Monday, 5 September 2011

Controversy around 'The Help'

Some of you may have read 'The Help' or seen the movie already. However, you might not have heard about the new controversy concerning 'The Help' that also touches on a major problem in literature. The main source is the Daily Mail, which is not that reliable but will do in this case. Abilene Cooper, a name that should be familiar to people who have read the book, is claiming that Kathryn Stockett stole her life. 

Kathryn spelt my name wrong, but they pronounce it exactly the same way in the book and the film. I introduced myself to Kathryn when I first met her at her brother’s house that way: ‘‘Aib-e-leen”. Kathryn has Aibileen teaching the white folks’ baby girl to call her ‘‘Aib-ee”. That’s what I taught Kathryn’s niece and nephew to call me because they couldn’t manage Abilene. ‘I just cried and cried after I read the first few pages. 
In the book, Aibileen has taken her job five months after her son is killed in an accident. My son, Willie, had leukaemia and died when he was 18, in July 1998, three months before I went to work for the Stocketts. ‘I felt the emotions in my heart all over again. Kathryn copied parts of my life and used them without even asking me.’ In the book, Aibileen is a deeply religious woman who sports a gold tooth and a gold cross, as does the real-life Abilene. 

Of course an author will always borrow from real life but according to Abilene Cooper there are so many parts in the book exactly like her life that she was in tears. Not that these sorts of claims are never made, in America it happens a lot. However, Abilene Cooper only asks for 50 000 pounds, which is not that much if you compare it to previous claims and if you look at how much money Stockett will probably make from the movie. According to her lawyer she just wants the hypocrisy to stop and feels violated by Stockett.  

Stockett actually once said in an interview: ‘When I was writing this book, I never thought anyone else would read it so I didn’t get real creative with names. I just used people I knew.’ How much of this is an admission to actually copying her sister's servant's life? Also, she sent Abilene a copy of er book before it was released, saying it was not based on her. Who sends someone a copy of a book that apparently is not about them?
I understand it is hard to draw a line between borrowing from life and creating your own story. All books are based on human lives, however I do not think you can simply copy someone's life without asking their permission. Writing about events that happened due to segregation, discrimination, etc., and I mean real events, is perfectly fine. Books build around the Civil Rights movement and any other important, life-changing campaigns, deserve to be written and read. But singling out one person and writing about her life without doing the research and without the permission is wrong, in my humble opinion.

Some people say that Abilene Cooper should not be complaining because her character in the book is a very positive representation. Then again, her skin is described as having the colour of a cockroach, how flattering is that? And no matter how positive, would you not like to be informed about what is happening with your life?

What are your thoughts on this? Have you read the book?


  1. Ugggggh. Haven't read it yet, but it's on my list. I'm sure the obvious question will be whether she's doing this for money, but there's a part of me that thinks...well, yeah. She might kind of be entitled to it. But then again, there is the issue of unauthorized biographies. Thinking of it that way, even if she did take the woman's life story, does it really matter? I'm not sure whether representing it as fiction as opposed to biography makes a difference.

    THAT SAID, if I was Stockett and rolling in money like I am, I would have thrown Cooper some money a *long* time ago. The woman's obviously struggled in her life, and it seems like the perfect way to give back to her.

  2. I read the book and loved it. When the movie came out I was afraid it wouldn't measure up but I was very pleasantly surprised and I loved that too. I hate it when this kind of controversy casts a shadow on something as great as this story but I guess that's life. I know an authour can't pay every person they take inspiration from but this situation seems more clear cut than that.(I don't know anything about it but what I read here though, and there are probably other factors involved that we aren't privy to.) If it really is the same person, same name, same story then she should have been consulted before the book was published; that's just simple courtesy. It sounds like at least an apology is in order and if it can be made right by sharing a portion of the financial benefits with her, it seems like a simple enough solution, as long as the authour's ownership of the work is recognized. She put in the time and the effort to create this work of art and she has earned the lion's share of the profits. There was a similar controversy over another of my favourite books "The Cellist Of Sarajevo". I wonder if this is something we're going to see more and more of. A sign of the times perhaps.