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To Kill a Book Deal: Harper Lee and Suspected Elder Abuse

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Many Americans were pleasantly surprised by recent news that a second book by Harper Lee, author of the classic To Kill a Mockingbird, is set for release this summer by publisher Harper Collins. After all, most of us grew up reading To Kill a Mockingbird in elementary school and remember the adventures of her childhood model and protagonist, Scout.

Yet there are some circumstances surrounding the release of Lee's upcoming book, Go Set a Watchman, that should be cleared up. Indeed, worries are circulating that the 88-year-old Lee hasn't actually sanctioned the publication of her new novel. Along with other reclusive writers like the late J.D. Salinger, Harper Lee guarded her privacy intensely in the face of press inquiries after her 1960 book enjoyed critical success. Her sister, Alice Lee, was also her longtime lawyer who kept her out of the media spotlight.

Alice, however, passed away in November of last year, and Lee is now represented by her deceased sister's law partner Tonja Carter, who holds power of attorney over her. Lee's health has been in precipitous decline since 2007, when she suffered a stroke, and she is now reported to be largely deaf and blind. These factors, potentially pointing to incapacity, call into question whether Lee truly agreed to have the long-dormant manuscript published, an event that only took place once Alice Lee was no longer in the picture.

The context for possible unauthorized publication of Go Set a Watchman is already present in past controversies. The Mockingbird Next Door, an account of the Lee sisters' lives penned by former Chicago Tribune journalist Marja Mills, was supposedly agreed upon by Lee before she denounced it in a written statement, only to then have the denunciation quashed by Alice, who said that Tonja Carter typed up the letter and had the blind and deaf Lee sign it.

As if this case of crossed wires and contradictions wasn't enough, Lee had earlier unwittingly transferred ownership of her copyright to agent Samuel Pinkus in 2011, ownership only recovered through litigation and an eventual settlement. Carter was present at that signing, as well, and another intellectual property-related lawsuit was filed in 2013 under Lee's name against the local Monroeville, AL, museum over purported trademark violations.

Now Alice Lee is dead, and 88-year-old Harper Lee has suddenly signed a new book deal. Gawker reports that "Lee has a history of signing whatever's put in front of her, apparently sometimes with Carter's advice." Add to this accounts that Lee is increasingly isolated from old friends, with Carter sending them notes to no longer visit because of the author's ill health. With so many conflicting signals and a few red flags, it's reasonable to question whether elder abuse and undue influence might be afoot.

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