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Is Elder Abuse Behind Harper Lee's New Book?

Harper Lee Harper Lee

While Americans were delighted to hear of the upcoming release of famed writer Harper Lee's long-shelved manuscript, there may be much more to the story than many initially suspected. Lee, author of the celebrated 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird, is famously publicity-shy, a characteristic that has only strengthened over her 88 years. Along with her reclusiveness, Lee has not been spared the ailments of old age; in 2007 she suffered a stroke and is now said to be largely deaf and blind. Lee's longtime lawyer, Tonja Carter, negotiated the signing, and it was Carter who supposedly found the work last year among old files in storage.

Yet now comes a new twist in the plot: Alabama state authorities are investigating whether elder abuse -  a case of undue influence - was behind Lee's seeming agreement to the book deal. With the February announcement by Harper Collins that they would be publishing Lee's "new" work Go Set a Watchman, there are a number of factors that present cause for concern about the author's physical and mental state and her susceptibility to undue influence, factors calling into question whether publication is even ethical or legal. Let's highlight the main points:

  • Harper Lee's sister, Alice Lee, was her attorney and largely responsible for safeguarding her sister's wishes for privacy. Alice died last year at age 103. Since then Tonja Carter has exercised full power of attorney over Lee. It's noteworthy that only after Alice passed away was a deal struck on the new book.
  • Harper Lee was previously the alleged victim of manipulation after she unwittingly signed over ownership of her copyright to agent Samuel Pinkus in 2011. It was only recovered through litigation and settlement.
  • According to excerpts from a 2010 interview with the late Alice Lee recorded by author of The Mockingbird Next Door Marja Mills, Alice stated that "[Harper Lee] 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."

The individual who reported suspicions of elder abuse and undue influence to the State of Alabama last month wishes to remain anonymous, though the New York Times says the source is a medical doctor and longtime friend of Lee, someone concerned with her well-being. And with so many confusing circumstances and potential red flags - with millions from a publishing contract at stake -  Harper Lee's case is certainly worth investigating.

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