Remus Lupin & The Perks of Being a Werewolf

Warning: spoilers abound

Fiction is built on the scaffolding of our everyday lives. At their best, the fantasy worlds we visit in books challenge us to see things in a new way; they show us that our world could be different, that we could be different, better, than we are now. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter is one such world.

Remus John Lupin

The masterful portrayal of Remus Lupin, who suffers from lycanthropy (being a werewolf), is a powerful portrait of stigmatized disease. On her website, Pottermore, Rowling writes that Lupin’s lycanthropy, “was a metaphor for those illnesses that carry a stigma, like HIV and AIDS…The wizarding community is as prone to hysteria and prejudice as the Muggle one, and the character of Lupin gave me a chance to examine those attitudes”1.

She paints a grim picture. Lupin is the victim of a childhood attack brought on by the ill-chosen, intolerant words of his own father, who described werewolves as “soulless, evil, deserving nothing but death”1. After the attack, Lupin’s family fears discovery and social backlash and moves often. He finds solace and acceptance (of a kind) at Hogwarts, but even there his condition is kept a closely guarded secret. As an adult, he is forced to live hand-to-mouth to keep his lycanthropy hidden. Because of his poverty, he is unable to access the only successful treatment, Wolfsbane Potion. The potion, like the antiretrovirals used to treat HIV, is prohibitively expensive and perhaps more importantly, can’t be taken without admitting to having the condition1.

Lupin becomes “so used to considering himself unclean and unworthy”1 that even his greatest joys are tinged with fear and self-loathing. He avoids the advances of the woman he loves, for fear of the repercussions for her. At the prospect of his son’s birth he is beset by fears that he might pass on his condition. Even at times of great stress or danger, he is unable to accept himself; he avoids casting a corporeal Patronus because it (a wolf) is a constant reminder of his condition1.

But- and this is essential- even after enduring such hardship, Lupin remains kind and generous and brave. He never defects from the Order of the Phoenix, he never betrays a friend (I’m looking at you, Pettigrew). In his final act of heroism he dies fighting against the oppression of others.

remus lupin
Oof. Right in the feels.

The power of Potter

Harry Potter is the most successful book series of all time. As of 2013, there were an estimated 450 million copies of the books in print in 73 languages, and the films had grossed approximately 7.7 billion dollars worldwide3. Clearly, Harry Potter is a fantastic tool for education and outreach, but the books have another trick up their sleeve: they actually reduce stigma. A 2015 study showed that reading passages in Harry Potter about prejudice “improves the attitude”4 of young people toward marginalized groups like homosexuals, immigrants, and refugees. This effect occurred in younger students when they associated with Harry Potter, and in university students when they disassociated from Voldemort4.

Although it is not news that illustrations of friendship between in- and out-group (i.e. not marginalized and marginalized) individuals improve the attitudes of children toward stigmatized groups, the Harry Potter results are particularly fascinating because the stories are fantastical. In fact, the separation between the world of Harry Potter and our own may make all the difference, allowing Harry Potter to raise awareness without raising hackles. Precisely because it is a fantasy it may not inspire defensiveness in the audience, leaving them more open to learning lessons of tolerance2.

The staggering success and social impact of Harry Potter is a perfect example of the ability of art to move us. By highlighting the pain caused by exclusion and oppression, Rowling inspires us to change not only ourselves, but also the world around us. By giving us Lupin, she has put an enduring face on the suffering caused by stigmatized disease and taught millions the awesome power of love and acceptance. As ever, Rowling said it best, describing Lupin as “a brave, kind man who did the best he could in very difficult circumstances and who helped many more than he ever realized”1.


  1. Rowling, JK. Remus Lupin. Pottermore. Web. 18 August 2015.
  1. Stetka, B. Why everyone should read Harry Potter. Scientific 9 September 2014. Web. 19 August 2015.
  1. TIME Staff. Because it’s his birthday: Harry Potter, by the numbers. 31 July 2013. Web. 18 August 2015.
  1. Vezzali, L, S. Stathi, D. Giovannini, D. Capozza, & E. Trifiletta. 2015. The greatest magic of Harry Potter: reducing prejudice. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 45: 105-121.

Image source:

Postscript: stranger than fiction

On the off chance that Lupin’s story is difficult to believe, it’s important to remember that the stigma around HIV is very real and very destructive. Stigma manifests differently in different cultures and situations, but can include loss of income, loss of marriage or childbearing options, poor health care, loss of reputation, and loss of hope. Stigma can occur at any social level, from individual to institutional: as of October 2013, 41 countries had laws that restrict the entry, stay and residence of people with HIV. And stigma perpetuates the disease; fear of stigma and discrimination keep people from seeking testing and treatment1.

  1. AVERT. HIV & AIDS stigma and discrimination. 12 February 2014. Web. 18 August 2015.

Multiple Sclerosis: Mirror, Mirror

Aliases: multiple sclerosis, MS

With the presidential campaign season officially underway in the US, I decided to profile a disease that afflicts the world’s most beloved fictional POTUS (President of the United States). At the end of The West Wing’s second season, President Josiah “Jed” Bartlet, reveals that he suffers from a relapsing-remitting course of multiple sclerosis (MS), shocking the nation and his staffers. But for all its drama, The West Wing’s MS storyline doesn’t overblow the effects of the disease. Instead, it (dare I say artfully?) manages to present an optimistic view1 of the condition while still addressing some of its many challenges.

Although the course of President Bartlet’s illness is extremely mild, with little progression of symptoms and next to no cognitive impact (although this is one of the disease’s most common symptoms; see below), he is subject to its fluctuations, emphasizing the brutal cycle of relapse and remission5. The show highlights both the overt costs of the disease, like the fatigue that afflicts most people with the condition5, and its more subtle effects. President Bartlet divulging his diagnosis is the climax of season 2, and while his admission takes place on a larger stage than most, it accurately depicts the anxiety that can plague MS sufferers when discussing their condition1,5. Perhaps most importantly, while MS significantly affects the lives of President Bartlet and those closest to him, the disease doesn’t derail his life5. He remains capable and competent, handily tackling one crisis after another for the next 5 seasons.

Fiction can be more powerful than fact. An estimated 2.3 million people worldwide suffer from MS4, yet none of these very real people have as enduring a public presence as the fictional President Bartlet. At the show’s height in season 3, The West Wing commanded a massive audience, with about 17.2 million viewers2. Now that the show is available on Netflix (oops, there goes your weekend/month; you’re welcome), its audience has expanded to an untold number. With such an enormous reach, The West Wing’s empowering MS storyline has certainly raised awareness about the disease1, but it could also hugely affect the way both the public and those diagnosed with the condition view MS. Oscar Wilde famously wrote, “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life”. In this case, let’s hope he’s right.

What’s next?

Cause: MS is an autoimmune disorder where the body’s immune system targets the central nervous system (CNS, the brain, spinal cord, and optic nerves), specifically the myelin (the fatty substance covering nerves) and the nerves themselves. The disease is triggered in people who are genetically predisposed (have genes related to the disease) by a combination of environmental factors; gender, geography, age, genetics, and ethnic background all influence disease development. Women are at least 2-3 times as likely to develop the disease as men, and while the average person has a 0.1% chance of developing MS, first degree relatives of MS sufferers have a 2.5-5% chance, and identical twins of MS sufferers have a 25% chance of contracting the disease4.

Consequence: MS results in nerve damage; the attacked myelin forms scar tissue, called sclerosis (this is where the disease gets its name), and impedes nervous system function. Because the nervous system affects all other bodily systems, the damage caused by MS results in a wide array of symptoms that are unpredictable and change over time. The first signs of the disease are usually numbness or tingling and vision problems. The most common symptoms include fatigue (80% of patients), pain (55% of patients experience clinically significant pain, nearly half have chronic pain), bladder dysfunction (at least 80% of patients), and cognitive changes (such as a decrease in the ability to organize and problem-solve, occurs in about 50% of patients). Confusingly, MS symptoms are commonly caused by several other conditions as well, making it very difficult to diagnosis the disease. Diagnosis requires physicians to find evidence of damage in at least two separate areas of the CNS, to find evidence that the damage occurred at least a month apart, and to rule out all other possible diagnoses4.

If the symptoms were not complex enough, the progression of the disease adds to the mix. MS can follow 4 different courses, any of which can be mild, moderate or severe:

  1. Relapsing-remitting: the most common course (85% of patients, including President Bartlet) with clearly defined attacks, followed by complete or partial recovery periods.
  2. Secondary-progressive: most people initially diagnosed with relapsing-remitting will eventually develop this form, where the disease progresses more steadily, though not necessarily more quickly.
  3. Primary-progressive: fairly rare (10% of patients) with steadily worsening neurological function from diagnosis onward. No distinct relapses or remissions.
  4. Progressive-relapsing: least common course (~5% of patients) with steadily worsening disease from diagnosis onward with relapses of exacerbated symptoms. Patients may experience a recovery period after these relapses, but the disease progresses without remissions4.

Cure: Unfortunately, there is no cure for MS. However, there are a wide range of treatment options. Most treatments address relapsing forms of MS (scientists are searching for effective treatments for progressive forms); medications are used to modify the disease course, treat relapses, and manage symptoms. Patients undergo rehabilitation to improve movement function4. While there is no cure, MS is not a fatal illness; MS sufferers generally have about the same life expectancy as the average population3.


  1. Dotinga, R. MS Goes West. HealthScoutNews. 26 November 2001. Web. 11 August 2015.
  1. How did your favorite show rate? USA Today. 28 May 2002. Web. 11 August 2015.
  1. Learn about Multiple Sclerosis. Multiple Sclerosis Foundation. July 2009. Web. 11 August 2015.
  1. Multiple Sclerosis FAQ. National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Web. 7 August 2015.
  1. Vancheri, B. ‘The West Wing’ lauded for accurately portraying MS story line. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. 16 May 2001. 11 August 2015.

Image source: , Copyright NBC