JACKSON, Miss. — A handwritten letter from author Kathryn Stockett has become the focal point in a lawsuit over her bestselling novel The Help which has been made into a box office hit.
An African American housekeeper who works for Stockett’s brother claims her likeness was used in the book without permission. The Help is based on relationships between white families in Mississippi and the black women who worked for them in the 1960s. The movie adaptation of The Help took the No. 1 spot in theaters this past weekend with $20.5 million.
Judge Tomie Green dismissed Ablene Cooper’s lawsuit last week. Green said the statute of limitations elapsed from when Stockett gave Cooper a copy of the book in January 2009 and the lawsuit’s filing in February of this year.
Cooper’s lawyer, Edward Sanders, filed a motion last week to have the lawsuit reinstated. The motion argues that the clock should not have started ticking on the statute of limitations until Cooper read the book in the summer of 2010. Sanders argued that Cooper didn’t read it sooner because Stockett said in the letter that, despite the similarity in names, the character wasn't based on Cooper.
In a response filed with the court, Stockett’s lawyers said the letter accompanied a copy of the book and Cooper waited too long to sue under the one-year statute of limitations.
“The note makes clear that Ms. Stockett told Mrs. Cooper that a character in the novel was named ‘Aibileen.’ With note and novel in her possession, Mrs. Cooper knew, or reasonably should have known, of her potential claims in January 2009,” Stockett’s lawyers wrote in court papers.
Stockett’s defense team also said the letter has already been discussed in court and the judge made the correct decision in throwing out the lawsuit.
Sanders had no immediate comment.
The judge has not made any determination on whether Aibileen was based on Cooper. Stockett denies she was.
In the letter, Stockett says she only met Cooper a few times, but was thankful she worked for the writer’s brother because his kids love her.
“One of the main characters, and my favorite character, is an African American child carer named Aibileen,” the letter said. “Although the spelling is different from yours, and the character was born in 1911, I felt I needed to reach out and tell you that the character isn’t based on you in any way.”
The letter goes on to say the book is “purely fiction” and inspired by Stockett’s relationship with “Demetrie, who looked after us and we loved dearly”' The letter is referring to Demetrie McLorn, the Stockett family’s housekeeper, who died when the author was a teenager.
An affidavit said Cooper knows Stockett, has kept her child before, and had no reason not to trust her.
“She’s a liar,” Cooper screamed outside the courthouse after the lawsuit was dismissed last week. “She did it. She knows she did it.”
The lawsuit also quotes passages from the book, including one in which Aibileen’s character describes a cockroach: “He black. Blacker than me.”
The lawsuit says Cooper found it upsetting and offensive to be portrayed as someone “who uses this kind of language and compares her skin color to a cockroach.”
Stockett’s publicist has declined comment on the lawsuit.
Photo: The Help Novel