The Mockingbird Next Door
(2014), a memoir by Marja Mills, investigates the life of Harper Lee, the author of To Kill a Mockingbird
, and her sister, Alice French Lee, a lawyer. Mills bases her writing on her interviews with the two extremely private women beginning in 2001. Based mainly in Monroeville, Alabama, it follows the two women from their young adult life to the days of the interviews. The memoir, known for drawing an intimate emotional map of their unique histories, hopes to improve the racist climate of the United States, especially its South where they were born and raised and lived out their lives.
The book begins with the context of Mills’s assignment to interview the two subjects of her memoir. A journalist and independent writer who highly respected subjects’ boundaries, she was chosen by the Chicago Tribune
to profile the town of Monroeville after To Kill a Mockingbird
was chosen as the guiding text by a Chicago program called One Book, One Chicago. Her respectful demeanor first won Alice Lee’s trust, given out sparingly, and later also the trust of Harper Lee, referred to in the family as Nelle, who revealed that Harper, actually her middle name, was a gesture to the doctor who saved their sister Louise at birth.
Mills recalls being forced to leave the Tribune
on disability in 2004. Wanting to continue the memoir documenting the Lee sisters, she moved into the house adjacent to the Lees’ shared home for nearly the entirety of 2004 and 2005. She trawled much of her knowledge about their lives from meetings during ordinary days: meals at restaurants, coffee at each other’s kitchen tables, even accompanying them to the Excel Laundromat in their neighborhood and going on drives through the country on roads made of red clay. In Nelle Lee’s Buick, they would go to feed the ducks and other waterfowl at Whitey Lee Lake. The Lee sisters recall living for shorter periods of time in New York but prefer to focus on their storied lives in the South.
Mills tempers her questions about difficult issues in the Lee sisters’ lives with an acceptance of their hesitancy and the incompleteness of their answers. She asks both sisters why Harper Lee never continued to write novels after To Kill a Mockingbird
. After gleaning incomplete answers from them both, she also asks their good friend, a Methodist pastor, Tom Butts. Rather than only include the narrative she personally perceives as most valid, Mills synthesizes all of their perspectives into a more ambivalent conclusion: combined with an aversion to publicity and her family’s loss of privacy, it was hard for Lee to conceive of reaching the “impossible expectations” her first novel generated in the American public.
Mills also deconstructs Nelle’s irritation at the frequent speculations about her sexual identity, which often try to identify her as gay despite her desire for privacy and her own silence about the subject. She goes out of her comfort zone to ask both sisters whether they ever dated, and gets ambiguous answers from both, concluding only that they did “a little.”
The Lee sisters also articulate their ambition to inform Mills’s memoir so that it can serve as a chance to correct the public record about their lives, indicating that was a huge factor in their decision to cooperate with the initial Tribune
interview. One of the misconceptions they desire to correct is their relationship to Truman Capote, Nelle’s childhood friend, who lived next door to the Lees, and served as the model for the character called Dill in To Kill a Mockingbird
. Both Nelle and Alice reject the story Capote promoted that their mother had tried to drown Nelle twice while she was a young girl. They also try to make it abundantly clear that Capote had no actual hand in the writing of the novel, and likewise with Lee’s editor, who claimed to have contributed. Nelle recalls that she and Capote fell apart after she helped him research his best-known work, In Cold Blood
, due to his erratic actions, lying, and mean attitude. When Capote died in 1984 after a long stint with drug use, they had already been long separated. Nelle concludes that he was probably a psychopath.
Written partly in the turmoil of her own illness, Mills’s memoir is a particularly deep and extended example of the emotional effort a writer must take to obtain a true account of his or her subject. She tries to reach beyond the ambiguities and retrospective analyses of the Lee sisters to draw a portrait of their lives that is somehow both accurate and anachronistic. Though she is not sure whether such a project can truly succeed, she writes with gratitude for the opportunity to attempt it through investigating the Lee sisters’ rich personal pasts.