HPfGU #52629

Veritaserum and Truth Potions

RE: Veritaserum and Truth Potions

Some Veritaserum thoughts.


Amy asked:

What really interests me about veritaserum is if a wizard could convincingly lie under it's effects. I am thinking inparticular of Severus Snape here. Could a wizard, under the effects of the potion, avoid telling the truth, tell a round-about story or just not answer the question entirly. Does it depend on the does and it's strength?

It's hard for me to imagine why, if there were no possibility of veritaserum resistance, Dumbledore would have specified that Snape fetch his strongest veritaserum.

My interpretation was the same as Star Opal's: that some people, whether due to an unusually strong will or to some innate talent, can occasionally muster up a bit of resistance to the stuff, if only enough to enable them to choose their words carefully enough to lie by omission or circumlocution.

Given that Crouch Jr's performance throughout GoF shows him to have been exceptionally skilled at precisely this sort of use of the language—he was a master at the fine art of lying with the perfect truth—it was probably for the best that Dumbledore called for Snape's strongest serum.

But why wouldn't one always use the strongest available veritaserum?

Kivrin (Welcome!) asked:

In the end, I still wonder about the significance of different levels of Truth Potions. Dumbledore obviously orders Snape to fetch the "strongest Truth Potion," (which evidences that there are less strong potions) but I cannot imagine what a lesser strength potion would alter about a situation. Obviously, if the potion will allow the individual to evade the truth then it fails at being a Truth Potion. Moreover, if full ability to find the truth is found only with Veritaserum, then what is the point of the existence of lesser potions?

It seems possible to me that the point of potions of lesser potency might be that they run less risk of permanent damage to the imbiber.

Crouch Jr's interrogation does not really last very long at all yet by the end of it, he seems to be drifting off into a near-catatonic state. Of course, it's so hard to tell what the cause here is. On some level, Crouch Jr. must have known that he was doomed, and he was none too stable to begin with; the cause of his apparent descent into utter dissociation at the end there could have been situational. Or, it could have been helped along by Snape's strongest veritaserum.

Dumbledore clearly did expect Crouch Jr. to be coherent enough later on to be able to give formal testimony: he says as much to Fudge. It does seem possible to me, though, that really strong veritaserum might not be something one would want to use on, say, a witness, as opposed to a convict, or on a defendent one was not already certain was guilty as sin and facing a life sentence in prison anyway. It could be that, much like being hit with an overly enthusiastic memory charm, imbibing overly potent veritaserum has permanent and detrimental effects on ones mental facilities.


How much awareness does the subject have?

Kivrin wrote:

One of the things that struck me most about the use of veritaserum in GoF was the description of Crouch Jr. as Dumbledore interrogated him.
Crouch's son opened his eyes. His face was slack, his gaze unfocused. Dumbledore knelt before him, so that their faces were level…[t]he man's eyelids flickered…Crouch took a deep, shuddering breath, then began to speak in a flat, expressionless voice

(US hardback, pg 683-684).

This diction suggests wholly that Crouch Jr. is not under his own control, he is speaking because the serum is extracting the information, much as a computer search will yield data. It is emotionless, "flat, expressionless" -- there is no "person" behind what is being said.

I too interpreted his diction, his lack of affect, and his shuddering breaths all as evidence that he was not under his own control.

I also, however, interpreted some of this as evidence that he did have ome awareness of what he was saying. I find it significant, for example, that Crouch's breathing is specified as "shuddering" only at the beginning of his interrogation. Similarly, his eyelids flicker in response to Dumbledore's early questions, but then stop doing so later on -- or at least the narrative stops mentioning them. All of these seeming symptoms of compulsion are mentioned only at the beginning of the scene.

My interpretation was that both the shuddering breathing and the flickering eyelids were symptomatic of Crouch attempting (and failing) to resist the overwhelming compulsion of the veritaserum. Eventually, it would seem, he just gave up and...well, you know. Just lay back and tried to enjoy it. ;-)

As for the extent to which there is a "person" in there guiding the veritaserum-compelled narrative, I myself believe that there is, although I also believe it to be severely constrained, and certainly incapable of overcoming the compulsion of the potion to the extent of either refusing to answer or speaking anything but the (at times subjective) truth. I do not see Crouch's testimony as at all a computer-like "just the facts, ma'am" account. Rather, I see it as quite subjective and digressive.

In the past, I've cited Crouch's diction and word choices in "Veritaserum" as evidence both of his rationalizations about the role his father played in saving him from Azkaban (message #47932) and of the lack of pleasure he took in committing parricide on Voldemort's orders (message #47962).

This is part of an "Crouch Jr, Unwilling Parricide" argument From message #47962. I cite it here because it shows some of the ways in which I see agency—or, at least, personality—underlying even the affect-flattening compulsion of the veritaserum in the confessional.


[excerpt begins]

While Crouch Jr's testimony in the 'Veritaserum' chapter is indeed largely a matter of plot exposition, I think that we can deduce quite a bit from it about his character and motives as well. For one thing, it is clear from his testimony that he is, in fact, capable of quite a bit of digression. He is also capable of emotional, subjective, and non-factual testimony.

This is how Crouch Jr describes his experience at the QWC.

The "question" which he is answering in this passage is: "Tell me about the Quidditch World Cup."

'Then we heard them. We heard the Death Eaters. The ones who had never been to Azkaban. The ones who had never suffered for my master. They had turned their backs on him. They were not enslaved, as I was. They were free to seek him, but they did not. They were merely making sport of Muggles. The sound of their voices awoke me. My mind was clearer than it had been in years. I was angry. I had the wand.'

Okay. His affect is certainly deadened, although I've never been altogether clear on whether that's really completely due to the Veritaserum, or whether it's also due to the fact that he's finally slipped his very last mooring. I rather suspect that it's a bit of both. Whatever the cause, though, it doesn't prevent him either from volunteering information or from showing insight. Dumbledore did not ask him to explain his motives for behaving as he did at the QWC. He did not ask him about the wand. He did not ask him about breaking free of the Imperius Curse. Crouch Jr. is volunteering all of that information, based on his own interpretion of what about the QWC is important, relevant, or of interest. And given the emotional nature of the above passage, I think that it is also clear that to a certain extent, he is choosing to focus on what about this event was of importance to him.

This is really not factual testimony. It's not a 'just the facts, ma'am' account. It is subjective, emotional, and personal.

Nor is Crouch Jr. completely deadened in affect, although he is extremely dissociated. He's not exactly a zombie. He is capable of emotional responses, albeit of a rather disturbing sort.

'My father answered the door.'

The smile spread wider over Crouch's face, as though recalling the sweetest memory of his life. Winky's petrified brown eyes were visible through her fingers. She seemed too appalled to speak.

'It was very quick. My father was placed under the Imperius Curse by my master. Now my father was the one imprisoned, controlled.'

That's what Veritaserum'd!Barty looks like when he's enjoying the memory of a bit of payback on dear old Dad, yes? He's not so far gone that he can't display emotion, albeit of a rather mad sort, at the memory of vengeance. And he doesn't lack insight so utterly as to be incapable of explaining the extent to which his pleasure at this memory derives from Turnabout-Is-Fair-Playdom either. He may have bats in his belfry, but he is perfectly emotionally comprehensible. He can explain his motives, and he seems often to be interested in doing so, even when it is not technically required of him. He does so at times quite eloquently, in fact: "It was my dream, my greatest ambition, to serve him, to prove myself to him."

But this is all that he has to say about his act of parricide:

'My master sent me word of my father's escape. He told me to stop him at all costs. So I waited and watched. I used the map...'

[There then follows some discussion of the Map, and then:]

'For a week I waited for my father to arrive at Hogwarts. At last, one evening, the map showed my father entering the grounds. I pulled on my Invisibility Cloak and went down to meet him. He was walking around the edge of the forest. Then Potter came, and Krum. I waited. I could not hurt Potter; my master needed him. Potter ran to get Dumbledore. I Stunned Krum. I killed my father.'

And that's it. There's no editorial commentary there. No mad grin. No gloating. No description of his feelings about this turn of events. Nothing. It's a very stark series of statements of fact, and it is nothing at all like the way he speaks of recovering his own volition after a decade under the Imperius, or of firing the Dark Mark into the sky at the QWC, or of watching Voldemort overpower his father.

Dumbledore then gives him an opening to elaborate on the parricide if he so chooses. "You killed your father?"

Crouch Jr. says absolutely nothing in response to this, although he does answer the next question about what he did with the body: "Carried it into the forest. Covered it with the Invisibility Cloak." We're back to choppy sentences and 'just the facts' here, although Crouch is in fact not incapable of a far more eloquent mode of diction. He will prove this with the very last line of his confession: "My master's plan worked. He is returned to power and I will be honored by him beyond the dreams of wizards." Even at the very end, his diction is not so degraded that he cannot manage that sentence. But when asked about the disposal of his father's body, incomplete and choppy sentences are all he has to offer.

Crouch Jr. does not speak of murdering his father in at all the same way that he speaks of either his acts of anger or of payback events that he actually took pleasure in. He shows no signs of enjoyment at the memory, nor any inclination to elaborate upon the event any further than he absolutely must do to satisfy his interrogator. While he may imply to Harry that he considered it an act of homage to Voldemort, when he is actually under the Veritaserum and therefore compelled to speak the truth, the only motive that he offers is that he was under direct orders to see it done "at all costs." He is not even willing to confess to it a second time: he does not assent when Dumbledore asks for confirmation that he killed his father. His diction degenerates into choppy broken sentences when he is forced to discuss it. Compare his diction here with his diction when he speaks of topics on which he does seem proud of his actions and eager to communicate his motives: his devotion to Voldemort, his fury with the disloyal DES at the QWC. Compare his affect here with his affect when he speaks of Voldemort's arrival at his father's home.

All of this leads me to conclude that Crouch really didn't enjoy killing his father at all. He was clearly willing to do it. But I don't think that he was at all happy about it.

[excerpt ends]


While I do view the "Veritaserum" chapter as primarily plot exposition for the reader's benefit, I also believe that JKR uses Crouch's confessional to establish quite a bit about his character and motivations -- really, just about everything we know about him comes from this one chapter-long monologue. It is my opinion that that much of this material serves to bolster GoF's thematic emphasis on the developmental issues of adolescence.

—Elkins (who suspects that we'll find out precisely what speaking through Veritaserum feels like first-hand in future canon, as she thinks that Harry is more than likely to get fed it sooner or later in the series)

Posted February 20, 2003 at 6:49 pm
Topics: ,
Plain text version

Leave a comment

You can sign in with your Livejournal or Vox account, or with any other form of Open ID. (Need Open ID?)