Former Maid Sues Author For False Portrayal

The author of a best-selling book about race relations in the south during the 1960s is being sued by a former family maid. Albene Cooper claims she is falsely portrayed in the book, "The Help". Author Kathryn Stockett admits the stories are inspired by her life in the South but maintains that the book and character Aibileen, are fictional. Host Michel Martin discusses the case with Duke Law School English professor Karla Holloway, Leslie Morgan Steiner, author of the book, "Crazy Love" and Emma McLaughlin, author of "The Nanny Diaries."

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

In the next few minutes, we're going to talk about two stories that are big news in some quarters - not all, certainly - but which we think tell us something about the way our country is now, is changing.

Later in the program, we'll talk about a story that's been riveting viewers of "Oprah." A one-time regular on the "Oprah" show, Iyanla Vanzant, was back on the show yesterday, talking about the rift between the two women. She had left the Oprah fold to go do a show produced by another megawatt media star, Barbara Walters. That show did not go well. Now, she says she is broke. We wanted to ask the ladies of the Beauty Shop if it is helpful for women to publicly air this kind of personal and professional disagreement, or not. And we'll also ask them about Rush Limbaugh's insults of the first lady. We'll have that conversation in just a few minutes.

But first, we wanted to talk about another issue that has been of huge interest in the world of books and on the blogosphere - a lawsuit targeting the author of a hugely popular book called "The Help." "The Help" explores race relations in the 1960s South by telling the stories of four black housekeepers, and the white women for whom they work. An African-American lady who worked as a babysitter and a maid for author Kathryn Stockett's family alleges that one of the characters, a main character, is based on her and that she finds it - her depiction emotionally upsetting and highly offensive, and that she's been falsely portrayed in the book.

Now, Kathryn Stockett, the author, has been interviewed extensively, as you might imagine. In 2009, in an interview, this is what she said about writing "The Help."

Ms. KATHRYN STOCKETT (Author, "The Help"): It's fiction. But some of the facts and the settings and the backdrops, sure, that was Southern life. Having a separate bathroom for the black domestic was just the way things were done.

MARTIN: That was the author talking to NPR's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

We wanted to talk more about this, so we've called Karla Holloway. She's a professor at Duke Law School, professor of English. And Leslie Morgan Steiner, author of the book "Crazy Love," and she's a regular contributor to TELL ME MORE. Also with us, Nicola Kraus, author of the book "The Nanny Diaries." And they're all here with us now. Thank you all so much for joining us.

Professor KARLA HOLLOWAY (English, Duke University): Thanks, Michel.

Ms. LESLIE MORGAN STEINER (Author, "Crazy Love"): My pleasure.

MARTIN: So let me just say that for those who aren't aware, that one of the main characters in the book is a maid named Aibileen Clark. Ablene Cooper is suing the author. The first names are spelled differently, but court documents say the names are pronounced the same. She still works, actually, in the home of the author's brother. And as we heard, she says that this is clearly based on her. She doesn't like it, and she's suing.

So I wanted to ask each of you, just briefly, how you felt about the book. Leslie, you said you loved it.

Ms. STEINER: I loved "The Help." I read it twice. I'm sure I'll read it again. I thought it was an outstanding work of fiction. And the thing that was most remarkable about it are the characters. They're - the white women and the black women are so vivid and so real. And I'm kind of not surprised that maybe some of them have some basis in reality, because in reading "The Help," they felt like real people to me.

MARTIN: And I hope you don't mind, I'm mentioning for those who don't know, that you're white.

Ms. STEINER: Yes, I am white.

MARTIN: And there has been, I think, some kind of racial divide on this. I mean, obviously, the book's been on the best-seller lists for weeks and weeks and weeks in many cities around the country, but there is somewhat of a racial divide. Some people find it offensive. So Karla Holloway, I'll just ask you, what is your - what did you think of the book?

Prof. HOLLOWAY: Well, I think there is a racial divide. I found the book a compelling and beautifully written fiction. However, when I found out it wasn't a fiction, it made me want to take my earrings off. It was just unconscionable the way that Ablene's name is - and image are misappropriated in the book. And that disappoints me. It makes a fiction of the fiction.

MARTIN: You don't find it fictional at all. You think the similarities are just too close.

Prof. HOLLOWAY: Well, you know, I haven't read the lawsuit, but I have to trust what this woman is saying. Certainly that's a very unusual name, and to use the same name of this character as her real name, the pronunciation especially being important, especially in a legal sense and in the hometown, I think this is a commercial use of identity that is a misappropriation. A fiction should be a fiction. Of course, we use events, images, ideas from life, but we don't take somebody's name and put it into the book.

MARTIN: I want to hear more about what you think the legal grounds might be for this. Although I do recognize you haven't read the complaint itself. Let me just point out a couple of things. Each of the characters is, of course, African-American. Each has a gold tooth. Each has a son who is deceased and is given the same nickname, A.B., by the children for whom they care.

So Nicola, can I talk to you for a second about this? Your book - of course, "The Nanny Diaries" - was also a sensation. You co-wrote this book. And I wonder just what are your thoughts about drawing from real-life experiences?

Ms. NICOLA KRAUS (Author, "The Nanny Diaries"): It's such a challenge because of course, as authors, we all do it. Our goal is to reflect the world of the reader back to reader, and make them feel less alone in their experience. And I can certainly understand and I - obviously, I'm not familiar with the suit, and it was an exquisite novel - that perhaps Kathryn did it as a way to honor this woman that she had known. And then I certainly understand that temptation. In "The Nanny Diaries," there are a couple of characters who are heroes in the book, and they were certainly drawn from real life because we wanted to compliment people we'd had experiences with that were positive.

But in this litigious age, it's never safe. And I think the best thing is to always just steer as far clear from reality as you can.

MARTIN: We actually did reach out to author Kathryn Stockett, as you might imagine. And she sent us this statement. We'll also link to it on our website. The statement says: The character Aibileen Clark in "The Help" is a fictional character. It is not intended to depict Mrs. Cooper. I've met Mrs. Cooper only briefly. I used the name Aibileen because it resonated with Constantine, the beloved woman who took care of the book's main character in her youth. And as readers of "The Help" know, my Aibileen is a true heroine. She is intelligent, an author, a devoted servant of the Lord, and a good mother.

Karla Holloway, how do you respond to that?

Prof. HOLLOWAY: You know, this really does set up the differences between our standpoints when we read the book. When I spoke about the book to a local bookseller group, it was mostly a group of white women who loved the book. My book club, the Friday Night Women, a group of black women, loathed it. So the way in which we see these characters depends on our own racial experience in America.

And for a Kathryn Stockett to think because she wrote in the voice of a black woman that she was seen with those eyes, is an error, frankly. I'm absolutely willing to give her the poetic license to do this. But when it comes this close to someone's real, private life, shame on her.

MARTIN: What are the legal grounds for the suit? I recognize you haven't read the complaint, but is there such a concept that you can misappropriate? I mean, I'm just...

Prof. HOLLOWAY: Sure. There's a privacy tort. You possess the right of your own publicity. And this is essentially a misappropriation of her image, and making commercial use of identity. My guess is she's keeping it local. I think I read that the suit was just at 75k so that it doesn't move to a federal district so that she can have the, what we call the home court advantage, the hometown advantage.

But you do have your own right of privacy, and that includes the right of publicity. You get to use yourself or not. Someone else does not get to make commercial use of your identity.

MARTIN: So there are two issues here. Obviously, there's the personal issue around not liking how you are portrayed, even if someone else feels that it's flattering to you. And then there's the racial aspect of it here. And so Leslie, why don't you - do you want to pick up on that? I mean, I understand that you did have a nanny growing up - right - who was African-American. And you feel you had a very warm and loving relationship with her. Karla feels that part of what contributes to the tension around here is that those relationships feel very differently different, depending on who you are in that story.

Ms. STEINER: Right. I think that's really true. And one thing I loved about "The Help" is that I felt like I could put myself in the shoes of the white women, even the the sort of evil, nasty white women in the book, as well as the black maids.

And maybe that's because of the way that I grew up. I grew up here in Washington, D.C., in the '60s and '70s, and we had a beloved black maid and babysitter. My mother was a stay-at-home mom so I was mostly with my mom. But Faye, who was from North Carolina, took care of us on a very regular basis, and it was really important to me to have her in my life. She was a very good friend to my mother. And she also helped me to see some of the inequities in the world, and how white women had so many advantages just because of being born white.

And one thing that I find really interesting about this, the book, and also about this lawsuit as a postscript, is what it says about our world in the '60s and today. You know, in the '60s, Ablene could not have filed a lawsuit, none of the maids. They had plenty of reason to -wrongful dismissal, terrible treatment, prejudice - but they couldn't have done anything.

And now, whether you agree with this - the person bringing the lawsuit or not, you have to say, wow, our world has changed a little bit - that she can come forward and do this, regardless of the outcome.

MARTIN: Nicola, I'm curious about your thoughts about this because part of what the issue here is whether - when there's unequal power, whether one party, which has less power, can really love and have genuine love for the party with more power. And since in your book, in "The Nanny Diaries," the racial aspect of it isn't there, I'm just curious: What's your thought about that?

Ms. KRAUS: Emma, my co-author, and I certainly believe that it is possible. However, we also think that there is a misperception, quite frequently, that women sort of wake up one morning, have an overflow of estrogen, and start running to the Upper East Side to take care of other people's children. And I think sometimes, employers forget that it is a job, that it requires proper remuneration and respect and gratitude.

But we know in the jobs that we worked and the women we worked alongside, that when those things are present, that you can love the children, love the family, and stay very close to those families for decades.

MARTIN: And Kathryn Stockett, the author, has said she's received criticism for not portraying enough love between black caregivers and their families. But she also said she hasn't heard any African-Americans complain about that. Karla, what's your thought about that?

Prof. HOLLOWAY: Well, I think the book does set us up to explore this incredible neediness of the '60s and '70s, and the era when black women took care of white children, and the contemporary neediness of white women to feel that they were loved in those environments. That's part of what I think. And when I taught the book in a law and literature class, we spent a lot of time talking about the utilitarian.

She was helpful for me to understand black and white relations. Well, we understand that as a power dynamic, but we don't understand her. We don't understand, as Nicola just said so well, what her home environment was like, what it meant for her to go to work every morning to take care of someone else's child. Of course there was affection, and maybe even love. But she is not an instrument. These women were not instruments of our own self. And I think it's a problem.

MARTIN: Why do you assume it was need and not desire - that it was need to be loved as opposed to just want to be loved? How do you

Prof. HOLLOWAY: I think that's the romance and redemption of the South, that if we think that there are redeeming aspects to the way in which blacks and whites - black and white relations in the South in the early era of the 1900s, if we can redeem those moments by saying oh, we were loved - not much different from saying there were happy slaves. I know that there's a difference in era, but we have a need to redeem our moments of horror, of black and white Southern relations.

MARTIN: Now, you know, I don't want to glide past the whole question of language, too. Maybe this is something we should've talked about initially. One of the complaints is that - from Ablene Cooper, the real-life Ablene, is that she was particularly upset and offended by the dialect used by black characters in the book. And this is what the author, Kathryn, had to say about that.

Ms. STOCKETT: I didn't get it all right. I took liberties that made me feel like I was telling a story in the way it should be told. But I never considered, when I was writing it, how it was going to make other people feel.

MARTIN: Well, and all of you are authors, I'm interested in what you say about that. And also, Leslie, you've also in your books, memoirs, you've also recounted conversations that other people were not present for. What is your thought about that?

Ms. STEINER: Well, you know, dialogue is really tricky. Especially, you know, we've got to remember that Kathryn Stockett, even though she's been on the best-seller list for almost two years, she's a first-time author. And of course she's going to get some of it wrong. I think there's probably nothing harder than capturing dialect.

But you know, I think that you've got to look at the book just on its own merits. And in my books, because they're memoirs, it's a different story. When you're writing something that really happened, you have a memory of what somebody actually said. And legally, it's a different predicament because as long as it's true and you can prove it's true, you don't have to worry about these nasty issues that they're both dealing with now - an invasion of privacy, and misappropriating somebody's personality.

MARTIN: Karla, final thought from you - very briefly - and I am interested: Are you glad you read it, even though you wanted to throw the book against the wall?

Prof. HOLLOWAY: Oh, yeah. You love that emotional, cathartic moment when you can throw a book rather than a person against the wall. So I - and I think it's a very, very useful book. Interesting in terms of the language, though, I just want to say that she didn't hear her own dialect. None of the white characters speak with dialect, although we know that white women in the South use Southern dialect as well. So that, I think - this distance between the two races tells even in the language of the book.

MARTIN: Interesting. Nicola, final thought from you. Are you glad you read it or not?

Ms. KRAUS: Oh, absolutely. I think it's really exquisite. Her descriptions of faces alone really changed the way I think about trying to describe people. And I think that the dialect is always a challenge, but sometimes you want to stay true to the voice, and you just do the best you can.

MARTIN: Nicola Kraus is author of the book "The Nanny Diaries." She was with us from our studios in New York. Karla Holloway is a professor of English at Duke Law School. She joined us from a studio on Duke's campus. And also, Karla, you teach law as well, yes?

Prof. HOLLOWAY: I do.

MARTIN: And Leslie Morgan Steiner is author of the book "Crazy Love," and a regular contributor to TELL ME MORE. She was here with us in our Washington, D.C., studio. Ladies, thank you all so much.

Ms. MORGAN: Thanks, everyone.

Prof. HOLLOWAY: Thank you.

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