Should Harper Lee’s Lawyer Be Investigated?

Harper Lees LawyerUPDATE (3/15/15): Via Huffington Post, “On Thursday, the Alabama Securities Commission said it had closed its investigation into an unspecified complaint of elder abuse, first reported by The New York Times, tied to the publication of Lee’s second novel. ‘We made a determination that Ms. Lee, based on our interview with her, was aware that her book was going to be published,’ said Joseph Borg, who heads the commission. ‘She wanted it to be published. She made it quite clear she did.'” That’s good news!

UPDATE (3/12/15): The State of Alabama is investigating the allegations of elder abuse. My hope is that they’ll find that Harper Lee is doing well and has the mental capacity to consent to the publication of her second novel. According to the New York Times, one person familiar with the investigation has indicated that “Ms. Lee appeared capable of understanding questions and provided cogent answers to investigators.”

Does anyone talk to Harper Lee other than her lawyer, Tonja Carter?*

Not even her editor talks to her directly. As the LA Times reported:

Her editor, Hugh Van Dusen, told New York Magazine that even he doesn’t speak to Lee directly. “She’s getting progressively deafer and more blind, and that’s where things stand. I don’t hear from her…. I think we do all our dealing through her lawyer, Tonja. 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. That’s the only reason nobody’s in touch with her. I’m told it’s very difficult to talk to her.”

I’ve been disturbed by the extreme degree of Lee’s isolation ever since I saw HarperCollins’ press release about its acquisition of the American rights to Lee’s purported To Kill a Mockingbird “sequel,” Go Set a Watchman, a half-century old manuscript that Lee’s lawyer suddenly discovered.

In this press release, HarperCollins quotes Lee as saying, “I hadn’t realized it had survived, so was surprised and delighted when my dear friend and lawyer Tonja Carter discovered it.”

Considering that Carter seems to be Lee’s only contact with the outside world, I wonder if Lee really called her a “dear friend” or whether Carter just wrote that herself. It’s creepy, isn’t it?

I’ve already discussed my skepticism about the origin of this manuscript. It sounds more like an earlier draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, not a separate novel, but who knows. I wouldn’t be surprised if what HarperCollins ultimately publishes is a heavily ghost-written update to whatever Lee had originally written decades ago.

There’s an even bigger question about whether this novel, even if its origin is authentic, should be published at all. Lee had 50+ years to publish it herself, and now we’re supposed to believe that she’s suddenly had a change of heart? We’re also supposed to believe that this change of heart coincides with her declining health?

On this blog, I’ve often expressed my concern about Lee’s headline-grabbing interactions with the legal system because they are all based on allegations that someone has taken advantage of Lee’s health for their own personal gain.

Now the question is whether her own lawyer is also taking advantage of her.

Is Carter committing elder abuse, which is defined under Alabama law as “the maltreatment of an older person, age 60 or above”? It includes material exploitation: “The unauthorized use of funds or any resources of an elderly individual or the misuse of power of attorney or representative payee status for one’s own advantage or profit. Examples include stealing jewelry or other property and obtaining the elderly person’s signature for transfer of property or for a will through duress or coercion.”  Code of Ala. § 38-9D-2  (2014).

Is Carter’s representation of Lee a breach of her ethical duties as a lawyer under Alabama’s Rules of Professional Conduct (Rule 1.14)? This is a topic Max explored today over at Litigation & Trial.

I am reluctant to suggest that Alabama authorities and the bar association conduct investigations that may invade Ms. Lee’s privacy, but Lee’s lawyer and “dear friend” (cough, cough) can’t simply allay the public’s concerns by speaking to the media on her own to say how offended she is by the speculation. Apparently, Lee is also “hurt” by the claims that she’s been pressured into publishing this novel, but all of those statements also come from… you guessed it… Tonja Carter.

I certainly won’t be reading Go Set a Watchman until I know that buying a copy isn’t supporting the exploitation of one of my favorite authors. I’m not saying Harper Lee needs to give a television interview, but, under these suspicious circumstances, surely it cannot be that burdensome or unreasonable to allow a physician (with a HIPAA waiver & possibly a guardian for Lee?)  or someone whose job or relationship with Lee does not depend on the good graces of Carter — to see her and tell the world that she’s okay.


*This New York Times article (raised in the comments below by Jim) quotes a handful of people who have talked to Lee. It’s helpful to hear these perspectives, though there is no indication of whether any of these individuals are connected to Tonja Carter. Let’s hope Lee is truly doing well. There are many 88-year-olds who are. The concerns here are based on a few facts, including that (1) Lee has previously alleged in lawsuits against her former agent and her hometown museum that others have taken advantage of her declining health; (2) she is publishing a book contrary to her decades-old views on the matter; and (3) her lawyer, who is her primary connection to the world, strictly controls access to her.


  1. I am not sure what to believe really, but I’m watching with interest to see what is to come. I am concerned about Harper Lee’s situation and hope she is not being taken advantage of.

    1. It’s hard to know what to believe. It’s all speculation because the subject of the concern is hidden from view. Personally, I’d hate to see an investigation that invades Lee’s privacy, but it’s very odd when a lawyer is virtually the only contact a person has with the outside world (based on how it’s been described). Maybe Lee wants it that way, but who knows. All I do know is that there are a lot of people who will gain from this book deal, and I’m not inclined to take any of them at their word–not without more evidence.

      The problem for me isn’t that Lee is 88-years-old. There are many healthy people that age. The problem is that (1) she’s previously alleged exploitation based on her declining health; (2) her lawyer tightly controls access to her; and (3) publication of this novel is contrary to her decades-old stated views on the subject.

      Like you, I’m hoping she isn’t being exploited. Let’s hope the next article on Lee is more reassuring than all the others have been.

  2. I wonder, since she has said so often that she “wouldn’t publish another book in her lifetime,” if this is her attempt to have a little control over something that will essentially be part of her legacy rather than her life? (I mean, assuming she is in “declining health” as has been stated, at 88 years old, she is probably not going to live all that much longer)
    Most likely, this is a story with layers and details that we will never know.

    I am surprised you are not going to read it! Won’t the curiosity drive you crazy?

    I hope something comes to light that will settle this controversy, though I suspect that will not happen until well after the release. Nothing like a mild scandal to sell books, right?

    1. I’m very curious about this novel, but I still won’t read it. I don’t like feeling part of the (potential) exploitation by supporting it with my dollars. There’s definitely cause for concern here in light of Lee’s reclusive history, her exploitation-based legal claims in her previous lawsuits, and her lawyer’s tight control over access to her. I hope I’m wrong! That would make me happy.

  3. This investigative article In the New York Times contains enough quotes from sources other than the lawyer; including family, long-term friends, and caregivers; to convince me that your conspiracy theory is ill-founded. There is also a link to an AP article about the resolution of the lawsuit Harper Lee filed in 2013; in which the OPPOSING lawyer certainly seems to have no lack of respect for her sharpness. It seems that Ms Lee has enough supporters in her corner that she doesn’t need your help (or mine). I suggest we leave her alone and respect her right to privacy.

    1. I don’t find that article nearly as reassuring as you do. So a handful of people believe Ms. Carter’s representation is above board? I certainly hope they’re right, but I don’t find those sources–at least without further information–particularly credible. Are those individuals going to gain anything from this deal? Are those individuals connected to Lee’s lawyer? Has anyone at HarperCollins actually spoken to Ms. Lee? That publisher has a lot to gain by turning a blind eye to the situation.

      I don’t have any idea of what’s going on here, but I think enough has been alleged to warrant the speculation.

      1. The problem I have with blogs in general is that they are invariably written by people without the resources to do investigative journalism, so they wind up being mostly speculation with no evidence. I used the New York Times article as a resource, because they DID investigate, and there was NO hint of any wrongdoing, and they countered every speculation aired with interviews and quotes from family, long-term friends, and even caregivers. To speculate that they missed the conspiracy indicates that it has to run wide and deep. If it existed, the Times would profit enormously by breaking the story. Richard Nixon couldn’t keep Watergate a secret, and look what breaking that story did for Woodward, Bernstein, and the Washington Post. As the saying goes, “If one person knows something, it’s a secret. If two people know, MAYBE it’s a secret. If more than two people know, it’s no longer a secret.”

        1. Watergate is a funny example, more than a dozen people knew of that and it still was kept quiet for months. It only came out because of “conspiracy theories” in the media and in other sources.

          It’s funny you read the NYTimes article as somehow vindicating Ms. Carter. I read it as damning. Numerous sources indicate that Ms. Carter has cut Lee off from public contact. Other sources with long ties to Lee say they had no clue of the book, and that Lee was adamant for decades that nothing else would be published in her lifetime. In contrast, the article cites a single source for the claim that Lee is still in good mental health, an employee at the nursing home, and thus someone who is paid by way of Ms. Carter, who apparently manages Lee’s finances.

          Kind of funny that even the NYTimes, which has those “resources,” was unable to even get a glimpse at Ms. Lee, don’t you think?

          1. OK, if you wish to remain adamant that Ms. Lee is a vulnerable adult that is being manipulated and taken advantage of, and it is of that much importance to you; then present your evidence in court and get a court appointed guardian for her. Actions trump speculation every time.

            1. Hey Jim, thanks for adding your perspective to this discussion.

              Just a few thoughts: It’s speculation because the subject of the concern is almost entirely hidden from view by her lawyer. I certainly don’t know if anything exploitative is happening here–I hope there isn’t—but there are reasons to wonder (from Lee’s incompetence-based allegations in previous lawsuits to her lawyer’s tight control of access to her). My hope is that Carter will show enough to allay concerns without making an invasive investigation necessary. It helps that there are a handful of people who have said they’ve spoken to Lee (thanks for the link to the NY Times article). My worry is that they’re connected to Carter too or don’t have the expertise to make an assessment about competence. Hopefully, I’m wrong!

              1. And thank you for your very thoughtful replies. I lost my mom last September at 86, so I can understand the concern for someone that vulnerable (and I have no doubt that Ms. Lee is vulnerable. But from everything I’m reading, it appears that Carter is doing a very good job. Remember that Harper Lee has been reclusive for fifty years, and Carter denying access could simply be an extension of those wishes. I found yet another article, this one from NY Daily News:
                If there is reasonable concern, then those concerned really do need to step up and get a guardian appointed by the court, that has no vested interest in the situation.
                Action trumps speculation every time.

                1. Hey Jim, it’ll be interesting see what others who have been close to Lee say in the coming weeks, but I wonder whether this controversy will ever disappear. Thanks for the NY Daily News link, and thanks again for your comments. I’m sorry to hear about the loss of your mother last fall. I can understand how that experience would make you especially aware of the types of issues we’ve been discussing.

                  1. Thanks for your thoughts. In our case, mom “did it right”. Years ago, she filed the paperwork to give the elder of my two sisters both durable power of attorney and medical power of attorney, appointed one of my four brothers to be her executor, and created a living will. I know in my sister’s case, she is still troubled by “rethinking” the EOL decisions she made for mom, whereas my take is that Susan’s decisions WERE mom’s decisions, because mom declared that they would be, when she was no longer able to make them.
                    Let’s hope that such is the case with Ms. Lee. Carter is a long-time Lee family friend. She was a law partner to Alice Lee, and became Harper Lee’s attorney when Alice retired from practice. Carter aggressively prosecuted both the copyright lawsuit, and the trademark lawsuit. She also negotiated a publication deal for the new book that guarantees it will remain intact. I guess I’m ready to give her the benefit of the doubt.

  4. Ugh, this whole situation just gets creepier the more we learn about it. I know Harper Lee has always been a very private woman, but it seems so suspicious that all of her communications are coming through her lawyer.

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