Life Imitates Art: The lawsuit, the drama, The Help

Posted on March 7, 2011


There’s so much going on regarding who’s really who in The Help that it would take another book, probably along the lines of a tell all non-fiction novel to wade through the business and the bull.    

Pay no attention to this cover. It's just a marketing ploy

So the best thing to do in my opinion, is to go back to Stockett’s own words to get to the bottom of what’s going on. Let the author tell her own story from published interviews. Even if it results in gaffes like the two audio interviews where Kathryn Stockett stated Medgar Evers was bludgeoned to death. And where the same mistake was left in the novel, on Pg 277. Links can be found here.

First up is a May 2009  Barnes and Noble question and answer session (items in bold are my doing):

“Has it been well received by the black community?  I can’t say for sure.  But I’ve gotten emails from all over the world, from Southern African Americans to white South Africans, telling me they connect with the book and relate to the message– we are all just people, not that much separates us.  

Of course, there have been some naysayers, black and white, but in most cases, they refuse to read it.  I don’t mind the critics– there are plenty of books out there I didn’t care for.  But if they don’t read it, I don’t know how to respond to them yet.  If you won’t eat my cooking, how can you say it tastes bad?

I bet I’m going to get in trouble for some of this, so I’ll stop now.”



Here’s what the Atlanta Journal Constitution recently recalled Stockett saying in an interview (again, bold items are my doing)

“When I was writing this book, I never thought anyone else would read it, so I didn’t get real creative with the names,” Stockett told us in 2009. “I just used people I knew. Some of them aren’t talking to me right now, but I feel like they’ll come around.”

She has repeatedly called the book, which has been adapted into a film, a work of fiction.

“I wrote it purely for me and finally had the guts to show it to my mother and my writing group, ” Stockett told us in the 2009 interview. “I was terrified when I realized it was going to be published.”


I also found this admission from Stockett, during which she took questions from posters on Barnes and Noble:

“. . .It’s because I usually have my mind on a story– either mine or someone else’s— where the tomatoes are riper, the itches are itchier, the sun burns hotter than in regular life.”


“The author’s father, Robert Stockett Jr. of Jackson Miss., told that he is “neutral” in the division between his son and daughter, but agreed that plenty of people are profiting, especially filmmakers who plan to release a movie version of the book this year.

`Sure, I liked the book. It’s fiction. They didn’t give me the critics’ copy until it was too late,‘ he said. ‘I would have got some factual things changed. But I’m low down the totem pole . . .’ ”


UK Cover of the Help AKA The cover they dare not put on US bookshelves











See how convoluted all this is?

Not to mention Stockett was supposed to have a second novel out in January of 2011 (as per her own admission in 2009). Yet just a few months ago the author stated she’d only written a hundred pages of her Depression era novel. If Stockett’s creative spark has been stunted because the people who used to reveal things to her have ceased to do so, then her writing career may be in jeopardy.

Stockett’s father hints at factual items that should have been changed prior to publication. And Stockett  herself at least admits to using the names of real individuals. But her “I just used people I knew. Some of them aren’t talking to me right now, but I feel like they’ll come around.” Sounds like more than one person’s “name” was too close to the real individual. Not just the name, but more than one person’s likeness possibly was used, which has caused a major riff in her family.

This quote adds credibility to Ablene Cooper’s assertion that her name not be used in Stockett’s novel. But since the lawsuit doesn’t state Stockett was told directly by Ablene Cooper not to use her name or likeness, then perhaps Stockett didn’t go directly to Ablene (why she wouldn’t makes no sense. Ablene Cooper is an adult, and should have been able to give an answer of yes or no to Stockett).

The story of Stockett taking real life events from her own family will play out soon enough. My concern is with the readers who were duped. Black readers who had parents and grandparents who were “The Help”. People who were almost desperate to see something, hell anything that shone a light on what those who toiled under the oppressive weight of segregation went through.

Maid cleaning a fireplace



I still maintain in that regard, The Help failed. Like the plaintiff Ablene Cooper, when I read the book I was able to spot where Stockett used stereotypes and even character tropes from other novels (there’s still some question as to whether Cooper even has read the book. I truly hope this isn’t the case).

Maid feeding a child


This blog is a result of how frustrated I became after reading some reviewers proclaiming Aibileen and Minny as “admirable” and “intelligent”. Because I found them to be caricatures.

Animated black woman


Offensive stereotypes. Throw backs to the only roles black women were allowed to play in Hollywood during segregation. I felt sure that Stockett had simply placed Delilah from Imitation of Life and Mammy from Gone with the Wind, along with Ethel Waters’ character from A Member of the Wedding into her novel. Then she added the tragic mulatto (Lulabelle) the black brute (Leroy) into a motley mix of characters, an over the top villainess (Hilly) and scatterbrained southern belles. Skeeter was simply the “savior” character, the heroine white readers could more readily bond with.

Although unlike Skeeter, Stockett may not get the gift of absolution.

But all that won’t help Ablene Cooper win her lawsuit. And no class action lawsuit can ever be filed against Stockett for having questionable taste in choosing her words to describe black women, or to demean black men. Not when an overwhelming amount of readers, both white and black have expressed admiration for the novel.

Which also happened with Fannie Hurst’s Imitation of Life. In 1933, African Americans were divided between those who protested Fannie Hurst’s novel, and those who loved and publicly supported it, and were just glad to see a black woman’s issues sharing the pages of a book, and later a movie screen with a white character.


What does Ablene Cooper’s side have to do to prove her case? According to Laura Miller of Salon. com, proving her case may be difficult, though not impossible:

“Such cases are full of bizarre conundrums. The plaintiff must prove 1) that the defamatory fictional character is substantively accurate, otherwise it wouldn’t be recognizable as the plaintiff, and 2) that the portrayal makes serious, negative departures from the truth, otherwise it wouldn’t be defamatory.”


In addition to the information above, I  found a couple of sites that talk indepth about the legal aspects of not just this case, but when writers divulge person information:

Jane Friedman’s Writer’s Digest blog, There are NO RULES:


“Generally, it was not wise for an author to have a character name so similar to that of a living person and to also have facts so closely match real life in fiction (I am using public reports on the lawsuit for my facts).

These types of cases are expensive and fact intensive, and frequently it is difficult to establish damages. I would be surprised if this went to trial and Ms. Cooper was ultimately successful in achieving a significant recovery, although I have been surprised many times before.”


And this blog Friedman links to, regarding Writers who create Memoirs:

Mark Fowler of the Rights of Writers blog


“Public disclosure of private facts is an aspect of the right of privacy that is actionable in some (but not all) states.  While the prerequisites vary somewhat from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, a plaintiff typically must prove:

(1) publicity was given to matters concerning the plaintiff’s private life;

(2) the matters made public would be highly offensive to a reasonable person of ordinary sensibilities; and

 (3) the matters publicized were not newsworthy, i.e., not of legitimate public interest. ”



I can’t speak for any of the legal issues regarding the case. But some things that I feel can be discussed are:

Is Aibileen Clark based on Demetrie, or Ablene Cooper?

“The only time I ever saw Demetrie out of her white uniform was when she was in the casket,” an emotional Stockett said during a 2010 interview with Katie Couric.


While Stockett had the benefit of growing up with Demetrie lovingly guiding her, by the time Stockett was sixteen Demetrie had died. And Stockett admits that Demetrie wasn’t open to talking about certain aspects of her life, such as her husband.

So where did Stockett get the scenarios of Aibileen’s home life or her deceased son?

Demetrie had no children. But Ablene Cooper had a son, just like the Aibileen in Stockett’s novel. And just like Aibileen in The Help, Ablene Cooper’s son is deceased. Both the fictional Aibileen Clark and the real life Ablene Cooper have a gold tooth. Both are called by the nickname of “Aibee”. And the correct pronounciation of both names starts with “Ay” not “Ab”. Stockett has a couple of audio interviews where she uses the “Ay” in speaking of  the character of Aibileen.

Using a real life person to craft one of her fictional character is nothing new to Stockett. She’s admitted watching actress Octavia Spencer in this interview (items in bold are my doing):        



Actress Octavia Spencer plays Minny in the film version of the novel The Help


“I had an actress friend, she was really an acquaintance at the time. Her name is Octavia Spencer and she’s so amazingly talented  . . . 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.”  (audio link, no transcript)

Spencer popped up on the internet defending Stockett, having been introduced to the author by Tate Taylor, the director of the film version of the novel.

Once Octavia Spencer came on board, Stockett and Spencer become best buds, enough to take their show on the road:

“It’s amazing,” she says, with special compliments to Octavia Spencer, the actress who voices the sections by Minny, a stubborn maid whose mouth gets her in trouble.

“Octavia is feisty,” Stockett says of her friend. “I begged them to give that role to Octavia and … it’s amazing.”

Spencer, an actress from Montgomery, Ala., and now in Los Angeles, says she has read the book three times and listened to it twice.

“I love this book. If I weren’t friends with Kathryn, I would still love this book.”

Read the entire interview here:


Stockett’s also admitted her grandfather’s real life experience is included in the book (I also believe Stockett’s grandfather is the inspiration for the character of Carlton Phelan, Skeeter’s father):

“Grandaddy told me the story of Cat-bite, who is in the book.  He was driving along and saw a young black girl being attacked by a cat- just a regular old house feline- that had rabies and wouldn’t turn this poor little girl loose.  Grandaddy saved her and took her to the hospital for the rabies shots- in the stomach, for 21 days.  It was many years later that she tracked Grandaddy down and thanked him again, for what he’d done.

 Grandaddy also gave me a great sense of what people felt and thought during the early 1960’s.  There was a feeling that Mississippi was the world.  You were more interested in the local farm report than what the President was doing in Washington.  The most important events to you were happening right there in your neighborhood.  I like that idea and tried to employ that state of mind in The Help.”




The real life person many of the black males in the novel may be based on:

In the acknowledgement section of the novel, under the heading Too Little, Too Late, Stockett mentions how sweet her grandparent’s maid Demetrie was, and how the woman was saddled with an abusive mate. Not only did Stockett use Clyde/Plunk as the prototype for Leroy, but it seems he was also used for the other “no account” black characters such as Clyde (Aibileen’s estranged, absentee husband) Connor, (Constantine’s absentee lover) and Minny’s father (also desribed as no account and a drunk).

From the ending pages of the novel:

“Demetrie was stout and dark-skinned and, by then, married to a mean, abusive drinker named Clyde. She wouldn’t answer me when I asked questions about him. But besides the subject of Clyde, she’d talk to us all day.”

Stockett also mentions Clyde in a UK interview:

“Demetrie’s husband was called Plunk, and he was drunk and abusive, so much so that she slept with a pistol underneath her pillow. ‘As I understand it he beat the crap out of her, but at the funeral this man was wandering the aisles, screaming, fainting from heartbreak that Demetrie was dead, calling out her name and throwing himself at the coffin – people were dragging him away, soothing him. It horrified our family. I was 16. I kept my eyes open and my mouth shut.’ “

Even before I’d read the interview and her statement at the book’s end, I’d wondered why the black male was perceived so negatively. Leroy plays a major part in the book. He is Minny’s tormentor, almost on a daily basis. In the character of Leroy, Stockett has created a bully that terrorizes his whole family.

The black male as a brute


Leroy is a character who embodies the stereotype of the Black Brute, a man that not only the white female must fear, but also the black female.

Stockett rode a wave of  nostalgia in her PR appearances, talking up her association with Demetrie. In one of her earliest statements in order to sell the novel, she said:

“In 1970s Mississippi I didn’t have a single black friend or a black neighbour. Yet one of the closest people to me was Demetrie, our family’s black housekeeper.”

Kathryn Stockett in her own words, Dailymail UK



But then also revealed this to another UK interviewer:

“. . . it was the first time Stockett had been to a black church. ‘I’d never had any interaction with black people except those who worked for our family. And I couldn’t believe how overt their emotions were. There were people speaking out during the sermon, joining in, agreeing with the eulogy, singing loud solos impromptu… but what really struck me as heartbreaking was how Demetrie’s husband was carrying on.’

Demetrie’s husband was called Plunk, and he was drunk and abusive, so much so that she slept with a pistol underneath her pillow. ‘As I understand it he beat the crap out of her, but at the funeral this man was wandering the aisles, screaming, fainting from heartbreak that Demetrie was dead, calling out her name and throwing himself at the coffin – people were dragging him away, soothing him. It horrified our family. I was 16. I kept my eyes open and my mouth shut.’ “

Read the entire interview here:

So, Stockett’s closest association with an African American ended when she was sixteen. And from all accounts it was traumatic for her. Still doesn’t explain why it took her damn near twenty plus years to reach out to another African American, that being Octavia Spencer, and only because the actress fit the bill for the stereotypical maid Minny.

But Stockett also reveals a few things in her audio interviews. One is with Nat Berkus, when he asks what Demetrie would say about Michelle Obama. And Stockett doesn’t have an answer.

Nate Berkus for Oprah Radio asks Stockett: 

What do you think Demetrie would’ve said about Michelle Obama being first lady if she was still alive?

“I have thought about that so many times. I think it would be a conversation, I think it would be stunning. I mean I think she would be very reticent at first because she was never an outspoken person about anything tricky”

You know why she can’t really answer that question? Because Stockett was only knew Demeterie as a child, not woman to woman. So to be asked that kind of question is foolish in my mind. If Berkus wanted to know what Demetrie’s view would be, he should have invited some of the woman’s relatives onto the show. What’s with the whole let’s talk about black people and how they feel without asking any black people themselves trend this book has spawned? And note I said black people as in plural, not singular.

Two, is when Stockett states in a Barnes and Noble audio interview that her own maid didn’t care for the novel:

“My own maid didn’t really care for it too much, she said it hit a little too close to home for her.”

7:35 minutes into the 10:01 interview with Steve Bertrand


My guess is Stockett is talking about Ablene Cooper  her brother’s maid and the woman who recently filed suit against the author for using her name and likeness. Because she already revealed in another interview that her current maids are white and Hispanic. An dmy guess is Cooper’s one of the people Stockett was talking about who she hoped with “come around” or get used to the idea that she used their names in her novel.

 It’s this quote that may prove to be crucial in the court case :

 “I just used people I knew. Some of them aren’t talking to me right now, but I feel like they’ll come around.”


So, who’s Skeeter based on?

At first I believed it was Stockett. Now I think Skeeter represents both Stockett and her mother. Especially after she makes this statement in the same UK interview:

“Stockett believes that even now Jackson, Mississippi, is still one of the most segregated towns in the US. Her mother, Ruth Elliott Stockett, still lives in Jackson. ‘She runs the election system for the state of Mississippi – and if you met her, you would laugh! She’s high-pitched, Southern, comes off as kind of absent-minded, but she’s very intelligent. My mother doesn’t have a maid – she’s a liberal. She cleans her own house. And she’s completely colour-blind, she has no sense of black and white. I remember when I was growing up I came home from school one day and my mother was sitting in the living-room with a black woman, talking and laughing and having a good time. After the woman left I came down and said, “Mum, who was that black lady in our house?” We’d never had a black guest before. And you know what my mother said? “She was black?” She wasn’t kidding. She didn’t even notice.’ ”

In the very same interview Stockett also says this:

“‘After that, my mother would go out of town a lot – she was in her thirties, she was good-looking and she needed some space. Mother was wild. She wore high heels and low-cut sweaters and she dated a journalist who travelled all over the world. So she handed us over to Father and he would stick us in the motel.’ ”

And Hilly? Well that’s Stockett’s grandmother. I also think Charlotte Phelan was also patterned after Caroline Stockett. Look at what the author says here about her grandmother and politics:

“Stockett is telling me about her grandparents, who played a big part in her life when she was a child. Her grandmother Caroline grew up in Shanghai in a family of missionaries (‘Grandmother went over there with her family to save the souls of the heathens’), returning to Mississippi when war broke out. ‘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.’

She married Kathryn’s grandfather, Robert Stockett Sr, and employed a maid called Demetrie to bring up their two sons, one of whom was Kathryn’s father, Robert Jr. (‘We call them maids,’ Kathryn says. ‘I’m told that’s not PC now; we should call them housekeepers.’) Robert Stockett Sr was an equestrian and he ran a stable, with retired horses given to him by the Southern Cavalry. Everyone in Mississippi knew about Stockett’s Stables. ‘It was a place where people gathered; a lot of older men came there to sit on the porch and talk; people would say that there were more laws made on the porch of Stockett Stables than in the state capital.’ “

To be continued . . .

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