Exploitation of Harper Lee


Harper Lee

Readers and writers the world over are abuzz with the news that Harper Lee is releasing a novel.

Doing the very thing she swore to the Barefooted Jesus she would never do.

It has been a well-known fact that Harper Lee, now 88,  has been in poor health since suffering a bad stroke. Those who know her best say that Harper Lee is deaf, blind and confined to a wheelchair.

One gushing commentator on the Huffington Post said that they never ever expected Harper Lee to publish another book.

With good reason.

Harper Lee never had any intention of releasing another book. Her exact wording on the matter: “Rest assured, as long as I am alive any book purporting to be with my cooperation is a falsehood.”

That’s the position she took throughout her literary career. I have friends who attempted to gain Lee’s cooperation on book projects. She was always kind about it, but always turned them away.

This article in The Atlantic also raises the question of why the sudden change of heart.

According to Marja Mills, another unauthorized biographer, Harper was worried about how she might be exploited in the future. She reportedly told Mills: “Nelle suggested that perhaps she could toss all her belongings in there and burn them, preferably shortly before she died, so she wouldn’t have to worry about her personal things falling into the wrong hands. She was only half kidding.”

Not surprising then that only a few months after her sister Alice Lee (Harper Lee’s longtime protector ) died, that an unpublished manuscript shows up and hotdang! Harper Lee has had a change of heart. She up and decided that a stance she has taken throughout her long literary career was oops! wrong! And by golly, she’s amazed and humbled to be publishing another novel. (Does anyone else find the wording “amazed and humbled” coming from Harper Lee odd?)

Or so said the press release put out by Lee’s publisher, HarperCollins.

Of course, the publisher also said that they had not spoken directly with Lee. All their communication had been through Lee’s attorney.

Here’s the wording from that press release:

“I hadn’t realized it [the original book] had survived, so was surprised and delighted when my dear friend and lawyer Tonja Carter discovered it,”  Lee said.

We, the public, of course, have no idea at all whether Lee actually said these words or if these are just the words her attorney said she said.

I don’t doubt for a moment the authenticity of the manuscript, although certainly there will be those smarter than me who will, and perhaps should.  And unless Lee had actually taken all her belongings and thrown them into a ravine and set them ablaze, one would expect that at some point after she dies that anything Lee wrote before or after “To Kill a Mockingbird” would make its way into the hands of the general public.

Well-regarded Alabama Historian Wayne Flynt believes that the manuscript is totally legit. Flynt says that Lee is in support of this.  “I don’t think anyone would have done this without Nelle’s full knowledge and consent.” 

A woman certainly has the right to change her mind, even when she is in poor health. Perhaps this is Harper Lee’s parting gift to us. But given the decades she spent adamantly rejecting the idea of publishing any other work, and avoiding the limelight, it does seem odd that she’s had an about face.


Perhaps it’s a matter of timing.

A news story by Al.com reports that residents of Monroeville are having difficulty believing Harper Lee reached this decision on her own. They suspect this decision is Carter’s, not Lee’s. “I don’t think she agreed to do it. I think it’s her attorney being greedy, because Ms. Lee was a very private person who didn’t like a lot of publicity,” said Janet Sawyer, owner of the Courthouse Cafe in town.

My own inbox has filled up with messages from Monroeville. citizen sums up her concerns this way:  “Nelle is being taken full advantage of. She is not in charge of anything that has to do with herself.”

But if my Facebook feed is any indication the general public pretty much feels like Harper Lee owes another novel to us, her faithful fans

Somebody stands to make a load of money from all this. The print run is two million copies. Pre-orders in 24 hours have made it the #1 selling book.

Financial terms were not disclosed. The deal was negotiated between Carter and the head of Harper’s parent company, Michael Morrison of HarperCollins Publishers. “Watchman” will be published in the United Kingdom by William Heinemann, an imprint of Penguin Random House.

Lee lives in an assisted living center in her hometown of Monroeville, the real-life model for the fictional town of Maycomb of “To Kill A Mockingbird.” A longtime friend said she is deaf, blind and in poor health, spending much of her time in a wheelchair. She was last seen publicly in November at the funeral of her older sister, Alice Lee, who long represented the author and was known for being protective of her.

Harper publisher Jonathan Burnham acknowledged Tuesday that the publisher had had no direct conversations with Harper Lee, but communicated through Carter and literary agent Andrew Nurnburg.

Harper Lee has no husband, children, grandchildren or apparent heirs, and likely doesn’t need any money given that “To Kill A Mockingbird” is has been a bestseller since its publication. Besides, if she was motivated by money, wouldn’t she have pulled that manuscript out of storage a long time ago? That she didn’t ought to tell us something.

So who stands to benefit?

Well, for one, Carter, that dear friend and attorney, who reportedly over the years has managed to cut Lee off from all of her longtime friends and, some suggest, even her sister during those last years. Carter has a troubling reputation among the locals of Monroeville. This was from an article in Reuters, Nov. 2, 2013:


Since Alice’s retreat into a nursing home, Harper Lee has battled a variety of legal issues, including the son-in-law of her first agent who was accused of trying to trick her into signing away her original copyright. They recently reached a settlement.

In Monroeville, the only active lawyer remaining in the venerable law firm of Barnett, Bugg, Lee and Carter is Tonja Carter. Old friends described getting notes from her saying they could no longer visit Miss Nelle because of her infirmities. “It hurt,” said Therrell. “I took her and Miss Alice my potato soup every Thursday for years.”

Carter did not respond to requests seeking comment for this article. An attorney for Lee in New York confirmed that the law firm spoke frequently with her, but declined to discuss the case further.


Of course, this will be a windfall for the publisher and bookstores.

And us, the readers who have loved Harper Lee since we first read her and saw something of ourselves in Scout. We will once again know the joy of reading Lee.

But before we go rejoicing, perhaps we ought to feel a tad bit troubled by the possibility that Harper Lee is being exploited, or at the very least manipulated. Her sister Alice said in 2011 that Lee will sign anything put in front of her.

“Poor Nelle Harper can’t see and can’t hear and will sign anything put before her by anyone in whom she has confidence.” Letter from Alice Lee in 2011 regarding a document that Harper Lee’s attorney, Carter, had her sign.

All this might not bother us now, but rest assured it might come back to haunt us when we are dealing with the long-term affects of aging.


What is elder abuse?

Elder abuse is recognized as a continually increasing and serious problem in our society. Unfortunately, due to under-reporting, variations in the definition of elder abuse, and the absence of a nationwide uniform reporting system, it is difficult to determine the scope of this issue. The National Center on Elder Abuse distinguishes between seven different types of elder abuse. These include physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, financial/material exploitation, neglect, abandonment, and self-neglect.
  • Physical abuse. Use of physical force that may result in bodily injury, physical pain, or impairment.
  • Sexual abuse. Non-consensual sexual contact of any kind with an elderly person.
  • Emotional abuse. Infliction of anguish, pain, or distress through verbal or non-verbal acts.
  • Financial/material exploitation. Illegal or improper use of an elder’s funds, property, or assets.
  • Neglect. Refusal, or failure, to fulfill any part of a person’s obligations or duties to an elderly person.
  • Abandonment. Desertion of an elderly person by an individual who has physical custody of the elder or by a person who has assumed responsibility for providing care to the elder.
  • Self-neglect. Behaviors of an elderly person that threaten the elder’s health or safety

Karen Spears Zacharias

Author/Journalist/Educator. Gold Star Daughter.


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