You Have Used Me: Severus Snape, Albus Dumbledore, Betrayal and Trust
In considering the relationship between Severus Snape and Albus Dumbledore, two things become clear: Severus trusted Dumbledore, and Dumbledore betrayed that trust, time and again. Over the long term, Dumbledore took advantage of that trust to use Severus for his own ends.
Severus Snape began his life with high hopes for Hogwarts. The Muggle world, apparently, had not treated him well; his home life was at the least neglectful, and possibly abusive. He felt out of place. The Wizarding world, on the other hand, represented to young Severus a beacon of hope, a promised land where at last he would find understanding, acceptance, and appreciation as the intelligent, gifted wizard that he was. He would belong. At Hogwarts he would find a place.
That hope began to be disillusioned on his very first train ride to Hogwarts, when James Potter and Sirius Black set the foundation for a pattern of bullying and abuse that was to continue throughout Severus' education at Hogwarts. Whether, as Sirius Black claimed, Severus arrived at Hogwarts already knowing more hexes than the seventh years, or whether he quickly set himself to learning them upon his arrival, it appears that Severus employed hexes primarily as a measure for self-defense against the bullying of the Marauders. He did not, after all, begin hexing everyone left, right, and center the moment he boarded the train. Nor do we have reported to us that he started zapping everyone in sight upon arrival on the school grounds. What we do see, clearly, is that James and Sirius initiated the bullying of Severus, a bullying we are told continued until the end of their seventh year.
So the first bit of trust--that Hogwarts would be a safe haven, and that the authority figures, including Headmaster Dumbledore, would protect the students in their care--was eroded at the outset of Severus' association with Hogwarts.
Now, it may have been expected that students should fend for themselves in matters of "routine" bullying. Only in recent years have people begun to vocally challenge the cultural assumption that any bullying should be viewed as "routine," rather than as an ethical violation not to be tolerated. In any case, when "routine" bullying crosses the line into serious physical and psychological harm and endangerment of life, that is the point at which the authority figures--such as Dumbledore--should step in and put a stop to the abuse, meting out appropriate consequences to the abusers and doing everything possible to right the wrongs and heal the harms that were wrought upon the abused.
Yet we see no indication in the books that bullies were held accountable for their actions, let alone required to reform their ways and make reparations to the ones they had bullied. Instead, a "blame the victim" mentality seems to have prevailed at Hogwarts: It was Severus Snape who was to blame for being so awful that James Potter and Sirius Black wanted to bully him. It was Severus Snape who needed to just "get over" the bullying, rather than the ones who bullied him who needed to make amends. Instead of saying, "We were wrong, we're sorry, what can we do for you," Remus Lupin accused Severus of continuing to hold a "schoolboy grudge"--trivializing and dismissing the traumatic impact of bullying and abuse that in one case had been life-threatening--and Sirius Black continued to treat Severus in a derogatory manner.
And Albus Dumbledore, headmaster, did nothing to facilitate the process of reparation, said nothing to suggest that Lupin or Black had any obligation to apologize or otherwise make an effort to repair the damage for which they each bore partial responsibility. Instead, Dumbledore continued to treat Severus in a dismissive, patronizing manner whenever Severus raised any issues regarding the Marauders.
Indeed, Dumbledore apparently shared Lupin's belief that the burden was upon Severus to somehow find it in himself to "get over" his wounds, without any reconciliatory efforts being made by the ones who had contributed to creating those wounds. "Some wounds run too deep for the healing," Dumbledore told Harry at the end of Order of the Phoenix. "I thought Professor Snape could overcome his feelings about your father--I was wrong." Simply throwing Severus into close association with Harry and hoping for the best hardly constituted an effective strategy for healing the wounds of past abuse. Perhaps if a real, constructive effort had been made to heal the wounds, back when they were being inflicted during Severus' school years, Severus might have emerged from his student years far more healthy and whole.
A Step in the Right Direction
Despite his disillusioning experiences during his school years, Severus apparently continued to harbor a fundamental trust in Dumbledore, for, having joined the Death Eaters in his late teens, he risked his life to approach Dumbledore and plead for him to protect Lily Evans Potter from Voldemort. He trusted that Dumbledore was not only powerful but good: that Dumbledore had not only the ability but also the desire to protect Lily and prevent her death.
And how was his trust, and his risk and his fear, honored? Not by an immediate, "Absolutely! I shall see to it immediately!" but by Dumbledore playing mind games with the distraught and terrified young man: "If she means so much to you, surely Lord Voldemort will spare her?"
Much has been made by detractors of Severus Snape (including, of course, Albus Dumbledore) about the fact that he asked Voldemort only for Lily to be spared. Apart from his lack of a fully-developed, mature sense of ethics that would have extended his empathy beyond personal partiality, and apart from his understandable lack of concern for the welfare of a man who had repeatedly and unrepentantly abused him, Severus is hardly to be blamed for "failing" to ask Voldemort to spare the life of Voldemort's primary target for death: the child of the prophecy. Even if Severus did find it in himself to wish for an innocent child to be spared, even the child of the hated James Potter, to have begged Voldemort to spare the life of the child would not have spared the life of the child. Most likely, it would have ended the life of the one asking for the child's life to be spared!
Critics have also pointed out that Severus, at least at first, didn't really care about doing what was right, only about saving Lily. If anyone else had been in danger of death, it would not have bothered him in the least, and he could have gone on merrily serving Voldemort for the rest of his life. I am not certain that this assertion is true--that his conscience never would have begun to bother him and caused him to defect from the ranks of the Death Eaters. In any case, in pointing that finger at Severus Snape, aren't we pointing several fingers back at ourselves? Isn't it true for all of us, that often we only begin to care about what's right when it hits us close to home? How easy it is to be indifferent to the wrongs in the world until they affect us or someone we care about.
The important thing is that Severus, in going to Dumbledore, took a first step in the right direction. However limited and self-interested his reasons for taking that step, he took it, at great risk to himself. Such courage and humility--for it takes humility to admit that the other person was right about a wrong turn we took--should have been honored with encouragement, respect, and full unconditional cooperation, while gently adding that the whole family, not just Lily, would be given protection. Instead, Dumbledore met it with coldness, condemnation, and opportunistic manipulation of the young man's distress and vulnerability to obtain gain for Dumbledore.
Yet is not clear if Dumbledore truly cared about the welfare of Lily and James. It is clear that, ultimately, he did not truly care about the welfare of Harry; he saw Harry, as he saw Severus and perhaps all other people, as a pawn in his game to defeat Voldemort and prove himself the victor.
Severus, in spite of Dumbledore's callous treatment of him, still apparently looked up to Dumbledore. Throughout his years of teaching at Hogwarts, we see expressions of respect and trust that do appear to be genuine. One of the most vivid examples of Severus' implicit trust in Dumbledore occured in the climactic scenes at the end of Prisoner of Azkaban.
As far as Severus knew, Sirius Black was the man who betrayed Lily's location to Voldemort and led directly to her death. He had every reason to believe that the man was a murderer, and that Harry and his friends were in grave danger in the Shrieking Shack. If personal vendetta alone were motivating Severus, then surely he would have dispatched of Sirius without delay, rather than conjuring a stretcher and having him brought back to the castle to face the appropriate legal procedures (such as they were in the Wizarding World). When Dumbledore asked Severus, along with Poppy Pomfrey and Minister Fudge, to leave the ward of the hospital wing where Harry and Hermione are recuperating, Severus hesitated.
"You surely don't believe a word of Black's story?" Snape whispered, his eyes fixed on Dumbledore's face.
"I wish to speak to Harry and Hermione alone," Dumbledore repeated.
Snape took a step toward Dumbledore.
"Sirius Black showed he was capable of murder at the age of sixteen," he breathed. "You haven't forgotten that, Headmaster? You haven't forgotten that he once tried to kill me?"
"My memory is as good as it ever was, Severus," said Dumbledore quietly.
Snape turned on his heel and marched through the door Fudge was still holding.
Severus was seeking more than to have his story believed: He was seeking a sign, some kind of affirmation, that he mattered to Albus Dumbledore, that his life was as valuable in Dumbledore's eyes as that of any Gryffindor. Instead, he got a cold wall of condescension: "My memory is as good as it ever was, Severus." Once again, trust was betrayed.
And the betrayal continued, in little ways. In the year of Goblet of Fire, as Voldemort is gaining strength for his return, Severus assured Dumbledore that in spite of the risk he would not flee if the Mark should burn: "I am not such a coward," he said. And how did Dumbledore reward that brave statement? By affirming Severus' courage, then adding, as a rather backhanded compliment, "You know, I sometimes think we Sort too soon," and walking away from Severus, leaving Severus stricken. Whether Severus was offended by the suggestion that he "really" should have been a Gryffindor, or whether he was pained by a sudden flash of imagination--would he have lost Lily's friendship, would he ever have become a Death Eater, had he been sorted into Gryffindor rather than Slytherin--the clear implication on Dumbledore's part is that Severus, as a Slytherin, would always be lacking an essential ingredient to merit full, unconditional respect.
The Final Betrayal
And yet, in spite of Dumbledore's indifferent and sometimes cold manner towards Severus, Severus continued to respect and trust Dumbledore. During Occlumency lessons in Order of the Phoenix, Severus spoke of Dumbledore almost reverentially: "Dumbledore is an extremely powerful wizard"--the only one, apparently, whom Severus considered powerful enough to dare to speak Voldemort's name. And despite his dislike of his pupil, it was out of respect for Dumbledore that Severus subjected himself to giving those Occlumency lessons, continuing to fulfill his promise to help protect the Potter boy.
Nowhere is Severus' high regard for Dumbledore more evident than when he was hovering over Dumbledore right after doing all he could to heal him from the curse of Marvolo Gaunt's ring. In his exasperated, emotional outbursts it is plain that he truly cared about the welfare of the man he looked to as his guide and mentor. Even when Dumbledore asked Severus to agree to kill him when the moment should present itself in the coming year, Severus eventually, despite his misgivings, agreed to do so, motivated by Dumbledore's appeal "to help an old man avoid pain and humiliation."
It was not until the end of Harry's sixth year that Severus discovered the truth about the life he had pledged himself to lead, and about the man who elicited that promise from him. Under Severus' protests that Dumbledore still did not fully trust him--and to all appearances, that was probably a true charge--Dumbledore took Severus aside, in his office, and told him that Harry was the seventh Horcrux. The boy must die.
After a stunned, horrified series of responses, as if he could not really believe that he was hearing correctly, Severus finally confronted Dumbledore's duplicity head-on:
"You have used me."
"I have spied for you and lied for you, put myself in mortal danger for you. Everything was supposed to be to keep Lily Potter's son safe. Now you tell me you have been raising him like a pig for slaughter--"
The implications of his protest are many:
- I wasted my entire life protecting a boy who was doomed to die, anyway.
- I could have been free: free of Potter, free of you, free of this place.
- I thought I was devoting my life to protect the only child of a woman I loved.
- I put my life at risk, time and again, in the name of protecting that child, and now you tell me I did it all in vain.
- You could have told me the truth and given me a free, informed choice. Instead, you lied to me, manipulated me, took advantage of my trust in you and my honor to keep my word in order to use me for your own ends.
- All this time you have berated me for not liking the boy, when all along you have been callously planning and preparing for him to die--at the "right" moment.
- You don't care about either the boy or me. You just wanted to make sure I would put myself at your disposal, to do your bidding, without question or protest.
- I trusted you. You used us both. You bastard.
All of these implicit challenges Dumbledore neatly evaded answering, immediately shifting the focus back onto Severus and onto one of his points of greatest emotional vulnerability: "But this is touching, Severus. Have you grown to care for the boy, after all?" To which, predictably, Severus reacted with an emphatic gesture of denial--and thus the focus of the conversation shifted away from Severus' legitimate charge of abuse and back to how Severus, supposedly, "failed" as a person: caring, supposedly, only and always for Lily Evans Potter, after all those years.
Given the dynamics of emotional vulnerability and manipulative abuse between these two, not only here but throughout their entire relationship, I would suggest that we not take Severus' statement at face value. Yes, I do think he remained devoted, in some degree, to loving and honoring the memory of Lily, and continued to harbor anguish over her death; and no, I don't think he came to absolutely love and adore The Boy Who Lived as the greatest thing since sliced bread. But based upon his reactions in this scene, I do think that he had, by this time, developed the ability to regard Harry as a human being in his own right--an exceedingly annoying, burdensome, and overrated human being, perhaps, but a human being, all the same--and to be genuinely appalled that Dumbledore had been setting up Harry to walk to his death, all in the name of the Greater Good.
In sum, I don't believe that it was literally only love for Lily that motivated Severus to do what was good: I do believe that was the message he wanted to convey to Dumbledore, to deflect attention, in his turn, from one of his own vulnerable points. His shouted "Expecto Patronum!" was a defiant, impulsive act of self-defense in what, despite Dumbledore's outwardly mild manner, was very much a battle of conscience and will between the two men.
Conclusion: Bullying vs. the Categorical Imperative
In the end, Albus Dumbledore proved to be a bully. Expressions of external, overt, physical control are only one tool in the arsenal of a bully. The bully's most effective tool is internal control of the one being bullied: in effect, to condition the targeted person to bully himself or herself.
Bullies tell us we have no choice. Bullies tell us we have no control. Bullies disempower us by convincing us that we are powerless: over ourselves, over our lives, over our fates. Bullies succeed in manipulating us when they blind us to our power within, thereby preventing us from taking hold of and exercising that power.
Rather than empowering Severus to make better choices, choices for the good, Dumbledore used shaming and emotional manipulation to keep Severus in a continual sense of disempowerment, in order to ensure that Severus would continue to be a useful, compliant, trusting and controllable tool in Dumbledore's hands, for Dumbledore's purposes, for Dumbledore's ends.
Severus trusted Dumbledore. Dumbledore exploited that trust. However "good" the intended ends may have been, it still amounts to a fundamental violation of an ethical principle the philosopher Immanuel Kant articulated well: Always treat people as ends in themselves, never merely as means to our own ends.
Dumbledore, in the end, proved to be no better than the man he accused the young Severus Snape of being--a man who cared not who died as long as he got what he wanted--and far worse than the man of conscience that Severus Snape, in such a short lifetime, grew to become.