Life with Gracie: 'Watchman' reminds us to see things as they really are


Gracie Bonds Staples is an award-winning journalist who has been writing for daily newspapers since 1979, when she graduated from the University of Southern Mississippi. She joined The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2000 after stints at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the Sacramento Bee, Raleigh Times and two Mississippi dailies. Staples was recently promoted to Senior Features Enterprise Writer. Look for her columns Thursdays and Saturdays in Living and alternating Sundays in Metro.

The year my mother died, I was certain, even though my father was still alive, I’d spend the rest of my life alone, fending for myself.

Then Christmas came, and I knew with a certainty that God was with me and he always would be.

I think that's why my entire body shook as I read the last dozen pages of Harper Lee's "Go Set a Watchman."

There, a grown-up Scout learns what I’ve known since the age of 15. God is the only constant in our lives. He never changes.

But instead of total reliance on God, Scout, as her Uncle Jack puts it, had fastened her conscience “like a barnacle onto her father’s.”

“You never saw him as a man with a man’s heart, and a man’s failing — I’ll grant you it may have been hard to see, he makes so few mistakes, but he makes ‘em like all of us.”

It’s a hard truth, but one we learn only when we muster the courage to see what has been present all along.

“Go Set a Watchman.” It’s our answer, in many ways, for such a time as this.

When many in the United States are grappling with our own truths about race and relations, about the Confederacy and its flag, about gun rights and stand your ground laws, and about the distribution of power and wealth in our country, Uncle Jack forces us to consider our ways, to see ourselves and those we love and hate as they really are. Sometimes good, sometimes bad but never perfect.

That includes even our fictional heroes — Atticus Finch and Cliff Huxtable — who can no less escape their historical context than real human beings.

And yet many of us are heartbroken to discover that these personas are not real — that Bill Cosby the man is not the same endearing OB-GYN and father he plays on television or that, in this instance, the fictional Atticus Finch no longer fits our image of the genteel white Southerner. Finch is a racist, and Cosby has been accused of sexual assault by numerous women (allegations he denies).

Although written in the 1950s before "To Kill a Mockingbird," "Go Set a Watchman" centers on an adult Scout (now going by Jean Louise) living in New York and returning to the fictional town of Maycomb, Ala., to visit her father.

Atticus Finch was the town’s and Scout’s moral conscience. He was principled. He was perfect. We named our children after him and became lawyers because of him.

“Watchman,” though, blows to bits our ideal of attorney Finch. He — Scout and the rest of us learn — is a racist who once attended a Klan meeting, who questions whether Negro children should be allowed into white schools, white churches, white theaters.

He denounces the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling and declares he wants his native Alabama “to be left alone to keep house without advice from the NAACP.”

His bigotry and that of Scout’s longtime boyfriend Henry Clinton take Scout by surprise. It infuriates her. It makes her ill.

From what I can gather from news accounts over the past few days, it’s making readers sick, too.

The tendency is to exalt our leaders to the point of perfection, even though many of these leaders do not claim to be perfect, said Dr. Jeffrey Gardere, a noted psychologist and assistant professor at Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine in New York City.

As unreasonable and unrealistic as that may be, we imbue them with all of the qualities that we believe make them the perfect role model and ideal parent or father figure, who can inspire, comfort, lead and teach us.

“When we finally realize through scandal or just a plain reality check, that they are not the mythical figures that we have created or bought into, then we become disappointed, critical or even angry,” Gardere said. “The same amount of energy that was put into making them the ideal figure is also used to tear them down. This situation becomes even more exacerbated when this type of individual is complicit in elevating his status through fiction or holier-than-thou behavior.”

In the case of "Watchman," Laura Browder, an American Studies professor at the University of Richmond and author of "Slippery Characters: Ethnic Impersonators and American Identities," said she is struck by the sense of betrayal that many readers seem to feel.

“In the words of one writer I spoke to recently, ‘this is the worst possible time for this to happen, given the events of this summer,’ by which events she meant the Charleston shooting.

“We don’t like to think that people get less progressive over time as Atticus Finch seems to have, but in fact this does reflect a certain historical reality,” Browder said. “Readers want a sanitized version of the truth — it is hard to acknowledge that there were many, many Atticus Finches out there. We prefer comforting myths to powerful, yet unpalatable, truths.”

Scout’s truth was this: Her father, the only human being she had ever fully and wholeheartedly trusted, failed her.

Fortunately or unfortunately — take your pick — my father never disappointed me. He proved pretty early in my life that I couldn’t depend on him.

But to his and my mother’s credit, they introduced me to the one that I could depend on and I learned rather quickly that right living doesn’t come from leading perfect lives.

No, that comes from the grace that flows from our relationship with God.

When that happens, we’re able to extend the same unmerited favor to others.