had a tremendous number of fans, and she knew the fans talked to one another online. Still, she had published four Harry Potter books before she permitted herself to do some Googling and explore. “I was concerned for the safety of the fragile glass bubble within which I wrote,” she once explained. There was something about the internet’s basic dynamics that unnerved her. “I had no idea there was this huge underworld seething beneath me,” she told Anelli and Spartz in their Edinburgh interview. The plot of the second Harry Potter book hinges on a sinister enchanted diary — you write in it, and someone unseen and unidentified writes back. Although, at the time, Rowling had never been in a chat room, she realized later that this was basically what she had in mind. “Just typing your deepest thoughts into the ether and getting answers back, and you don’t know who is answering you,” she told an interviewer. “That was always a very scary image to me.”

What Rowling initially found scary was exactly what others found exciting, even liberating: Identity could be slippery online. Flourish Klink was 11 in 1998, when Harry Potter fandom (and a Bondi Blue iMac) became the gateway to a new life. On the internet, after all, nobody knows you’re a suburban middle-schooler. Klink could write, and that was what mattered in the Harry Potter for Grownups fan group — “so I was just, like, rocking out.” There were plenty of fans who were reverential toward Rowling’s creation, but many others reimagined her work so that dead characters were living, straight characters gay, or villains sympathetic. Rowling’s creations felt ubiquitous, timeless; for readers who had grown up on Harry, J. K. Rowling was practically the Brothers Grimm. The archetypes and lore she assembled were raw material for new stories to be told.

In Rowling’s world, for example, gender was an essential, immutable fact, and it had been that way from her first flicker of inspiration. “From the word go, it was a boy,” she has said of imagining her protagonist. “I never thought, Oh, maybe it’s a girl. Never once. It was always a boy.” Yet Rowling also invented the character Nymphadora Tonks (known as Tonks) — a “Metamorphmagus” able to change shape at will. Klink remembers writing “the queerest fanfic I’ve ever written” about Tonks turning into a man. Since then, Klink has come out as nonbinary. “I loved Tonks — and for a lot of other people who are nonbinary, Tonks was a big deal,” they told me. But “when you look back on Tonks, Tonks never changes into a guy. Tonks never changes into anything but different kinds of girl.”

While the fandom emerged alongside the social internet, it wasn’t until 2014 that Rowling herself embraced Twitter and embarked on a prolific posting career. Tweeting, she was delighted to discover, was writing. “You’re swimming in your own medium,” she told a 2015 interviewer. “Twitter for me has been an unmixed blessing.” Rowling too found she could be the person she wanted to be online. For her, this meant shrugging off the trappings of celebrity. “There came a point where Harry became so enormous that, at a reading, there were 2,000 people,” she explained. “You can’t answer everyone’s question. Twitter gave that back to me.”

It was also an ideal conduit for a constant stream of Harry Potter amendments. Readers learned that Fluffy, the three-headed dog, had been repatriated to Greece; that Luna Lovegood’s birthday was February 13; and that there was at least one Jewish student at Hogwarts (his name was Anthony Goldstein, and he was a Ravenclaw). They learned that Hogwarts was tuition-free and that, among wizards, homophobia did not exist. The journalist Brian Feldman’s tweet poking fun at her relentless output went viral: “*J. K. rowling wakes up* what’s today’s tweet *spins large bingo cage* hagrid … is … pansexual and … he later joined isis.”

Rowling’s updates sometimes seemed like retroactive gestures toward inclusion. She often described the series as a plea for tolerance. A fixation on blood purity is central to Voldemort’s villainy — he and his followers look down on wizards of non-magical birth. A 2014 study by Italian psychologists suggested that reading Harry Potter “improves attitudes toward stigmatized groups,” and young fans seemed to bear this out. An organization called the Harry Potter Alliance sought to channel the energy of fandom into activism. The group launched campaigns to fight genocide in Darfur and bring medical supplies to Haiti; it championed literacy, net neutrality, girls’ education access, gay rights, and immigration reform.

Jackson Bird worked at the Harry Potter Alliance from 2013 to 2018, eventually serving as communications director. He is the author of Sorted, a 2019 memoir about coming out as trans and being a Harry Potter fan. “The fan community had to evolve on LGBTQ+ issues in the same way that the larger Western world has in recent decades,” Bird told me, “but did so a little bit more quickly and a little bit earlier — probably just because there were so many closeted people in the community.” In 2016, the Harry Potter Alliance ran a campaign called Protego, named for “a powerful shield spell, used throughout the magical world to make a space safer.” Fans working on Protego contributed to a worldwide map of gender-neutral bathrooms and sent postcards to North Carolina’s Republican governor to protest the state’s anti-trans bathroom bill.

The Harry Potter books are about tolerance, but they are also about identity and the experience of being identified. Harry’s story starts when he learns the reason he has always felt different: He’s a wizard, and the world he inhabits is divided into non-magical muggles and people like him. Upon arriving at Hogwarts, Harry and his magical peers are sorted into four houses based on their characters. The process reveals their truest selves and shapes their fates. While this may seem like a grave crossroads for an 11-year-old to face, sorting has always held a powerful appeal. The self-proclaimed millennial Gryffindor (or Slytherin or Ravenclaw or Hufflepuff) is the stuff of generational caricature. And for fans like Jackson Bird and Flourish Klink, Harry Potter was the realm in which real-life identities crystallized.

Rowling published adult fiction regularly through the 2010s, primarily a crime series under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. (When her real identity was leaked through a partner at her law firm, she sued the partner. The books then became best sellers.) Still, she hadn’t left Harry’s universe behind, and her efforts at expansion could raise fresh questions of identity and inclusivity. In 2016, with a film adaptation of her fictional textbook Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them on the horizon, Rowling released new writing on Pottermore. This time, she cast her gaze beyond Britain, to unfortunate effect. According to “Magic in North America,” the Magical Congress of the United States of America was founded in 1693, or 83 years before there was a United States. In 1777, wizard president Elizabeth McGilliguddy worked out of Washington, D.C., a city that did not then exist. While these mistakes were partially corrected on Pottermore, larger concerns remained: Rowling had taken the Navajo concept of shape-shifting “skin walkers” and adapted it to suit her magical world in a way that struck many Native American readers as trivializing. “Rowling is known for responding directly to fan questions on Twitter,” wrote Cherokee academic Adrienne Keene on her blog, Native Appropriations. “Despite thousands of tweets directed at her about these concerns, she has not addressed it at all.” Meanwhile, readers pointed out that the wizarding school Rowling placed in Uganda had a West African name; the wizarding school in Japan had a name that didn’t make sense in Japanese.

Flourish Klink now advises entertainment franchises on building relationships with fans. The approach Rowling took to global wizarding struck them as a waste. “She missed a big trick there,” Klink told me. There had been an opportunity to collaborate with writers who had relevant expertise, but it would have meant ceding some creative control. “People always get pissed off about anything where you’re using cultural beliefs in any way,” Klink said of the response to Rowling’s take on skin walkers. “But I think that if it had been well done, and in consultation with someone who had even a remote amount of knowledge about it, it would have been a lot less offensive.”

Between the Pottermore updates and the constant tweets, “she was beginning to revise her canon in ways that became increasingly cringeworthy,” said Thomas, the children’s-literature scholar. Revisiting books published ten or 15 years before made more readers pay attention to things that might have slipped their notice as children. (For example: Wouldn’t it have been a better choice, all things considered, not to make the bankers of the wizarding world a race of hook-nosed goblins? And surely it wouldn’t have taken too much work to find a better name for Harry’s generically Asian love interest than Cho Chang?) Yet none of this was, in itself, destructive to Harry Potter’s appeal. The fandom had grown into a vast community independent of one woman in Edinburgh. By the time Klink took Flourish as their legal name, they had long since come to feel that Rowling, “while great, was not, you know … the greatest writer who ever lived.” What started out as a reference to her work — the wizarding bookstore Flourish and Blotts — had been Klink’s screen name for more than two decades.

The year 2016 also brought the closest thing yet to a new Harry Potter book. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, a two-part play lasting over five hours, was based on a story by Rowling conceived in collaboration with director John Tiffany and playwright Jack Thorne. The three joined Will Gompertz of the BBC for an interview before its opening in London’s West End.

“Is there a sense,” Gompertz asked Rowling, “in your own mind — philosophically, more than sort of literally — that you don’t own Potter anymore, that it’s owned by the fan base?”

“I wouldn’t go that far, Will,” she said, not quite smiling. (Someone with Rowling’s taste for adverbs might note that she said this rather sharply.) The collaborators sitting alongside her laughed. “I’m deadly serious,” she continued. “Because that would be to disavow what that world was to me. Seventeen years, that world was mine. And for seven of those years, it was entirely mine; not a living soul knew anything about it. And I can’t just uproot that from all the personal experiences that informed those stories and say, ‘I’m throwing that away now.’ And that’s how that would feel.”

From the 2018 Toledo Pride parade. Photo: Chirag Wakaskar/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images/B) 2018 SOPA Images

The dawn of the Trump era found the vocabulary of Harry Potter deployed with new urgency. Hermione signs proliferated at the Women’s March. A meme juxtaposed the grim Inauguration Day faces of Barack Obama’s staff with a movie still from Voldemort’s arrival at the climactic Battle of Hogwarts. “Order of the Phoenix, mount up,” tweeted Lin-Manuel Miranda alongside a Harry Potter GIF.

Rowling, for her part, fired off insults at the new U.S. president with palpable delight. Her politics had always been comfortably center left. Back in 2005, she had chatted with Spartz and Anelli about how much she loved The West Wing; in 2009, she contributed to the “Time 100” with an ode to Labour prime minister Gordon Brown. Like her fans, Rowling translated politics into the language of Harry Potter: Voldemort was “nowhere near as bad” as Trump, she declared. Sometimes the analogies were more complicated, as when she cited Dumbledore to explain her opposition to a boycott of Israel. And sometimes she objected to the parallels others saw. Quote-tweeting a woman with 44 followers (Rowling had at the time some 7.5 million), Rowling took issue with her description of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn as “a political Dumbledore.”

“I forgot Dumbledore trashed Hogwarts, refused to resign and ran off to the forest to make speeches to angry trolls,” she wrote. She stressed the point two months later: “Corbyn. Is. Not. Dumbledore.” Rowling issued long threads decrying “Saint Jeremy” and lambasting a Corbyn supporter who had called Theresa May a whore. Corbyn, though hardly above reproach, was, notably, pro-trans-rights. He supported making gender self-identification less onerous; he would later, on occasion, introduce himself with his pronouns. One of Rowling’s early gestures that attracted scrutiny on trans rights was her liking a tweet that referred to young Corbynite Labour figures who were trans. “Men in dresses get brocialist solidarity I never had. That’s misogyny!” it read. Rowling’s publicist dismissed the like as “a clumsy and middle-aged moment,” but, if it had been an accident, it was not one her client chose to correct.

At the time, transgender rights were becoming a lightning rod in the U.K. The British government called for a public consultation on the country’s Gender Recognition Act in 2018, which moved the issue to the center of national debate. In the Labour Party infighting Rowling had joined, the “trans-rights activist” had become a figure discussed in much the same way as the “Bernie bro” across the Atlantic: They were young, they were angry at their Establishment elders, and, crucially, for many prominent British feminists, this anger was coded as misogyny. British feminism’s leading voices, writers who had been setting the feminist agenda in Britain’s major papers for years, advanced the view that trans rights were an attack on women’s rights (or even an attempt at “female erasure”), that trans women were men seeking to invade women’s spaces, that trans men were women lost to homophobia and self-loathing, and that all this represented a grave threat to “natal” women and girls. On Mumsnet, a popular British parenting site, anxiety over the dangers of trans rights overtook the “Feminism” message board.

The divide here between mainstream British feminists and their American counterparts is striking: American opponents of trans rights tend to be right wing. The difference reflects, perhaps, the relative insularity and homogeneity of British feminism. In America, challenges from feminists across marginalized groups have increasingly pressed those who would speak on behalf of “women” to reexamine whom they mean.

Fans began to note with alarm that Rowling followed vocally anti-trans Twitter accounts. Some had also taken note of certain things in Rowling’s crime novels — like the trans character her detective hero taunts by saying that jail “won’t be fun … not pre-op.” All of this mostly passed beneath widespread public notice, however. More prominently controversial was Rowling’s support for Johnny Depp. Set to star in a new Fantastic Beasts movie, he stood accused of domestic abuse. In a statement, Rowling said that, based on her understanding of his case, she was “genuinely happy” to have Depp stay on. Others may disagree, she acknowledged, but “conscience isn’t governable by committee.” Depp was her peer in a rarefied world; they had (at different times) owned the same yacht.

Meanwhile, Rowling undertook a new courtroom battle. In 2019, she brought a lawsuit against Amanda Donaldson, a former personal assistant who, between 2014 and 2017, had used a business credit card and unauthorized cash withdrawals to defraud Rowling of some £18,743. (Rowling said she intended to donate any money she recovered to Lumos, her children’s charity.) “The expenditure on Molton Brown toiletries of £3,629 was extraordinary,” Rowling testified, according to court records. She “had never asked [Donaldson] to buy these toiletries. She does not like them. She finds them overly-perfumed.” Donaldson’s exploits suggested a portrait of Rowling’s life that (according to Rowling) was all wrong. “It was darkly comical to suggest that the things [Donaldson] bought were what [Rowling] would want or need. She was staggered that [Donaldson] thought she would not be caught.”

Animating the Donaldson lawsuit is a sense of shocked violation — alarm at a sanctuary breached. Ever since vaulting to fame, Rowling had sought the protection of some private realm. After selling the Edinburgh house Melissa Anelli had visited, she purchased another, this one behind fast-growing hedges; they soon approached 30 feet high. But her safest space had long been the one she found in writing. There, she knew all the secrets, ordained good and evil, and decided how everything would end.

“I can’t imagine what it would be like to exist in her shoes,” Thomas said of Rowling’s recent years. “Where this story that lived in your head during the worst time in your life — when you’re a single mom, abuse survivor, living on welfare — your wildest dream comes true. Your story is the best-selling children’s-book series of all time. You transform children’s literature and media … I can’t imagine having had that much cultural significance and power, feeling as if the ground is shifting underneath your feet. Being told that you’re wrong.”

Maya Forstater was a British tax researcher at a think tank, and after she repeatedly voiced her belief that trans women are men, the think tank chose not to renew her contract. Forstater challenged the decision, an employment tribunal ruled against her, and at this point Rowling was inspired to speak up. “Dress however you please. Call yourself whatever you like. Sleep with any consenting adult who’ll have you. Live your best life in peace and security,” Rowling tweeted. “But force women out of their jobs for stating sex is real? #IStandWithMaya #ThisIsNotADrill.”

The tweet marked Rowling’s first direct statement on trans issues. “This Is Not a Drill” is the title of a Medium post on the case by the British philosopher Kathleen Stock, who had taken up Forstater’s cause. Apart from advancing philosophical objections to trans identity, Stock’s work focuses on aesthetics, and in that field, she is a proponent of “extreme intentionalism.” Set in opposition to Continental theory, this view holds that fiction is “a set of instructions to imagine certain things” — a book means whatever its writer says it does. The author is always right.

After the outrage over her Forstater tweet, Rowling stepped away from Twitter. She returned in the spring of this year. She was preparing for the release of a new children’s book called The Ickabog, and besides, it was lockdown. She was taking Harry Potter quizzes. She was reorganizing her books by color, she reported, posting a video of her library. She seemed to be recapturing her old enthusiasm for the medium when, in June, she shared a story with the headline “Opinion: Creating a More Equal Post-COVID-19 World for People Who Menstruate.”

“I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?” she wrote. The tone called to mind her Trump-heckling days; it was a tweet that anticipated applause. It bombed. Rowling returned a half-hour later on a note of affronted righteousness. “It isn’t hate to speak the truth,” she wrote in a thread insisting that she respected “every trans person’s right to live any way that feels authentic and comfortable to them.”

Four days later, Rowling elaborated in her long essay on reasons for “speaking out.” She had been following trans issues for a couple of years now, she wrote. In part, her interest was professional: One of the main characters in her crime novels is a young woman “of an age to be interested in, and affected by” such issues. The connection between the Galbraith books’ heroine and trans issues was not at first apparent, but this character is a rape survivor, and, as Rowling’s essay progressed, it became clear that this went to the crux of her argument. “I’ve been in the public eye now for over twenty years and have never talked publicly about being a domestic abuse and sexual assault survivor,” she wrote. She had hesitated to discuss these things not out of shame but because they remained so difficult to revisit. “My perennial jumpiness is a family joke,” Rowling wrote. “I pray my daughters never have the same reasons I do for hating sudden loud noises, or finding people behind me when I haven’t heard them approaching.” She brought up her experiences now “out of solidarity with the huge numbers of women who have histories like mine, who’ve been slurred as bigots for having concerns around single-sex spaces.”

“When you throw open the doors of bathrooms and changing rooms to any man who believes or feels he’s a woman,” Rowling wrote, “then you open the door to any and all men who wish to come inside. That is the simple truth.”

In the U.S., right-wing supporters of “bathroom bills” have long conjured the specter of a male predator in the ladies’ room. Yet there’s an element of psychological reality to an argument like Rowling’s that makes it something more than cynical scare-mongering. Alison Phipps is a professor of gender studies at the University of Sussex and the author of Me, Not You: The Trouble With Mainstream Feminism. In her observation of the self-styled “gender-critical” feminists, their position “has a lot to do with trauma, and it has a lot to do with anger,” she told me. “I’m not excusing this politics, but I think that that is a reason for it. I think there are a lot of women involved in gender-critical feminism who have been really, really badly hurt by men — cis men.” The problem is that “gender-critical feminism completely misrepresents where the danger is. Very few people are going to be raped by somebody in a public toilet.” (A 2019 Harvard study, meanwhile, found that policies restricting bathroom access by birth sex were correlated with a greater likelihood of sexual assault for trans and nonbinary teens.) Fears can be ungrounded or unfair and still be genuinely felt. “People’s triggers are not politically correct,” Phipps said. You can support people who are triggered, try to help them manage their fears — but “that doesn’t mean that people’s triggers should be used as the basis of policy.”

The experience of womanhood that anti-trans feminists present often seems to be defined by fear. Maya Forstater, for example, shared an essay in 2019 called “Pronouns Are Rohypnol.” The pseudonymous author writes that she refuses to “use female pronouns for anyone male”: Extra mental effort might be expended in using a trans woman’s preferred pronouns, and therefore their effect is akin to a date-rape drug. “They dull your defenses. They change your inhibitions. They’re meant to. You’ve had a lifetime’s experience learning to be alert to ‘him’ and relax to ‘her.’ ” Forstater called it an “important article,” adding, “every woman has learnt from experience that politeness is exploitable & can put us in danger.”

“I think there’s a certain attachment to victimhood,” Phipps said.

“I spoke up about the importance of sex and have been paying the price ever since,” Rowling wrote in her essay. “I was transphobic, I was a cunt, a bitch, a TERF, I deserved cancelling, punching and death.” Describing herself as “a much-banned author,” she cast her choice to write anyway in terms of free speech and later lent her support to the Harper’s “Letter on Justice and Open Debate.”

Twelve years before, at a Harvard commencement, Rowling had delivered a speech in which she extolled the importance of imaginative empathy. “Unlike any other creature on this planet, humans can learn and understand without having experienced. They can think themselves into other people’s place,” she said. But “many prefer not to exercise their imaginations at all. They choose to remain comfortably within the bounds of their own experience, never troubling to wonder how it would feel to have been born other than they are.”

Rowling now seemed unable to think her way into her critics’ point of view. Comfortably within the bounds of her own experience, she could not imagine the reader who detected a threat, if not in the person of Joanne Rowling herself, then in the audience her words might reach.

I ❤️ JK ROWLING, read a poster that appeared in the Edinburgh Waverley rail station in July. It stayed up only briefly. Network Rail said its “political nature” violated its advertising rules. But it lasted long enough to make an impression on Chris Elston, an insurance broker in British Columbia. Elston told me that in the past year or so, he had begun following “all of the things to do with gender ideology.” He was troubled by what he read. “This self-identification law Canada has just passed will enable any man to suddenly declare that they’re a woman,” he said. “I have two little girls, and I just got really tired of all this nonsense.” When he saw that the Edinburgh sign had been removed, he decided to commission a billboard of his own in Vancouver.

The September morning that Elston’s billboard went up, it received little reaction until he tweeted it out. “It went boom on Twitter,” he said. The billboard was paint-bombed overnight; a city councillor called it hate speech. The sign company “buckled to the pressure right away” and brought in a crew to cover it up. Afterward, Elston sent out a call on Twitter, where he has 25,100 followers. He sought funding to put up more billboards, and he received an enthusiastic response.

For those opposed to “gender ideology,” Rowling’s embrace of their cause has made her an icon. How, proponents ask rhetorically, could it possibly be “hate speech” to proclaim a love for the best-selling children’s author of all time? Around Vancouver, Elston likes to go out in a sandwich board that reads I ❤️JK ROWLING on one side and GENDER IDEOLOGY DOES NOT BELONG IN SCHOOLS on the other. “I stand on street corners, and I go to wherever there are crowds downtown, and I have conversations with people. I’m really calm,” he said. Even so, “I’ve been making a lot of waves.” In October, he wore his sandwich board to a rally held by a trans candidate for local office. Later that month — the same week an Edinburgh street was shut down so Rowling could comply with a city order to trim her hedges — Elston was arrested at a protest in Vancouver for allegedly causing a disturbance.

“J. K. Rowling has absolutely been the inspiration for all of this,” Elston said. “In her books, there’s a journalist called Rita Skeeter. And Rita Skeeter is one of these lying journalists who has a poison pen and constantly lies about people and writes fake news. And that’s what’s going on about J. K. Rowling. And that’s what’s going on with me.” He is determined to stay the course. “It’s really hard. My pulse is often elevated way beyond what it should be, because there’s so much hate and lies and stress coming at me. So that’s physiologically going on. But in my mind, I’m crystal clear. And I’m totally at peace with what needs to be done.”

Elston began the Harry Potter books for the first time with his 8-year-old daughter this year. When we spoke, they were just starting the fourth. “Honestly, as I read these books, I feel J. K. Rowling’s character just shine through,” he said. “I consider her to be a genius among geniuses.”

*This article appears in the December 21, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!