Investigators for the State of Alabama have interviewed Harper Lee and staff at the nursing home where she lives following at least one complaint of potential elder abuse, linked to the forthcoming release of the author’s second novel Go Set a Watchman, it has been reported.
Go Set a Watchman, a sequel to the bestselling To Kill a Mockingbird and written before that book, will be released simultaneously in the UK and the US this summer.
The New York Times reported that Lee was interviewed last month by investigators for the State of Alabama over a claim of potential elder abuse, as were employees at the home, and friends and acquaintances of Lee.
The investigation, led by the state’s human resources department with the help of the Alabama Securities Commission, followed an anonymous complaint by a doctor who knows Lee, and said he had been alarmed by reports of her frailty.
“It remains unclear what, if anything, will come out of the investigation, now more than a month old,” said the New York Times. “One person informed of the substance of the interviews, who did not want to speak for attribution because the inquiry was ongoing, said Ms Lee appeared capable of understanding questions and provided cogent answers to investigators.”
Barry Spear, a spokesman for the human resources department, said he could not comment on the investigation.
Among those interviewed as part of the investigation are Marcella Harrington, an aide paid by Lee’s lawyer to sit with her regularly, who said Lee is lucid and aware of the book, and writer Marja Mills, who lived next to the Lee sisters in Monroeville for about 18 months beginning in the fall of 2004 and wrote a book about the experience, The Mockingbird Next Door: Life With Harper Lee (Penguin Press), which Lee later said she had not given permission for.
The New York Times said she shared a transcript from an interview with Lee’s late sister Alice, in which Alice said: “She [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.”
Lee had a stroke in 2007 and has severe hearing and sight problems.
Friends and acquaintances of Lee have “offered conflicting accounts” of her mental state, said the newspaper, “with some describing her as engaging, lively and sharp, and others painting her as childlike, ornery, depressed and often confused”.
The New York Times has spoken to a number of people who know Lee. Lawyer Philip Sanchez who was a pallbearer at the funeral for Lee’s sister, Alice, last year, said he was “more concerned that Nelle is content than the discussion of her cognisance.”
Alabama historian and friend Wayne Flynt said Lee “is mentally fit, engaged and can recite long passages of literature”. But, when he asked her about her new novel, “he said she seemed to be “in her own world” at first, and asked, “What novel?” Reminding her of “Watchman,” he told her “You must be so proud,” and she responded with “I’m not so sure anymore,” Mr. Flynt recalled”.
A statement from Lee was released in the week after the book was announced, in which she said she was “happy as hell” with Go Set a Watchman’s upcoming release.
Through a spokesman for Lee’s US publisher HarperCollins, Michael Morrison, president and publisher of Harper, told the New York Times that the company was aware of the state’s inquiry but had not been contacted by investigators.
The newspaper added: “Andrew Nurnberg, the agent handling international rights for Watchman, has brushed off reports that Ms Lee is somehow being taken advantage of as ‘nonsense’.”