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.