Would Your Goodreads Profile Get You Out of Jury Duty? Should It?

To Kill A Mockingbird_Misfortune of Knowing Blog

As I continue to grapple with To Kill a Mockingbird’s legacy — including whether it’s time for schools to replace it in the curriculum now that Harper Lee’s estate has made it less affordable — I’ve been thinking about what it provides to its readers that other books might not. One lesson I hope readers glean from its pages is that jury duty is vital to our democracy, giving citizens the ability to uphold our nation’s laws and affect the lives of the people who come before the court.

In Mockingbird, Atticus Finch highlights the importance of the jury in the closing argument to his defense of Tom Robinson, an African American man accused of raping a white woman in Lee’s fictionalized 1930s Alabama. He says,

I’m no idealist to believe firmly in the integrity of our courts and in the jury system — that is no ideal to me, it is a living, working reality. Gentlemen, a court is no better than each man of you sitting before me on this jury. A court is only as sound as its jury, and a jury is only as sound as the men who make it up. I am confident that you gentlemen will review without passion the evidence you have heard, come to a decision, and restore this defendant to his family. In the name of God, do your duty.

Still, far too many people do everything they can to avoid this duty. Some of those people might even count To Kill a Mockingbird among their favorite books.

Why do people want to avoid jury duty? I’ve been called for jury duty twice and empaneled once (lest there are lawyers out there who think their JD gets them out of their civic duty). It was a fascinating and worthwhile experience. However, I can’t deny that serving on the jury was time-consuming and inconvenient.

Another negative is that jury duty might also be an invasion of a potential juror’s privacy because of what lawyers have to do in order to ensure that their clients receive a fair trial.

Mockingbird’s Tom Robinson did not get a fair trial. His life was in the hands of “twelve reasonable men,” according to Atticus, but “something [came]  between them and reason.” That “something” was racism.

Today, while racism is less apparent then it was in the time period To Kill a Mockingbird depicts, bias still exists, and lawyers have an obligation to root it out. They do this through an investigative process called voir dire, when lawyers and/or the judge question prospective jurors about their backgrounds and beliefs.

Voir dire provides lawyers with the information they need to strike prospective jurors for cause (for example, because the potential juror knows one of the parties personally and thus is unable to render an impartial decision) or by the use of peremptory challenges (because the lawyer has a feeling they’d rather not have that person on the jury).

At times, the questions in voir dire are invasive, such as: Have you or someone close to you suffered the loss of a child? Or, have you or someone close to you been the victim of child sexual abuse? The answers might be relevant to a lawyer if they are, for example, representing someone accused of abuse or murder of a child, but a prospective juror might not feel comfortable providing these answers to complete strangers.

To limit the invasion of privacy, some courts have implemented a number of strategies, including (1) “anonymous juries,” when jurors receive a fictitious name or a number that judges and lawyers use to refer to the person throughout the jury selection process, and (2) questioning each prospective juror individually.

The extent to which lawyers may pry into a prospective juror’s personal history became an issue in Oracle America v. Google, a copyright lawsuit over Android. There, the lawyers for the two parties wanted extended time so they could mine the Internet for information about prospective jurors.

Lawyers’ use of the Internet to research prospective jurors isn’t new.* However, there isn’t much concrete guidance out there about how attorneys should do it. Ideally, they would do it in a way that balances their client’s right to a fair trial with the prospective juror’s right to privacy.

Two weeks ago, the trial judge in Oracle America v. Google issued an order in which he referenced To Kill a Mockingbird to illustrate one of the dangers of permitting lawyers to google prospective jurors (namely, that the research “will facilitate improper personal appeals to particular jurors”):

For example, if a search found that a juror’s favorite book is To Kill a Mockingbird, it wouldn’t be too hard for counsel to construct a copyright jury argument (or a line of expert questions) based on an analogy to that work and to play upon the recent death of Harper Lee, all in an effort to ingratiate himself or herself into the heartstrings of that juror.

That could backfire, though, especially if the lawyer tries to make eye contact with that juror. If I were that juror — and To Kill a Mockingbird is actually one of my favorite books — I’d be completely creeped out by it. The number one rule of “Internet stalking” is to never let the person know you did it!

But I digress. Internet searches tied to the jury selection process are different from the googling a person might do about the new neighbors or the parents of their kids’ friends (not that I’m speaking from personal experience… 😉 ) Potential jurors should definitely know that lawyers will look for their so-called “digital fingerprint.”

In Oracle America v. Google, the judge ended up announcing a procedure he hoped would protect jurors’ privacy while allowing lawyers to do their jobs (if the parties refused to agree to a ban on researching jurors on the Internet): The lawyers must inform the prospective jurors of the extent to which they will search for them on the Internet, limiting the searches to publicly available information and giving the jurors a couple of minutes to adjust their social media privacy settings through their cell phones. The lawyers may not use the information they learn through the Internet to make personal appeals to jurors or use their affiliation with tech companies to research information not otherwise available to the public (such as search histories).**

Generally speaking, this protocol makes sense to me. I don’t mind lawyers performing internet searches for publicly available information about me or other prospective jurors. If I were representing a defendant like a modern-day Tom Robinson, I would want to know whether a prospective juror raves on Goodreads about racist books like The Bell Curve or its more recent iteration, The Triple Package.*** I wouldn’t want them on the jury any more than I would want to empanel the shockingly racist version of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird’s sequel early draft, Go Set a Watchman.


*Jurors, however, are not supposed to google the case or the lawyers involved in it for fear the information they see could inappropriately sway them.

**See the this article (scroll down for the order from the Northern District of California) for additional details.

***Googling a person’s name and “goodreads” will sometimes bring up their goodreads profile. If that’s a problem for you, visit the Goodreads account settings to see what you can do to adjust the privacy level.

What Should Kids Read In School INSTEAD of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird?

TKaMBRaise your hand if you read To Kill a Mockingbird in school.

That’s where many of us first encountered Harper Lee’s iconic novel about a child’s growing awareness of racial injustice in the American South. I read the book when I was a kid for school, and then re-read it two decades later to find that: “Jem is just as brave as I remember, and Scout is as funny and headstrong. Their father is a thoughtful and fair-minded man whose parenting style reflects his legal experience.”

That last line sounds funny now, doesn’t it? With the publication of Go Set a Watchman, we now know that Atticus Finch was an unapologetic bigot. That is, if we believe that Watchman is a sequel to Mockingbird, as Lee’s lawyer claimed it was, rather than the early draft it probably is. As Max from Litigation and Trial said in Despite Go Set a Watchman, Atticus Finch Is Still a Hero:

[M]any classic novels started out with truly bizarre first drafts. In the earliest drafts of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, several children were sucked into the factory and incorporated into the chocolate bars. The same is true of classic movies: Rocky originally ended with him deliberately throwing the fight. As novelists often say, “the essence of writing is rewriting.” In short, the Atticus of Go Set A Watchman is not the Atticus of To Kill A Mockingbird.

Trying to pass off Watchman as a sequel—possibly even the final installment of a previously unheard of plan for a Mockingbird trilogy—is just one of the many ways the people purporting to represent Lee’s interests have tried to destroy her legacy.

Other efforts include:

Now, Tonja Carter, Lee’s lawyer, further guts the author’s legacy by putting an end to the mass paperback edition of Mockingbird. This is a move that will likely result in higher royalties for Lee’s heirs at the expense of spreading her work to future fans. As the New Republic explains:

[T]he disappearance of the mass-market edition could have a significant impact on schools. The fact that To Kill a Mockingbird is both so accessible to young readers and so widely taught in America is crucial to its cultural importance… Without a mass-market option, schools will likely be forced to pay higher prices for bulk orders of the trade paperback edition—and given the perilous state of many school budgets, that could very easily lead to it being assigned in fewer schools.”

So, my children might not read it in school like I did, but maybe its disappearance from the curriculum is not such a bad thing. Is it time to move on?

This question reminds me of a discussion I had with MonkeyMoonMachine (also known as Matt Hagemann) in the comments to Vonnegut’s Literary Reputation: Evidence That American Culture Is In Decline.* After noting that classic books might not resonate with newer readers the way they did with their original audiences, he said:

I am disappointed in general in how little the new Common Core K-12 standards emphasize teaching any literature of the last 40 years. Perhaps the standards-makers are afraid of declaring any new works as “classics.” But then again, the standards also ignore most of the lit-crit thinking of the last 40 years, too: there’s no Deconstruction, feminist theory, reader-response, etc.

To Kill a Mockingbird is more than half a century old, and perhaps it’s time to declare a new work a “classic.” I would be particularly interested in something that stirs a sense of social justice in children, as To Kill a Mockingbird does, while being something that To Kill a Mockingbird is not: a book by a person of color about a person of color.

Do you have any recommendations?


*Speaking of Kurt Vonnegut, I’d like to mention that I often borrow a phrase from him to describe authors’ estates that do everything they can to “disappear up their own assholes, so to speak.” Vonnegut uttered those words in a different context, but I think the sentiment applies to the short-sighted actions of Harper Lee’s estate (as well as to William Faulkner’s and Arthur Conan Doyle’s). There are so many good books to read out there. We should steer clear of any book that a greedy estate is trying to make difficult to obtain.

What Pet Should I Get? (1960 Versus Now)

New York Times Best Seller List August 23 2015These days, when Harper Lee and Dr. Seuss top the best seller list for “new” books they wrote decades ago, it feels more like 1960 than 2015. Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, the sequel early draft of her Pulitzer Prize winning To Kill a Mockingbird, and Dr. Seuss’s What Pet Should I Get?, a recently rediscovered picture book, have been breaking sales records this summer (see here and here).

I’m wary of literary estates (or lawyers of living clients who act like they’re representing estates) hawking every last item their deceased authors ever touched—if the author had wanted to publish it, they probably would’ve—but I still decided to purchase the ebook version of Dr. Seuss’s newest book.

We own many of Dr. Seuss’s classics, including Happy Birthday to You!, which recommends a pet as a present and includes the sentiment that “the best pet is the tallest of all-est,” a line my tall four-year-old appreciates (as I discussed in Updating Dr. Seuss for a 21st Century Kid).

I’d been wondering whether What Pet Should I Get? contains a similar opinion about the ideal size of a pet. So, yesterday afternoon, my daughter and I decided to find out.

The book, which stars a pair of round-faced siblings who have to agree on what pet to get, certainly has a mid-20th Century feel to it. Not only is it in the typical style of Dr. Seuss’s 1950s and ‘60s hits, but, as the publisher’s note points out, there’s another antiquated aspect to the story:

“When Dr. Seuss wrote What Pet Should I Get? over fifty years ago, it was common for people to simply buy dogs, cats, and other animals at pet stores. Today animal advocates encourage us to adopt them from a shelter or rescue organization…”

Pet ownership has changed in other ways too. For example, fifty years ago, the poodle was America’s favorite purebred dog. Now, it’s the labrador retriever. Dogs and cats remain popular pets (members of the family!), but their popularity has declined. According to the the most recent U.S. Pet Ownership and Demographics Sourcebook (2012), pet ownership overall has dropped by 2.4 percent.

Maybe pet ownership would increase if we could adopt the types of animals that are available in Dr. Seuss’s What Pet Should I Get?, which includes not only cats and dogs, but new kinds of pets like:

A pet who is tall with image from Seuss Book

My daughter liked this pet best of them all too.

What she didn’t like, though, was this book’s frustrating ending, which is … spoiler alert!that we never find out what pet the siblings get.

Drawing from the Seussian canon, my daughter guessed, “They probably took home a cat with a hat on a mat.”

I asked her to show me what that pet would look like, and after a couple of minutes, she came up with this:


She explained, “It’s actually a really tall bird. The cat, hat, and mat are invisible.”

Here’s the four-year-old artist:

IMG_5817 (2)


*Remember how hard the Faulkner estate “works” to stay in the limelight?

**I’m not going to read Go Set a Watchman, but if you have and want to chat about it or if you’re interested in spoilers, check out the discussion at Socratic Salon.

***The “best sellers” image is a composite from The New York Times webpage (accessed on August 16, 2015).

Oliver Sacks on Writing (Why Use One Adjective When Six Could Apply?)

On the move

In On the Move: A Life, Oliver Sacks’s recently published memoir, we become better acquainted with the complicated human being whose popular case studies have given us insight into rare neurological conditions and whose commentary in the New York Times has both made us better appreciate the Periodic Table (not that I ever needed that kind of encouragement) and look forward to turning 80.

In The Joy of Old Age (No Kidding), published on the cusp of his 80th birthday in July of 2013, he wrote:

“My father, who lived to 94, often said that the 80s had been one of the most enjoyable decades of his life. He felt, as I begin to feel, not a shrinking but an enlargement of mental life and perspective.”

Less than two years later, however, he received a terminal cancer diagnosis. He has chosen to live out his days in the “richest, deepest, most productive way” he can, saying:

“I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight.”

I have thought about his joyful approach to aging and his determination to feel alive in the face of death quite often over the last few months as the mainstream media — and this blog — have been obsessed with another octogenarian, the mysterious Harper Lee. It’s hard to know how old age has affected her, but her lawyer’s attempts to ruin her legacy cast doubt on her competence (particularly when the lawyer acts as though she’s representing an estate rather than a living, breathing person).

But I digress, a tendency that I apparently share with Dr. Sacks.

In On the Move, he describes his penchant for “tangential thoughts” and his love of adjectives:

“… I discover my thoughts through the act of writing, in the act of writing… often my writings need extensive pruning and editing, because I may express the same thought in many different ways. I can get waylaid by tangential thoughts and associations in mid-sentence, and this leads to parentheses, subordinate clauses, sentences of paragraphic length. I never use one adjective if six seem to me better and, in their cumulative effect, more incisive.”

When it comes to “sentences of paragraphic length,” Dr. Sacks reminds me of my other half, Mr. AMB, who in real-life is a far more prolific and accomplished writer than I am. I am often the person who slashes adjectives from his swollen, but beautiful, sentences. Meanwhile, he’s the one who points out when I‘ve been succinct when I should’ve been concise, two words that aren’t interchangeable in my book.

I’m one of those writers who never exceeds a word limit. Most of the time, I wouldn’t even come close to the limit without “tangential thoughts” packaged in short sentences separated by returns.

How about you? Are you “guilty” of sentences of paragraphic length (like Dr. Sacks and Mr. AMB) or paragraphs that consist of short, solitary sentences (like yours truly)?

***August 30, 2015: Oliver Sacks has passed away. He was 82. It’s impressive that he kept writing until the very end. According to the New York Times, “On Aug. 10, his assistant, Ms. Edgar, who described herself as his ‘collaborator, friend, researcher and editor’ as well, wrote in an email: ‘He is still writing with great clarity. We are pretty sure he will go with fountain pen in hand.'”

On “Killing Our Heroes”: Atticus Finch & Harper Lee

Harper Lees Lumpy Tale

Did you hear that Atticus Finch is an unapologetic racist in Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, the sequel early draft of To Kill a Mockingbird?

The novel has been marketed as a sequel to Lee’s Mockingbird — an agent of Lee’s even suggested that Watchman was meant to be the final installment of a trilogy — but, as the La Times says in its guarded review of Lee’s latest publication, “It would be a mistake to read Harper Lee’s ‘Go Set a Watchman’ as a sequel to her 1960 Pulitzer Prize winning ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’” (Just as I thought).

The stories surrounding the origin and discovery of Watchman have never made any sense. HarperCollins and Lee’s lawyer, Tonja Carter, have claimed that Carter herself was the one who discovered the draft in the fall of 2014, even going so far as to quote then-88-year-old 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.” (See this ridiculous press release).

That quote is particularly interesting in light of evidence suggesting that the Watchman manuscript may have been found several years earlier, when a rare books expert assessed a manuscript that had been in a Lord & Taylor box presented to him by Carter and Lee’s then-agent Samuel Pinkus (whom I’ve written about on this blog before, though the recent mysteries surrounding Lee have moderated my view of him; maybe he really was following Lee’s wishes—rather than Carter’s?).

Carter acknowledges having been at the meeting with this rare books expert and Pinkus, but, according to The New York Times, “She said that she was sent from the room to run an errand before any review of the materials occurred. She denied ever learning that a different manuscript had been found that day and would not elaborate on whether she had later asked what had happened.”

As Jaclyn of Covered in Flour, a fellow lawyer, tweeted yesterday:

Jaclyn TweetYeah, Carter’s statement about running an errand has the “ring of bullshit,” and it calls into question everything she’s said thus far.

If the Watchman manuscript was found in 2011, why didn’t Lee consent to its publication then?

Is Lee really aware that Carter has published Watchman now?

There has been a long debate about Lee’s competence due to her failing health. I’ve discussed the sad circumstances surrounding Lee’s odd public exposure several times on this blog, from her lawsuit against Pinkus to her actions against her hometown museum.

Last March, I updated my post questioning Carter’s role in the Watchman publication — Can We Trust Harper Lee’s New Watchman (Can She)?to say that the state of Alabama had investigated Lee’s competence  and made the determination based on an interview with Ms. Lee that she was aware that her book was being published.

I accepted that determination because, well, it’s a supposedly neutral third party’s finding (not that Alabama doesn’t have something to gain from Lee’s popularity) and any additional investigation of Lee would be intrusive.

Still, I know that people diagnosed with dementia — and I have no idea what Lee’s diagnoses are — can appear lucid from time to time and that a great deal depends on what the questions were, how they were asked, and who was present during the interview.

Whether or not Lee actually consented to the publication, though, is now moot. The book will be published on Tuesday, July 14th.

The earliest reviews are out, and they aren’t pretty (see this recap from The Daily Mail). Maybe the commentary on the writing style, plot, and characters wouldn’t have been so negative had Carter and HarperCollins been honest that Watchman is not a separate book but merely an early draft that only those with an interest in the evolution of To Kill a Mockingbird would find worthwhile.

If Watchman is Lee’s original version of what eventually became To Kill a Mockingbird, I’m left asking the same question Michiko Kakutani raised in the New York Times review:

“How did a lumpy tale about a young woman’s grief over her discovery of her father’s bigoted views evolve into a classic coming-of-age story about two children and their devoted widower father?”

To what extent is Mockingbird the product of New York City rather than Monroeville, Alabama?

I’ve always known that Mockingbird was a heavily revised manuscript, but I’ve never known how much of Lee and her hometown remained in the final result. Now, I don’t want to find out.

I love To Kill a Mockingbird, the man who defended Tom Robinson, and my understanding of the person and the place that created them. To keep that fiction intact, I’m going to pass on Go Set a Watchman.

My final question is this: Did Carter and HarperCollins publish and market Watchman to make a quick buck at the expense of Harper Lee’s legacy?

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.

Can We Trust Harper Lee’s New Watchman? (Can She?)

Go Set a Watchman

UPDATE (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.”

Against the advice of my lawyer, I’m going to talk about Harper Lee’s new novel, Go Set a Watchman, which HarperCollins plans to release in July 2015 amid controversy, a word that may as well be synonymous with “Harper Lee” these days.

By “my lawyer,” I mean my husband, whose practice includes defamation cases. He was joking when he told me to avoid discussing Harper Lee. He thinks I’ve discussed her enough already on this blog. 😉

Joking aside, virtually everything we know about Lee comes from her lawyers or from the lawsuits she’s filed. In 2013, she sued her former agent, Samuel L. Pinkus, for breach of fiduciary duty (among other claims), which I wrote about in When Our Literary Heroes Become Victims.

Later that same year, Lee filed a questionable trademark application and then sued her hometown museum over unauthorized merchandise bearing the title of her book. The trademark was eventually granted when the museum agreed to withdraw its opposition to settle the lawsuit.

I don’t have a problem with Lee using the legal system to vindicate her rights. Indeed, I feel a tremendous affinity for her, given the impact To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) had on my life. As I said in We Were All Children Once (Even Lawyers), one of three posts I wrote while revisiting the middle grade novel as an adult: “Like many lawyers, I count this novel among the influences that eventually led me to law school and to my public interest legal career.”

It was an early literary experience that helped fashion my sense of justice. It gave me a greater understanding of our progress — and our remaining shortfalls — as a society in terms of racial equality.

Like many literary fans, I want to know more about the woman behind one of my favorite novels. However, the controversy surrounding Marja Mills’ “parasitic memoir” featuring Lee, The Mockingbird Next Door, dissuaded me from prying into Lee’s life by reading an unauthorized book. It was particularly disturbing when Lee released a statement in 2014 about Mills’ memoir that said: “any book purporting to be with my cooperation is a falsehood.”

As I wrote then, “Whatever the truth is about how [Ms. Mills] obtained access to Ms. Lee, even the possibility that Mills exploited Lee and her sister renders The Mockingbird Next Door unpalatable.”

Notably, all three of the above incidents revolved around allegations that someone or something had taken advantage of the octogenarian’s failing health. Now she’s back in the news again, and we’re supposed to believe that one of America’s most famously publicity-averse authors is “delighted” that a book she never tried to publish before is going to press.

As the story goes: Lee wrote Go Set a Watchman before she wrote her Pulitzer Prize winning To Kill a Mockingbird. Her editor at the time suggested she rewrite it from Scout’s viewpoint as a child, and the original manuscript (which features Scout as an adult) was lost.

Apparently, Lee has said that she was “surprised and delighted when [her] dear friend and lawyer Tonja Carter discovered it.” Lee’s lawyer had previously been her sister Alice, who died in November at age 103.

So her new lawyer “discovered” the half-century-old story out of the blue, and Lee was “delighted” to publish a book she had kept under wraps that whole time? That sounds a lot like the limelight-grabbing discoveries the Faulkner Estate kept making. It’s possible these fortuitous discoveries are entirely true, but it’s just hard to believe that no one ever found them before.

In Lee’s case, even if the story of Carter’s discovery is wholly accurate, there’s a question about whether Lee has really consented to its publication. It’s curious that she didn’t seek its publication closer to the time her first novel won the Pulitzer Prize.

Has Lee’s outlook on publicity changed? Or is it her mental competence that’s changed? As her lawsuits against Pinkus and others based on incompetence suggest, Lee’s ability to consent to publication at this stage in her life is suspicious. Multiple people in Monroeville who know her personally have raised allegations that Lee was manipulated into the decision.

In yet another statement this week via her lawyer (of course), Lee has now revealed that To Kill a Mockingbird was intended to be a trilogy, of which the middle book was never written — for now, at least. What’s the bet that someone connected to Lee will soon “stumble” on it?

Obviously, as only a casual observer of Lee’s public life, I don’t know what’s really going on. All I do know is that whatever it is, it’s fishy — and very, very sad.