The New York Times reports that Kathryn Stockett, author of the best-selling novel The Help, faces a lawsuit filed by her former family maid, Ablene Cooper, for using the likeness of her name and image without permission.
Cooper bears many similarities to the character Aibileen Clark in Stockett’s fiction work, about black maids working for white families in Jackson, Mississippi during the 1960’s. In the book, Aibileen is a middle-aged black woman with a gold tooth who works for a white family in Jackson. The children call her "Aibee," and her son dies five months before her white employers’ first child was born; all these details closely mirror Ablene’s life.
What Cooper finds problematic about the depiction is the way that Stockett depicts her speech. According to the Clarion-Ledger, the lawsuit quoted this excerpt of Aibileen speaking: "That night after supper, me and that cockroach stare each other down across the kitchen floor. He big, inch, inch an a half. He black. Blacker than me."
Cooper said that she has the support of her current employers, Stockett’s brother and sister-in-law, for the lawsuit, in which she is requesting $75,000 in damages for emotional distress. Cooper told the Times: "What she did, they said it was wrong. They came to me and said, ‘Ms Abie, we love you, we support you,’ and they told me to do what I got to do."
The topic that Stockett narrates in The Help is complicated, since she is writing about the dynamics between white families and black women who raise their children and perform domestic duties. Stockett herself told Katie Couric last year that "Not everybody in Jackson, Mississippi’s thrilled," and that a few "close family members" were so distraught that they were not speaking to her. In the Times story, she also acknowledges the risk she took in using black women as the primary narrators when she is white.
Stockett’s publisher Amy Einhorn does not want to comment on the lawsuit. She said: "This is a beautifully written work of fiction, and we don’t think there is any basis to the legal claims."
David L. Hudson, Jr., a scholar with the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University, also defended Stockett. He said "We’re talking about a work of art. There are strong First Amendment protections."
But the coincidences, and their potential implications, are striking. And the debate will likely get much more national attention when a film based on the book is released in August.