Is Harper Lee Showing Signs Of Elder Abuse?

The 1960 novel, To Kill A Mockingbird, reaffirmed the values of equality and unity, while "raising consciousness," as it was phrased at that time, of racism in America. The zeitgeist novel quickly achieved international success, and though its author, Harper Lee, received much praise and many a prize — she won the Pulitzer in 1961 — she repeatedly vowed never to publish a novel again.

Flash forward half a century and then some. Today, Lee is 88 years old and living in the Meadows, an assisted living facility in her hometown of Monroeville, Ala. Weeks after the death of her sister and steadfast caretaker Alice Finch Lee, it was announced that the aged author would be publishing a new book, a 340-page novel at that, Go Set a Watchman. While her fans welcomed the news, others experienced wriggling doubts.

Could Lee, described often as a strong-minded, salty woman, have become a victim of elder abuse in her frail old age? Does she know her own mind or is she being manipulated by her lawyer and publisher? Whispers soon became bald questions, and now the state of Alabama, The New York Times reports, has intervened, responding to at least one complaint that Lee is no longer lucid at all moments and her mental condition has generally weakened. Last month, the newspaper of record notes, state investigators interviewed Lee at her nursing home before speaking with employees and several friends and acquaintances to determine the truth.

Go Set a Watchman, slated for publication this July, is a prequel to Mockingbird. As her publisher, HarperCollins, weaves the tale, the novel was written in the mid-1950s, several years before Lee’s best-seller. Rejected by publishers, Lee set the book aside and began work on a new novel suggested by her editor: a different story though from the perspective of Scout Finch, a compelling lead character. Somehow the rejected manuscript was misplaced, soon lost. Rediscovered in “a secure location where it had been affixed to an original typescript of To Kill a Mockingbird,” the book will be published as written, with no revisions, a press release from HarperCollins explained.

Though many of Lee’s readers gratefully consumed this pretty story, another narrative about three Southern women festers beneath it. Carter, Lee's young attorney, graduated from the University of Alabama School of Law in 2006 and immediately began doing probate and criminal law work at Barnett, Bugg, Lee & Carter, the firm where Alice Lee had practiced since 1944. In the HarperCollins press release, Lee is quoted as saying she was “surprised and delighted when my dear friend and lawyer Tonja Carter discovered it.”

Yet, AL.com soon questioned this lace-and-tea-cozies interpretation of events. The online publication notes that attorney Carter and her husband opened the Prop & Gavel restaurant in 2013, yet closed it shortly thereafter. AL.com also interviewed Monroeville citizens, quoting Janet Sawyer, owner of the Courthouse Café: “Tonja Carter doesn't allow her to see her friends anymore. She's isolated her from the world in order to manipulate her.”

Tavis Smiley Tavis Smiley stands beside a poster of the movie, 'To Kill A Mockingbird' Reuters

Prior to these allegations, Hugh Van Dusen, Lee’s editor at HarperCollins, told New York Magazine that Carter is the go-between for HarperCollins and Lee: “It’s easier for the lawyer to go see her in the nursing home and say HarperCollins would like to do this and do that and get her permission,” he said. “That’s the only reason nobody’s in touch with her. I’m told it’s very difficult to talk to her.” While court documents verify she has trouble hearing and seeing, Van Dusen also noted in the same interview that Lee had a stroke eight years ago.

Others, including Historian Wayne Flynt, stoutly dismiss theories that Lee is senile. Flynt told TuscaloosaNews.com that he visited with Lee on the day before the announcement of Watchman. She still discusses books and cracks jokes, he said, though now she requires a magnifying machine to read. However, the fact that this new novel, supposedly discovered in the fall, only came to light weeks after the death of Lee’s sister remains a questionable detail when millions of dollars almost certainly will be made.

Sisters

Alice Finch Lee, who practiced law for seven decades, died of natural causes on Nov. 17, 2014 at age 103. She began her career in the early 1940s, an era when teaching and nursing were pretty much the only professions welcoming intelligent women, and she retired only after she had reached the age of 100. Throughout her life, this principled and strong woman shielded her ‘baby sister,’ who stopped giving interviews in 1964, from a curious and often difficult public.

“Harper Lee made famous the world over the life of a principled small-town attorney in Alabama, and Alice lived it,” Marja Mills, who wrote a memoir about living next door to the Lee sisters, told the LA Times. Mills further explained how Lee often called her sister "Atticus in a skirt." (Atticus Finch, the moral lawyer and lead character in her best-selling novel, was based on their father.) "That says a lot about Alice — and Nelle's affection and respect for her," Mills told the newspaper.

Though generally she refused to make public statements about her sister, this well-respected lawyer did explain once why the author of Mockingbird never wrote another novel. As quoted in LA Times, she asked, "When you have hit the pinnacle, how would you feel about writing more? Would you feel like you're competing with yourself?" Clearly, she protected her sister wholeheartedly; will the same ever be said of Lee's new lawyer?

Meanwhile, an eager public awaits Watchman, wondering whether they will be reading another literary classic or the justifiably rejected first novel of a famous writer. While it may be titillating to imagine Lee a victim of elder abuse, might it be more abusive — at the very least, extremely insulting — to treat an elderly woman as if she doesn’t know her own mind... as if she lacks the ability to change her mind? Sadly, unlike her novels, there can never be an ending to this story, since the lead character is a woman whose old age prevents others, including those who claim to love her, from believing her version of events.

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