Did Kathryn Stockett see a lawsuit coming?

Posted on February 20, 2011

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Write what you know.

That’s the advice commonly given to wanna be writers. Not write “who” you know, which is what Kathryn Stockett is currently being accused of. But it’s not going to be “the real Aibileen” who may put a dent in the author’s golden empire. It’s the people who now realize Stockett used their personality, their unique quirks, their mannerisms in her novel. Most times relatives just let it pass, not wanting to add fuel to the fire. Only not this time. Someone got mighty pissed. Mad enough to let her have it.

But was Kathryn Stockett already aware that a lawsuit was in the works? 

Stockett has been at times contrite, saying:

“I haven’t heard African-Americans complain that I didn’t portray how much love was out there between the blacks and the whites.”And  “. . .had I known it would be so widely disseminated, I probably wouldn’t have written it in the type of language that I did.”

Links:

Interview with Michele Norris of National Public Radio http://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=120966815

And

Interview with Claire Sudath of Time Magazine http://www.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,1937562,00.html

  

But lately, Stockett’s also getting a bit annoyed:

“ ‘People say, ‘Oh, my God, I can’t believe she would try to represent black women that way.’ Demetrie didn’t go past sixth grade. She lived in a shack. I wasn’t trying to represent a whole race or people,’ she says.” And  “I wouldn’t know how to write it differently. . . I really enjoyed putting two very different voices on the page together. I don’t think I’d be capable of writing it any differently”

Links:

Interview by Lonnae O’Neal Parker for the Washington Post.com http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/08/12/AR2010081206721_2.html?sid=ST2010081302928

Interview with Teresa Weaver of Atlanta Magazine  http://www.atlantamagazine.com/channels/books/Story.aspx?id=1271657

 

But the most telling  statement might be this one:

 “. . .once I found it was going to be published I kind of braced myself for a lot of criticism, I’m still kind of bracing myself waiting for it, I’m sure it’s coming at some point, but it hasn’t come yet.”

Read the entire interview here:

http://www.bookrabbit.com/blog/interview-with-kathryn-stockett-and-win-a-copy-of-the-help/

Because by this time Stockett already knew about the criticism regarding the depiction of the black characters from some readers, both black and white. Michele Norris of NPR asked her about it in December of 2009, and Katie Couric had her address it in March of 2010. Yet in June 2010, the author stated “criticism was coming at some point, but it hasn’t come yet.”

So perhaps she was bracing herself for this lawsuit. However . . .

I have a hard time believing that the real life maid Ablene Cooper’s actually pulling the strings on all this. More than likely the person behind the curtain is the one who recognized his or herself in the novel. And my guess is, that person or persons aren’t African American.

Because for many years African Americans have complained and been routinely ignored when we say how tired we are of books, like The Help that misrepresent us. We’ve been outnumbered when many others, like some (but not all) white readers and a few outspoken journalists go gaga over stereotypical characters. It usually takes patience and a fair amount of time to go by before a critical eye is cast on the offending work. And then people finally get it. Even those people who claim they knew “nothing” about what African Americans went through during segregation and at least the book is a start.

If all Americans have to know what happened during the Holocaust, or any other human atrocity (and rightly so), then how is it some can claim not to know anything about the fight for freedom and equality in this country by African Americans? What pray tell, is so hard about googling “Segregation” or the “Civil Rights Movement” instead of relying on a book of fiction to tell you what really happened during the 1960s?

Especially a book that far too many have already crowned  “Beloved” and a “Classic” while downplaying its flaws? 

I’ve got a post on “Beloved” classics that were widely accepted once, like The Three Golliwogs and Little Black Sambo. Additional classic novels with insensitive depictions and ideology can be found here:

 http://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/classics-we-now-question/        

 

"Beloved" novel Little Black Sambo

Quite a few readers seem to believe as long as there’s a minority in a book, African Americans and other minority groups should be satisfied.

There’s even misinformation going around that Stockett’s getting negative feedback from some black readers because she’s a white writer.

Uh, no. Most of the criticism is because she got it terribly wrong. Aibileen and Minny and Constantine are caricatures.  

 

Pinky Promo poster, starring Ethel Waters and Jean Crain. The nurturing domestic was a popular character during segregation

 

 

They’re stereotypes. Posts that go more into the “throw back” characters Stockett resurrected can be found here:

http://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/2010/07/15/saint-aibileen/

http://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/2010/10/19/the-problem-with-the-help/

http://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/2010/06/29/is-minny-the-mouse-that-roared/

http://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/2010/12/11/aibileen-and-minny-were-robbed/

http://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/2010/06/22/the-wrong-author-for-the-right-story/

But whenever there’s a dispute regarding a minority character’s depiction, the majority who just love the character initially win out. And right now, the majority believe Stockett’s black characters are “admirable” and “humorous” because the novel is “entertaining”.

Probably just like this was “entertaining” back in the day:        

 

One of the most "Beloved" entertainers, Al Jolson

This type of criticism isn’t new. It happened when the novel The Confessions of Nat Turner came out. The outcry was great when Imitation of Life was published and when the film came out. Even the “beloved” musical Showboat caused an uproar.

And yet, in 2009 when The Help was released and the author heard the initial rumblings of criticism from many in the black community (see the 2009 interview with Michele Norris of NPR here) ,  her publisher still clings to the phrase “This is a beautifully written story”

Interview with Michele Norris of National Public Radio

Excerpt:

“I guess when I felt like I was having a conversation with Demetrie, but, Michele, I didn’t get it all right. I took liberties that made me feel like I was telling the story in the way it should be told, but I never considered when I was writing how it was going to make other people feel.”

http://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=120966815

After reading the abc.com interview with Kathryn Stockett’s father and re-checking the author’s interviews, Stockett may have more than just Ablene Cooper to worry about. My guess is the author didn’t stop at just using actress Octavia Spencer and real life maid Demetrie to craft her characters.

Stockett admits in this interview that Octavia Spencer is the real life person behind Minny Jackson:

Interview by the Publisher – Penguin Group

Excerpt:

Minny was the easiest to write because she’s based on my friend Octavia. I didn’t know Octavia very well at the time I was writing, but I’d watched her mannerisms and listened to her stories at parties. She’s an actress in Los Angeles, and you can just imagine the look on her face when some skinny white girl came up and said to her, “I’ve written a book and you’re one of the main characters.” She kind of chuckled and said, “Well, good for you.” 

http://us.penguingroup.com/static/rguides/us/help.html

As well as this quote:

“I had an actress friend, uh she was really an acquaintance at the time. Her name is Octavia Spencer and she’s so amazingly talented. She um, you know she… I would watch her at parties and I would watch her mannerisms and her gestures and she’s just hysterical.  And she’s very well educated and extremely intelligent and but you know,  Octavia, she will tell you like it is. And I started picking up on that and trying to incorporate that in the character Minny. And uh, still not knowing Octavia very well when I approached her I said hey, I wrote a book and you’re one of the main characters. She just rolled her eyes and walked away.”

“Oh Gosh, she was so nice, she went on tour with me. She read the African American parts and I read the white parts. And it was quite a show.”

http://media.barnesandnoble.com/?fr_story=59e76c8fa39941fb2ff1013f7928b8ed42d449c2&rf=rss

According to Cooper’s lawyer, the suit alleges that the author was denied the use of his client’s name and likeness  for the character of Aibileen Clark (why, oh why did the names have to be so close?) but went ahead and used it anyway.

For all those familiar with the novel, note that both the plaintiff Ablene Cooper and the fictional Aibileen Clark have a gold tooth and have lost a son. Since Stockett was fond of creating all the maids as dark and overweight, the description of the real life Ablene Cooper may add credibility to Cooper’s allegations. Because from the picture Stockett used of Demetrie, the woman doesn’t appear dark to me, though some might argue that camera flash is on her (but hey, she might look that way to Stockett).

Stockett on CBS. Picture of the real life maid Demetrie is in the background

There’s also the pesky notion of whether Stockett and the publisher perhaps settled on using Demetrie as the inspiration for Aibileen Clark when Ablene Cooper wouldn’t officially give her okay.
Maybe Stockett really didn’t want to use Demetrie, but because of legal reasons she had no choice.
Also, I’d always thought it was odd that Demetrie wasn’t the one Stockett dedicated the book to.
Unfortunately, Demetrie died when the author was just sixteen. But as Stockett has revealed in another interview (I have to check, but I believe it was the Nate Berkus interview for Oprah radio) Stockett mentions that Demetrie didn’t like to talk about issues too much. So perhaps Ablene Cooper was the inspiration for that part of Aibileen which rose to help Skeeter with the book (instead of joining in with the growing civil rights movement that was boiling over in the city). Because for whatever reason Stockett limits information about the civil rights protests going on in and around Jackson, all except the Woolworth sit in (she calls it the Brown’s Drugstore sit in). And even that is disparaged by a fairly ignorant statement of Minny’s.
Perhaps Stockett only skimmed over the hotbed of activity in the city in order not to present the other side, which was the pro-segregation Citizen’s Council of Jackson, formerly known as the White Citizen’s Council.
 
 
What’s also puzzling is that Stockett mentions talking to another maid about the novel.
 
 
 This maid (who possibly could have been Ablene Cooper) gave her opinion that the book hit too close to home. Stockett says this in 7:34 into the 10:31 minute Barnes and Noble interview:
 
“My own maid didn’t really care for it too much, she said it hit a little too close to home”
The reason I’m guessing Stockett asked Ablene Cooper what she thought, was because Stockett revealed in another interview that her relationship with her current maids aren’t like the ones she had with Demetrie (and possibly Ablene)

Interview by Lonnae O’Neal Parker for the Washington Post.com

“I have a Hispanic housekeeper now, and I don’t speak Spanish, so there’s not a whole lot of intimacy there. I have a nanny from Georgia, and she’s white and she brings her daughter.’  They are great friends and work well together, but neither relationship exists in the same fraught cocoon as those ‘help’ relationships in the Old South.”

But the big question is this, why the heck did she even promote the book using real people in the first place? I’d hate to think where there’s smoke there’s fire, but since the author has already admitted to using two real life people, then it’s even more possible that she did the same thing with the other characters.

So far these are my picks for the real life counterparts:

My guess for Hilly?

Stockett’s grandmother. Because the author reveals this in an interview:

Interview with Frank Reis of Cover to Cover

“My grandmother was very proper and had moved to the United States after living in Shanghai for twenty years. She was very used to a class system, she was very used to having servants around. And so, I often  now-a-days think  about what that it must have felt like the first day that Demetrie walked in to work for my staunch, rather strict and very white skinned grandmother.”

 Stockett says this 1:55 minutes into the 29:00 minute interview. Here’s the link, though there’s no transcript:

http://covertocover.podbean.com/2009/04/26/kathryn-stockett-the-help/

And I’m not sure why the author would add that last part, but Stockett also admitted that her grandmother forbid her to eat at the same table as Demetrie. Here’s the interview excerpt:

But my older brother and sister and I weren’t allowed to bother Demetrie during her lunch break.  Grandmother would say, ‘Leave her alone now, let her eat, this is her time,’ and I would stand in the doorway itching to get back with her.  Grandmother wanted Demetrie to rest so she could finish her work, not to mention white people didn’t sit at the table while a colored person was eating.”

http://www.kathrynstockett.com/book/qa/

And there’s this quote from a UK Telegraph interview:

“Her grandmother Caroline grew up in Shaghai in a family of missionaries (‘Grandmother went over there with her family to save the souls of the heathens’) . . .

” ‘She came back to settle down and start a family with a very strict idea of how things should be between people of colour, coming from Shanghai, where there was no middle class. And of course that is exactly how Mississippi did things, so she fitted right in.’ “

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/5844739/The-maids-tale-Kathryn-Stockett-examines-slavery-and-racism-in-Americas-Deep-South.html

Stockett also admits her grandparents had a separate bathroom for Demetrie. And since the author revealed that her grandparents still practiced their own brand of segregation even after it was outlawed (keep in mind Stockett grew up in the 70’s and 80’s) if she was told not to sit at the same table with Demetrie because whites and “colored” people don’t sit at the same table, then unfortunately, this woman may be partly the inspiration for the Hilly character.

 

Carlton Phelan, Skeeter’s father?

“Grandaddy Stockett” because the author dedicated the novel to him instead of Demetrie, whom she claimed the book was a “homage” to. Skeeter’s father is the most sympathetic white male in the novel. It’s clear in Stockett’s prior interviews that she thought the world of her grandfather.

 

Who’s Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan?

Possibly a combination of the author and her own mother, because Stockett makes mention of being as naïve as Skeeter when she approached this project. But she also states how liberal her mother is. Several times Stockett speaks of how she feels like Skeeter did.

Here’s an example:

Q-Skeeter, may be based on you a little bit?

A- A little bit, I’m 5’ 2 she’s about 5′ 11.

Link: http://media.barnesandnoble.com/?fr_story=59e76c8fa39941fb2ff1013f7928b8ed42d449c2&rf=rss

And here:

“It is hard to approach someone and say, ‘Excuse me, but what was it like to work for a white family in the South during the 1960s?’ I guess I felt a lot like Skeeter did in The Help.”

http://www.kathrynstockett.com/book/qa/

Leroy?

Plunk/Clyde Demetrie’s abusive husband.

Clyde?

Again, Plunk/Clyde. Stockett even slips up and calls Clyde “Plunk” during a reading that was caught on video.

Link: http://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/2010/12/04/stockett-voices-minny/

Connor?

Plunk/Clyde. Basically, any black male painted negative in the novel stems from this real life person.

Stuart?

Who cares? The character as written, is an idiot.

Raleigh Leefolt and Elizabeth?

My guess is Stockett’s brother and sister in law. Oh dear.

Aibileen Clark?

Part Demetrie, and also part Ablene Cooper. Stockett took Ablene Cooper’s name and likeness adding in Demetrie’s personality that the author admits was “sweet” and mashed the two together

Constantine Banks?

Demetrie. Because my guess is Stockett modeled Skeeter after herself, and Demetrie  is probably Constantine,  because Stockett admits Demetrie practically raised not only her, but her brother and sister. She’s also quoted as saying this:

Audio Interview hosted by Steve Bertrand of Barnes and Noble’s Meet the Writers (no transcript available)

“. . . the first voice that came to my mind was Demetrie’s, who really looked after me and raised me as a child. Demetrie was amazing. . . she did raise me and my brother and my sister, then the second generation of kids.

“She had such a unique, quiet way about her.  And she made sure that no matter how hard of a time we were having as kids that in her eyes, we were okay.”

http://media.barnesandnoble.com/?fr_story=59e76c8fa39941fb2ff1013f7928b8ed42d449c2&rf=rss

The post is still in development. . .

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