The Issue of Harper Lee’s New Book and Armchair Activism

I have no definitive answers to the pervasive questions regarding whether Harper Lee truly wants her previously unpublished novel Go Set a Watchman published or if she in her old age has been coerced by the financial motivations of others. I do however wish to comment on some of the insinuations that seem to be popular.

The details as they can be confirmed are as follows. Fifty-Five years ago, Harper Lee published the American classic and Pulitzer Prize winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird. Since then she has published no other work and has throughout her life been notoriously reclusive. She is now well in to old age and in 2007 had a stroke which has affected her vision and memory. In February of 2015, Lee and her publisher announced that they would be publishing a second novel Go Set a Watchman. This novel was written prior to To Kill a Mockingbird and was rejected but, the publisher liked certain aspects of the story and asked Lee to rework it into what became To Kill a Mockingbird. So even though it was written first, it now serves as a sequel.

Since the announcement people have been asking questions as the timing of the announcement seems suspicious. Lee’s sister and chief advocate recently passed away, leading some to suggest that the publication would not take place had she still been living. Questions have been raised around Lee’s health and ability to understand what is happening. While the concern over whether or not Lee actively a knowledgeably consented to having her long shelved project published, is almost universally framed and likely does come from a place of genuine concern over whether Lee has been taken advantage of. The overwhelming consensus regardless to external reviews–which all point to her being aware and able–has also been that she has been taken advantage of.

There is no more that can really be done to confirm that Lee was in fact taken advantage of or was definitively competent when she gave the go ahead for the publication. This has gone beyond conjecture on the internet which in part led to an official complaint and subsequent inquiry, which sided with Lee’s capacity to consent. Yet people are still skeptical.

Government organizations are not infallible when it comes to its dealings with vulnerable groups but those failings are far more likely to restrict people than give them freedom. We will likely never know for sure because there is so much doubt being maintained. It is this obsessive doubt that I want to address.

Doubt is a great tool to uncover inequality and abuse but it can just as easily be the source of silencing vulnerable voices because the doubters don’t consider that they could be wrong.

Capacity to consent as it pertains to mental disability is complicated and is not based on an all or nothing standard. Harper Lee is not required to have full and permanent cognitive function at whatever frankly arbitrary limit, the armchair activists have set. She is in her late eighties which is compounded by her stroke, but age and medical diagnosis alone are not enough to write off someone’s agency.

I know most people who have written about this would argue that they are defending her agency but this is not true. A lot of the controversy has been couched in terms of questioning the motives of people around Lee but in order to do that, it must be tacitly assumed that Lee cannot make the decision to publish this book herself. So her agency is threatened not only by her family and lawyer but by everyone with an opinion on the internet whether it is voiced on Twitter, in the comment section or in an article. The assumption always seems to sway in favour of her incompetence despite these concerns being addressed not only by those who represent Harper (which have all been met with heavy skepticism) but also by external and independent review as detailed in this Jezebel article.  The state of Alabama which does not benefit from this new publication has deemed her capable of consenting and yet the ever skeptical Jezebel author ends her coverage of this finding with this line,

“Well, that’s that then. That’s that.”

She’s just as skeptical as she was before an external agency got involved. This suggests that people are more interested in this narrative of Harper Lee’s victimhood than Harper Lee’s actual narrative. In the end this just dehumanizes Lee and in no way changes what will happen. Go Set a Watchmen will be published in July. This victim narrative will not be satisfied until someone officially confirms it, which seems unlikely. There is no room in the mind of the public for any other outcome to be valid. Harper Lee is no longer a person with interests or desires. She is an empty shell that keeps breathing and making money for others. I want to offer an alternative possibility as equally fictitious as all the others but equally plausible.

Lee was in her mid-thirties when she published To Kill a Mockingbird. For a first publication it was an unprecedented success. She started writing and shelved at least two other books without publication. Starting out with a Pulitzer Prize winner is a hard act to follow after all and fear of not living up to expectations can be discouraging. She is now 88 and has the opportunity to publish a fully completed work that was originally intended for publication. Perhaps at this point in life she no longer cares about living up to the public’s expectations and it is a chance for the story she originally wanted to tell to be told.

Is this a cash grab on the part of the publishers? Almost certainly. Is it going to live up to the standards and influence of To Kill a Mockingbird? Probably not. Does that necessarily mean that its publication comes after nefarious actions at the hands of the lawyers and publishers? No. It doesn’t mean yes either but there is more evidence for a no and that needs to be considered.

Disabled People and the elderly are not vulnerable by default and people need to stop running on the assumption that they are. That kind of thinking only creates vulnerability by denying legitimacy to the thoughts and actions of people on the margins. In order to foster a world where coercion and abuse are obsolete, the narrative needs to be controlled by those whose voices are to often questioned and accusations of wrong doing come with evidence that amounts to more than “that person, I consider to be vulnerable did a thing that I didn’t expect with the involvement of other people” Well founded doubt can be the vehicle for finding truth. But in this case truth has been defined as a single outcome that is not forthcoming. It is just as likely that doubt in this instance is based on well intentioned ignorance. An ignorance born of the normalization of the dehumanization of disability.

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