A Complex and Many-Layered Thing

But Harry’s anger at Snape continued to pound through his veins like venom. Let go of his anger? He could as easily detach his legs. . . .

This is the first Occlumency lesson. Harry is right, of course. Feelings don’t go away because you want them to. To let go of them when they’ve not been addressed or validated can be as hard as detaching a leg. And yet, it’s what Dumbledore asked Snape to do, and it’s what Snape had to do to survive the first war as Dumbledore’s spy. You have to ask yourself… how?

Trapped animals chew off their own legs to escape. It’s a sacrifice they make to survive.

If there’s one thing in a fic that turns me off it, it’s the idea that Occlumency “shields” are a thing or that Severus was so gifted at it because he had some innate power like Second Sight or being a metamorphagus. I always preferred to think of Occlumency and Legilimency as skills that can be learned, even if some have more aptitude for it than others.

Severus entered Hogwarts with the kind of life experience that primed him for developing these skills and left it with even more. Occlumency is magical dissociation, a post-traumatic coping mechanism, and Severus has C/PTSD.

To survive, he would have had to develop a knack for telling how explosive and unpredictable people feel. Over his life, he faced at least two egregious examples of what Pete Walker, author of “Complex PTSD” calls “the Charming Bully”.

Especially devolved fight types can become sociopathic. Sociopathy can range along a continuum that stretches from corrupt politician to vicious criminal. A particularly nasty sociopath, who I call the charming bully, probably falls somewhere around the middle of this continuum. The charming bully behaves in a friendly manner some of the time. He can even occasionally listen and be helpful in small amounts, but he still uses his contempt to overpower and control others. This type typically relies on scapegoats for the dumping of his vitriol. These unfortunate scapegoats are typically weaker than him. […] He generally spares his favorites from this behavior, unless they get out of line. If the charming bully is charismatic enough, those close to him will often fail to register the unconscionable meanness of his scapegoating. The bully’s favorites often slip into denial, relieved that they are not the target. Especially charismatic bullies may even be admired and seen as great.

These would be James Potter and Tom Riddle (who are distantly related, I might add). Harry inherited the tendency to default to the fight response, but since he grew up the scapegoat and not the golden child, he never becomes quite as appalling, and after all, a fight response is normal when they are after you. Even so, Harry, who has both James and Voldemort inside him, triggers Severus to no end. It’s not a coincidence that the memories Harry sees when he is with him are largely horrible, and vice versa. There had to be happy or at least neutral or even boring moments, but these two detest each other, and they know they detest each other. Negative emotions and associated memories are so close to the surface they can’t be contained. This is the purpose of the Pensieve in this context – to contain the emotions. Since Severus knew what was in there when he pulled Harry out, my theory is that you don’t suddenly forget the memories you placed there, but rather you make them less fraught with emotions.

“Get up!” said Snape sharply. “Get up! You are not trying, you are making no effort, you are allowing me access to memories you fear, handing me weapons!”Harry stood up again, his heart thumping wildly as though he had really just seen Cedric dead in the graveyard. Snape looked paler than usual, and angrier, though not nearly as angry as Harry was. “I — am — making — an — effort,” he said through clenched teeth.“I told you to empty yourself of emotion!”“Yeah? Well, I’m finding that hard at the moment,” Harry snarled.“Then you will find yourself easy prey for the Dark Lord!” said Snape savagely. “Fools who wear their hearts proudly on their sleeves, who cannot control their emotions, who wallow in sad memories and allow themselves to be provoked this easily — weak people, in other words — they stand no chance against his powers! He will penetrate your mind with absurd ease, Potter!”

A lot to unpack here.

“Memories you fear,” “weapons”, “easy prey”.

Fearing your own memories, viewing your own lived experiences as weapons to be used against you, being easy prey… Severus could not be speaking louder of himself here. He is the one whose mind had been penetrated with absurd ease, he is the one who handed weapons to Voldemort, and he is the one who had to do the psychological equivalent of detaching his own leg – again and again – to survive.

I’ll argue that Severus developed a fawn response and a flight response, as fighting had never really worked out for him if it was possible at all. He had at least two more people I’d describe as bullies in his life, Tobias and Lucius.

Again from Pete Walker:

These [fawn] response patterns are so deeply set in the psyche, that as adults, many codependents automatically respond to threat like dogs, symbolically rolling over on their backs, wagging their tails, hoping for a little mercy and an occasional scrap. Webster’s second entry for fawn is: “to show friendliness by licking hands, wagging its tail, etc.: said of a dog.” I find it tragic that some codependents are as loyal as dogs to even the worst “masters”.

Remember what Sirius called him? Lucius’s lapdog. Bellatrix called him Dumbledore’s pet, Dumbledore said he dangles on Voldemort’s arm, the narrative compares Snape to a rabbit in SWM and Harry compares the Half-Blood Prince to a beloved pet who had gone feral (yes, this does mean a lot to me on a personal level, yes my username is not a coincidence).

His unconscious fawn response might have been his undoing, drawn as he was to figures like Lucius and Voldemort. As an adult, I think he utilized the skills he had developed to survive in order to stitch these people up, and involuntary dissociation and fawning became Occlumency, which to me, is his signature magic. Harry needed only to banish Voldemort from his mind; Severus could not settle for this. He had to give Voldemort something, and knowing how to fawn meant knowing what to give him and how to draw himself in such a light that Voldemort would believe it. We see how he sought to be seen by the Death Eaters: a self-serving coward who sought to hide behind Dumbledore’s apron, playing his pet. But that’s Pettigrew, not Snape. Imagine the self-immolation, the self-violation, it must have taken to convince everyone that you’re an ersatz Wormtail! Snape is a man and a prince, and the text recognizes this as Harry calls him, in the end, Dumbledore’s man, the bravest man, and as that chapter is called “The Prince’s Tale”. Voldemort thought Snape was nothing more than a “good and faithful servant,” and that his last words were “My Lord”.

But Severus had an unequaled gift for Occlumency, specifically against Voldemort, because Voldemort could not legilimens what he couldn’t feel; and he couldn’t feel love, grief, guilt, and remorse. This was Severus’s secret weapon, which would not have worked against Harry – who can feel these things, and who is also Lily’s son. I can prove it. The first time Harry gets the hang of Occlumency is after Dobby dies:

His scar burned, but he was master of the pain; he felt it, yet was apart from it. He had learned control at last, learned to shut his mind to Voldemort, the very thing Dumbledore had wanted him to learn from Snape. Just as Voldemort had not been able to possess Harry while Harry was consumed with grief for Sirius, so his thoughts could not penetrate Harry now, while he mourned Dobby. Grief, it seemed, drove Voldemort out . . . though Dumbledore, of course, would have said that it was love. . . .

Harry learned to dissociate, though fortunately in a healthier way than many of us ever get to.

Of course, Snape was a good and faithful servant… to Dumbledore, which brings us to the flight response. The chapter wherein he escapes after killing Dumbledore is called “Flight of the Prince”. He should be fighting, he had just proven that he can cast a killing curse, and yet he flees. He can literally fly, in fact: He, Lily, and Voldemort are the only ones we see pulling this off.

As a child, we see this too: He copes with his home situation by reminding himself “it won’t be long and I’ll be gone.” He is thrilled when he imagines Hogwarts, his escape; he follows Lily out of the carriage instead of confronting James and Sirius head-on (which might have saved them all a lot of pain eventually). But this doesn’t work out, we see that in terrifying detail. The next attempt at an escape is joining the Death Eaters, but this too doesn’t work out.

He can’t flee anymore.

“Severus, you cannot pretend this isn’t happening!” Karkaroff’s voice sounded anxious and hushed, as though keen not to be overheard. “It’s been getting clearer and clearer for months. I am becoming seriously concerned, I can’t deny it —”“Then flee,” said Snape’s voice curtly. “Flee — I will make your excuses. I, however, am remaining at Hogwarts.”

Shortly thereafter:

“Severus,” said Dumbledore, turning to Snape, “you know what I must ask you to do. If you are ready . . . if you are prepared . . .”“I am,” said Snape.He looked slightly paler than usual, and his cold, black eyes glittered strangely.

He was ready, and he was prepared. He didn’t fly; he walked toward what might well have been his end with open eyes, armed only with the strength of his mind. Before Voldemort killed him, he looked pale, again, and terrified.

“I sought a third wand, Severus. The Elder Wand, the Wand of Destiny, the Deathstick. I took it from its previous master. I took it from the grave of Albus Dumbledore.”And now Snape looked at Voldemort, and Snape’s face was like a death mask. It was marble white and so still that when he spoke, it was a shock to see that anyone lived behind the blank eyes.

I ask myself if this was the moment he realized he had been betrayed, that by giving Dumbledore a painless death he had secured his own. Maybe he wasn’t pale because he was scared; maybe he was pale because he was shocked. He was at his absolute limit, Occluding with all his might when he could have easily saved himself. The dam is about to break. All the memories he feared, all the weapons, the entire content of his heart is about to spill through – literally.

He fawned for Voldemort, the worst of all possible masters, but in the end, he was Voldemort’s undoing. All the ways in which he was weak and powerless against Tobias, James, Lucius, et al., proved to be part of goodness and the source of his power. It doesn’t surprise me in the least that Snape is so loved (though why he is so hated, I’ll never understand). I’ve never actually seen such love for any other fictional character. He represents a kind of courage that many of us need to get by, lest we simply become evil or give up (“I wish I was dead”). A kind of courage rarely celebrated. The more time I’ve spent in the fandom in general and in the Snapedom in particular, the more I am convinced of this. Thanks for reading!

By on September 4th, 2022 in Blog Updates


Great analysis. I have not often seen psychology being used to explain some of the seemingly contradictory and controversial actions that Severus Snape took. I think it’s a great example of how understanding psychology is so crucial to creating a character as deep as Severus Snape. Would love to see more of what you think about Snape and his father and mother, and what gaps can be filled from canon there! Great work!

Thank you! I wouldn’t deign to say anything definitive about Tobias and Eileen – I like making up different stories for them to serve the purposes of different fics. And yes, I agree with you about psychology, is always a fun lens for character analysis!

Charismatic bully? How about Dumbledore? Snape knew already that he could never really trust the Headmaster, and the scenes we see where Dumbledore is emotionally smacking Snape around would trigger Snape’s fawning just as much as the stray Crucio would around Voldemort. Dumbledore forced him to be silent after a murder attempt, and with the Trio, Snape knows he will never be allowed to punish them for any attack they make on him.

Absolutely. Albus seemed to know what Severus would react to. I don’t want to say he manipulated Severus so as to not take away from Severus’s glorious achievements, but you do make a strong point.

I really liked your take on Occlumency, shield fanon is often used in the fics so your understanding of it fits surprisingly well.

I wholly agree with the Charismatic Bully archetype of sociopathy in JP and LV and also that Harry did show some signs.

Fight and flight response, fawning and dissociation are really well though out and described.

*Chef’s kiss*, this one is really.