Becoming Hermione: A Personal Story About Magic, Science, and My Dad

Some of my earliest memories are of me and my little sister staying up past our bedtime so that Dad could read us just one more chapter of Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone. Dad would gather us up with blankets and stuffed animals, doing a different voice for each character. When we got older, our family would made a whole night out of the midnight book releases and the movie premieres. When the fifth book was published, I locked myself in the bathroom to read it cover to cover without interruption, barely distracted by the whaling of my younger siblings outside the door. After that my parents bought two copies of the books.

Hermione

I never really liked Harry, though. Like, I get that he was the chosen one and all, but why did he have to be such a whiny, privileged, fuckboy about it? We all know who the real brains of the operation was. Hermione Granger was brilliant and charismatic. She stood up for herself and what she thought was right, never complaining or falling back. And on top of that, she had a deep, intuitive understanding of magic.

For Hermione, magic just worked. It gave her universe a sense of order and meaning. Hermione worked hard to learn all of its secrets. She would wave her wand, say the right words and the world would open up before her. I wanted so much to be just like her. To become her, if I could.

But my life was very different. By all accounts I had a perfectly normal childhood, but it was entirely devoid of magic and in fact very lonely. I did not have many friends and I felt alienated from my siblings, whose attempts to connect with me made me feel even more out of place. Their idea of family activities involved shopping at crowded malls, a place that generally gave me a stomach ache. I just wanted to bury myself in my books about magic; I immersed myself in a realm of dragons and witches, faeries and mermaids. Harry Potter was only the start. By the time I was a teenager, I had filled my room with piles of magic and fantasy books that overflowed the shelves.

B3 Dad Xmas
Me and My Dad

Mom never understood my attraction to the arcane, but Dad? He was right there with me. We had our own little book club, hiding in the library reading in parallel or listening to an audiobook. My Dad is a kind, loving man who has made a career out of helping people through their delusions. As a geriatric psychiatrist, he mostly works with severely demented old folks and patients he calls “bad nursing home residents”. We both spent a lot of time experiencing other people’s realities and actually finding joy in it, giving us a kind of closeness that was very special to me as a lonely child.

 

But for as much time as I spent in made up fantasies where I could fly or cast spells, I was pretty good at making my way through uncertainty with science. I spent so much time looking for magic around me that I learned a kind of objectivity that allowed me to see the world for what it really was. I might not know where to find fantastic beasts, but I could explain the color of leaves and the shape of the clouds with all the science I had learned. It is amazing what you can find when you go looking for magic with an open mind. Instead of being disappointed by the banality of reality, I became enthralled with the wonders of science. When I took chemistry for the first time in 10th grade, I decided to memorize the elements and their properties. (That was the kind of thing I did for fun at that age.) The thing was, I had multiple copies of the periodic table that were all slightly different than the one I learned in school. I asked my teacher Mr. Hickman about it, but he was pretty fed up with my constant questions as I tended to be several chapters ahead of the class. And so when I asked him about the discrepancies I’d found, Mr. Hickman told me “Look. I know what I told you. But nothing is ever that simple. Chemistry is the science of lies, and the more chemistry you take, the more you will realize just how many lies you have been told.”

I think this was meant to shut me up, but it did quite the opposite. I knew that magic wasn’t real, but science?!  I still had some hope that there was wonder left in the world, that there was something glorious just around the corner if only I could put my head down and learn the skills to find it like Hermione had done with magic. I was after the Truth, with a capital T and I absolutely would not stand for being lied to!

This search led me away from my home in Arkansas, first to boarding school in Massachusetts, then to college in Oregon. Through all of it, my Dad supported me in my decisions even though they took me farther and farther away from him. We talked on the phone nearly every day, keeping up with our favorite books and shows. We stayed just as close as when I was little. But then things changed for the both of us.

Graduating from college was a pretty traumatic experience for me. There was the break up with a boy I had thought I might marry, all of my friends moving away and losing touch, the death of my college mentor who I loved like a mother. I felt alone and stuck with no place to go. I needed my Dad more than ever.

But Dad’s behavior was getting erratic. He was spending disastrous amounts of money on things like guns and drones. He and my mother were fighting. He would say such awful things about her to me and I would leave our conversations feeling shocked and hurt. When I went home to visit, he would be aloof or entirely absent, disappearing for hours on end with no explanation. He could be in the best of moods one minute or screaming profanities at another. I tried so hard to connect with him, to support him through whatever he was going through. But it was all so confusing, like I was supposed to be the parent. Dad was so angry it broke my heart. He seemed to drift farther away from me every day.

Then I finally broke. I had told Dad that he couldn’t keep talking to me about his problems with my mother. I felt like he was attacking me for having a relationship with her. He told me I was operating under some sort of “magical realism”, that I was being delusional. He talked at me, like I was one of his patients instead of his family. Our unspoken contract was broken and reality came crashing in. Shaking and in tears, I wrote myself a script so that I wouldn’t forget what I wanted to say and I called him. I told him that he was too toxic for me to have in my life. I was struggling with my own shit and he was only making things worse. I had to take care of myself, and that meant I had to let go of him.

At first, that helped me feel settled. I had moved to San Diego and gotten a job in a chemistry lab where I got to focus on science full time. But I was so depressed that most days started with me crying on my way to lab, working late into the night, and then going home to cry some more. Every unoccupied moment was spent buried in sci-fi and fantasy books. I thought about that time Hermione had to erase her parents’ memories to protect them. I was kind of in the opposite boat, trying to forget about the hurt my Dad had caused me so that I could protect myself.

A couple months after I cut off communication with Dad, Mom called. She was sobbing. The hospital where Dad worked was worried about his erratic behavior and demanded that he take a drug test, which he refused. He had gotten himself mixed up with opioids and a couple other illicit substances. His options were either to go to rehab or lose his medical license. So Mom was driving him to rehab. It all started to make sense and that was almost a relief. He had been abusing drugs for years, and he had lied to me about it. Dad could have come clean with me on so many different occasions, but instead he chose the drugs… and he lost me. As far as I was concerned, my Dad was dead.

The next year was perhaps the hardest of my life. Crying on the way to work turned into panic attacks on the highway to run even the briefest errands. My mother fell apart at the seams while my siblings and I tried to hold our family together. Dad left rehab and moved into sober living while Mom tried to figure out if she could get their marriage annulled. She often called in the middle of the night in a rage about how our lives had fallen apart. But as long as she was on the phone with me, I knew my younger siblings were being spared. It took everything I had to just get out of bed in the morning and start another day in hell.

My entire foundation had been blown to smithereens and the only thing I had left was my search for something real. I missed the days I could get lost in Hermione’s world, one where good conquered evil, where magic was real and helped people build a better world. In my reality, there was no joy, no magic. But there were still atoms, dancing and vibrating through space until they collided with just the right energy to make something new. Despite what Mr. Hickman had once told me, molecules don’t tell lies. People do. Chemistry was all I had to hold onto, and I clutched to it for dear life.

I1 NMR
The NMR in my old building

I soon found myself with a new foundation in graduate school. I had always been good at school, so going to classes gave my life structure. I made new friends, started new hobbies. Life kind of started over. I filled notebook after notebook with experiments and results. They were not all good, but they were something. I tried to think of it like being in potions class. I mean, I was making a living creating new molecules from obscure chemicals with long, intricate names. I taught my students how to write out equations that look from a distance like some sort of incantation. In a way, I felt like I was actually becoming Hermione. Through a lot of hard work, I put my life back on track.

 

It had been a year and a half since I’d talked to my Dad, so long that I almost didn’t miss him. I had proven to myself that I didn’t need him. But in all of that time, with all the work I had done to fix things, I wanted him to be a part of it.

It started with a call every once in a while. Small talk mostly, questions about my research. Over the next year, Dad started working again. He didn’t do much else except sleep in his reclining chair and go to AA meetings. It felt like the man in the chair was just a shadow of who my Dad used to be. The man I had known as my father was unreachable. I had to come to terms with the fact that life would never be the same.

Science was no longer enough. Objectivity could not help me accept this reality. Logic and reason were not going to fix my Dad. I had to find new skills, skills that I couldn’t learn just by being in the lab. So I started to write. I wrote stories about science at first, and then stories about me. I started practicing curiosity not just about things outside of myself, but also about the thoughts going on inside my head. Instead of taking nature walks outside, I started to walk slowly and methodically through my memories, writing down the ones that brought me the most joy. I stopped thinking about the world as it was, I thought about what I wanted it to be. Then I made that my reality.

For so long, I had just been getting by, but now I was starting to thrive. I looked around and was surrounded by friends and family who cared for me. I fell in love, got my heart broken, and found that I had the support to get me through it. And so, this past Christmas holiday, I curled up on a couch in my childhood home, covered in dogs with my Dad in his chair, and marathoned all the Harry Potter movies.

So many things looked just the same, our home has changed very little through all of this and Hermione certainly hadn’t aged a wink. But in reality, everything was different. My life now is so much better than I thought it could be.

K2 MeI used to think that magic was about making potions and casting spells. I thought it was going on adventures in search of enchanted treasures or magical creatures. I used to think that the world was something you discovered through careful observation. But that was before my life fell apart, and after all of that, I found real magic in putting it back together. I thought that delving into science and chemistry would bring me closer to the world of magic I had imagined as  a kid. But at the end of the day, nothing but real magic could have brought back my Dad, who today is doing as well as I’ve ever seen him. Our relationship is stronger than it has ever been.

It turns out I didn’t become Hermione at all, I just needed a little help becoming myself.

This piece was edited by and performed for So Say We All in January 2019 for their VAMP showcase. 

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