Sunday, April 28, 2013

Happy Birthday. Harper Lee

Today is the birthday of Nelle Harper Lee. She is 87 years old and the author of the Pulitzer Prize winning, autobiographical novel To Kill A Mockingbird (1960). Her only novel was published when she was thirty four years old.  Her story is told through the eyes of a young girl (6-9 years old) Scout Finch, who refused to be boxed into dresses and etiquette by her aunt, and who often spoke first with her fists as she righted school yard injustices. Scout understands the injustice of racism, which turns human beings into the Other, a not me.

To Kill a Mockingbird was adapted to film by Horton Foote. Gregory Peck’s Oscar winning portrayal of Atticus Finch, an American icon and moral benchmark of American integrity as the small, Alabama town lawyer who defends Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman, became the greatest film hero of the 20th century.  Lee’s older sister Alice practiced law at her father’s firm till she was 100 years old. Lee’s actual father A. C. Lee had “genuine humility” and was purported to have been, like Atticus Finch, “soft spoken, dignified, and did the right thing.” He gave Harper Lee her first typewriter, which she shared with her next door neighbor and playmate Truman Capote, depicted in her novel as Dill Harris. In the 1930’s, they were considered an odd pair in Monroeville, AL, she with her tomboyish ways, Capote leaning toward his feminine side.

Lee’s feat of writing the world through a child’s eyes and with a wisdom beyond her years has rarely been matched. Lee’s novel precedes the Civil Rights Act and for a young, white, Southern woman to write herself into the shoes of a black man was, as Oprah Winfrey noted, “pretty damn brave.”  In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus tells Scout, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, …until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Certainly, that is an analytic attitude. We strive to understand our patients and, to do so more fully, we must dislocate ourselves momentarily from our own point of view and “climb into the skin” of our patients. Kohut called this empathy, and in the most difficult of moments, we struggle to stay empathically immersed, moving to right ourselves again when we fail. From the patients’ singular misery, we may not seem able to fight their fight, but we hope patients know we are in their corner.

No comments: