Can Alabama Determine What Harper Lee Wants?

The government investigated whether the author was manipulated into publishing Go Set a Watchman.

AP/The Atlantic

Updated March 12, 2015 at 3:45 pm.

From the instant that Harper Lee's new book was announced, a feeling of discomfort welled up in many readers and observers. Why was the author of To Kill a Mockingbird only now publishing the manuscript? Did she have the mental acuity to truly consent to the publication, much less to take any steps necessary to prepare Go Set a Watchman for printing? Wasn't it fishy that the decision came after a long silence, yet so soon after the death of her sister and protector?

It wasn't just literature fans who wondered what happened: So did the state of Alabama. The New York Times reported Thursday that the state Human Resources Department and Alabama Securities Commission had launched an inquiry into whether Lee is suffering elder abuse, following at least one complaint.

But the investigation was closed within hours of that report, with officials saying that Lee answered investigators' questions about potential financial fraud. The state cited confidentiality laws in refusing to discuss the investigation with the Times, but a spokesman offered some background information:

Caseworkers generally talk to people who may be victims to evaluate their physical, mental and emotional state, and they interview doctors, family members, caretakers and friends, Mr. Spear said.

In some cases, an investigation may involve subpoenaing financial and other records. Among the records that may be available are cognitive assessments of Ms. Lee by the staff of the Meadows. The facility agreed to make such monthly assessments on each resident as part of a settlement of a 2014 review by inspectors of the Alabama Department of Public Health.

Lee herself was interviewed last month at her assisted-living facility, and many of her friends and acquaintances have been as well.

The author's agent, publisher, and lawyer insist that Lee is—though ailing from the effects of old age, including almost total deafness and blindness—lucid, in high spirits, and upbeat about the novel finally being published, decades after it was shelved as flawed and Lee focused on Mockingbird instead. Yet a large group of outsiders remains deeply wary of the entire business.

The one group that seems truly divided is those who actually know and have spoken with Lee recently. Philip Sanchez, a friend of Lee's who visits her frequently, said he has no way of judging. “It’s a call only God or a doctor can make,” he told The Times.

Another friend said he thought she was capable of making the decision, but also noted that when asked about the novel, she seemed foggy on what he was talking about. When told she must be proud, Lee's answer was disconcerting: “I’m not so sure anymore.”

Lee's sister Alice, who died at 103 in November, told writer Marja Mills in 2010, "She doesn’t know from one minute to the other what she’s told anybody ... She’s surprised at anything that she hears because she doesn’t remember anything that’s ever been said about it.”

Everyone involved seems to be working from a partial, incomplete, and highly personal set of facts. It's like trying to piece together an ancient manuscript from just a few mottled fragments, which each reader interprets with Talmudic obsession and, often, a peculiar conviction in the divine truth of their interpretation.

In February, Birmingham News reporter Connor Sheets wrote, "Multiple residents of Monroeville who have known Harper Lee for years said Wednesday that they believe the 88-year-old author does not possess sufficient mental faculties to make informed decisions about her literary career."

Yet when Sheets received a reply to a letter from the author this month, he was sure he knew what it meant, even though the answer was just four words: "Go Away! Harper Lee." His interpretation:

It appears that Nelle, as her friends call her, is very much with it, that she is still lucid and that her acerbic, press-averse side is fully intact.

Not only does the handwriting have the same careless curlicues and vague vowels of verified Lee signatures I've seen in the past, but it also expresses a sentiment similar to those she has directed in the direction of poky journalists for several decades.

Maybe that's right, and maybe it's not. As he notes, this has been her standard reply to media requests for years now. Plenty of other observers, working from at least as much or more information agree. Yet plenty of others just as staunchly believe Lee is in no position to consent.

Compared to those who have known Lee for decades, how can investigators hope to understand her better? They can't simply poll acquaintances. To Kill a Mockingbird provided a vivid lesson that even when the truth can be established, it doesn't necessarily lead to justice. Long before the book has reached shelves, the saga of Go Set a Watchman already seems to be teaching how hard it can be to even determine what the truth is.