Friday, February 19, 2016

Thank You, Harper Lee

When I was a little girl, my Uncle used to take me for extended visits. Back then, I idolized him with great wonder and impression. He was a public defender in those days, one who fought vigorously for the rights of the accused. I'd sit on the benches behind the tables designated for the attorneys and just watch him, fully immersed in every word that he said.

The people in the courtroom always hung on his words, urged to the edges of their seats.

He never asked if his clients were guilty. He preferred not to know, I think.

As I got older, worked in the field myself, knew more and more attorneys, I realized that his general rule of not inquiring about guilt or innocence was far more common than most people might understand.

Sometimes it's better not to know the truth, though. Instead, resolve ourselves to do all that we can to ensure that the trial process itself was fair and just; that each person was given the full protection of the law.

My Uncle is precisely one third of the reason that I went to law school myself. I've never told him that before. I probably should.

The second reason had to do with my personal frustrations with the legal system, having seen how it could be manipulated, how it didn't favor those who needed the most help.

The third reason had to do with a character in a book.

Atticus Finch.

I've written before of my relationship with the story and with the character of Atticus Finch. I haven't ever written about just how much he reminded me of my Uncle, nor of how much my Uncle reminded me of him.

I've written of how that relationship changed and evolved as my worldview changed and evolved. I've written about how I wasn't particularly surprised when the second book that wasn't actually the second book, but a prior draft that was never intended to be released publicly, revealed Atticus to be different than the idealized individual we'd so wanted him to be. 

He'd done his duty in defending his client, not by choice, but by obligation.

He wasn't some crusader for equality, he wasn't even interested much in the life of the man he was arguing to save. He was himself deeply flawed and biased.

Aren't we all, though?

Perhaps our flaws come in other shapes and sizes than his did, perhaps we won't be revealed to have been racists decades from now in a manuscript never intended to be made public. Perhaps.

But, I promise you one thing: we are all deeply flawed individuals.

That doesn't, by the way, mean that we can't also do good in this world. It doesn't mean that we can't inspire others. It doesn't mean that we are rendered incapable of fighting for that which we believe in. It doesn't even mean that we are less able to advocate for others, regardless of our personal opinions of them.

It means that we can be all those things and more, wrapped in the deeply flawed souls we occupy.

Atticus wasn't perfect, but there is one person who knew that all along.

Harper Lee.

She knew that he was human. She knew that he was biased. She knew that he did his job anyway. She knew, and she wrote the second draft, the one so many have clung to as the only acceptable version of him. She morphed him into the person we came to be familiar with, not knowing that we'd ever get to meet the real him someday.

She refused to write a sequel.

I can't say that I blame her.

She didn't want To Set A Watchman released, and I can't say that I blame her for that either.

What she did, for me and for countless others in this world, was inspire us to look at the legal system as a place where even the most flawed people can still seek justice.

We all just weren't privy to that truth until recently.

Thank you, Ms. Lee.

Thank you.

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