The Story of My Life
Fiction, Ethics, and the Self at Law
In Cooper v Stockett, a plaintiff unsuccessfully claimed that a central character in the 2009 novel The Help was based on her and that the depiction caused her emotional harm. By analyzing the documents filed by the parties, this article argues that the plaintiff is best understood primarily as a reader. From this perspective, the relationship between plaintiff and defendant parallels that between reader and author on several levels. The plaintiff-reader uses both textual and extratextual information to judge the author’s moral fibre, especially her level of commitment to anti-racism, and attempts to engage the law to address what are essentially moral wrongs linked to race and representation. Textually, how the White author deploys literary strategies to convey moral messages within the novel generates a sense of moral dissonance in the Black plaintiff-reader, and extratextual factors, such as interviews with the author and legal arguments advanced by the defence team, work to exacerbate that sense of dissonance, undergirding the plaintiff’s conviction that she has been wronged. While the substantive law of personality rights and invasion of privacy are not particularly sympathetic to her project, the procedural process of the lawsuit nonetheless provides a forum for it.
Andrea Slane is Associate Professor and Director of the Legal Studies program at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology. Her research interests follow three general themes: privacy rights, online interpersonal wrongdoing, and intellectual property (trademark, copyright, and personality rights). Her published work on intellectual property includes “Guarding a Cultural Icon: Concurrent Intellectual Property Regimes and the Perpetual Protection of Anne of Green Gables in Canada,” which appeared in the McGill Law Journal in 2011. She holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of California, San Diego, and a JD from the University of Toronto Faculty of Law.