It’s a Sin To Exploit Harper Lee


Mockingbird mishigas is whirling through the publishing world. A former Chicago Tribune reporter named Marja Mills has penned a memoir which appears to be about her experience as the neighbor of Harper Lee, the endearingly private author of To Kill a Mockingbird. Mill’s memoir is titled Mockingbird Next Door: My Life with Harper Lee and is due to be released in the Fall of 2013 by Penguin Press.

Penguin insists that Mills wrote the book with the “cooperation” of Harper Lee and her nonagenarian sister Alice, who is also her attorney. The publisher even released a letter from Mills to the Lees, confirming that the memoirist moved next door to the Lee sisters with their “blessing” in order to learn about their lives. The confirmation letter is signed by Alice, who is now refuting Mills’ claim and apparently hung up on a reporter who called to investigate the controversy.

What, then, do we make of this she-said/she-said story? What would prompt the 85-year-old author, who is almost as reclusive as her famous creation Boo Radley, to bare her secretive soul to a stranger? Did the stroke that Lee suffered two years ago leave her loose-lipped? Did she agree to cooperate with Mills’ memoir without understanding what she was agreeing to? And could such rope-slackening really have taken place under big sister Alice’s nose?

Did Mills misrepresent her mission in Monroeville? Did Harper Lee, nearing the end of her life, decide it was finally time to open up? Or is Marja Mills just a consummate con artist?

Given the ethos of privacy and humility that permeates Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and is echoed by the way she has shrugged off her own fame, it is hard to fathom why she would choose to let a relatively unknown journalist write a book in which she is the centerpiece. Whatever transpired between the Lee sisters and Mills, the Mockingbird author now clearly regrets any association with the upcoming memoir that capitalizes on her mystique.

Like so many Mockingbird devotees, I feel profoundly attached to that American classic and I’m protective of its author. In this era of reality TV, sexting, confessional blogging, Facebooking, and letting-it-all-hang-outness, Lee’s desire to live her life quietly and modestly feels almost like a lost art. Both Lee and her book are national treasures that should be respected and not sullied.

When I was nine, my mother stuck To Kill a Mockingbird in my hand and said, “Here. It’s time for you to read this.” After laboring through the first three pages I told her I was bored and wanted to quit. “Keep going,” she said. “It gets better.”

And it did. By the time I finished, the book, which was a family favorite, had become mine as well. I don’t remember how much of the rape and trial storyline my 9-year-old mind comprehended. What I do recall is how much I loved the unfolding of the relationship between Scout, Jem and Boo. I knew was it was like to be the awkward little sister, and as the sole adopted member of my family, I knew how it was to feel like an outsider wondering how she fit in.

My family was a book family. You were expected to read voraciously and to speak about language, themes and characters intelligently. Now, when my parents and sister talked about Scout’s first day at school, or the scene in which Atticus shoots the mad dog, or the moment when Scout finally sees Boo in the light, I understood.  I could tell you why it was a sin to kill a mockingbird, and why it’s important to respect the rights of others, “different” or not.

Reading Mockingbird was a rite of passage, the first time I remember feeling truly connected to my parents and sister. I was an insider now that I had entered Harper Lee’s world. I was old enough to be exposed to hard truths: that prejudice can divide us, that good people can lose, that justice does not always win out–yet amid this darkness resides the power of the human spirit, the hope of redemption, and the possibility that connection can come to us in unexpected, circuitous ways.

Four years ago, my husband and I had our first date. As we unpacked our upbringings, similarities emerged, but none as important as his family’s involvement with Harper Lee and with To Kill a Mockingbird. If I revealed exactly how my husband–whose nom du blog is Atticus–was connected to Mockingbird, this blog would no longer be anonymous. But I will say that in the moment he revealed his unique link to this Great American Classic, I suspected we were destined to be together. I will also divulge that sitting atop our bookshelf is a framed written exchange from Truman Capote to Harper Lee–but how that document landed in our possession has to remain a secret.

Last summer, when it was the 50th Anniversary of the publication of Mockingbird, Atticus and I considered taking our kids on a field trip to Monroeville. Although my husband has never met Harper Lee himself, a member of his family is still in contact with her. We thought about asking this relative for an introduction to Lee. I imagined our children sitting on a porch swing, a swing very much like the Finch porch swing in the Mockingbird film, while Atticus and I sipped iced tea with Lee in her living room, trying not to ogle her like a national monument. I imagined my daughter’s first day of school in the fall, how her hand would shoot up when the teacher asked what everyone had done that summer.

But we couldn’t bring ourselves to ask for the introduction. It just didn’t seem right. Even if Lee did agree to meet with us, what, exactly, would we say to her? Why did you and Truman Capote stop speaking to each other? When was the last time you saw Gregory Peck? I sure do like the mint in this iced tea?

Maybe one day we’ll make the trek to Monroeville. We’ll visit the Monroe County Heritage Museum, take in the annual play production performed by the Mockingbird Players theater group. Maybe we’ll even stroll by Lee’s house, sneaking sideways glances.

Not yet an avid reader, my daughter has only seen the Mockingbird film. But when she’s older, and she’s ready, I’ll stick the book in her hand and say, “Here. It’s time for you to read this.”

About perilsofdivorcedpauline

I am a survivor of a world-class gnarly divorce. My dastardly ex-husband is suing me for full custody of my son, and more time with my daughter. He’s super-rich and I’m super-not. You get the picture.
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4 Responses to It’s a Sin To Exploit Harper Lee

  1. The news of this memoir saddens me. This was/is such an important book in my life. It had such an impact on me and kick-started my love for reading. Thank you, Harper Lee!

  2. Great piece! What this memoir writer did is one of the oldest tricks in the book.

  3. Bee Gomez says:

    It’s hardly exploitation. People write unauthorized biographies all the time. Look at the MFK FIsher industry. And there’s always been a fair amount of speculation that Capote did more than just “help” with the book. She’s never written anything else.

  4. Bee Gomez says:

    Oh and Capote mentioned her in his will, so they hardly had any falling out.

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