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I have no definitive answers to the pervasive questions regarding whether Harper Lee truly wants her previously unpublished novel Go Set a Watchman published or if she in her old age has been coerced by the financial motivations of others.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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While Outlander is a Real Winner for Women it Totally Fails Disabled People

Colum MacKenzie complete with CGI bowed legs on able-bodied actor Gary Lewis

Colum MacKenzie complete with CGI bowed legs on able-bodied actor Gary Lewis

Outlander is returning to the Starz Network today. It is a popular series based on the novels of Diana Gabaldon. I admit I like the show. I read the books first so of course I cringe where the show deviates from the original.

The show is well made and truly entertaining. It has also been lauded for its complex portrayal of women and female sexuality. These assessments are pretty accurate though I take issue with the casting of the female lead. Jenny Trout describes her like this;

“[Caitriona] Balfe is slender, but her stomach isn’t flat and her breasts are natural. The lack of body hair is a bit disturbing, given the time period, but watching the actors together, the viewer sees two people being intimate with each other, instead of two sculpted dolls switching between acrobatic positions.”

So she not totally perfect but she is very slim, which is the standard for women on TV and in movies. In the books however, Claire is repeatedly and consistently described as curvacious. Something Balfe is decidedly not. It might have been nice for them to have diversified the bodies of their female cast but they only non thin women are either extras or characters over forty-five. So I guess it’s only a partial win for women.

The show does however completely throw disabled people under the bus. The story contains the character of Colum MacKenzie who is both disabled and the Laird. The character is in many ways a major step forward for disabled characters in television.

Colum is not a stereotype. His character is complex, his role in the story is not completely defined by his disability, though it is informed by it. He does not fall neatly into the almost universal boxes of being a saint, villain, victim or inspiration. He has both good and bad qualities and none of his character flaws or virtues are a result of his disability.

And yet despite all of that, I cringe every time he is on screen. It is extremely disappointing that the producers of this show opted to cast an able-bodied actor. Particularly because none of the usual excuses for passing over a disabled actor apply.

The character is never shown as able-bodied. There is no transition to excuse the use of cripface.

The actor Gary Lewis is not the major draw to the series and is in fact almost unrecognizable due to the hairstyles and clothing. So his star power is not required for the show to be a success.

His disability is entirely created through the use of CGI and can therefor the portrayal is not the result of acting skill.

In fact as you see in the image above, which I obtained from an episode review, the author added the word Yo in between the bowed legs to draw added attention to them. The author had this to say about the physical presentation of Colum’s disability.

“the Laird shows up at the door, surprising [Claire] with both his abrupt entrance and CGI legs. Seriously, what in the world? The special effects here are maybe a little extreme, but sure. Let’s roll with it.”

The author is presumably able-bodied as she hasn’t indicated why she would have any expertise to judge the reality of the portrayal. So by have an able-bodied actor in computer generated cripface, the show destroys its own ability to claim a realistic portrayal of disability by giving viewers the ammunition to question it.

If a disabled actor had been used, this argument would not exist. You can’t argue with the reality of a person’s actual body. rather than a picture superimposed in post production.

This is a prime example of why there needs to be actually disabled actors cast as disabled characters. Realisn cannot be achieved through imitation or computer generation. It also shows that regardless of how accurate those CGI legs were (and I’m not competent judge), they allow nondisabled people to dismiss the possibility that for someone, that this might be their real body and real lived experience.

Hey People: Diagnoses are Nouns not Adjectives

As I have written about before, language usage is important when considering how disabled people are viewed and portrayed in society. While I personally prefer to not use person first language, there is one situation where the person should always come first. This is when an actual diagnosis is being discussed. I will demonstrate:

Person with Cerebral Palsy

Person with Down Syndrome

Person with Spina Bifida

and so on.

This should be self evident because both the word person and the diagnosis are nouns, and yet this simple grammatical concept is to complicated for a lot of people. Today, I read this. The headline reads

Kiwi expat family take cerebal palsy son’s discrimination case to UN

What the fuck? Cerebral Palsy is a noun, it is the name of a medical diagnosis. It is not now nor has it ever been an adjective. It can’t even be made into one as Autism can be made into autistic (most autistic people are totally fine with being called autistic but people with other diagnoses that can be made into descriptors like Schizophrenia really hate it and you should all respect that).

This is far from the first time, I have seen this severe lapse in grammar. It often happens to people with Down Syndrom2 for example here and here. Bless Google for knowing this is terrible. while I was searching for the examples, I knew were plentiful, my top results were for articles with correct person first phrases “man with Down Syndrome” or “child with down syndrome”. Even so, it didn’t take much scrolling before I found examples of the offending phrases. To add insult to injury, the second example is a story about a young man with Down’s who was killed by police. Even in death he can’t have his humanity recognized

By trying to turn a noun into an adjective, you are going to both fail and give that noun precedence of place. By putting it before the person you are giving it ownership of that person and denying their humanity and individuality. So in future check your grammar and remember that diagnoses are not descriptions of people but are things that people have.