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J.K. Rowling on Torture

May 18, 2011

J.K. Rowling’s Encounter with Torture

In this season of university graduations, as the relatively privileged youth of the United States and Western Europe prepare to face the realities of a rapidly changing world, it’s worth revisiting some excerpts from one of the best commencement speeches I’ve ever heard or read – J.K. Rowling’s address to the Harvard class of 2008. (See the full text here.)

“One of the greatest formative experiences of my life preceded Harry Potter, though it informed much of what I subsequently wrote in those books…I paid the rent in my early 20s by working at the African research department at Amnesty International’s headquarters in London. There in my little office I read hastily scribbled letters smuggled out of totalitarian regimes by men and women who were risking imprisonment to inform the outside world of what was happening to them. I saw photographs of those who had disappeared without trace, sent to Amnesty by their desperate families and friends. I read the testimony of torture victims and saw pictures of their injuries. I opened handwritten, eye-witness accounts of summary trials and executions, of kidnappings and rapes…
            “I shall never forget the African torture victim, a young man no older than I was at the time, who had become mentally ill after all he had endured in his homeland. He trembled uncontrollably as he spoke into a video camera about the brutality inflicted upon him. He was a foot taller than I was, and seemed as fragile as a child. I was given the job of escorting him back to the Underground Station afterwards, and this man whose life had been shattered by cruelty took my hand with exquisite courtesy, and wished me future happiness.
            “And as long as I live I shall remember walking along an empty corridor and suddenly hearing, from behind a closed door, a scream of pain and horror such as I have never heard since. The door opened, and the researcher poked out her head and told me to run and make a hot drink for the young man sitting with her. She had just had to give him the news that in retaliation for his own outspokenness against his country’s regime, his mother had been seized and executed…
            “I began to have nightmares, literal nightmares, about some of the things I saw, heard, and read. And yet I also learned more about human goodness at Amnesty International than I had ever known before…”

“Unlike any other creature on this planet, humans can learn and understand, without having experienced. They can think themselves into other people’s places…The great majority of you belong to the world’s only remaining superpower. The way you vote, the way you live, the way you protest, the pressure you bring to bear on your government, has an impact way beyond your borders. That is your privilege, and your burden. If you choose to use your status and influence to raise your voice on behalf of those who have no voice; if you choose to identify not only with the powerful, but with the powerless; if you retain the ability to imagine yourself into the lives of those who do not have your advantages, then it will not only be your proud families who celebrate your existence, but thousands and millions of people whose reality you have helped change. We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better.”

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. William McPherson permalink
    May 18, 2011 11:30 PM

    I wish this remarkable address to the lucky graduates of Harvard in 2008 could be read and heard by every graduate in America. For that matter, why limit it to graduates, or to Americans. Every thinking person would do well to ponder J.K. Rowlings’ words.

    • Judith Dollenmayer permalink
      May 19, 2011 3:27 PM

      I was fortunate enough to be in the audience for her address, which (alas) was not to the undergraduate commencement in the AM, but to the alumni gathering in Harvard Yard the same afternoon. Still, thousands heard it and were moved. I hope permanently, to take responsibility for repaying our comfort and relative good fortune with service to others. Thanks, Bill, for sending this.

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