The Right of Privacy and Harper Lee

March 14, 2015

I visited Monroeville, once.  In the summer of 1990, I, my husband and a friend were driving home from the beach when one of us spied the interstate exit that leads to the home of Harper Lee.  My friend had (finally) read To Kill a Mockingbird, she was still overwhelmed by the power of the story and she wanted to see Miss Lee’s home town.  My husband knows how much I care about the book and he thought it would be a treat, so he steered us onto the highway.  Once we hit the center of town, the two of them started plying me with questions so they could pick out landmarks from the novel.   How far was the Finch house from the school?  Was the Radley house on the same or opposite side of the street?  My husband suggested (I think he was joking) that, with a bit of research, we’d be able to locate Miss Lee’s new address and he would take us to her door.  I began to feel very uncomfortable.  Not only do I get tongue tied around famous authors, (I displayed something like Tourette’s syndrome in front of Dr. Seuss) I couldn’t get past the feeling we were trespassers here, arriving only to gawk.  A late summer thunderstorm started and I wanted to leave but the two of them kept driving on, looking for clues and making suggestions.  Hail came down and a corner of my mind suggested this was God’s (or Truman Capote’s) way of telling us to “Get the Hell Out.”  When tree limbs started to fall, we turned the car around and finally went back to the interstate.  The rain stopped outside of the town.
I’ve been wishing that weather would come down again on those currently trying to mind Miss Lee’s business.  Years ago, she was just another woman who wanted to write and the world pretty much ignored her.   Aided by friends, an agent, and editors, she developed a novel of transcendent beauty.  When the book was done, Miss Lee lived up to her contractual promises surrounding the book’s publication and its adaptation into a motion picture.  Since then all she has asked for is the same private life most of us enjoy.  In this final area she’s had less success, due mainly to the bad manners of others.
Initially, there were demands that she write still more books, from people who didn’t understand what the first book had cost her.  Then, there was the small but steady army of trespassers who believed their enthusiasm for her work outweighed her need for privacy.  Mixed between these were the sycophants who professed admiration to her face and then exploited her acquaintanceship for fame and fortune.  It doesn’t matter if it’s a town selling itself with her characters or a reporter whose alleged health issues mend once she moves into the house next door.  (If this is true, the Mayo Clinic and Johns Hopkins hospital need to relocate to Monroeville, Alabama.  The town is obviously a modern-day Lourdes.) In my opinion, it comes down to this: any person who makes money from Harper Lee’s life or her work without her documented permission is a parasite and probably a thief.  
All of this was bad enough but things went to hell this year.  The announcement that her first story Go Set A Watchman would be published should have had literary enthusiasts hugging themselves with delight.  Instead, people started worrying that “Watchman” wouldn’t match the quality as  “Mockingbird.”   Then pundits started suggested that publishing Watchman might not be Miss Lee’s idea at all.  The account of the lawyer who located the work (the same attorney who has successfully protected Miss Lee’s rights since her sister’s retirement) is reviewed with extreme skepticism.  (Anyone who believes papers can’t stack up in the back of a law office has never worked in one.)  Now the state of Alabama has gotten involved because a physician, who did not examine Miss Lee, reported a rumor she was seen curled up in bed and uncommunicative after the death of her sister.  This really sets my teeth on edge.  Miss Lee loses her sister, the last member of her closest family and they’re surprised she’s in bed and depressed??  What did they expect, a party?  A river of avarice, curiosity and innuendo has robbed this woman (described as “a national treasure”) of her privacy and everyday enjoyment of life.   If this is how we treat the people we cherish, God help those that we hate.
I think something needs to be clarified: Miss Lee is not her work.  She is no one’s “treasure” to be owned or bandied about.  She is a human being with rights and privileges, including the right to be left alone.  If she doesn’t want to be interviewed, promoted, hash-tagged or dragged out for the public consumption, that is her prerogative.  If her work has inspired or moved you to the point of communication, send her a letter but don’t expect a reply.  The whole point of a thank-you letter is to express your feelings, not promote a correspondence.  If you really appreciate her work, apply the principles of TKAM to your life and be nice to other people.  Fight for the disadvantaged and be sensitive to their needs.  But have some consideration for the author’s wishes and (unless you have clear and convincing, first-hand evidence of maltreatment) leave the poor woman alone.
Miss Lee’s work has a public life and people can treasure or criticize that at will.  If people are worried about the quality of her upcoming book, they don’t have to buy or read it. Since “Watchman” is an early draft, it is unlikely to show the same level of skill as TKAM but it will aid literature students who will see how one story can be molded from another.  No new book can tarnish or impair the quality of To Kill a Mockingbird.  TKAM stands as it has stood for the last fifty years, a clear story about the good and evil in humanity and life in a small, Southern town.  
Although this rant is about separating the art from the artist, it is tempting to give Miss Lee the last word. In TKAM’s climactic chapter, Heck Tate refuses to publicize the service of a recluse because, “All the ladies in Maycomb, including my wife’d be knockin’ on his door bringing angel food cakes.  To my way of thinking…draggin’ him with his shy ways into the limelight – to me, that’s a sin.”
People have been banging on Miss Lee’s door for years now, bringing nosiness, cupidity and gossip.  I hope the finding of the state’s investigation will allow her to close it again to all save those that she wants to see.  If not, Monroeville needs to bring back the rain and get set for one hell of a storm.

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