Harper Lee, Watchman, and elder abuse


The books are flying off the shelf.

The hangers-on are making a fortune.

And the reputation of the author — elderly, frail, suffering from memory, vision and hearing loss — has been destroyed.

Simply put, the publication of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman (the discarded first draft of her iconic novel To Kill a Mocking Bird) appears to be a spectacular case of elder abuse.

I find it both appalling and inexplicable that critics are debating the merits of Watchman and asking whether Atticus Finch, the beloved main character of Mockingbird, is actually a racist and what that means for literature and for us. Frankly, to the extent that we enrich those who plundered Ms. Lee’s legacy for their own benefit, we are complicit in that abuse.

[pullquote align=”right” color=””]Does anyone truly believe that Harper Lee had the capacity to decide to publish a first draft manuscript that she swore for 50 years she would never publish?[/pullquote]

In the the 50 years since the publication of To Kill A Mockingbird, Lee both acknowledged the existence of a first draft and steadfastly refused to publish it. Presumably it would have passed to whatever library or institute that Lee has chosen to bequeath her personal papers and could have been made available for academic study to provide insights into how a great author creates a great work. Yet after the December death of her closest living relative and caregiver, her sister, the manuscript was suddenly “rediscovered” and Lee suddenly “agreed” to its publication.

To put these events in perspective, imagine if an 88 year old individual had designated a Rembrandt in her possession to be donated to a famous museum after her death. Imagine if she had publicly acknowledged the planned donation and publicly insisted that she would never sell the painting for profit. Then suddenly, at age 88, after the death of her closest living relative and caretaker, suffering from memory, vision and hearing loss she “changes her mind” and gives the painting to her new caretakers to sell, despite the fact that she does not need the money.

We would (hopefully) recognize that the new caretakers were committing elder abuse, which encompasses exploitation:

… taking, misuse, or concealment of funds, property, or assets of a senior for someone else’s benefit.

In the case of a previously written bequest, there would be a museum who would file suit to execute the owner’s original wishes. The entity that stood to benefit from the original intention would take legal action to uphold the original bequest. Unfortunately, in the case of Lee’s first draft, there was no entity besides Ms. Lee who stood to benefit from her original intention and, therefore, no one with any stake in following her original wishes.

There were those who tried, however.

According to The New York Times:

Now the State of Alabama has been drawn into the debate. Responding to at least one complaint of potential elder abuse related to the publication of “Watchman,” investigators interviewed Ms. Lee last month at the assisted living facility where she resides. They have also interviewed employees at the facility, called the Meadows, as well as several friends and acquaintances…

With an investigation involving Monroeville’s most famous resident underway, friends and acquaintances who have come forward in recent weeks have offered conflicting accounts of Ms. Lee’s mental state, with some describing her as engaging, lively and sharp, and others painting her as childlike, ornery, depressed and often confused. Several people said that her condition varied depending on the day.

Ms. Lee — known to many as Nelle, her legal first name — had a stroke in 2007 and has severe hearing and vision problems. But friends who visit her regularly say she can communicate well and hold lengthy conversations if visitors yell in her ear or write questions down for her to read under a special machine. (A black marker is kept in her room for this purpose.)

But, of course, whether or not she can communicate well tells us nothing about whether she is competent to make decisions. Many elderly people communicate just fine with telemarketers who swindle them.

Lee’s literary reputation is on the line:

A lot is at stake, including the legacy of one of the country’s most beloved authors. Many wonder whether “Watchman,” which was rejected by a publisher in the mid-1950s and then rewritten as “Mockingbird,” will turn out to be a flawed, amateur work when it is released in July, and a disappointing coda to a career that has been defined by one outsize hit.

Jason Karlawish, M.D., a professor of medicine and medical ethics, weighed in at Philly.com:

How would we know that Lee was capable of making the decision to publish a novel she long ago swore not to publish?

Cases such as hers are an immense public-health problem. Changes in older adults’ cognition and need for help with daily tasks, together with accumulated lifetime wealth, make them easy prey for those who want to exploit or abuse them…

For Lee, publishing Watchman will reshape her carefully lived legacy. Is she, in some sense, mistakenly killing her own mockingbird?

The answer to this question engages decades of scholarship at the intersections of ethics, law, medicine, and psychology. We no longer use broad generalizations about a person, such as whether her decision was “reasonable,” or whether she has dementia. Instead, capacity is grounded in an assessment of an adult’s abilities to make a specific decision.

Karlawish points out that being able to communicate does not indicate capacity to make major life decisions.

Classic cases include the older adult who always avoided financial risks, but who now wagers large sums at casinos, or sends bank account information to strangers to collect a share of an alleged lottery payout, or who revises a will to support a new and much younger and needy partner. Or, in the case of Lee, who swore that her first novel was her last novel, but who now has changed her mind.

People do change, and they truly can have new values. In some cases, however, these changes reflect impairments in brain function. The classic causes are conditions that damage the frontal lobes, such as from an uncommon dementia called frontotemporal lobar degeneration, or a type of traumatic brain injury.

Studies of older adults’ decision-making in risky situations, or their capacity to distinguish between trustworthy and untrustworthy sources show that some older adults perform poorly on these tasks and as a result are liable to make poor decisions…

Does anyone truly believe that Harper Lee had the capacity to decide to publish a first draft manuscript that she swore for 50 years she would never publish? Does anyone actually believe that Lee underwent the fundamental change in values that would be required to support that decision? Or was the “decision” to publish Watchman akin to the “decision” to share bank account information with strangers to collect an alleged lottery payment?

It seems to me that Harper Lee’s “decision” to destroy her legacy by publishing a discarded first draft of her literary masterpiece is a spectacular example of the all too common phenomenon of elder abuse. And by buying the new book and analyzing it for “insights” on the real Atticus Finch, we have made ourselves complicit in Lee’s tragic exploitation.

26 Responses to “Harper Lee, Watchman, and elder abuse”

  1. Peggy Thatcher
    July 26, 2015 at 12:11 pm #

    Well said, Dr. Tuteur. I am going to try to post a link to your essay on Amazon. History will not think well of this publisher. In the long run, I expect that Ms Lee’s good reputation will survive this underhanded greed.

  2. carovee
    July 20, 2015 at 11:00 am #

    I’m disappointed in the publishing house. It’s clear that she didn’t want this book published, or she would have done so sometime in the past 50 years. And shame on her lawyer as well for exploiting her.

    And also, all this hand wringing over Atticus Finch is silly to me. He’s a fictional character written by Ms. Lee. It shows that Ms. Lee wanted to change the nature of her character and nothing more.

  3. July 19, 2015 at 2:02 am #

    Is it possible that it’s the other way around? That Harper Lee always wanted to publish the book, but the lawyer sister, who was confident and protective, didn’t want her to publish it and was able to control Harper? Now that the lawyer sister is dead, Lee is doing what she always wanted to?

    • Dr Kitty
      July 19, 2015 at 1:16 pm #

      Not according to the people who knew Lee and her sister.
      Capote was a close friend of Lee, he certainly didn’t paint a picture of someone who would be easily cowed by a sibling while in full possession of her faculties.

    • Mishimoo
      July 20, 2015 at 8:34 pm #

      I have taken a few days to word this gently, but no. I highly doubt that is the case. If anything, the late sister was protecting Harper Lee from people taking advantage after her stroke in 2007.

      The idea that “Now the lawyer sister is dead, Lee is doing what she always wanted?” is very similar to the defence my husband’s aunt used in court after stripping her own recently bereved mother of most of her savings along with selling her farm out from under her and pocketing the proceeds.

  4. Dr Kitty
    July 17, 2015 at 4:45 pm #

    Thank you.

    My very, very cynical self thinks that the reason this has been published now, rather than posthumously, is because it is likely that the terms of Lee’s will would make it less lucrative, if not downright impossible, for the other interested parties to publish after her death.

    It is easier to suggest that someone has the capacity to agree to publishing something than it is to prove testamentary capacity in order to re-write a will.

    My understanding is that Lee’s sister was her lawyer, confidante and fiercest protector of her legacy. I would assume that Lee’s sister would have been heavily involved in producing her will, and that it is likely that any existing will would be more likely to reflect Lee’s longstanding wishes about her work.

    I won’t be reading this book, because I honestly don’t think Lee would want us to.

    • RMY
      July 17, 2015 at 9:42 pm #

      I won’t be reading it either, for all of the reasons you listed. It’s not a random coincidence that the decision to leave it be happened shortly after her sister died.

    • Who?
      July 17, 2015 at 11:45 pm #

      That’s not cynical it’s a reasonable response to the facts.

      And I’m not buying, borrowing or reading it, or keeping up with the commentary about it.

  5. Angharad
    July 17, 2015 at 3:41 pm #

    What a sad story. I have to admit I would like to read Watchman, just out of interest in the writing process, but the circumstances of its publication are too much.
    On the other hand, I don’t think Harper Lee’s reputation will be destroyed. Mockingbird will always be her best-known work. It’s changed lives and given people someone to emulate for decades. Hopefully Watchman will be well-recognized as an incomplete first draft and people won’t judge her too harshly for it

  6. Modernist Mom
    July 17, 2015 at 2:25 pm #

    While I agree that Lee clearly is being abused here, if she had bequeathed it to a library, there would be nothing preventing a famous scholar going into the archives and publishing the original manuscript. This had been done quite a bit, most famously to Thomas Wolfe, whose _Look Homeward, Angel_ was released as _O Lost_ and a re-edited version of _All the King’s Men_ by Faulkner scholar Noel Polk. Those are the most famous examples, but I’m sure there are others.

    _Mockingbird_ does sell well, but it may not cover the costs to care for an elderly woman who is in assisted living and may not have had adequate health care. Meanwhile, I don’t think Lee’s reputation is going to be destroyed. The novel had stood the test of time, and I don’t see _Watchman_ changing that.

    • Kerlyssa
      July 17, 2015 at 4:25 pm #

      3 million a year isn’t enough? She’s been collecting royalties on the book for over 50 years, she’s not impoverished.

      • RMY
        July 17, 2015 at 9:44 pm #

        I think it’s likely more a case of people wanting the goose that laid the golden egg to lay more in a day than financial desperation.

    • moto_librarian
      July 17, 2015 at 5:30 pm #

      But there is a big difference between a scholarly edition of a work and a mass-market publication. The purpose of a scholar like Polk’s edition was an academic attempt to put out a version of the work that was truly authentic, removing editorial decisions made at later dates to give the reader the version of the work most similar to the original. This practice has an analogue in musicology. Scholarly editions of a composer’s complete oeuvre are considered essential by professional performers who want to perform the work in as authentic a manner as possible. Changes in performance practice are often added in later editions of a musical work (ornamentation is a particularly thorny subject), and musicologists seek to publish an edition that is as close to the original work by the composer as possible. They do this by looking at as many different versions of the work as they can, assigning primacy to those created or published during the composer’s lifetime (e.g., sketches, manuscripts, first published editions). Watchman, on the other hand, is not being given scholarly treatment. It is being marketed to the public as another novel by Lee, and it seems clear that she has fallen prey to predatory tactics since the death of her sister. I have no doubt that Lee did not want this book to be published, and I have no plans to read it in its current form.

  7. KeeperOfTheBooks
    July 17, 2015 at 1:54 pm #

    What a mess. I’m rather glad I’m not selling books anymore. Much though I miss bookselling, working at the store when this came out would have about broken my heart.

  8. Anonymous
    July 17, 2015 at 1:01 pm #

    I think that it’s possible that she decided “it’s going to get out anyway” but if that truly was the case, why not just publish a free PDF file and be done with it, along with the disclaimer “now you see why I didn’t publish in this form”

    • Mac Sherbert
      July 17, 2015 at 6:15 pm #

      From what I have read it seems like her main reason to not publish it was because she didn’t want the attention or to listen to the comparison of the two works by critics. She never took up the spotlight or liked all the attention she got from Mockingbird. She lived a quiet life away most everyone. I don’t think the book was meant to be released until she died.

  9. Teresa Fairchild
    July 17, 2015 at 12:56 pm #

    I agree, I agree, I agree. My friends are all buying and reading this book and posting about it on Facebook…and I’m biting my tongue.

    • Bombshellrisa
      July 17, 2015 at 11:43 pm #

      Our library system has 300 copies, all checked out with 1500 holds on those copies. This girl won’t be hold #1501 on the next available copy.

  10. Medwife
    July 17, 2015 at 12:37 pm #

    I plan to never read this book because of the story behind its publication. This is an OT post but I’m very glad Amy wrote it. Such a blatant example of elder abuse!

  11. Susan
    July 17, 2015 at 12:26 pm #

    I haven’t followed this closely only was distressed by the headlines about Atticus portrayed as a racist. I am so sad to read this and dismayed that she was not protected from exploitation. I noticed on my facebook feed that there are To Kill a Mockingbird themed items for sale. I wonder if they are
    marketed by the same people who are in line to profit? As a young girl who didn’t grow up really knowing any adult men who weren’t in some way scary knowing Atticus as a model of a good man was important.

  12. July 17, 2015 at 12:22 pm #

    I enjoyed the film of “Mockingbird” which came out when I was quite young. Never read the book, nor do I intend to read “Watchman”.

    I wonder how aware Ms. Lee is of all the kerfluffle. Let me be cynical and say that the royalties from the book sale will net her a cash reserve that is probably welcome, but I agree that there are serious questions about the publication.

    • EllenL
      July 17, 2015 at 1:54 pm #

      I don’t believe she needed money. To Kill a Mockingbird continues to sell well. There isn’t any indication that she’s indigent.

      The ones with the most to gain financially are the publisher, the agent, and her new lawyer.

      Meanwhile, a great writer’s reputation has been irreparably damaged.
      It’s the saddest case of elder exploitation I’ve encountered.

      Even if we assume Ms. Lee is rational enough to make the decision to publish (a very big assumption), anyone with her best interests at heart would have strongly advised against it. She didn’t get that good advice or protection. Therein is the tragedy.

  13. Daleth
    July 17, 2015 at 11:07 am #

    Thank you for writing this.

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