Harper Lee: You Don't Know Me

Can writers really control their own work? Not as much as they think.


I wrote this piece for my blog, Constant Commoner, in 2014, before Harper Lee died and before someone decided to insult her even more by publishing “Go Set a Watchman”, the ragged rejected manuscript from which “To Kill a Mockingbird” was spawned. If you read righteous anger in this piece, multiply it by times 10 and you’ll understand how I feel about unearthing and publishing a beloved author’s rejected manuscript without her permission. When ‘Watchman’ was published Harper was still with us but, by most accounts, not able to make decisions for herself. I’m convinced she would have hated it. I’m glad she never knew.

July 17, 2014:

More than 50 years ago Nelle Harper Lee wrote a book called “To Kill a Mockingbird”. It was her one and only book, and a masterpiece, but the story behind it has always been a tantalizing enigma.

Through the years there have been rumors that her best friend and neighbor, Truman Capote, edited her book so thoroughly, by rights he actually wrote it. The fact that Lee never published another book seems a valid reason to believe there’s something there, but I’ve never bought it.

Nelle lived in a small Alabama town, her father was a trial lawyer, she knew well the story of the 1930s Scottsboro trial (where a group of young black boys were accused of raping a white woman in her home state), she studied law herself, was a Fulbright Scholar at Oxford, and she was not a novice at writing.

It isn’t as if Capote couldn’t have overwritten it to make it his own. His sublime, bittersweet book, The Grass Harp, was also written in first person from a child’s point of view, and takes place in a small southern town.

But everything I’ve read about Harper Lee says she has her own specific talents, as well as a formidable stubborn streak. Her friend Truman might well have helped her with the technical aspects of a manuscript, but it’s an insult to suggest she’s not the true author of that beautiful book.

We’ll never know for sure, of course, because Harper Lee isn’t talking. She saw no need to tell her side of the story. She’s a writer, not a celebrity, and the limelight isn’t what most writers strive for. Their goal is to tell a ripping good tale, and Harper Lee has done that. The book is the story. She owes her fans nothing more.

She is now 88 years old. For over a half-century people have been knocking at her door, trying to find out who Harper Lee really is. In all these years she has never let them in. It isn’t that she is such a recluse she has never appeared in public, never spoken publicly. She has. Many times. And it isn’t as if she has never left Monroeville, Alabama. She kept an apartment in New York City until fairly recently and went back often, for months at a time. Until recently, when both of them moved into a nursing home, she lived with her older sister, Alice (102 years old!), in the town where they grew up.

She speaks publicly but only when she wants to. She is not keen on inviting the inevitable over-analysis of her famous book, and has no interest in being a celebrity. So because she is who she is and would rather be left alone, she is seen, of course, as the ultimate get.

In 2004 Marja Mills, then a journalist on leave from the Chicago Tribune for medical reasons, moved into the house next door to Nelle and Alice and stayed for a year and a half, with the intent of writing a book about Harper Lee.

She had many conversations with Nelle’s sister, and with friends and neighbors. She assured her publishers that she had also spent a considerable amount of time talking to Nelle. But Nelle sees it differently. She denies ever giving her more than the time of day.

Now, 10 years after Mills left Monroeville and the Lee sisters, the book, awkwardly titled, The Mockingbird Next Door, Life With Harper Lee, is out.

If you believe Harper Lee, Marja Mills lied to get this book published. There is no other way to look at it. Yet the publisher’s note on the Penguin Press page says the following:

In 2004, with the Lees’ encouragement, Mills moved into the house next door to the sisters. She spent the next eighteen months there, talking and sharing stories over meals and daily drives in the countryside. Along with members of the Lees’ tight inner circle, the sisters and Mills would go fishing, feed the ducks, go to the Laundromat, watch the Crimson Tide, drink coffee at McDonald’s, and explore all over lower Alabama.

Nelle shared her love of history, literature, and the quirky Southern way of life with Mills, as well as her keen sense of how journalism should be practiced. As the sisters decided to let Mills tell their story, Nelle helped make sure she was getting the story — and the South — right. Alice, the keeper of the Lee family history, shared the stories of their family.

Nelle Harper Lee says that never happened. She says she never agreed to tell her story to Mills, and she never developed a friendship with her. In fact, Lee says, she would go out of town whenever she heard Mills was coming because the woman hounded her so much.

As early as 2011, when the news came out of the forthcoming book, Harper Lee denied any cooperation with Mills. Mills’ agent calmly suggested that Lee may have “forgotten” her cooperation since her stroke in 2007.

So even with Harper Lee’s painstaking efforts to get the word out that Marja Mills’ book about “life with Harper Lee” is stacked with lie upon lie, the presses rolled. The book is in print. The reviews have been written. (Note that there is no mention in the Washington Post review of Lee’s 2011 insistence that she did not cooperate with Mills. Not a hint that she fought hard against it.)

If Marja Mills had written an unauthorized book about Harper Lee, I might hold my nose and learn to live with it. But if, as Harper Lee accuses, Marja Mills and her publisher, Penguin Group, pushed forward with the publication, knowing full well that the entire book was built on the lie that Lee gave it her blessing, that whole conversations were real and not imagined, then the subtitle, “Life with Harper Lee”, is a falsehood.

So who are you going to believe? Nelle Harper Lee or Marja Mills? Is there some truth, some lie in both stories? Could be. But if Harper Lee says she’s the unwilling subject of a book and the author claims otherwise, there’s a problem.

I don’t know Harper Lee but I do know “To Kill a Mockingbird”. More than 50 years after it appeared, the book still resonates. It is still a classic, so beautifully written we’ve never been able to get over it.

Harper Lee gave us an amazing gift. It’ll be with us forever. Now she should be able to rest.