Black Maid Sues, Says 'The Help' Is Humiliating

Stockett family divided after brother takes sides against sister Kathryn.

February 21, 2011, 9:34 PM

Feb. 22, 2011— -- A lawsuit against Kathryn Stockett, the author of best-selling novel "The Help," has divided brother and sister in a dispute about the real-life identity of one of her fictional characters.

Ablene Cooper, the longtime nanny for Stockett's brother, has filed a $75,000 lawsuit against the author, claiming she was upset by the book that characterizes black maids working for white families in the family's hometown of Jackson, Miss., during the 1960s.

Cooper also once babysat for Stockett's daughter, according to the Jackson Clarion Ledger, and the lawsuit alleges that she had been assured by Stockett, 42, that her likeness would not be used in the book.

The 2009 novel was an instant favorite among book clubs, written in the voice of black "help" by a woman raised by maids herself and who is white.

Cooper, 60, maintains that the book's fictional character -- Aibileen Clark -- is her. She says the alleged unauthorized appropriation of her name and image is emotionally upsetting, and her employers, Carol and Robert Stockett III agree.

He is Kathryn Stockett's brother and employs Cooper as a nanny and maid.

The book focuses on the friendship of three women: a young white woman, Skeeter, who aspires to be a writer, and two African-American maids, Aibileen and Minny.

Aibileen speaks in heavy ethnic lingo and, in one passage, compares her skin color to that of a cockroach.

"That night after supper, me and that cockroach stare each other down across the kitchen floor," Aibileen says in the book. "He big, inch, inch an a half. He black. Blacker than me."

Cooper has said the portrayal of Aibileen -- an almost saintly figure who is subjected to the racial prejudices of the period -- is "embarrassing."

Syndicated columnist Clarence Page, who is-African American, said, "There is an old saying, 'You can joke about your own crowd, but not about someone else's.

"Whether you are writing for yourself or a poetic work of fiction, you take a risk; like if I tried to write a book with a Yiddish dialect," he said, noting that the book has generated mixed reaction.

But in addition to being mortified by the black patois, Cooper is angry that the character so closely resembles her in many details.

"Ain't too many Ablenes," Cooper, who was unavailable for an interview, told the New York Times.

"What she did, they said it was wrong," said Cooper, who looks after the Stocketts' two children. "They came to me and said, 'Ms. Abie, we love you, we support you,' and they told me to do what I got to do."

The character Aibileen is a "wise, regal woman raising her 17th white child," according to the book jacket flap. "Something has shifted inside her after the loss of her own son, who died while his bosses looked the other way."

Saintly Aibileen Has Gold Tooth Like Ablene

Cooper has said the likeness is uncanny. Besides their names, both maids have a gold tooth. Like the fictional Aibileen, she lost her son to cancer several months before the birth of the Stocketts' first child.

Her lawyer, Edward Sanders, who did not return calls from, has said the similarities between both maids -- Aibileen and Ablene -- "seem very striking."

The lawsuit said the author's conduct "is not a mere insult, indignity, annoyance or trivial matter to Ablene. Kathryn Stockett's conduct has made Ablene feel violated, outraged and revulsed," according to the Jackson Clarion Ledger.

"Despite the fact that Kathryn Stockett had actual knowledge that using the name and likeness of Ablene in 'The Help' would be emotionally upsetting and highly offensive to Ablene, Kathryn Stockett negligently and-or intentionally and in reckless disregard for the rights and dignity of Ablene proceeded with her plans," it says.

"Kathryn Stockett's appropriation of Ablene's name and likeness was done for Kathryn Stockett's commercial advantage, namely to sell more copies of 'The Help.'"

The author's father, Robert Stockett Jr. of Jackson Miss., told that he is "neutral" in the division between his son and daughter, but agreed that plenty of people are profiting, especially filmmakers who plan to release a movie version of the book this year.

The film, directed by Tate Taylor and starring Emma Stone, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, looks at what happens when a Southern town's unspoken code of rules and behavior is shattered by three women who strike an unlikely friendship. Shot in Mississippi, it is set for release in movie theaters Aug. 12.

"I don't have a position," he said, playfully correctly the reporter's pronunciation of Ablene. "It's AY-blene."

He also noted that his author daughter, who has moved north to Atlanta, "is also a New Yorker now." Stockett, a retired developer and lawyer, said he did not know her phone number.

"Sure, I liked the book. It's fiction. They didn't give me the critics' copy until it was too late," he said. "I would have got some factual things changed. But I'm low down the totem pole."

He charged media with "stirring up the pot" in the dispute between his son's maid and his daughter, adding that the ensuing publicity surrounding the feud would benefit his daughter financially.

"Kathryn will appreciate that she gets a cut," he said.

Publisher Says Novel Is 'Work of Fiction'

His son, Robert Stockett III, who is a real estate developer with Madison Properties, did not return telephone calls from at his home or office.

The author also could not be reached but her husband, Keith Rogers, said from their home in Atlanta that he and his wife "don't know [Cooper] well."

"I know nothing about it [the lawsuit]," he said, referring to his wife's publisher.

Amy Einhorn, whose imprint at Penguin Group USA published the book, was also unavailable, but she had earlier issued a prepared statement to the media: "This is a beautifully written work of fiction and we don't think there is any basis to the legal claims. We cannot comment further regarding ongoing litigation."

Stockton, herself, who has described the novel as, "fiction, by and large," admitted in several earlier interviews that the book had not been embraced enthusiastically in her hometown.

"Not everybody in Jackson, Mississippi's thrilled," she told Katie Couric last year, acknowledging that a few "close family members" were so unhappy that they were not talking to her.

One of Cooper's neighbors said she had not read "The Help," but had heard about the dispute on the television news.

"Miss Cooper is very friendly lady," said Emma Sims, 57, who is a substitute teacher. "We have had some neighborly conversations, but we have only talked three or four times. She's usually at work or at church."

The lawsuit, which was filed in Mississippi state court in Hinds County, asks for $75,000 with no punitive damages or other fees.

The author's father puts little stock in the suit.

"Ablene will probably be the last one to get a nickel out of it," Stockett Jr. said. "You can't buy that much for $75,000."