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Writer Lee subject of inquiry on abuse

Alabama agency probes complaint that she’s unable to consent to book by SERGE F. KOVALESKI, ALEXANDRA ALTER and JENNIFER CROSSLEY HOWARD The New York Times | March 12, 2015 at 3:32 a.m.

MONROEVILLE, Ala. -- The doubts arose almost immediately when HarperCollins announced last month that it would release a rediscovered book by Harper Lee: Did Lee -- 88, publicity-shy and famously resistant to producing a follow-up to her masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird -- really want to publish a second novel that she wrote and set aside more than a half-century ago?

Despite reassurances from her publisher, lawyer and literary agent that Lee has enthusiastically endorsed the publication, the contention over the new book, Go Set a Watchman, has divided some residents of her hometown of Monroeville, Ala., as well as longtime friends who live elsewhere.

One faction argues that Lee's mental health is too shaky for her to have knowingly authorized the new book, while the other just as vigorously affirms her competence.

Now the state of Alabama has been drawn into the debate. Responding to at least one complaint of potential elder abuse related to the book's publication, investigators interviewed Lee last month at the assisted-living facility where she resides. They also have interviewed employees at the facility, called the Meadows, as well as several friends and acquaintances.

One person informed of the substance of the interviews, who spoke anonymously because the inquiry is ongoing, said Lee appeared capable of understanding questions and provided cogent answers to investigators.

With an investigation involving Monroeville's most famous resident underway, friends and acquaintances who have come forward in recent weeks have offered conflicting accounts of Lee's mental state, with some describing her as engaging, lively and sharp, and others painting her as childlike, ornery, depressed and often confused.

Several people said her condition varied depending on the day.

Lee -- known to many as Nelle, her legal first name -- had a stroke in 2007 and has severe hearing and vision problems. But friends who visit her regularly say she can communicate well and hold lengthy conversations if visitors yell in her ear or write questions down for her to read under a special machine. (A black marker is kept in her room for this purpose.)

Wayne Flynt, an Alabama historian and a friend of Lee, said the author is mentally fit and engaged and can recite long passages of literature. He said he believed that Lee was capable of assenting to the publication.

But he also said she occasionally has problems with her short-term memory. 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 Go Set a Watchman, he told her "You must be so proud," and she responded with "I'm not so sure anymore," Flynt recalled.

The only statements from Lee about the new publication -- affirming her enthusiasm -- have come through her lawyer, Tonja Carter, who handles her day-to-day affairs. Carter came across the manuscript in August and negotiated the book deal with HarperCollins.

Carter did not return a phone call and text messages seeking comment. In a previous interview, Carter described Lee's excitement that Go Set a Watchman would be published and stressed she would never go against the author's wishes.

One person who said he had filed an anonymous complaint with the state is a doctor who has known Lee for years. The doctor said he had called Alabama's adult protective services hotline and asked the state to investigate whether Lee was too infirm to have fully consented to the book's publication.

The doctor, who has not treated Lee and asked to remain anonymous because the divisive nature of the issue, said he had been alarmed by reports of her frailty and by an account from someone he trusted who visited Lee last fall after the death of her sister, Alice, and said she was largely uncommunicative, lying in a fetal position in bed in the middle of the afternoon.

The investigation is being led by the state's Human Resources Department with the help of the Alabama Securities Commission, which, among other things, works to prevent financial fraud against the elderly.

Barry Spear, a spokesman for the department, said he could not comment on any investigation, noting that such inquiries are confidential.

Several of Lee's friends and two of her caretakers said they had been interviewed by investigators. Marcella Harrington, an aide paid by Lee's lawyer to sit with her regularly, said she told them that Lee is lucid and aware of the book.

Others who met with investigators painted a different picture of Lee's condition. 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, recently met with investigators.

She shared excerpts from a transcript of what she said was a recorded conversation she had in 2010 with Alice, who died in November at 103.

"She doesn't know from one minute to the other what she's told anybody," Alice said of her sister, according to those excerpts. "She's surprised at anything that she hears because she doesn't remember anything that's ever been said about it."

Michael Morrison, the president and publisher of HarperCollins, said the company was aware of the state's inquiry but had not been contacted by investigators.

Information for this article was contributed by Susan Beachy, Elisa Cho and Alain Delaqueriere of The New York Times.

A Section on 03/12/2015

Print Headline: Writer Lee subject of inquiry on abuse

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