Kathryn Stockett's book "The Help"--which explores the friendship between a young white woman and two black maids in segregated, 1960s-era Mississippi--is a critically acclaimed bestseller with a movie spin-off due out this summer. But Ablene Cooper, who was the longtime babysitter for Stockett's brother, says the novel's success has come at her expense.
Cooper has filed a lawsuit against Stockett claiming that the author based her "Aibileen Clark" character on Cooper without her permission, humiliating her in the process. The suit notes that the similarities between Ablene and Aibileen don't end with their names: they're both African-Americans working for a white family in Jackson, and they both have a gold tooth and an adult son who died before the birth of their white employer's first child. Cooper says she was offended by how Aibileen speaks and by a scene in which Aibileen compares her skin color to a cockroach. Stockett has characterized her novel as largely fictional but written in the voice of her family's maid, Demetrie, and informed by her childhood in the South.
Novelists often draw on their experiences when composing works of literature. So who has the upper hand in cases like these--novelists who weave fragments of their life into their fiction or those who feel they've been harmed in real life by the fictional account?
The Wall Street Journal's Ashby Jones points out that authors and publishers generally enjoy broad First Amendment protection. Cooper, Jones observes, is only seeking $75,000, a threshold number that keeps the case from going to federal court. "It looks an awful lot like Cooper wants to use the threat of a friendly Mississippi judge and hometown jury to extract a relatively modest settlement," he says. The Philadelphia Inquirer's Tattle columnist agrees: "Our guess is that while Penguin is claiming the lawsuit is baseless, someone involved with 'The Help' is prepping a check."
Gawker's Hamilton Nolan goes further, arguing that "letting people successfully sue authors because they didn't like characters based on them in works of fiction would be comically horrible precedent."