[Updated July 13, 2015, to reflect Tanja Carter’s Wall Street Journal article. See below. Also, see my post about Atticus Finch’s racism in Go Set A Watchman.]
For someone who is “one of the world’s most famous literary recluses,” and hasn’t given an in-depth interview or published any work in more than 50 years, Harper Lee has made quite a lot of headlines over the past few years.
She sued her agent, then her hometown museum, and in both alleged that each had taken advantage of her declining health. Her complaint against her agent alleged that, because of her “serious deafness” and “macular degeneration,” she was barely able to hear or read anymore. (The complaint also alleged, at paragraph 48, that as of October 2012, Tonja Carter, Lee’s estate lawyer, was instructing HarperCollins to pay all To Kill A Mockingbird royalties to her. We’ll come back to that.)
Thus, when Harper Lee announced — through Tanja Carter, of course — that she was publishing Go Set A Watchman, a “sequel” to To Kill A Mockingbird that had been miraculously found by that same lawyer, more than a few eyebrows went up.
Many people who have known Lee for decades, from the editor-in-chief at W.W. Norton to the owner of her favorite restaurant, David’s Catfish House, have said Lee was adamant that nothing else was going to be published in her lifetime. Others in Monroeville, Alabama, say that Lee’s health has been in a severe decline for years, and that they feel she’s being manipulated and that she likely lacks the capacity to decide one way or another.
Adding to the concern, it seems that virtually no one can actually see Lee anymore, not even her editor or her publisher. As reported by The New York Times, everything goes through Tanja Carter:
Ms. Carter appears to have won the trust of Ms. Lee’s publisher, too. She was a key contact for HarperCollins as the deal for the new book was negotiated. “We talked to her through her lawyer and friend Tonja Carter,” said Jonathan Burnham, the senior vice president and publisher of Harper, adding that getting direct permission from Ms. Lee “wasn’t necessary.”
Harper Lee’s editor said he didn’t even know about the book until it was announced, and that he hasn’t had any contact with her: “She’s getting progressively deafer and more blind, and that’s where things stand. I don’t hear from her. There’s no reason why I should, because we don’t need to do anything. I write her notes now and then, but I haven’t heard anything back and I wouldn’t expect to.”
Though adverse to publicity, Lee wasn’t a recluse, and for decades Lee delighted in conversing with neighbors, acquaintances around town, writers, editors, and publishers — and now she won’t even talk to the editor and publisher of her own book?
I wrote back in 2013 that Lee’s unusual litigation created “the impression that this fight is driven more by the professionals around Lee than it is by her.” Now, based on the information available through published reports, the situation looks less like ‘a fight driven by professionals’ and more like elder abuse.
Isolation is a classic sign of elder abuse, so much so that, in many states, caregivers are required to report it to the authorities. It is similarly suspicious when a single person controls all of an elderly person’s financial affairs, as Tanja Carter apparently does.
Most of the defense of Tanja Carter has revolved around her relationship with Harper Lee’s sister, Alice Lee, because they were partners in the same law firm. Yet, it seems that their relationship was strained at best, with Alice Lee having her own suspicious about Carter manipulating Harper Lee into making statements despite her impaired mental status. Last year, after Marja Mills published “The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee,” this happened:
Harper Lee released a statement through Carter saying the book wasn’t authorized, prompting Alice Lee to send her own hand-written apology to Mills. In it, Alice Lee said Carter had created the statement, and had Harper Lee sign it. “Poor Nelle Lee can’t see and can’t hear and will sign anything put before her by anyone in whom she has confidence,” her sister wrote. “Now she has no memory of the incident.”
Alice Lee describes confronting Carter in the letter, provided to the AP by Mills, and said the whole episode left her “humiliated, embarrassed and upset about the suggestion of the lack of integrity at my office.”
I don’t think the full text of the letter has been made public but the selections above speak for themselves. It doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to be suspicious about Carter’s claims to have found the Go Set A Watchman manuscript around the same time or soon after — Carter’s press releases have been unclear about the timing — that Alice Lee died.
As the population ages, the representation of potentially incapacitated clients has been the subject of increasing attention within the legal community. Alabama has enacted the Model Rule for Professional Conduct 1.14, which includes:
(b) When the lawyer reasonably believes that the client has diminished capacity, is at risk of substantial physical, financial, or other harm unless action is taken, and cannot adequately act in the client’s own interest, the lawyer may take reasonably necessary protective action, including consulting with individuals or entities that have the ability to take action to protect the client and, in appropriate cases, seeking the appointment of a guardian ad litem, conservator, or guardian.
Alabama has one of the more developed ethical opinions on the application of Rule 1.14:
As the difficulty of the situation increases, so too does the lawyer’s responsibility. “For every degree that [the lawyer] by his testimony and evidence proved a less than normal mental and functional capacity on the part of his client…he raised by an equivalent degree the standard of conduct which the Court must require of him in his dealings with the client.”
Alabama Ethics Opinion RO-95-0, citing In re Witte, 615 SW2d 421, 422 (Mo. 1981). Alabama similarly has a very permissive view of when an attorney may seek the appointment of a guardian for a potentially incapacitated client: “a lawyer whose client is incompetent may file a petition for appointment of a guardian, and is required to do so if the lawyer believes it is in the client’s best interests.” Alabama Ethics Opinion 87-137. Further, “A lawyer who believes that a client lacks capacity to act in the client’s own interests may divulge confidential information to an independent diagnostician without the client’s consent.” Alabama Ethics Opinion 90-12.
Indeed, the comments to the Rule include two provisions that would seem to apply here.
First, “In determining the extent of the client’s diminished capacity, the lawyer should consider and balance such factors as … the consistency of a decision with the known long-term commitments and values of the client.” Even if we take Carter’s explanation at face value, Harper Lee’s apparent reversal, after 50 years of refusing to even consider publishing her letters or other works, certainly appears inconsistent with her “known long-term commitments and values,” and thus would indicate a diminished capacity.
Second, the comments also note, “If a legal representative has not been appointed, the lawyer should consider whether appointment of a guardian ad litem or conservator or the entry of another protective order is necessary to serve the client’s best interests. Thus, if a client with diminished capacity has substantial property that should be sold for the client’s benefit, effective completion of the transaction may require appointment of a legal representative.” Surely, the publication of Go Set A Watchman — which has already become Amazon’s #1 best-seller — is the type of “substantial” transaction that could require the appointment of a legal representative.
My point is simple: there’s more than enough reason here to question the propriety of the discovery and publication of Go Set A Watchman. Tanja Carter has apparently become Lee’s sole lawyer, guardian, confidant, advisor, agent, and spokesman, and in that context she has the duty and the legal tools available — from having a physician examine Lee to appointing a guardian for the purposes of the book — to put all of those questions to rest.
Maybe Carter has already consulted with doctors and others about Lee, abiding by her ethical duties, but none of that information has been made available to the public. Everything published thus far by the mainstream media — presumably based on Carter’s press releases and interviews with people who know Lee — makes it look like one of America’s beloved authors may be yet another tragic example of elder abuse.
Update, July 13, 2015: In a remarkable article in the Wall Street Journal, Tanja Carter tells a story that raises more questions than it answers. She explains the “discovery” of Go Set A Watchman in a manner that makes no sense: she apparently left the room while Harper Lee’s agent and an appraiser from Sotheby’s were examining a safe-deposit box, then never bothered to check the contents herself nor ask them about those contents.
Even more worrying, however, is her description of another manuscript that she purports to have found in the safe-deposit box:
What of the other pages that have for decades sat in the Lord & Taylor box on top of “Watchman”? Was it an earlier draft of “Watchman,” or of “Mockingbird,” or even, as early correspondence indicates it might be, a third book bridging the two? I don’t know. But this much I do know: In the coming months, experts, at Nelle’s direction, will be invited to examine and authenticate all the documents in the safe-deposit box. Any uncertainty about the “Mockingbird” manuscript removed from the mailing envelope and the mysterious pages of text in the Lord & Taylor box will be addressed. As we celebrate the publication of “Go Set a Watchman,” history demands no less from us.
How does Tanja Carter “not know” what the manuscript is? Can’t she ask Harper Lee? If Harper Lee is unable to provide even a basic description of the document without the help of “experts” working for “months,” then how can Tanja Carter be assured Harper Lee is competent to make major decisions like authorizing the publishing of Go Set A Watchman? If client is unable to identify key documents from their life, that is a red flag for a lawyer that the client is not fully competent.