Black Maid Sues, Says 'The Help' Is Humiliating

Stockett family divided after brother takes sides against sister Kathryn.

ByABC News
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."