In the third chapter of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, “The Letters from No One,” Harry Potter –‘the boy who lived’ but who was mistreated by his guardians and kept in a small dark cupboard under the stairs– is prevented from receiving mail that is addressed to him. During this chapter, Harry’s ill-advised guardians on Privet Drive are bent on concurrently dehumanizing and dewizardizing him. They are ashamed to be associated with a “half-blood” and they consider him dangerous, even though their fear is based, not in reality but, in prejudice. At one point during the third chapter, Vernon Dursley, fearing he and his wife are being spied on and watched, tells her, “I’m not having one in the house… Didn’t we swear when we took him in we’d stamp out that dangerous nonsense.” Note Rowling’s pun in the phrase “stamp out” – in reference to Vernon’s attempts to prevent Harry from receiving a letter in the mail. The pun isn’t merely playful; a moral parable can be found within it, as well. Vernon, unaware of the irony of his own glaring hypocrisy, announces that he wishes to “stamp out” “nonsense,” which he calls “dangerous.” Patriarchal ignorance and hypocrisy abound in this moment in the text.
From the Dursleys’ perspective, being a witch or wizard, even one of Muggle ancestry, translates to bearing a permanent mark of shame: of having a kind of illness or defect and of having a second-class status because of it. This second class status justifies, in their eyes, treating Harry like a prisoner. Affected by stigma and by ignorance, Harry’s guardians are not his guardians nor his advocates – they are his overseers and his victimizers. Terrified of what might happen if he were to learn about his wizard status and both fearing and hating him for his difference, which is symbolically marked on his forehead with a scar, the Dursleys take great pains to keep Harry confined and to prevent him from developing self-awareness and agency.
They try to prevent him from receiving mail. This is how we, as readers, know that Harry is not being treated fairly and that his rights as a sentient being -a human and a wizard- are being violated. If Harry were being treated with dignity, he would have been able to receive mail, like any other person, but Harry, in this chapter, is treated as if he is No One. And so it is with sweeping moral irony that Rowling titles her third chapter “The Letters from No One.” It is No One who comes to verify Harry’s Someone-ness, his wizardness (his unique, non-conforming disABLED humanity). Contrary to the Dursleys’ wishes to make Harry believe that no one cares for him and that he is “no one,” Harry is, indeed, someone – someone important. And the “No One” who is trying to send him a letter in the mail is, in fact, someone important, too. “No One” is actually Minerva McGonagall, Deputy Headmistress of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Professor Minerva is named after the Roman virgin goddess of wisdom and wisely-strategized warfare; this goddess, known as Athena in Greek mythological stories, is armor-clad and known for shape-shifting, and is usually portrayed in art, in addition to wielding a shield of the head of Medusa, with her sacred creature (her patronus) – an owl: The owl of Minerva.
In “The Letters from No One,” Harry, the boy kept in the cupboard under the stairs, is delivered a letter. Astonished at this, for “no one, ever, in his whole life, had written to him,” Harry holds the parchment of the letter addressed to him in his hands, in what is a significant and momentous moment in his life, only to have it “jerked sharply” away from him.
“That’s mine!” [he says, “trying to snatch it back”]
“Who’d be writing to you? [Dursley]
Vernon Dursley confiscates the letter and takes it from Harry, but at this point Harry is enraged for now he knows that something is wrong. His moral compass is now alerted, for he knows a letter has been sent to him by someone who cares for him enough to send it, and he is empowered with the feeling that he is someone, not no one, and that someone cares for him enough to write him a letter. This knowing is enough to give him, perhaps for the first time, a sense that he matters in the world. A life transformed and empowered, all because of a single letter. A single letter sent in the mail exposes the moral depravity of Harry’s situation – one that he felt but was powerless over until he saw the letter.
“Who’s writing to me?” [Harry]
“No one. It was addressed to you by mistake… I have burned it” [Uncle Vernon]
The symbolic act of burning the letter, of trying to cover up and destroy part of Harry’s history and identity, is a profound one.
But the letter cannot be destroyed by Dursley. Dursley’s efforts to destroy the letter -to destroy the truth- fail. Instead, the letter multiplies. Every effort that Dursley makes to stop the mail from getting to Harry is met with more and more attempts to break the barriers he puts up between Harry and the letter– surmounting in thirty or forty letters “pelting out of the fireplace like bullets.” Dursley takes the family captive and leaves town with them in an attempt to escape the letter, but ultimately all of his attempts to prevent the letter from reaching Harry are doomed to fail.
The chapter ends with someone outside, “knocking to come in,” and the next chapter ushers in Vernon’s defeat – Harry’s letter is delivered to him by his advocate and friend, Hagrid, the keeper of the keys, and he is finally delivered the truth: that he is someone, someone who matters.
Harry, upon learning that he is a wizard, also learns that many muggles hate and fear wizards and witches – his aunt tells him, “I knew you’d be just the same, just as strange, just as — as — abnormal.” While Harry grew up feeling this treatment from those around him, he did not know or understand why. Fortunately, the letter gives him the information he needs to understand who he is and to put the prejudice of those around him into context. Harry can begin to develop an empowered sense of self, and it is the letter that signals this.
It is upon the delivery of the letter that we also learn that mail – letters, newspapers, and parcels – are delivered to and from witches and wizards by owls. In the claws of owls and on the wings of wisdom, letters and parcels are carried. Messages in bottles, literally or proverbially, are given wings. For Harry, the delivery of mail signifies that he matters and that he is connected to others in the world by fellowship. At another point in the book, mail is kept from Harry – causing him to feel isolated and unloved. Both of these moments in the novel offer a significant lesson on the importance of communication. The free flow of communication can humanize, or wizardize, a person – communication takes us beyond survival and gives us the dignity of knowing that we matter.
Literacy, in the form of letter-writing, is one way that we develop self-knowledge and connection with others in the world. Without it, we can become isolated and can be “kept in the cupboard under the stairs.” Those who have been committed into psychiatric institutions against their will, held and drugged their against their will, for days, weeks, or months, know too well what it means to be “kept in the cupboard under the stairs.” For an individual who is confined involuntarily in a psychiatric hospital, especially during the holidays, it is easy to lose faith in humanity or to be bogged down by shame for being different, but being different can be empowering, and this message is one that needs to be delivered to psychiatric institutions across the world. The mental health system, like the Dursleys, often strips people of their human rights to make decisions over their own bodies, tries to “stamp out” those it deems “dangerous” by keeping them them confined and controlled, and treats those with cognitive differences as if they are “No One.”
In order to be owls to our friends and to break through barriers of institutional inhumanity, Madwomen in the Attic started the December Letters Project in December 2018. MITA’s December Letters Project encourages owls from all over to participate!
To be part of Madwomen in the Attic’s December Letters Project, individuals and groups are invited to write and deliver winter solstice cards and letters (from “No One”) of support to individuals who are voluntarily and involuntarily in psychiatric institutions during the winter season. The December Letters Project takes place in December during the weeks approaching the solstice, and we encourage card- and letter-writers from across the globe to be part of the project. The letters and cards should carry messages of hope, healing, and encouragement to our friends, and should be delivered to hospitals and institutions on or close to the winter solstice.
We invite all who care about those who will find themselves spending the solstice season in psychiatric institutions to deliver solstice greetings (cards, notes, art, and letters) to patients in psychiatric confines each winter, in late December. Any card or picture or letter sent in the spirit of kindness to a person experiencing psychiatric confinement will mean so much. Your letter of encouragement and solidarity might be the letter that humanizes a person in an otherwise traumatizing or dehumanizing situation. Your letter might be the one that makes someone who is being treated like no one remember that they are someone, someone very special.
Be an owl and help a friend.
There are a number of ways to be an owl (to participate in the December Letters Project). You can help by:
Attending or holding a December Letters card-writing party in your community to make secular cards, letters, and other solstice greetings together that can be delivered to psychiatric hospitals and mental health facilities around the solstice, in late winter.
Writing one or more greeting cards independently and sending them to either (a) a December Letters Project coordinator near you or (b) directly to local psychiatric facilities (in this instance, we recommend contacting the facility in advance for details on how and where to send the letters).
Donating solstice card-making materials (such as cards, colorful paper, decorative stickers, stationary decorations, glue, envelops, letter-paper, markers, pens, and stamps) to MITA or a local organization in your area for its December Letters Project meeting.
*Please note that envelopes enclosing December cards and letters should be left unsealed because psychiatric institutions will likely want to check them before distributing them.
We encourage schools and community service organizations to participate in the December Letters Project. If you are a teacher or organization leader and are interested in getting your group involved, please contact us so that we can offer guidance and support, as well as to help devise a plan to deliver the letters to a local institution. We have teachers in our organization who have worked with students in their schools to participate in the project in the past, and MITA can connect schools and teachers that are new to the project with educators who are familiar with it and have already participated in the project for support and advice. We encourage educators to consider building the project into their lesson plans addressing mental health and/or social justice, or to build lesson plans around the project. Please share your school’s or organization’s December Letters Project with the community and with MITA. We want you to share your December Letters stories here!
Additional information for teachers:
If you would like to be part of Madwomen in the Attic’s chapter of the project, letters and cards should be delivered to us by December 15th. The earlier the better – but getting them to us by the 15th will allow us to have an idea of how we will divide up the cards for delivery to hospitals on the solstice. Please send us an email for delivery contact information, at email@example.com.
The messages in the cards should be secular ones of good wishes, care, and encouragement – students can share a bit about themselves and lend their heartfelt expressions and art to coming up with their own original messages. Quotes and poetry can also be included, which may be pertinent to literary arts classrooms or groups.
Students may sign the card with their first name, but we do not encourage students to sign the cards with their last name. As such, they can say “from XYZ school” but the envelopes should be decorative and should not include any complete information, such as last names or addresses.
Schools that participate in the project with our local group will receive a letter of thanks from Madwomen in the Attic (thanking them as a group) and possibly a copy of the formal thank-you letter from the hospitals – sent by employees, not the patients.
Worksheets related to mental health and diversity would be a good addition to this project. For example, sharing an excerpt from a book or an essay on the subjects of mental health, cognition, the mind, discrimination, stigma, or social justice might be helpful, as the project pairs well with literary and art activities. The project also works well in discussions about community activism and advocacy.
For an example of how the project can be used in school, check out Albion High School’s participation in the 2019 DLP!
For individuals who wish to be involved independently:
If you know someone in particular who has experienced or is experiencing psychiatric institutionalization or who is suffering mentally or spiritually during this month, please reach out to them with a card or a letter to let them know that they are someone, that they matter, and that you care.
We hope you will join us in being owls for our friends who need our fellowship, love, and compassion. We hope to be the owls who deliver letters to those kept in proverbial cupboards under the stairs. We invite you to join us, in December, in recognizing and acknowledging an often-forgotten community of our peers.
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Scholastic Press, 1997.