During my last semester of graduate school, when MFA applications were pending, I was granted a sign from the literary gods. It came in the form of a poorly-worded tweet that was linked, forwarded, and tagged to me at least five times, all from different people: “RECENTLY DISCOVERED NOVEL FROM HARPER LEE, AUTHOR OF TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD.” What made this announcement so grand, though, was the fact that this novel, according to the press release, would be a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird.
To Kill a Mockingbird is holy to me. If I ran a hotel chain, it would be the book I put in the nightstands of every room. That book is, as the annotation in my thesis reading list said at the time, “the work that started my journey as a writer and is key in understanding who I am and what kind of writer I intend to be.”
The “literary merit” of this book is one way I justify its sanctity. The characters that solidify its sainthood. I’ve named countless video game or D&D characters, protagonists, future pets and children after Jean Louise “Scout” Finch and Atticus. It was always disappointing to me when, during class discussions about the book in high school, no one wanted to spend more time talking about the moments between Scout and her father. Everyone, including the teacher, was so fixated on racism, the Depression, and Southern culture. I just wanted to talk about what I thought were the best details in the book:
Scout crawling into Atticus’ lap at night while he read. Her eyes watching his finger move underneath the words on the page until she could understand them. Scout sitting on the porch swing while Atticus, hands always fiddling with his pocket watch, teaches her about a compromise. Atticus stepping in front of Scout before she can leave the room crying because he said a word curtly to her. When she buries her head into his vest, she hears “his watch ticking, the faint crackle of his starched shirt, the soft sound of his breathing”.
“Your stomach’s growling,” she says.
“I know it,” he says.
“You better take some soda.”
“I will,” he says.
Little exchanges like these were what made me fall in love. When I read To Kill a Mockingbird every summer, my heart hurt every time I stumbled across these little scenes between father and daughter. I didn’t just love them from a literary standpoint; I envied them in my own life.
I wrote an essay in high school titled, “Atticus Finch, Please Adopt Me.” I put the essay in a blue plastic binder full of the stories and essays I wrote during school and put it on display at my graduation party.
“Open it to that essay,” my grandmother said. “Make sure your dad sees it.”
He did. I watched the display table of my academic medals and athletic participation trophies from the corner of my eye the whole party. It took him a while to work up the courage to walk through the gauntlet of my mother’s family to the other side of the room. He had been sitting alone at a table near the door licking the crumbs off cupcake wrappers and sipping at the melted ice in his plastic cup. The binder stayed on the pedestal while he read. He had to hunch over to get a good look at the tiny type from his height. When he was finished reading, he went back to his table, but not before grabbing another cupcake. Shortly after, he made his way over to my table to announce that he was leaving. He hugged me, congratulated me, said how proud he was, called me sweat pea, and left. I’m sure he said he loved me too.
Soon after the announcement of Harper Lee’s new novel, I was accepted into an MFA program in Minnesota. No one was prouder than my mother. She was the driving force behind my aspirations to write. She’s the one who paid for my dual-credit courses and my college applications (undergrad and graduate schools); the one who encouraged me to go to grad school not once, but twice; the first person to read my stories whenever I brought them home; she even drove up to see me read my thesis knowing full well that she could be within a hundred feet of my father, his wife, or their kids at any point in time.
When I graduated college in Missouri, my mother commemorated the moment by giving me the following: five pencils with quotes from To Kill a Mockingbird printed on the side, a small doll-sized clay sculpture of the 50th anniversary copy of To Kill a Mockingbird, a silver necklace of two feathers that fall side-by-side in a yin and yang kind of way with the words “Boo” and “Scout” printed into the side like best friend charms, and a special edition DVD set of the 1962 film adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch.
When the time came to move to Minnesota, she escorted me to the great white north and helped build my writing desk. Before she left, she drove me to Barnes and Noble and bought me a fresh hard backed copy of Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee’s newest novel.
It was during my second year away in Minnesota that my mother called to ask if I had read the book she got me.
“The book after To Kill a Mockingbird?”
“No,” I said. “I’ve been busy reading for class.”
“Darn. I wanted to know if it was true what they were saying.” She didn’t have to say what it was. I already knew, but hearing her say it made it ten times worse. “About Atticus being a racist.”
“Atticus Finch, Please Adopt Me” starts out with an anecdote about a family tree craft project I had to make in Kindergarten. I explain how I had created my mother and grandmother out of crudely cut construction paper:
“I raised my paste covered hand and beckoned my teacher who gave a weak nod of approval to my work of art. ‘I think I’m done.’ I told her with an uncertain smile on my face. She glanced down and squinted, as if looking for the piece I didn’t know was missing. Finally, she asked, ‘Where is your daddy, Alyssa?’ The question puzzled me for a moment as I tried to imagine if I had seen a dad in my house before. Noticing my confusion, my teacher apologized and took my tree as it was. I protested, and insisted that it wasn’t finished until I added this “daddy.” But she wouldn’t give it back to me, and I remember crying over a mysterious feeling that was pulling on my heartstrings.”
Purple prose aside, this is the first moment I can remember noting my family wasn’t nuclear. Up until that point in time, I was completely oblivious to the absence of my father. He had disappeared from my life when object permanence was still developing.
What I do remember is sparse: He would pick me up from the front porch and take me to an apartment where we had tea parties and watched Aladdin. He had a waterbed, he wore Chiefs jerseys, and I don’t know when those visits ended. My father just seemed to vanish overnight. At one point, I was taken to a therapist for divorced children. I remember a room full of toys and a woman who liked to ask me questions. Are you happy? Are you angry? Do you miss your daddy? Scream all your bad feelings into this little bottle. The woman nodded the whole time I shrieked into a little plastic perfume bottle for a Fischer-Price vanity set. Even then, I didn’t really understand what I was screaming about. All I knew was my father was gone and I should be upset about it.
“Go Set a Watchman” was the title of Harper Lee’s first draft of a novel that she sold to the J. B. Lippincott Company when she was 31. The editor, Therese von Hohoff Torrey, said the draft had “the spark of a true writer…in every line,” but was more a series of anecdotes than a novel. Hohoff worked closely with Lee for many years on several drafts of what would become To Kill a Mockingbird. Once, when Lee was frustrated, she threw her manuscript out a window into snow and called her editor crying. Hohoff told her to “march outside immediately and pick up the pages.” The entire revision must have been tedious and frustrating considering where the draft started. Instead of a hopeful story about fighting racial injustice featuring the loving relationship between a daughter and her heroic father, “Go Set a Watchman” was about an older Scout returning from New York to find that her father is a hypocritical bigot who fights for segregation. That same draft, too, is what was published in 2015 as the “sequel” to To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s hard to imagine what happened during that process between editor and writer to reshape the story so dramatically, but knowing that Lee wrote semi-autobiographically makes me believe it was more like therapy.
I remember the first time I read To Kill a Mockingbird the way I remember the story about my parent’s first date: I don’t. It just happened. I know the aftermath.
It was my freshman year of high school in Mr. Stockwell’s English class. Up until that point, I was a quiet front seat student that never talked due to my fear of being teased by the students that sat behind me. I was an overweight know-it-all kid who actually liked being in school—teasing was inevitable. What made matters worse was we were reading books in a way I didn’t understand. Mr. Stockwell was constantly asking us to analyze the books instead of just recalling what they were about. He talked a lot about themes, motifs, and meaning, which were all words I could spell, but not use in a sentence.
And then we were assigned To Kill a Mockingbird. After reading that book, I couldn’t shut up. I was enamored with Scout. I envied her bravery when she stood up to the men at the jailhouse, and I admired her empathy for Boo Radley, who’s hand she held to walk him home. I said as much during our class discussions of the book, and I said even more about Atticus. He resonated with me on a level I couldn’t yet understand.
When Mr. Stockwell showed the movie version in class, my reaction was bodily. During the opening credits, when Elmer Bernstein’s musical score starts up and plays over the images of the trinkets in the box Boo Radley gives Scout and Jem, and Scout’s drawing a crude looking bird with a black crayon, I sobbed. There was something thick building up in the back of my throat. It’s the same feeling I get when I watch the movie now. That same salty, warm mass on the back of my tongue that wells up, but never quite releases. Messy, confusing, sudden, and painful. To Kill a Mockingbird, for me, was like puberty.
I want more books like this, I told Stockwell.
Well, he said, maybe you’re the one who needs to write them.
One day, while returning my mother’s call, I asked her: “When did he show back up?”
“Maybe twelve or thirteen?” She spoke casually.
“So before high school?”
“Yeah, what’s that called? Junior high?”
“And when did he leave?”
“You were probably four. You weren’t in school yet.” I was surprised; I thought a four-year-old would have a better memory.
“So, I was four when he left and twelve or thirteen when he came back,” I spoke these numbers as if they were a word problem, and I could do the math to find a meaningful solution.
“Your cousin texted me today and said she saw him today. How funny is that?”
Not very, considering I had heard the story already from my dad in his semi-annual text message. He had been returning something at Party City, where my cousin is a cashier. When she asked for his last name, and he gave it, she said, My cousin has that last name.
One day, when I was very young, I remember climbing into my mother’s bed, lying next to her, and saying: Mom, I wish I were dead.
I had to confirm this memory with my mother, since I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t over-dramatizing my childhood for the sake of the narrative—a habit that is a fortunate exploit when writing fiction. As it turns out, I am as tragically dramatic as I imagine myself to be. I originally asked my mom why I started to see Dr. Dean, the psychologi who had helped orchestrate the reunion with my father.
You started seeing him because you were upset I don’t remember about what but you said you wanted to die.
If I knew what I do now, I would have realized those thoughts were going to follow me for the rest of my life because my brain is wired like a toaster in a bird fountain. And yet, when the bad thoughts started, it was always assumed that my sadness was the fault of my dad’s.
Everyone’s problems are because of their father, regardless of whether he’s dead, alive, or around. For girls, especially, their daddy issues have become popular phrases on Forever 21 shirts and chokers. At least now they’re trendy—back when I was discovering mine, I was going through the phase when denial was in fashion, especially regarding “being like other girls.” Now, though, I can flaunt my daddy issues with the self-depreciating charm my generation makes a living from. I can post on Twitter about how no one cries harder during the movie Logan than a girl without a father, or how I collect surrogate father figures the same way 90s kids collected Pokémon cards. And yet, deep down, I know I’m not special, and I know that’s part of the problem—it’s a club of many members, and we’re tired being the butt of our own coping mechanisms.
In my first session with Dr. Dean, we played catch and talked about my father. However, since I didn’t know a lot about him, we got more mileage out of discussing my future. Wanting to die usually means you never have a five-year plan, so Dr. Dean helped me make one. He told me about college and how there were no A days or B days or 7am buses. You make your own schedule and if you’re lucky, you can sleep in, which was nice, considering my insomnia was getting worse.
In between all these talks about college, we tried to return to the subject of my father. Do you miss him? Are you angry at him? What would you say if he was in this room right now? That last question became more important after Dr. Dean told me my father would be there, in his office, the next time I visited. I was excited. A daughter reuniting with her father should be an epic moment. It should be filled with choking back sobs, teary-eyed hugs, and repentant confessions. I was raised on Lifetime movies—I knew how narrative beats are supposed to go down. Instead, when I opened that office door, the man I saw looked nothing like my father. He wore a dirty baseball cap and said, “Hello.”
No tears, no sobs, just discomfort.
After the success of To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee seemed to disappear from the public eye. She gave very few interviews and published a few essays here and there. The only times Lee emerged from her reclusive state was to accept presidential awards and, on one occasion, the Los Angeles Public Library Literary Award when she was invited by Veronique Peck, Gregory Peck’s widow. People have theorized the reason Lee never went on to write another novel—perhaps she didn’t want to compete with herself or she was afraid she could never repeat the success of her first book. I think her own words explain it all:
“Two reasons: one, I wouldn’t go through the pressure and publicity I went through with To Kill a Mockingbird for any amount of money. Second, I have said what I wanted to say and I will not say it again.”
I still haven’t read Go Set a Watchman, and I don’t plan to. The only reason I know what happens is because of the internet. All it took was one headline or Twitter post for Atticus’s ugly new life to become known to me: “Atticus Finch’s Racism Makes Scout, and Us, Grow Up”. Reading the book at this point would only give me the details and not change the truth—which is exactly what I would get if I inquired about what happened with my dad.
For a while after our reunion, I was determined to try and have the father-daughter relationship I wanted—the kind where you crawl into your dad’s lap and read his paper to him. I was too big for that kind of relationship, though, so for the first year of our reunion, my dad improvised. We went to arcades and he taught me how to win prizes out of the claw machine—remember that the claw turns clockwise before it drops. He sent me money to buy new earrings—big silver hoops that he would stick his finger through and say you could train a flea circus with these things. For a while, it was just the two of us, but soon I was introduced to my brother and sister—they’ve always wanted a big sister. That was when I learned about the life my dad had lived in the period between my birth and his absence. He had a wife and kids in Tennessee. He was a higher up at Ford who traveled a lot all year. He made a lot of money, which is why he could afford a lot of tokens at the arcade. At some point, the life of a traveling businessman demanded that he start to see me less and less. Our visits dwindled and after a year or two of resurgence, he went back to being a ghost.
Eventually, he settled in Maryville, just two hours north of my house and the same town where Northwest Missouri State University—the only college I ended up applying for—is located. By moving closer to him, I was giving him little choice but to spend time with me. I would show up at his house as often as I could, playing for an hour or two as if I had always been there—eating dinner at the table, watching movies afterwards, playing video games with my siblings until they fell asleep. Afterwards, I would find my father out in the barn bringing in the sheep or at his desk looking at his fantasy football team. I would let him talk about anything and listen—he told a lot of stories, always with hyperbole, never the same way twice, and always in a way that felt like looking in a mirror. In the parenting debate between Nature vs. Nurture, I was starting to see both sides too clearly.
One late night out in his screen printing workshop, he gave the answer to the question every kid in my situation wants to ask.
I know you’re gonna ask me someday why I did it. Why I left. I’m gonna be honest with you, kiddo. I don’t really have an answer for you. It’s a question I’ll be trying to answer until the day I die, but right now, I don’t have anything for you
I’m paraphrasing, but he’s repeated this sentiment more than once since we’ve reconnected. He always brings it up unsolicited and the response is along the same lines—I don’t have an answer for you.
When I first heard him say that, it was like a cold slap of muddy Missouri water to the lungs. All that therapy, asking me what I wanted to say to my dad when I met him, preparing me to have this heartfelt moment when we would sit down and talk about what happened, why he had left, where he had gone, was for nothing. And yet, it’s the answer I live with and don’t pursue any further. Why uncover the details when the truth never changes?
Harper Lee died on February 19th, 2016 in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, just seven months after the publication of Go Set a Watchman. Her death added fuel to the heated debate about whether Lee’s wishes were truly considered when Watchman was being marketed for publication. Was she taken advantage of in her old age? For the woman who had declared she had said what she wanted and would say no more, the suspicion is hard to ignore. I learned about Lee’s death the same way I learned about Watchman, only the texts and tweets reached me in the middle of my second semester of my MFA. I was struggling at the bottom of a depressive bell curve and the only piece of writing I cranked out that year was a familiar story—a girl angry with her father. More specifically, a girl trying to get her mother’s engagement ring back from her father, who had abandoned the girl and remarried. When the girl arranges a meeting with her father to confront him, she finds that he has given the ring to his new wife, who mistakenly believes the girl is a mistress due to small town gossip that mistakes the meeting between father and daughter to be romantic.
It’s a story I’ve written many times before—one based on real events, with details changed enough to make it fiction, but realistic enough to be believable. A craft technique and a subject matter in the same drain I always circle. That particular story is pulled from the many occasions I have grossly been mistaken for my father’s mistress. A quirky detail for others, an embarrassing memory for me. I initially hid that story in a deep pocket of my hard drive with all the other “girl angry at her father” stories are kept. I was ashamed to write another one of “those” stories, especially in the MFA. It didn’t stay there, though, because, like every story I’ve ever written, it’s one I needed to write—just as Go Set a Watchman was the story that Lee needed put to paper. Whether it gets revised is the part I have to decide for myself and whoever ends up reading it. So, to possible future readers, who may not understand why I continue to tell these sad stories about broken daughters and their faulty fathers, or why you as a reader feel something despite how common or cliché the premise, I say this:
The disillusionment and darkness that so many readers encountered when they first read Scout’s discovery of Atticus as a bigot was painful, especially for those of us who grew up idolizing Atticus as the father figure they needed, deep down in our oblivious little hearts. And yet, disillusionment and disappointment are so inseparable from fathers that it becomes a cord in every person that can barely be struck and still resonate deeply. Lee wrote Go Set a Watchman first—she spared us with her revision the same way mothers spare their children when their fathers are nowhere to be found. But her revision ended up where all us fatherless children end up: a more hopeful narrative we can live with.
Acknowledging the darkness of Atticus Finch is just as painful as accepting the reason so many, including myself, flock to him in the first place. To me, Atticus represents more than a missing father in my childhood. Atticus is also what pushed and pulled me into adulthood. He and Scout were the touchstone and the catalyst for my understanding that innocence had been lost, but never forgotten, and that the only way to heal, for me and many others, was to become a writer like Harper Lee—someone who gravitates towards and revises the stories that hurt us the most to help themselves, and others like them, live happier lives.