The Mockingbird Next Door, Marja Mills’ memoir about the “great friendship” she developed with To Kill a Mockingbird’s Harper Lee and her sister, hit bookshelves amid controversy. Lee has released a statement saying that “any book purporting to be with my cooperation is a falsehood.” She even suggests that Mills’ “true mission” in befriending her family was to write this book, a realization that she says left her feeling “hurt, angry, and saddened, but not surprised.”
It’s heartbreaking (no matter how you look at it).
Harper Lee, who published her only novel in 1960, has shied away from the public spotlight for decades. It’s hard to believe that someone with such a reputation for reclusion* would open her door to a journalist like Marja Mills, particularly when, as The Mockingbird Next Door’s advertising materials state, Lee turned away other journalists who have “trekked to [Lee’s] hometown of Monroeville, Alabama.”
For such a reclusive person, though, Lee has been in the headlines quite often lately.
As I discussed in When Our Literary Heroes Become Victims, Lee sued her former agent last year for allegedly breaching his fiduciary duties and manipulating her into signing away the copyright to her classic novel. The case settled a few months later.
She was also in the news for filing a trademark application for the four words in the title of her book. Last fall, with the application still pending, she filed a lawsuit against her hometown museum, a museum dedicated to the area she immortalized in her work, because they were selling clothing and merchandise bearing the words she made famous.
Now we have this public statement about an unauthorized book about her life (and an earlier statement from 2011, when Penguin acquired the Mills’ book). Lee’s version of events suggests that Mills is nothing more than a journalist trying to find fame (and royalties) by exploiting a beloved, elderly literary hero and her centenarian sister. In some ways, Lee’s story is similar to what she said about her former agent and about what she said about her hometown museum, situations that became the basis for litigation.**
In this situation, though, based on what I know from the media reports, I don’t believe Lee has any viable legal claims against Mills and her publisher, Penguin. Lee can’t stop Mills from writing truthfully about her own experiences, about what she saw and heard in her time around Lee and her sister. Even if the book portrays Lee in an unfairly negative light — which I doubt is the case — Lee would still have considerable difficulty prevailing in a defamation suit. Generally speaking, defamation law protects private individuals from untrue accusations more than it protects public individuals, who, like Lee, have a big enough “microphone” to fight defamation in the court of public opinion.
That ‘court of public opinion’ is what Lee is using now to counter what she believes is essentially an unauthorized biography — only the effect of her public statements, which have been picked up by virtually every major news outlet, might actually increase the sales of Mills’ book. Controversy sells, unless it results in the loss of a publishing contract (Remember Paula Deen?). Mills’ publisher released a statement supporting the book, saying, “Mills’ memoir is a labor of love, and Marja Mills has done an extraordinary job. We look forward to sharing her story of the wise and wonderful Lee sisters with readers.”
I had considered reading The Mockingbird Next Door, wanting insight into the author behind one of my favorite novels.*** Not only do I have multiple “soft page” editions of To Kill a Mockingbird, but I also have the recently released “cold metal” e-book version (why did it take so long?).
But, in light of the controversy, I’ll probably never read Mills’ book. Whatever the truth is about how she obtained access to Ms. Lee, even the possibility that Mills exploited Lee and her sister renders The Mockingbird Next Door unpalatable.
*Really, “reclusivity” should be a word.
**I was actually sympathetic to the hometown Museum because (1) as a legal matter, I think Lee shouldn’t be able to trademark the four words in the title or the use of the title with regard to clothing (the museum initially opposed Lee’s trademark application, but ultimately they withdrew their opposition while settling the lawsuit); and (2) the museum’s public mission is to preserve the area’s history, to which To Kill a Mockingbird is inextricably linked. That’s quite different from Mills’ purported agenda, if Lee’s allegations are true, resulting in a product that is significantly more personal than the museum’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” memorabilia.
***For my thoughts on the novel (rather than on Lee’s recent legal battles), see (1) Revisiting the “Soft Pages” of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, (2) Our Morbid Curiosity: Watching “Poor Devils” (Or Maybe Just “Devils”) on Trial, (3) We Were All Children Once (Even Lawyers).