The Misery of the Mockingbird


By Finchley Atticus

“I’m your number one fan.” Annie Wilkes, Misery (1990)

Twenty five years I was enthralled by the suspense motion picture Misery at the cinema, watched between Monash law lectures.  Adapted from the eponymous Stephen King novel, it chillingly depicts a devoted fan running amok when the author she idolises goes off script. Paul Sheldon (a brilliant, sympathetic and restrained performance by James Caan) achieved fame writing a series of romantic novels featuring the fictional Misery Chastain. Paul is injured in a car accident during a snow blizzard whilst travelling back to the city, but fatefully is rescued by nurse Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates deservedly earned her Oscar for her unforgettable performance).

Annie gushingly proclaims to a bed-ridden Paul that she is his “number one fan”. Annie is awed being in the presence of her literary hero and whilst nursing him back to health in her farmhouse, revels in tidbits of information gleaned from Paul about her favourite heroine Misery. Frighteningly for Paul, his surprising news that he killed off Misery in his latest novel unleashes an unrelenting and disturbing wave of wrath and fury from the somewhat obsessive Annie.

Oh Paul, how dare you kill off my Misery!! In dramatic and threatening fashion, Annie forces the recuperating Paul to bring Misery back to life by furiously typing up a new manuscript. For those unfamiliar with the movie, you’ll have to get the DVD to see the breathtaking and frenzied denouement.

What hasn’t been pretty recently is the recent revelation that Atticus Finch, our Atticus Finch, esteemed defender of justice for the under-privileged, has become a pro-segregationist who once attended a Ku Klux Klan meeting, harbouring at the very least bigoted and possibly racist views towards African-Americans.

What? Yes Atticus Finch, portrayed in To Kill a Mockingbird (the 1960 novel and 1962 movie where Finch was perfectly personified – some would say glorified – by the great Gregory Peck), the Alabama lawyer who in the face of segregation, stood up for an innocent African-American client in the face of ingrained prejudice from those white southerners.

“We chose the name Atticus for our son over a year ago because we felt then that it embodied a beautiful form of selfless integrity. In light of To Set a Watchman…we no longer feel comfortable using his name. We have decided to legally change his name to Lucas.” Colorado parents David and Christen Epstein’s Facebook post after reading To Set a Watchman.

Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee’s purported sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, is the 2015 novel that would cause Annie to redefine the Richter scale of wrath and fury even though Atticus didn’t die.  Well not physically. But judging from the reaction of anyone who idolised Atticus and what he stood for, for those who were inspired to enter law school because of Atticus, and those who even named their sons after him, his ideals are unequivocally six feet under.   We weren’t even invited to the burial.

I won’t speculate what motivated Harper Lee chose to publish Watchman 55 years after To Kill a Mockingbird hit our bookshelves, or why she decided to instil the bigotry that Atticus displays post-Mockingbird. Although it’s worth noting that Ms Lee originally wrote Watchman but her editor at the time decided she should best write it from the innocent perspective of Scout – Atticus’s daughter. This became the author’s crowning achievement, the 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird. One could also surmise the editor’s shrewd decision was a crowning achievement in the annals of book editing.

What’s fascinating is how many Atticus fans and acolytes are upset, distressed and disturbed by the fortunes (or misfortunes) of a fictional character. Without stating the obvious, Atticus Finch isn’t real.  He is the creation of an author, just as Misery Chastain was the creation of Paul Sheldon.

I’m afraid that Atticus Finch doesn’t belong to us. He is the creation of Harper Lee. Of course that’s not to disrespect the idealism of his fans. If anything we need more lawyers devoted to helping the underprivileged in a world where decent legal representation is a luxury many cannot afford.

It’s understandable to be emotionally attached to fictional characters especially those that display near heroic qualities that embody a sense of justice, hope and fairness in a nasty world. I’m sure though that no Atticus fans are in the same disturbing league as Misery’s Annie.

I can’t help but wonder how much Gregory Peck’s outstanding portrayal of Atticus Finch in the 1962 motion picture To Kill a Mockingbird did to further shape and influence a student’s career path or their child-naming choices.  I don’t think his depiction of the principled, courageous and gentlemanly Atticus can be understated.  After all, Gregory Peck gave us a sympathetic portrayal of a model of integrity, a widowed father to cute kids well before Ted Danson and Co showed us how to raise a newborn in Three Men and a Baby, and well before John Stamos and Co in Full House demonstrated how to raise the Olsen twins. Besides, Danson and Stamos didn’t defend underprivileged African-Americans from the death penalty.

In real life Gregory Peck displayed admirable traits. To his credit he was very prominent in social causes, advocating gun control and denouncing the Congressional witch-hunts of alleged Hollywood communists.  He opposed America’s involvement in the Vietnam War.  Thankfully Peck didn’t have any skeletons in the closet. But what if he did? He would need a top-notch legal team and A-grade publicists for one thing, but putting that aside, I wonder how such indiscretions would have lowered Atticus Finch down a notch or two in the eyes of his fans and devotees.

“How will the new portrayal of Atticus Finch affect lawyers of that generation who were really young when To Kill a Mockingbird came out and were inspired to go to law school because of that?” Laura Marsh, “These Scholars Have Been Pointing Out Atticus Finch’s Racism for Years”, The New Republic, July 2015.

Well it shouldn’t really. Let’s not forget some academics have previously highlighted Atticus Finch’s motives were not entirely honourable (if one’s motives can ever be entirely honourable 24/7 – we’re human after all).  Maybe his blind spot only became visible when To Set a Watchman was published. Yet it’s understandable that law students hold Atticus Finch, especially as embodied by Mr Peck, as the ideal role model (the fact that some law students extol Harvey Specter as a role model is cause for concern). Mary Badham, the actress who will forever be idolised for her role as sweet and innocent Scout, recalls the ostracism she suffered when she returned to segregationist Alabama after her six-month stint in California filming To Kill a Mockingbird. Friends who previously welcomed the actress into her home declared her persona non grata. Not surprisingly, Ms Badham is continually adored by fans as she represents a living link to the innocence and integrity of To Kill a Mockingbird – the book and movie – that was an essential part of many people’s childhoods.

“Have you ever considered that men, especially men must confirm to certain demands of the community they live in simply so they can be of service to it?” A question asked by the uncle of Scout in Go Set a Watchman

Heroes aren’t perfect. Atticus Finch may have been a hero to many maybe because of his outstanding qualities in a world needing heroes.

Shock horror, news flash – a lawyer can be a true professional even if they hold views we find uncomfortable and even repugnant.  No-one has ever suggested that Atticus tanked his defence of Tom Robinson, although he was reluctant to take the brief. But the reality is lawyers can still act professionally despite their personal motives or who they represent.

We barely flinch when prosecutors “swap sides” to become defenders and maintain their professional edge and ability to defend hardened criminals, the ones they would have prosecuted earlier, although strangely I don’t know many defenders who cross the floor to become prosecutors.

“Harper Lee’s Lawyer Teases Possible Third Book” Vulture, 13 July 2015

The publication of a third Mockingbird book may be too incendiary – perhaps Scout marries a Klansman?  While we’re at it let’s transform Ella and Anna in the Frozen sequel into blossoming cougars preying on Malibu college students. But there’s hope. As a child of the 80s I remember the outrage when Bobby Ewing was killed off in Dallas, only to be brought back a year later at the stroke of a script writer’s pen. Remarkably it was all a dream. Sure, it stretched the bounds of credibility but at least the loyal viewers got their Bobby back.

We can only hope a third Atticus Finch book (maybe Mockingbird Redemption) reassures us that Watchman was one long nightmare which we endured for the sake of eventually ensuring our Atticus is truly redeemed. Besides it would give idealistic and well intentioned parents the opportunity to re-name their sons Atticus all over again.