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22 February 2023

Does The Witch Trials of JK Rowling say anything new?

A former member of the controversial Westboro Baptist Church community interviews the Harry Potter author about the perils of polarised debate.

By Rachel Cunliffe

Not many children’s writers can spark controversy so intense that there are calls for their work to be boycotted – or even burned. But then, everything about JK Rowling’s career has been stratospherically outsized. Her journey from unknown and unpublished single mother to the first author worth more than $1bn is itself the stuff of fantasy stories. So, in a way, is the backlash that followed. Rags to riches; good vs evil. Since the summer of 2020, when she first began tweeting and writing about gender issues, Rowling has been branded transphobic and dangerous by young progressives who grew up with the Harry Potter books.

It’s a saga which has been so extensively covered that there is something wearying about yet another podcast devoted to the tale. But presenter Megan Phelps-Roper, who says she wants to uncover how Rowling “has become a kind of Voldemort – the villain of villains in her own stories”, has an unusual reason for her interest. As the granddaughter of Fred Phelps, the founder of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church, she grew up in a fundamentalist Christian community that was convinced Rowling was a threat long before anyone was talking about the author’s views on transgender rights. While kids across the world were queuing for hours at bookshops to find out what Harry Potter did next, many Christian leaders were condemning the books as sinful and evil, trying to get them banned.

Phelps-Roper is interested in what happens when people are so sure of their own moral righteousness that they disengage from the conversation completely. “We should mistrust ourselves most when we are certain,” Rowling says at one point, having agreed to a rare in-depth interview that covers everything from her abusive first marriage to reflections on what speaking out has done to her legacy. Maybe – but given how polarised the debate has become and how toxic a figure Rowling is to the trans community, one thing we can be certain about is that a seven-episode podcast is unlikely to change any minds.

The Witch Trials of JK Rowling
The Free Press

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This article appears in the 22 Feb 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Undoing of Nicola Sturgeon