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My Worst Day: J.K. Rowling

How a decade of abuse, depression, and suicidal thoughts nearly robbed the world of Harry Potter.

My Worst Day is a biweekly column dedicated to stories of massive failure and extraordinary success. Combing through interviews, biographies, and historical records, we examine society’s greatest achievers — both modern and historic — and take an in-depth look at the days they thought it would all come crashing down. By studying how these icons navigated and persevered through their worst days, we can all learn the skills we need to do more, be more, and achieve more in our lives.

November 17th, 1993

Their relationship was finally boiling over.

The past 13 months had been an exercise in mixing oil and water. A fruitless endeavor for sure, save for the couple’s beautiful infant daughter — who thankfully was still sound asleep in the next room of their small Portuguese apartment.

Fights were familiar territory for newlyweds Jorge Arantes and Joanne Kathleen Rowling. These spats were mostly verbal, with each party raising their voice to match the intensity of the grievances which they aired.

But occasionally things would take a darker turn, and creep into the physical realm. In fact, just days before the couple had wed the year prior, the police were called by a concerned bystander to one such altercation. According to the report, the couple had been dining in a café when an argument erupted, prompting Arantes to shove young Rowling down onto the street. But by the time police arrived, all was calm — the young couple already gluing the pieces of their fragile relationship back together.

But now, in the early morning hours of November 17th, 1993, their relationship was being smashed beyond repair.

While neither party would ever go on to fully dictate the evening’s events, what was clear is that this battle evolved beyond anything the couple had ever experienced, eventually reaching the point where Rowling announced she was leaving for good, and that she was taking their daughter Jessica with her.

But Arantes fiercely objected to this plan. As he would later describe:

“She refused to go without Jessica, and, despite my saying she could come back for her in the morning, there was a violent struggle. I had to drag her out of the house at 5 in the morning, and I admit I slapped her very hard in the street.”

Though Rowling would never verify these claims, she left that night without her daughter. And when she returned the following morning, she did so with a Portuguese Police Officer in tow. She grabbed her baby and a few belongings, and just as fast as she could, she distanced herself from Arantes.

Rowling and her daughter Jessica fled to Scotland to stay with the only family she had left — her sister Dianne. While she had escaped her Portuguese nightmare, as the end of 1993 came near, things still looked incredibly bleak. Rowling was broke, unemployed, in a strange new country without a home to call her own, and under the constant fear that her abusive ex would come for her and her daughter.

But even with all this darkness, Rowling had two things to keep her going: her love for her baby girl Jessica, and the first three chapters of a new book about a young wizard named Harry Potter.

The Beginning

To fully appreciate the emotional highs and lows of a J.K. Rowling novel, one must understand the highs and lows of the author’s own life. Born Joanne Kathleen Rowling on July 31st, 1965 in Yate, Gloucestershire in Southwest England, Joanne was the first child of Anne and Peter Rowling. Her parents had only met the year prior, having stumbled across one another on a train departing from King’s Cross Station in London — a station that would eventually prove to have great significance for the young wizards of Harry Potter.

Just two years later, Rowling’s baby sister Dianne greeted the world, and shortly thereafter the family moved to nearby Winterbourne. Tucked 100 miles west of London, Winterbourne was the perfect sleepy village for young Rowling to make use of her rapidly developing imagination. From an early age, Jo — as her parents called her — was fascinated with stories. Almost as soon as she could read and write, Rowling was crafting short stories of her own. At the age of six, Rowling completed her first full book — a story about a rabbit, aptly titled Rabbit. And by 11, she completed her first novel, which wove a tale of seven cursed diamonds and the strange happenings of their owners.

Rowling’s love of books and storytelling continued to grow as she inched her way towards becoming a teenager. A self-described “bookish child,” Rowling did quite well in school, though she would go on to admit that much of her days consisted of her “…living in a world of complete daydreams”.

That’s not to say she wasn’t paying attention. Quirky teachers, the local cemetery, the forest outside her family’s new cottage in Tutshill, and even the turquoise Ford Anglia owned by her childhood friend Sean all burned themselves into Rowling’s memory, and would be of great use decades later when she went to craft a vivid, wizard-filled world.

Unfortunately, the reality of the real world reared its ugly head in 1980, when Anne Rowling was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. The signs had been there for several years. A tremble here. Difficulty with stairs there. But now there was no escaping the truth of the situation, and the family was at the beginning of what would become a 10-year battle with a vicious disease.

Though a darkness had descended over the Rowling household, Jo was still able to maintain her marks in school, and eventually found herself walking amongst the red brick and ivy at Exeter University.

While Rowling had hoped to study English Literature, her parents pushed back, pressuring her to choose a course of study more applicable to the modern workforce. A compromise was reached, and Rowling set foot on campus with the intention of studying Modern Languages. However, as she admitted years later:

“Hardly had my parents’ car rounded the corner at the end of the road than I ditched German and scuttled off down the Classics corridor. I cannot remember telling my parents that I was studying Classics; they might well have found out for the first time on graduation day. Of all the subjects on this planet, I think they would have been hard put to name one less useful than Greek mythology when it came to securing the keys to an executive bathroom.”

Unbeknownst to her parents, Rowling spent the next four years following her passion of storytelling. When she wasn’t falling in love with classics like A Tale of Two Cities or Sense and Sensibility, she could be found in local cafés, feverishly writing stories of her own. Though she was unsure if any eyes would ever grace these stories, it didn’t matter — for Rowling, the world came alive when she poured herself onto the page.

Even with the time spent skipping lectures to write her own stories, Rowling still managed to earn the grades she needed to graduate on schedule. By 1986, it was time to say goodbye to the halls of Exeter, and see just where an English Literature degree would take her.

A Wizard Is Born

The first four years of Rowling’s professional career could be described as “underwhelming” — especially for a bright young university graduate. Bouncing around from temporary job to temporary job, Rowling filled all sorts of positions at various organizations such as Amnesty International and the Manchester Chamber of Commerce.

While the work was mundane, these jobs did provide Rowling with plenty of free time and mental energy to continue her writing on the side. Within her first few post-graduation years, she completed two full adult novels, though she failed to generate any interest from literary agents or publishing houses. Undeterred, she continued to write. Rowling believed it was her obligation to give the stories in her mind a place to call home. So, external validation be damned, she continued to write and write and write.

By 1990, Rowling was living in London, and dating a young man who lived in Manchester. She made frequent weekend trips to visit him, and subsequently became a regular on the two-hour express train between the two cities.

One evening, while returning back to London after a weekend in Manchester, Rowling’s train was hit with a four-hour delay. As she was apt to do, Rowling used this time to let her mind wander. And it was in this wandering that an idea began to take shape — an idea that would change everything:

“All of a sudden the idea for Harry just appeared in my mind’s eye. I can’t tell you why or what triggered it. But I saw the idea of Harry and the wizard school very plainly. I suddenly had this basic idea of a boy who didn’t know who he was, who didn’t know he was a wizard until he got his invitation to wizard school. I have never been so excited by an idea.”

Though she couldn’t place her finger on it, Rowling knew that there was something special about this idea. That the story she was about to tell would forever change her life.

A Change of Scenery

As Rowling spent her free time forming the fictional wizarding world that would surround her new character Harry, the real world around her began to crumble. Her mother Anne lost her battle with multiple sclerosis in December 1990, at just 45 years of age. This death was sudden, and it sent young Rowling reeling. She quickly ended her relationship, moved out of her apartment, and began searching for a place to start fresh.

While surrounded by a fog of grief, Rowling came across a timely advert in The Guardian promoting opportunities to teach English in the seaside town of Porto, Portugal. Craving warm air and new memories to wash away the old, Rowling applied, got accepted, and was soon on her way to a sunny new adventure.

The first 18 months in Porto were just what Rowling craved. She shared a flat with two other English teachers, and the trio would give nightly lessons at Encounter English School. Afterwards, they’d hit the bustling Porto nightclub scene, dancing well into the early morning hours.

After much needed sleep, Rowling spent her daytime hours with her secret new friend — a boy wizard by the name of Harry Potter. Day-by-day, while sipping strong Portuguese coffee in local cafés, she constructed a whole new world for Harry. A world filled with a magical school and potions and spells. Rowling had a passion for Harry — one that completely consumed her life outside of teaching. That is, until she met Jorge…

The Best of Times, The Worst of Times

Jorge Arantes was just 22 years old the night they met. A strikingly handsome Portuguese Journalism student, Arantes was drinking with friends in the basement bar Meia Cava when in walked a 25-year-old blue-eyed English Teacher named Jo Rowling. In a matter of minutes, Arantes found his way over to the young woman, and soon they were bonding over their shared love of Jane Austen. Numbers were exchanged by the end of the evening, and it was only a matter of days before the two began their passionate, dysfunctional relationship.

The young lovers were consumed with one another, and within just a few months they found themselves pregnant with their first child. As they hastily made plans to begin their young family, they were very quickly met with the unfortunate news of a miscarriage. But through this tragedy, the couple’s bond strengthened, and on August 28th, 1992, Arantes proposed to Rowling.

And much to the surprise of her friends, Rowling accepted…

It’s not that her friends didn’t trust her. It’s that they didn’t trust Jorge. Many of Rowling’s closest friends and colleagues saw him as difficult, vindictive, and dishonest. Heated arguments were commonplace for the couple, even in the company of friends. However, Rowling held her own during these exchanges, and friends eventually accepted that they were just “a couple that fights”.

Harder to ignore were the physical exchanges. An arm grab here. A push there. One evening, shortly before they were to wed, the couple began arguing so fiercely at a local café that Arantes shoved Rowling down into the middle of the street in front of an entire group of bystanders. Rowling burst into tears. The police were called. But by the time authorities arrived, the couple was already back on the mend, exchanging “I love you’s” through the window of the nearby school to which Rowling had fled.

Abuse aside, the couple said their vows on October 16, 1992. There, in front of a tight-knit group of family and friends, Rowling said “I Do” not just to Arantes, but to the prospect of a new chapter of her life. After years of feeling lost, she believed that her marriage would help her find her true self.

November 17th, 1993

Unfortunately, the frequent fights between Arantes and Rowling did not dissipate after the couple wed. Living in a small apartment they shared with Arantes’ mother, the two argued constantly, even after they discovered that Rowling had become pregnant for the second time. Though there was a brief reprieve on July 27, 1993 — the day Rowling gave birth to a beautiful baby girl, whom the couple named Jessica.

But the reprieve didn’t last long…

With a new baby to care for, the stress in Rowling’s life only worsened. Friends urged her to leave Arantes, as they knew his abuse would be detrimental to the health of the child. Yet Rowling continued to stay, trying to balance Arantes’ temper with the care of her newborn baby and the job she needed to keep in order to provide for them. A struggle that’s unfortunately known by far too many women…and one that Rowling would later use her fame and fortune to try and eradicate.

It was a delicate house of cards built on a cracked foundation. And it was only a matter of time before the whole thing came crashing down.

That day finally came on November 17th, 1993. While neither Arantes nor Rowling would ever attest to the catalyst of the fight, the couple argued to the point where Rowling declared that she was leaving for good, and that she was taking Jessica with her. Not agreeing to this decision, Arantes dragged Rowling out of the house and into the cool evening air. There, in the middle of the street, he forcibly slapped the mother of his child.

With no more options, Rowling left for the night, but returned early the next day — this time with a Portuguese Police Officer by her side. She grabbed her daughter and a few belongings, and said what she hoped would be the last goodbye she ever had to say to Arantes. After a few nights hiding out with local friends, Rowling and her daughter Jessica boarded a plane to go stay with the only family she had left: her sister Dianne.

Once again, it was time to start a new chapter. Only this time Rowling wasn’t traveling alone. On her lap was the child she loved more than life itself. And in her suitcase, three chapters of the novel she had begun before the chaos of Arantes.

A novel she loosely titled Harry Potter.

Dark Days in Scotland

While moving to Edinburgh provided her with much needed distance from Arantes — and brought her closer to the one family member on which she could rely — there was no immediate turnaround in Rowling’s Life. It had been seven years since she left Exeter as a bright young woman with a promising future. But now here she was, a single mom pushing 30 years of age, with no job prospects and no home to call her own.

Her life was far from what she had envisioned. Even after securing welfare services and a small flat for herself and Jessica, the effect this reality had on Rowling was substantial. During this period, she was diagnosed with clinical depression, and admitted years later that thoughts of suicide drifted in and out of her mind. As she later explained:

“I never expected to mess up so badly that I would find myself in an unheated, mouse-infested flat, looking after my daughter. And I was angry because I felt I was letting her down”

The depression and dread were exacerbated by the unannounced arrival of Arantes in March of 1994. Battling a drug addiction he had developed after the departure of his wife and child, the erratic Arantes came to Edinburgh with the intention of taking the pair back to Porto. Thankfully, Rowling was quickly able to secure an Action of Interdict — the Scottish equivalent of a restraining order — and Arantes made his way back to Porto alone. Shortly thereafter, Rowling was able to finalize her divorce. She was now free of Arantes for good…

Reenergized by her freedom, Rowling continued to work odd jobs, and spent the remainder of her hours writing Harry Potter. As the legend goes, she would often bring a sleeping baby Jessica to local cafés — both The Elephant House and Nicolson’s Café — and would scribble out chapter by chapter in long hand, later typing it up on a secondhand typewriter when she returned home.

Though the book was always written with a young adult audience in mind, Rowling pulled deeply from her own thirty years of life. Her demons and depression and sadness all finding their way into the backstories of the thoroughly-developed, complex characters in the novel. The result was a piece of young adult fiction that was fun and funny, yet surprisingly dark, complex and honest — something that had never been seen quite on this level before.

By December 1995, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was finally finished. Now she just had to find a way to share her story with the world.

The Wizard Arrives

Though she had failed to find an agent or a publisher for her first few novels, Rowling set out in early 1996 determined to land a deal for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Her first stop was the local library, where she began looking up previous book award recipients to find the names and contact information of their agents.

After several rejections, a cover letter and the first three chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone landed in the mailbox of Bryony Evans, an employee of Christopher Little Literary Agents in Fulham. Evans quite liked what he read, and shared it with a colleague, who agreed that the story was a fresh take on young adult fiction. The pair convinced the agency to sign Rowling, and soon they went to work pitching her book to publishers.

Making a mistake they will forever regret, the first 12 publishers declined to publish Harry Potter. It was lucky number 13 — a publisher named Bloomsbury — that eventually earned the rights to Harry Potter, for the meager advance of just £1,500. But they had one condition: out of concern that young boys would not be keen to read a novel written by a woman, they requested that Joanne Rowling adapt a pen name. And so, “J.K. Rowling” was born.

Name change and paltry financials aside, Rowling was ecstatic. She would finally realize her dream of seeing her own novel grace the shelves of a bookstore. Now it was just a matter of time before she would learn whether or not the world would fall in love with this young boy wizard the same way she had.

The Legacy

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was released in the U.K. on June 26th, 1997 — 7 years after Rowling first envisioned the wizarding world on her delayed train from Manchester to London. With an initial print run of just 500 copies, Rowling’s publishing house treated the book like any other from a debut author, distributing it to key book critics, libraries, and other influential individuals. In the book industry, the path to success was simple — let people read it, and if they like it, they’ll recommend it.

Thankfully, it didn’t take long for the buzz to begin. Newspapers across Great Britain praised the novel, with Lindsey Fraser of The Scotsman describing the book as “…a hugely entertaining thriller” and Rowling as “…a first-rate writer for children”. Similar reviews filed in, and book was soon awarded the Nestlé Smarties Book Prize — one of the most prestigious awards for young adult writers. In response to growing demand, Bloomsbury had to quickly launch second and third printings.

As Harry Potter grew across Great Britain, American publishing giant Scholastic was preparing to introduce the boy wizard stateside, having bought the American rights to the novel for an astounding $105,000 (Rowling later told the press that she “nearly died” upon hearing the news of this sale). In September of 1998, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (Scholastic having replaced “Philosopher” with “Sorcerer” out of fear that the former sounded too archaic) was launched in the United States. And much like the British version, it didn’t take long to find critical and commercial success. By 1999 the book hit #1 on the New York Times best-sellers list, and remained near the top for nearly two years.

And this was only the beginning…

Over the following decade, Rowling released six additional titles in the Harry Potter series — all of which were met with critical and commercial acclaim. All told, Harry Potter books have sold more than 500 million copies worldwide. They were also transformed into the highly successful eight-part Harry Potter film franchise — which went on to gross more than $7 billion at the box office.

In addition, Rowling went on to write a two-part Harry Potter Broadway play, has written several screenplays for the spinoff film franchise Fantastic Beasts, released many Potter-based short stories and other associated works, and even helped develop an entire Harry Potter theme park.

The effect of Harry Potter on Rowling’s life has been profound. Personally, her success gave her the confidence to push past the trauma of her first marriage to Arantes, and find true love in the Scottish doctor Neil Murray, whom she married in 2001. And professionally, her patience and persistence in delivering Harry Potter were handsomely rewarded.

In 2004, Forbes announced that Rowling was the first person in history to become a billionaire by writing books. And today, the Harry Potter franchise is worth an estimated $25 billion. While Rowling publicly disputes she is a billionaire, many have speculated that this is only due to the fact that she has been so generous with her wealth, having started and contributed to a variety of philanthropic causes, including those near and dear to her heart, such as organizations helping single parents, as well as those fighting multiple sclerosis, the dreadful disease that took her mother away from her so young.

The last 25 years for J.K. Rowling have been filled with tremendous highs and lows. Even through the terror in Portugal and spending much of the mid-1990’s depressed, scared, and feeling utterly hopeless, she never lost her faith. If not for herself, Rowling knew she had to keep going for her young daughter, as well as the young boy wizard she had grown to love. She knew deep in her heart that his story had to be told. So, she preserved, poured herself into her pages, and gifted the world one of the greatest tales ever written.

Lesson Learned

While we may never sit in a café crafting a magical, wizarding world, there is still much we can learn from the amazing story of J.K. Rowling. Let’s examine the 4 most important lessons:

1. Passion is Developed, Not Found

“Follow your passion” is tricky advice. While we may want to believe that there is a magical “something” out there for all of us, truth be told, passion is not something that can just be found like a set of car keys. It’s something that’s developed over a great period of time and dedication. Was Jimi Hendrix passionate about the guitar the very first time he picked one up? Probably not — in fact, he was probably pretty terrible, just like everyone else that picks up an instrument for the first time. But as he returned again and again to the guitar and worked extremely hard to master it, his passion for the instrument grew.

In Rowling’s case, she’s the first to admit that much of her early writing was not quality. But even when she didn’t want to, she returned again and again to the page. Day after day she sat in cafés writing. Tired, sick, depressed — it didn’t matter. All that mattered was that she got in her reps. And over time, these reps allowed her to develop a skill set — and a passion — for writing that would eventually power her to craft 4,224 pages across the 7 Harry Potter novels that would forever change her life.

Passion and mastery come to those willing to embrace the challenge in front of them, even when they don’t feel like it.

2. Compound Your Knowledge

Like a retirement account, knowledge accumulates and grows over time. And those who input the most will eventually reap the greatest rewards.

While she may not have realized it at the time, Rowling spent her life accumulating knowledge that would eventually serve her well during her life’s true purpose of creating Harry Potter. When she was young, she took special care in noticing the unique personalities of the “characters” at her school, noting how all their quirks would make for quite the engaging story. In college, though she had no reason to do so, she studied Latin — a language that would later prove to be pivotal in writing believable wizard spells throughout the Harry Potter franchise. And though it felt like wasting time trying to find an agent and a publisher for her first two adult novels, her familiarity with the process meant that when Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was finished, she knew exactly what she needed to do to get that book into the right hands.

Rowling’s story shows us that even if the knowledge you gain might not be of immediate use, you should still retain it and file it away, as you never know when it might serve its purpose.

3. Success Needs Time to Develop

While we love to glorify overnight success, the truth of the matter is that almost no real success in life comes quickly. In the case of Rowling, there were seven full years between the first seed of her idea for Harry Potter, and the release of the first book in the series.

That’s seven years working towards something without even the slightest glimmer of hope. Sure, occasionally a friend would read a chapter or two and provided the kind feedback she needed to keep going, but for the vast majority of this stretch she was all alone. It was just her and her dream, day-in and day-out.

Most great success follows a similar story. Steve Jobs spent years developing the iPod, without any real indication if consumers would ditch their CD collection for digital music. Nearly 5 years passed between the day Spanx Founder Sara Blakely first cut a pair of feet off her pantyhose and the day Oprah named Spanx a “Favorite Thing”, and kickstarted Blakely’s path to becoming a billionaire.

If you’re going to find success, you need to be prepared for these long, lonely valleys. Because only those willing to keep going and pursue their dreams well beyond when others give up are the ones that will eventually persevere and reach the other side.

4. You’re Never Too Far Behind

In our always-on, social media driven age, it’s hard not to feel like you’re behind. When everyone else is posting all their wonderful life adventures for you to see — promotions, vacations, personal milestones, etc. — and you don’t have these things, your immediate inclination is to feel like you’re losing the race.

But here’s the thing — you’re never too far behind. In fact, some of life’s greatest achievements come from those who could have been considered “late bloomers”. Rowling was 32 years old with barely a penny to her name when Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was published. And in fact, she was nearly 35 before things really started to take off.

35 still seem young? How about Sam Walton, who opened the first true Wal-Mart store at age 44. Or Charles Darwin, who was 50 years old when he published On the Origin of the Species. And of course there’s Ray Kroc, who bought his first McDonald’s franchise at 53, and was in his 60’s before turning it into an empire.

The lesson here is that you’re never too far behind. As long as you have air in your lungs, you still have time to take that first step towards doing something spectacular. You just need to get started…

My Worst Day

The early morning hours of November 17th, 1993 were a nightmare for J.K. Rowling. Abused, scared, and ripped away from her baby daughter — it’s a horror one cannot begin to imagine.

But in response to this nightmare, Rowling did the only thing she could think to do: put one foot in front of the other. It certainly wasn’t easy, but step-by-step she distanced herself from that terrible day, and eventually found an incredible path that led to eternal glory.

It’s a lesson for all of us. When in doubt, just take that first step forward.

Selected References

Kirk, Connie Ann. J.K. Rowling: A Biography, 2003. United States: Greenwood Press.

Rowling, J.K. “The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination” The Harvard Gazette, 5 June 2008. https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2008/06/text-of-j-k-rowling-speech/.

Thakker, Krishna and Rapp, Nicolas. “Harry Potter at 20: Billions in Box Office Revenue, Millions of Books Sold” Fortune, 26 June 2017. https://fortune.com/2017/06/26/harry-potter-20th-anniversary/.

“The J.K. Rowling Story” The Scotsman, 16 June 2003. https://www.scotsman.com/arts-and-culture/books/the-jk-rowling-story-1-652114.

Parker, Ian. “Mugglemarch” The New Yorker, 24 September 2012. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2012/10/01/mugglemarch.

Stibel, Jeff. “J.K. Rowling: A Profile in Failure” CSQ, November 2017. https://csq.com/2017/11/profile-failure-j-k-rowling/#.XTzU1ZNKg_V.

Fearon, Peter. “J.K. Rowling’s drug addict ex dishes on their love affair” New York Post, 11 July 2000. https://nypost.com/2000/07/11/a-dark-flashback-inpotter-authors-tall-ex-junkie-hubby-demanding-right-to-see-their-daughter/.

Murphy Jr., Bill. “14 Inspiring People Who Found Crazy Success Later in Life.” Inc., 24 Mar 2005. https://www.inc.com/bill-murphy-jr/14-inspiring-people-who-found-crazy-success-later-in-life.html.

Entrepreneur obsessed with marketing, startups, and failure. Love non-alcoholic drinks and building YOURS to support non drinkers everywhere. www.SipYours.com

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