Can Anyone Trust The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling?

The podcast says it wants to have a conversation. What it really wants to do is give a sermon. Photo-Illustration: Vulture. Photos: Getty Images; The Free Press

“You could not have misunderstood me more profoundly.” So says J.K. Rowling in The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling, responding to fans decrying that her public skepticism of transgender identity, for which she’s been called transphobic, is “destroying her legacy.” The seven-part podcast series, which debuted this week with a two-episode drop, features lengthy interviews with the author — once galactically beloved for the Harry Potter books, now a source of great consternation — promising to elucidate her position on the matter. It marks the first time Rowling has given a substantial sit-down since the wholesale upending of her reputation.

To brush up: In 2020, Rowling published a Twitter thread expressing her reluctance to share the view that sex isn’t the basis of gender, a foundational aspect of transgender identity. “If sex isn’t real, the lived reality of women globally is erased,” she wrote. “I know and love trans people, but erasing the concept of sex removes the ability of many to meaningfully discuss their lives. It isn’t hate to speak the truth.” (Rowling later expanded her position in a sizable blog post.) What followed has been years of furor and turmoil among trans activists and many fans who now see Rowling as aligned on this issue with conservative politicians around the world — and within the United States in particular — who are increasingly targeting the trans community through legislation that threatens their access to medical care and public facilities, among other things. Rowling has since been branded a “trans-exclusionary radical feminist,” or TERF, becoming a prominent symbol for a politics that, to many fans, cuts against the heart of the inclusive spirit baked into Harry Potter.

The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling is hosted by Megan Phelps-Roper, who makes for an interesting steward of this project. She rose to public standing a few years ago with her personal story of leaving the Westboro Baptist Church, the Topeka, Kansas–based religious group largely defined by its penchant for picketing an implausibly vast spectrum of things they see as related to the sin of homosexuality. Phelps-Roper’s path out of extremism was captured in a 2019 Louis Theroux documentary, Surviving America’s Most Hated Family, and shortly after in her own memoir, Unfollow. Having grown up indoctrinated within the church, Phelps-Roper joined Twitter in the late aughts and had her views fundamentally challenged as she began to earnestly engage with the church’s critics on the platform — one of whom she would go on to marry. A pillar of her tale is the possibility of coming together and having a change of mind, even of one so virulently militant and previously fixed in a hateful worldview.

And so it is this philosophy of hope that Phelps-Roper brings to The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling — which, it should be noted, is being released by the Free Press, founded by Bari Weiss. (More on that later.) The series purportedly seeks to engage with the Rowling controversy as comprehensively as possible, on the one hand, by understanding where Rowling is coming from based on the extensive interviews she’s granted to the show and, on the other hand, by working to understand where everyone else is coming from through what Phelps-Roper has said are interviews she’s been conducting with people “on all sides of the conflict” over the past year. She lists these various sides in an essay introducing the project: “trans adults, teens, clinicians, and advocates; historians, reporters, authors; Christians who boycotted Potter in the 1990s; doctors, lawyers, and even experts on witch trials.”

Phelps-Roper lays out her intent in that essay. “I remain a believer in the power of conversation,” she writes. “The ones I had for this series challenged my assumptions and showed me that this conflict is even more complex than I had imagined. I don’t pretend to have answers to the deep questions at the heart of this series. But I’m more persuaded than ever that talking — and listening — will help us find the path forward.”

A podcast isn’t a conversation, however. By virtue of its authorial construction, a podcast (or a memoir, or a documentary) is an argument. And, in this case, it’s impossible to separate the argument the show is trying to make from how it’s gone about making it.

The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling kicks off with a biography of the author in shorthand. Notably, the first installment places significant emphasis on her experience as a survivor of an abusive relationship with a man, an aspect central to her worldview on transgender identity that she typically frames as being protective of spaces meant for women. The second episode considers Rowling as a target of “witch trials,” the first time as the author of work targeted by fundamentalist Christians who had, at various points during her titanic rise to fame, called for bans and in some cases conducted burnings of the Harry Potter book series.

In these early innings, the podcast shows a distinct deference to Rowling. “A sense of righteousness is not incompatible with doing terrible things,” says Rowling in the second episode. “What I try to show in the Potter books, and what I strongly believe in myself: We should mistrust ourselves most when we are certain. In my worldview, conscience speaks in a very small and inconvenient voice. It’s normally saying to you, Think again, look more deeply, consider this.” Her voice lingers, the sound design lending her words weight and gravity. She’s neither pushed nor made to reflect on whether she’s been living up to her own worldview.

That Rowling’s perspective so utterly dominates the podcast’s opening stages is incredibly frustrating. She may well be the main reason most would pick up the podcast in the first place, but that should be all the more incentive to get to the purported multi-perspective heart of the project as quickly as possible. Instead, The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling displays little urgency in engaging with the perspectives of trans people or even complicating the authority of Rowling’s narrative at all — rich territory given the fact that the author has wielded disproportionate legal pressure against the speech of some critics. Worse still is how it’s not hard at all to get a whiff of a certain kind of “both sides” equivocation. With the recurring motif of “witch trials,” Phelps-Roper constructs a framework that equates the book burning among Christian fundamentalists with the fact that some former fans are angry about Rowling’s transgender views, treating them both as illegitimate responses of the same nature. Even if, in later episodes, the show does circle back to meaningfully engaging with the trans community’s anger at Rowling, it’s already stacked the deck in Rowling’s favor.

It becomes apparent, then, that The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling is operating less as an interlocutor than as a translator. What it seems to be seeking is not a better understanding of Rowling in relation to her critics but a clearer sense of Rowling in relation to her own argument. The show is less a character study of a controversial person and more a defense of someone it claims is misunderstood. Whether this is the product of naïveté or cynicism on the show’s part, it’s hard to say.

The podcast is produced by a small team that includes Phelps-Roper, former Gimlet Media staffer Matthew Boll, and, notably, Andy Mills. Mills is something of a controversial figure himself: Once a radio wunderkind who came up through Radiolab and later established himself as a key figure in the early days of the modern New York Times audio division, Mills was at the center of a firestorm during the fabulism controversy around Caliphate, the audio doc he co-headlined with Rukmini Callimachi. That brouhaha reignited long-standing frustrations within the radio and podcast community over his past workplace behavior, which had reportedly caused discomfort among some female colleagues in particular. He was ultimately “canceled,” in that he was eventually compelled to leave his job at the Times. Mills’s fingerprints are all over The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling. His voice is the second one you hear after Phelps-Roper’s at the start of the first episode. It arrives in a field recording that seems to take place at a Harry Potter fan convention, where he asks strangers about their relationship to the series — and then their feelings about Rowling. Occasionally interspersed with brief narrated excerpts from the Harry Potter books, the rest of the two introductory episodes are steeped in a sense of earnestness, somewhat evocative of Mills’s Radiolab roots.

And then there’s the Bari Weiss of it all. Not long after leaving the Times, Mills found a gig helping set up Honestly With Bari Weiss, also distributed by the Free Press. Weiss, of course, is also a controversial figure, a provocateur who built a brand as a flame-throwing Times opinion columnist targeting “woke” concerns before making a public performance out of her resignation. For a podcast positioning itself as intending to seriously explore “all sides of this conflict” — including, presumably, the side that feels repeatedly targeted by Rowling along with figures like Weiss — these are all associations that give the show a tremendous amount of baggage, no matter its intent. Listening with this context, it doesn’t take much to wonder, Are they here to truly grapple with the complexity of Rowling’s trans-exclusionary politics, or are they merely here to decry so-called cancel culture?

The power of conversation may have saved Phelps-Roper, but for any transformative discussion to exist, each participant has to view the terms of the interaction as legitimate. And yet the podcast is titled The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling. One side of this supposed debate is a singular figure of world-historical influence with close proximity to capital and political power, while the other is an emerging demographic whose literal existence is being challenged. What are we even talking about here? The podcast says it wants to have a conversation. What it really wants to do is give a sermon.

Can Anyone Trust The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling?