Is It Time to Get Hopeful About Harper Lee?


Now that the Harper Lee exploitation story is fizzling out for the second time, let’s take a moment to remember that the author has always reserved as much ire for journalists as for any other type of carpetbagger. Since the revelation that Lee’s attorney, Tonja Carter, found a manuscript of the unpublished novel Go Set a Watchman — a novel we already knew existed at some point — members of the press, spurred by their own perfunctory reporting, have presumed that the whole thing was an elder-abuse scam meant to earn agent, attorney, publisher — just someone, really — millions of dollars.

Piece after vague piece has been published, supposedly in Lee’s defense; cash rich outlets have sent more than one journalist to Monroeville, Alabama, where Lee was born and now lives, to record hearsay blown straight from the town’s rumor mill; and meanwhile, Harper Lee, her publisher, and her agent have all issued public statements attempting to quell the scaremongering. Did any of these writers actually care about Harper Lee? Or was everyone just airing out the mounting societal fear that we may all, one day, find ourselves exploited at the hands of Baby Boomers?

Thankfully, last week, some real news surfaced. The New York Times reported that someone has filed an elder abuse complaint with the state of Alabama on behalf of Harper Lee. Even though I remain cautiously optimistic in the case, I’ll be the first to acknowledge that this is a good idea. Also: it was bound to happen. In Alabama, like most states, if someone files an even remotely credible complaint, the state is obligated to investigate it, and the complainant’s anonymity is protected by the law — which is also begs the question of how the NYT discovered the complaint. Obviously the involvement of the state is a positive, one that comes with the added benefit of quashing, one way or another, a run of reporting built on a paucity of facts and a dearth of access to the persons involved.

But, under the radar, in near simultaneity with the news about the elder abuse investigation, the Times also reported that another exploitation investigation by the Alabama Securities Commission, had been closed. It seems that the Alabama Securities Commission also handles claims of elder abuse, and it found that Harper Lee is willing to publish the book:

Alabama Securities Commission Director Joseph Borg said his agency sent an investigator to speak with Lee at the request of the Alabama Department of Human Resources. Borg said the department, which handles complaints of elder abuse, asked his investigators to look into the situation because of their expertise in financial matters. “We closed the file. Let’s just say that she was able to answer questions we asked to our satisfaction from our point of view,” Borg said.

Elsewhere, the language of the Securities Commission was even more decisive. “She wanted it to be published,” Borg reportedly said of Lee. “She made it quite clear she did.”

So is it time to close the case of Harper Lee? Not quite: the investigation by Alabama’s Department of Human Resources may still be open — we don’t know either way. But it’s clear that the case for cynicism is dwindling. Lee’s agent, Andrew Nurnberg, has again spoken out about his client’s willingness to publish the book. In a statement to the press, Nurnberg said:

I was surprised to hear that someone had, anonymously, approached the authorities in Alabama to suggest that Harper Lee was being subjected to elder abuse…Having spent quality time with her over the last couple of years, I can categorically state that she is in full possession of her mental faculties.

At this point, at least one thing is clear in the case of Harper Lee: if we hear from the state of Alabama’s Department of Human Resources, if they issue a statement saying that she is not the victim of elder abuse, we should consider closing the door on this exasperating chapter of her career. Doing so could open us up to the possibility that Go Set a Watchman might be a good or even a great novel. And, weirdly, this seems to be hardest possibility for anyone to accept at all.