Is concern for Harper Lee's mental health ageist?


Danielle Binks

Harper Lee.

Harper Lee. Photo: Getty Images

Hey, Boo: Harper Lee and 'To Kill a Mockingbird' was a documentary released in 2010, to mark the novel's 50th anniversary. During an interview, author Anna Quindlen asked "Can you imagine the pressure on Harper Lee to write a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird? I mean, once the movie came out, and you could see that it kept selling every year – they must just have thrown rose petals and chocolates and millions of dollars at her feet, and I don't know whether she couldn't do it – but I prefer to think that she wouldn't do it."

Quindlen's words proved somewhat prognostic, when on February 3rd Lee's legend took a sharp turn with the announcement of a lost manuscript discovered. Go Set a Watchman will be released on July 14th and is set after the events of To Kill a Mockingbird.

Go Set a Watchman is already being heralded as a groundbreaking literary coup. But amidst the joy there has been bitter-sweetness, not least over the possibility of a tarnishing sequel. Lee's publishing news was met with some sexist comments, from those who were shocked to learn that she was in fact a woman to a dizzying number of articles drudging up old slander that Truman Capote was rumoured to have "ghostwritten" her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel (because Capote was just the sort of humble soul to take that secret to the grave). 

CNBC was even of the belief that; "People will buy the book to see if they can determine if it's truly Harper Lee who is the great writer, or Truman Capote instead". Yes, I'm sure that's the main reason this book is already on bestseller lists, so people can gather more evidence that a man actually wrote one of the Great American Novels. Sigh – and so soon after the Colleen McCullough incident too.  


But there's another debate around Lee's publishing news and those casting doubt on how much of it is unmitigated good news. Much has been made of the fact that Harper Lee suffered a stroke in 2007, which left her wheelchair-bound and moved into an assisted living facility. Jezebel lead the charge, questioning the timing of Lee's sister and literary executor Alice dying last year, and then the discovery of this long-lost manuscript that Lee gave the green-light to publish after years of shunning the spotlight.

A particularly odd interview with Lee's HarperCollins editor Hugh Van Dusen shortly after the announcement had The Toast questioning and criticising the publisher's seeming unpreparedness for the media onslaught and scrutiny.

Katy Waldman writing for Slate believes HarperCollins should reconsider publishing Watchman all together, with news that the publisher has only had contact with Lee through her lawyer and reports surfacing out of her hometown in Monroeville that acquaintances are concerned over the contract.

News reports (again, based on statements from her lawyer Tonja Carter) are now saying that Harper Lee is "hurt and humiliated" over assumptions of senility and accusations that a hoodwinking happened.

"She is a very strong, independent and wise woman who should be enjoying the discovery of her long-lost novel," Carter said, "Instead, she is having to defend her own credibility and decision making."

I was one of those concerned and sceptical over Lee's publishing news – partly because of the nervousness over a sequel of sorts – but I was also thinking of the Hey, Boo documentary. Though Lee was not involved in the doco (unsurprising, since her last interview was in 1964) her sister Alice was interviewed and spoke about her sister's unwillingness to publish after the success of To Kill a Mockingbird. Alice said Lee told one of their cousins, "I haven't anywhere to go but down".

But news of Lee being "hurt and humiliated" had me second-guessing my own reactions, and how much they may have been grounded in ageism, and a presumption that somebody who lives in an assisted living facility is done with life, a woman who is 88-years-old and has experienced ill-health must be easily manipulated and not in her right mind (regardless of how razor-sharp that mind once was).

How much of the concern for Harper Lee and her agreeing to publish Go Set a Watchman is genuine, and how much is thinly veiled ageism? Could the well-meaning people coming to Harper Lee's defence really just be wowsers? Maybe it's time to take a page out of Lee's own novel: You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view — until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.

Bestselling author Jackie French is Australian Children's Laureate and was awarded the 2015 Senior Australian of the Year honour. French had not read the negative reactions to Go Set a Watchman but is somewhat saddened nonetheless.

"It is not Lee's age that is astonishing but that after one magnificent book she gave us no others, until now," she said.

French admits to being "slightly terrified" by the prospect of a second book from Harper Lee but hopes people's presumptions about the author will not overshadow the potential power of her second book.

"A book can change your life and To Kill a Mockingbird has given many the courage to fight for what is right. But the role of a great writer is to see the world clearly, a bit like a window-washer for the soul. What haven't we noticed, that this new book may etch on us indelibly?"

Pat Lowe is a West Australian author who did not publish her first book until she was in her 40s. Since then she has written 12 titles of fiction, non-fiction, and contributed to a number of collections.

Lowe is likewise sceptical of people's "well-meaning" concern over Lee's publishing news.

"It does sound as if people were jumping to conclusions because of her age and the fact that she is in aged care. Her state of mind could and should have been established first, and I gather she is quite compos mentis [of sound mind]."

As to wider discussions of ageism, Lowe says shes notices that "after a certain age older people are taken less and less seriously- which I attribute to a perceived loss of power. And God save us from other people who have power over us (e.g. in mental hospitals, nursing homes and aged care facilities.) They always know better than we do what we want and what is good for us."

Of course, Lee's lawyer could be seen to be one of those with considerable power over the author, which is where a lot of concern seems to be stemming from.  

Nonetheless, it is disheartening to read negative reactions to Harper Lee's news that emphasise her age and infer incompetence because of it. 

"Old people are often treated kindly but condescendingly, like children who must be humoured and manipulated," says Pat Lowe. "They are not allowed to take risks … I knew an Aboriginal woman who was thought to be demented because her English wasn't very good and she used to "wander off" from the hostel where she was staying. I knew her "wandering off" to be purposeful, because she was coming to my house around the corner for a cup of tea and to tell me stories (which were later published – The Girl from the Great Sandy Desert)."

It's not unkind to want to be sure that a beloved literary legend who is 88-years-old, has suffered from ill health, shunned reporters and fame for years – and whose literary executor and sister died recently – isn't being taken advantage of, especially when there's money and infamy on the line for others.

But I could understand Harper Lee being "hurt and humiliated" over people's rampant speculation over her mental health, by those who assume that because she's old she must be senile. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view.

Danielle Binks is a writer, and book reviewer on her personal blog Alpha Reader. You can Tweet her: @danielle_binks