In February, the internationally acclaimed novelist Harper Lee surprised the world with news that in July, HarperCollins will publish her second novel, Go Set a Watchman. The publisher unveiled the cover two weeks ago. Written before her masterwork To Kill a Mockingbird, this one had been buried in a drawer for decades.
Long ago, the author, certain that Mockingbird was her first and last work, decided that Watchman should not be published. Fifty years later, she changed her mind.
Some wonder, though, whether Lee is yet another older adult who’s a victim of fraud and abuse. The state of Alabama is investigating. Lee is 88 and resides in an assisted-living facility. Friends say she suffers from memory, hearing, and vision loss. Her day-to-day affairs are supervised by the same lawyer who discovered the long-lost novel and negotiated its publication.
How would we know that Lee was capable of making the decision to publish a novel she long ago swore not to publish?
Cases such as hers are an immense public-health problem. Changes in older adults’ cognition and need for help with daily tasks, together with accumulated lifetime wealth, make them easy prey for those who want to exploit or abuse them. And if they lose their wealth, they have limited, if any, ability to start over and recover their losses. As a result, family or the state need to step in and pay.
This case is somewhat atypical. Publishing Watchman will in fact add to Lee’s already-substantial wealth (sales of Mockingbird earn her about $9,000 a day). But her case highlights an even more disturbing feature of elder abuse. It harms the person’s dignity and sullies the denouement of lives otherwise well-lived and self-determined.
For Lee, publishing Watchman will reshape her carefully lived legacy. Is she, in some sense, mistakenly killing her own mockingbird?