July 15, 2011 -- When first-time author Kathryn Stockett began writing her novel, "The Help," she had no idea that she was creating a book that would sell more than three million copies and spend more than 100 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.
"I'm stunned," Stockett said of the novel's success. "It's not why I wrote the book.You write because you want to tell a story. And you write because you want to communicate your feelings."
In the case of "The Help," Stockett's feelings stemmed from the powerful bond she shared with her childhood housekeeper, Demetrie, and the longing she felt for her after she passed away. As Stockett soon learned, her feelings would resonate with people across the country who shared similar relationships with the maids and nannies who worked in their childhood homes.
"I get letters from readers from all over the world that say…'Oh my God,' you know, 'you wrote my story,'" Stockett said.
That was the case with Elizabeth Hays, a reader who grew up in Jackson, Miss. and was convinced that Stockett had interviewed her childhood housekeeper, Alma Cousin, when writing the book.
"I actually started a letter to [Cousin] to ask her about this, about why she wouldn't tell me that she had been interviewed by Kathryn," Hays said.
She decided instead to talk with Cousin about it the next time she saw her. "I asked her casually, "Have you read 'The Help?'" She'd never heard of it!"
At Hays' suggestion, Cousin read "The Help," and the book conjured memories about her experiences as a housekeeper in Jackson before the civil rights era.
In "The Help," a fledgling journalist named Skeeter convinces maids in Jackson to let her record their stories about the indignities they suffer working for white families in the 1960s. The injustices experienced by these maids struck a chord with Cousin.
"I worked for this lady, and she said, 'Alma, where do you go to the bathroom at?'" she explained, "And I said, 'Oh, in there.' And she said, 'Oh, I don't want you to use that one no more.' She said, 'You just going to have to go outside."'
Unlike many of the maids portrayed in Kathryn Stockett's "The Help," Cousin refused to stand for such ignorance and abuse.
"I said, 'You give me my money, and I'll be on my way.' And I left," Cousin remembered. "My daddy was a real strong man, and he taught us not to take nothing off of nobody."
When Cousin began working for Elizabeth Hays' family, she made it clear that she would only work for employers who treated her with respect.
"When you work as a maid, a lot of folks call you 'my maid,'" Cousin said. "And so I chose the word 'housekeeper.'"
As time passed, Cousin became a fixture in Hays' life, cooking for her, babysitting her, and teaching her life lessons that would follow her into adulthood. Though she was technically an employee, Hays regards Cousin as a member of the family.
"I can't separate her from the course of my life," Hays said, "She is ingrained with who I am."
Like Elizabeth Hays, two thousand miles away in Arizona, Ivy Johnston, 50, was also deeply moved by "The Help." It brought back memories of her own childhood maid, whom she hadn't seen in 20 years.
More Than a Maid
For Johnston, Dorothy Green was much more than someone who cleaned her home. She was also her guardian angel, the woman who doted on her from birth until she left for college.
"She just taught me a lot of things that a mother teaches a little girl. Right from wrong," Johnston said.
Ever since, Johnston has longed to see Green again. Inspired by "The Help," she expressed those feelings in a poignant letter she wrote to Green.
Dear Dorothy,I am sorry that it took me so long to write you. I just need to tell you how much I love you and how big a role you've played in my life. I remember being a little girl and following you around the house and listening to you talk and you were always so cheerful and kind. It is something I want to say to you for a long time. You will always be in my heart and prayers as the woman I looked up to, the woman who loved me, the woman who protected me and the woman who never failed to make me smile. Thank you for all the hugs you gave me.
Johnston's heartfelt words meant the world to Green.
"That goes to your heart when somebody say that to you and you know you done the best you could by them," Green said.
Working in the cotton and corn fields of South Carolina early in life, and later as a teenager cleaning houses in New York, Green is now retired and living in Brooklyn. She hadn't seen Johnston for two decades, only keeping in touch through birthday and Christmas cards, but that was about to change.
When Johnston posted a comment on the novel's Facebook page, expressing her love for Dorothy, "20/20" offered to help reunite the two women in New York. Only hours before the long-awaited reunion, Johnston was filled with anxiety, wondering how Green would react.
"I think she'll say, "Oh my Lord" and she'll cover her mouth. And her beautiful big brown eyes will open up wide," Johnston said.