The Mockingbird Next Door: A Parasitic Memoir?

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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).

49 thoughts on “The Mockingbird Next Door: A Parasitic Memoir?

  1. Mary Davidson

    I am reading Mills’ book now, and I find it to be thoughtful, respectful, and complimentary to both of the Lee sisters. The Lees knew from the moment they met Mills that she was a reporter, yet they invited her into their home. Miss Mills published an article about them in the Chicago Tribune in 2002, with the Lees’ knowledge. They introduced her to their inner circle and included her in many of their experiences. I think that Mills did “exploit” her friendship with the Lees in a way, but thank goodness she did! Because of her book the two Lee sisters are going to be remembered in a lovely, quirky, human way. I think Marja Mills performed a great service for them, and on some level they realized it and appreciated it. Her book has the ring of truth. Come on, AMB, break down and read it! It is well written and fascinating.

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  4. It sounds like reading a person’s diary without permission or without exceptional circumstances.

    I find the trademark application, I was under the impression that it was a phrase or did she invent it for the novel and then it became famous?

  5. I doubt if lee raises all these tantrums herself. Someone close to her who wants to make a fortune off this classic is frantically weighing and every option!

  6. May those who prey on the elderly and vunarable die alone of the piles. So to the idiot at my work who thought the movie version funny. This book saved my teen-age years..yes getting old sucks.

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  9. I’m reading ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ at the moment and am thoroughly enjoying it. I’m surprised to hear that Lee disapproved of the museum selling merchandise. Surely their use of her words would only bring people back to reading her book. Isn’t that a good thing?

    1. I’m glad to hear that you’re enjoying To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s one of my favorite novels. As for Lee’s lawsuit against the museum, the lawsuit and her trademark application were particularly surprising because Lee had visited the museum in the past and had never said a word about the merchandise. I agree with you that the Museum’s merchandise–and their overall commitment to her work–could only cement her legacy. Thanks for the comment!

  10. It’s a sad but all too common thing today: little people trying to may hay ($) by capitalizing, exaggerating, embellishing any remote association or observation they may or may not have had with a big name author. (:

  11. Reblogged this on DailyHistory.org and commented:
    A.M.B. at The Misfortune of Knowing has a post on the new memoir, The Mocking Bird Next Door, written by a journalist Marja Mills. Mills’ memoir is about her relationship with Harper Lee and Lee’s sister. Harper Lee has reacted angrily to the publication of the memoir and has released a statement saying that this book was not authorized by her. A.M.B. explores Lee’s litigious past and whether Lee has any viable legal claims against Mills.

  12. Remember Salinger’s similar legal battles? Perhaps it isn’t the recluses or their age; perhaps it is the combination of outsider’s curiosity after years of any famous person’s seclusion and the ever present parasites who will write any sensation garbage to ride the coattails of any meal ticket they can find.

    1. “The ever present parasites who will write any sensation garbage to ride the coattails of any meal ticket they can find.” That certainly could be the case here. Everyone is interesting in their own way, but memoirs should be reserved for people who have done something exceptional. In this case, the only thing that sets Mills apart from everyone else is that she got access to someone the public really wants to know about.

      1. Indeed, those who have done something exceptional, or at the very least have a way of touching others though exceptional writing about the mundane. But, in the current cultural clime of reality tv and twenty four hour mindless voyeurism, as a society we have built a stage for people like Mills rather than building a platform for people of accomplishment and insight.

    1. Yeah, Lee has been all over the news. Honestly, when you want to maintain your privacy, the very best way to do it is to stay silent. Releasing public statements about Mills’ book only draws more attention to it. At the same time, though, the situation is just sad. She’s tried to stay out of the public spotlight until very recently, and it makes me wonder why that’s changed.

    1. It’s a sad situation. In some ways, it’s hard to believe that Harper Lee would be so bothered by what is most likely a positive portrayal. At the same time, though, she’s tried to maintain her privacy for half a century (the lawsuits are very recent). I wish the facts about what happened between Mills and Lee were clearer.

    1. It’s hard to see why someone would stress so much about what is probably a positive portrayal, but Lee has a history of being a private person. Normally, I’m not sympathetic to public figures who want their privacy when they’ve put themselves into the public spotlight. However, Lee became famous 50+ years ago, and has spent most of that time trying to live a private life. I tend to be of the mindset that authors should either allow or ignore this kind of publicity–it helps cement their legacies–but Lee doesn’t seem to care about that. She just wants to be left alone, and it seems like Mills’ book has caused her a lot of distress.

  13. If I may replay, this is not an “authorized biography” of Harper Lee – it is Marja Mills’ memoir – her account of a friendship, and Ms. Mills has produced written documentation that both Alice Lee and her sister Nelle Harper Lee supported and cooperated with the writing of this book as late as 2011. If you read the book, you will find wonderful stories about two extraordinary women later in life who befriended and enjoy Ms. Mills’ company. I agree with Theo above….someone really needs to wonder.

    Liz Calamari

    1. Hi Liz, thanks for leaving a comment. I appreciate hearing from Mills’ publicist.

      I don’t presume to know the truth about the nature of Mills’ dealings with Lee and her family, but Lee’s opposition to the memoir raises a lot of questions. I understand that Mills has produced written documentation that Alice Lee approved of Mills’ project, but that isn’t necessarily the equivalent of Harper Lee’s consent, and I haven’t seen the evidence that suggests that Harper Lee directly consented to it.

      I also understand that Mills doesn’t need Harper Lee’s consent to go forward with this memoir, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise that many of Harper Lee’s fans find the project distasteful without Lee’s support. Whatever the truth is, at a minimum, it seems like Mills caused emotional distress to an elderly woman whose work has touched the lives of many of us. Yes, we want to know more about the person behind To Kill a Mockingbird, but not at her expense.

  14. SF

    What a sad story, any way you look at it. I don’t know what to think about whether the Lees were exploited. Either they were and that’s terrible, or they weren’t, and the fact that they’re saying so says something sad about their situation. Who knows.

  15. I adore To Kill a Mockingbird just like many other readers do. I find this so frustrating because I would love to learn more about Harper Lee but it seems like Mills’ methods may have been less than honest.

    I wonder how much of this would be an issue if Lee would find a happy medium – perhaps give an occasional interview or cooperate with one writer for an authorized biography. Would she still have so many people trying to get her story without her permission then??

    1. I wish Ms. Lee would grant a few interviews every now and then! She wrote a lovely letter to Oprah in 2006 (featured on Letters of Note), but I don’t think she’s shared that much else with the public since To Kill a Mockingbird. She put herself in the public spotlight, but it was 50+ years ago, and the public can’t “own” her. She deserves to be able to limit our access, but we can’t help our curiosity!

      I wonder about Mills’ methods. She’s a reporter, and sometimes reporters do things the rest of us wouldn’t. I keep thinking about a very troubling chapter I read in Doreen Carvajal’s memoir, The Forgetting River, where she went to great lengths to track down a survivor of priest sexual abuse. I couldn’t believe she would do something like that and include it in a memoir as though her methods weren’t controversial! It’s an important issue, one that we need to discuss, but I just felt so bad for that survivor. (I talked about it here: https://misfortuneofknowing.wordpress.com/2012/11/25/uncovering-our-roots-why-does-family-history-matter/).

  16. I completely understand your reluctance to read the memoir. I feel the same way. Just the suggestion that it could be exploitation makes my blood boil. I hate to see people taken advantage of, but I also know that there’s nothing really Lee can do at this point about the book.

    I am still wondering if there wasn’t someone influencing or directing Ms. Lee in regard to those lawsuits. So much time had passed before she took action.

    1. Yeah, Ms. Lee’s health has suffered in recent years, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there are people who will take advantage of her because of her vulnerability. I don’t know if that’s the case with Ms. Mills, but I just can’t bring myself to read the memoir. Mills has a right to write it (as long as it’s a truthful account and doesn’t violate copyright, etc), but why couldn’t she have waited until Lee was no longer with us? We don’t know when that will be, but it’s terrible to think that Mills has caused Lee so much pain.

      As for whether someone is manipulating Ms. Lee, I’ve also been wondering about that. If we are to believe everything she alleged against her agent about the state of her health, it’s hard to believe that she has the capacity to make all of her decisions entirely on her own. That’s just my impression from reading the filings (she claims in the complaint against Pinkus that her stroke didn’t affect her mental capabilities, but how the situation could have snowballed like that makes me wonder.).

  17. Hm, I’m starting to wonder about Ms Lee and whether or not she suffers from paranoia. She is getting on in years, and strange things happen to old minds sometimes. Also, for all this to be happening now, after decades when she remained silent, I also wonder if someone isn’t whispering in her ear….

    1. Yeah, I’ve been wondering about Harper Lee’s health too. She suffered a stroke in 2007, and the description of her health in her legal filings has been really sad to read. It’s possible that she’s paranoid or has memory issues that lead her to believe she’s being exploited when she isn’t, but it’s also true that people with the kinds of age-related health conditions that she has are more likely to be exploited. I don’t know what the truth is, though I think it’s strange that she would knowingly allow a reporter into her life. That’s a little different from tacitly approving her hometown museum’s homage to her work before she decided to sue them for it. I say “decided,” but I don’t know if that’s really the case either. If we are to believe what she alleged against her former agent (even though she claims her stroke didn’t affect her mental capabilities), it’s also hard to believe that she has the capacity to make these decisions entirely on her own. I don’t know.

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