Rev. Linda Simmons

Shadows and Finches

August 2, 2015

When I was an English teacher at a high school in New Hampshire, there were a group of students, deemed incapable of keeping up with everyone else, that were almost impossible to teach. They threw things, stuck gum everywhere, cursed, cared very little if they were sent to the principle’s office or not, and learned very quickly where my buttons were and pushed them all simultaneously.

But when we read To Kill a Mockingbird and watched the movie, they became still. Because Atticus Finch put his life on the line for something he believed in and would not be made small, they stopped talking and sticking and pushing and antagonizing and listened.

The scene most mesmerizing was the one where Atticus is sitting outside the door to the jail where African American Tom Robinson, falsely accused of raping a white woman, was housed. A lynch mob approached Attics at that door, and Atticus told them to go home. He would have died sitting there if he had to, and we all knew it.

We are all looking for something to believe in, something to make bigger than ourselves and our needs and wants, something to guide us when we are lost, something to return us to our best selves, our most generous selves, and Atticus could play that role.

At risk teenagers and Unitarian Universalists have more in common than one might guess at first glance. For example:

·  We question authority

·  We don’t like being told what to do or believe or think

·  We like to debate ideas for hours

·  We understand that truth changes depending on location

·  We can be stilled by a good story

Atticus Finch was credible. He walked his talk. He risked everything. He was a hero that we could all, even those of us that are the most difficult to convince, even those of us who say we need no heroes, believe in.

The recent book, Go Set a Watchman, is the draft from which Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird would eventually be birthed. The title comes from Isaiah 21:6: "For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth” which alludes to Jean Louise Finch's view of her father, Atticus Finch, as the moral compass ("watchman") of the small town of Maycomb. It has a theme of disillusionment, as Jean Louise, or Scout, now a grown woman, realizes the extent of the bigotry in her father and her home community.

Though the book has been characterized in media reports as a sequel to Lee's best-selling novel To Kill a Mockingbird, which was published in 1960, Go Set a Watchman is actually Mockingbird's first draft.

Lee's editor, Tay Hohoff, although impressed with elements of the original story, said that "the spark of the true writer flashed in every line,"[1] but that it was by no means ready for publication. It was, as she described it, "more a series of anecdotes than a fully conceived novel."[2]

As Jonathan Mahler recounts in his Times article on Hohoff, she thought the strongest aspect of Lee's first draft was the flashback sequences featuring a young Scout, and so requested that Lee use those flashbacks as a basis for a new novel. Lee agreed, and during the next couple of years, Hohoff led Lee from one draft to the next until the book finally achieved its finished form and was retitled To Kill a Mockingbird.[3]

Even though we know Go Set a Watchman was a prequel that evolved into what we know as To Kill a Mockingbird, even though this first Atticus evolved with Harper Lee to become the Atticus we love, to see these shadows in him is crushing.

Our hero is destroyed in Go Set a Watchman with words like the following said by Atticus in response to Scout’s attack of his racism: “Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?”[4]

Stephen Peck, son of Gregory Peck who played Atticus in the film of To Kill a Mockingbird, said, "The Atticus of Watchman is a completely different character from the Atticus of Mockingbird, even if it’s borne from the same imagination."[5]

He notes that the Atticus role was the hallmark of his father’s career, and of all the characters he played, the cerebral civil-rights hero was the one closest to who he was in real life. “He so deeply felt the words that he said in Mockingbird that you could barely separate the two,” Stephen Peck said. “That was his best self. Those were his deepest, most closely held ideals. He was thankful every day that he got that part.”[6] Asked the question if Watchman had been published 20 years after Mockingbird, instead of 55 years later, would Gregory Peck have taken up the part again? Stephen answered, “I’m not at all sure my dad would have played this one.”[7]

No matter the arguments of prequel and the evolving of character and writer, Atticus was sullied by the publication of Go Set a Watchman and it hurts. He stood for something that mattered to us.

We could refer to him in our own minds and hearts when we approached standing for something that caused us fear or rejection. He was, in many ways, our watchman, our moral compass, our racial conscience.

Isabel Wilkerson who wrote, “Our Racial Moment of Truth,” in the July 26th issue of the New York Times, thinks this disappointment, this feeling of betrayal by one of our heroes is timely. She thinks it not coincidental that the confederate flag, waving above the South Carolina capitol since April 1961, should be taken down within weeks of the publishing of Go Set a Watchman.

Two icons fell in so brief a time, one that represents not only the confederate states but states that flourished on the back of slavery and another that represented the moral courage to do what is right in the face of slavery. There seems to be an invitation here. Wilkerson writes that the fall of these 2 idols are “forcing a reckoning with ourselves and our history, a reassessment of who we were and of what we might become.”[8]

When heroes die, when icons shift, we are left to reassess the meaning of what came before and therefore the meaning of who we are. We are in many ways left with the truth of imperfections, shadows, secrets that live in our breasts that we are afraid to utter but that must be uttered for us to know who we are and who we might become.

One of those shadows and secrets is racism, when racism means institutional power + prejudice. And as white people, we all carry the seeds of racism within us. I remember when someone in an anti-racist training in seminary said this to me. It hurt. I jumped forward in my consciousness with words of my good works, my grandparents’ immigrant story, the ways in which I have been treated with prejudice. And all of this is true.

But as African American Cornell West said at General Assembly in Portland, Oregon this year recounting how his white brothers and sisters say they are not racist, “If I have a white supremacist in me, and I do, it is sure as hell likely that you have one in you!”

Learning to be with the racism within us can have the effect of making us stronger, more agile, more capable of seeing our complicity in systems of oppression, more willing to let go of our own hurt feelings in the face of a liberation project that needs more than our individuality to grow. It needs our willingness and courage to move beyond individual self and personal feelings and into the public square where oppressions are growing, where our voices as allies are needed.

We all have shadows. We all have darkness. So does Atticus Finch now. Go Set a Watchman invites us to walk not in Atticus’ shadows, but in our own. As Carl Jung, master of the shadow self writes, “We cannot change anything until we accept it.”

I remember once telling a friend that when Gary is away, I hear banging and movement in the attic. He said to me, “You should go to the attic to await your ghosts.”

What wise advice. Sit still and wait for the shadows that make up part of our humanity to find us. And it is this sitting still that a loss of a hero implores. I never went up into the attic to wait for my ghosts. I don’t like opening myself to shadows in the dark.

I have found the work of family systems useful in naming shadows. As a seminarian in training to become Unitarian Universalist ministers, we are required to take classes on family systems. I also opt to go to a Leadership in Ministry conference once a year where we discuss the work of therapists Edwin Freidman and Marty Bowen, the two big names in family systems works.

When we break into our small groups at the workshop with a family system’s therapist as our guide, we first offer our genograms to each other, our family trees.

These are complex and grow more complex each year as new family details find us and gaps are filled in. Each person on the genogram is connected by jagged, straight or broken lines depicting our relationship with them or theirs with others in our families.

Family systems tells us that we live in triangles and that when there is balance in the triangle, we go on quite well but like a 3 legged stool, when the weight is tipped too much in any direction, we fall over. They call these fused relationships, the ones that unbalance the necessary triangles we live in. The goal is to live in healthy triangles with balance in all relationships.

In one of our sessions, a minister after showing us his genogram, went on to the next part of the assignment- to discuss something happening in our churches that was causing us anxiety. As we all know, balance in any relationship can never be achieved with anxiety.

This minister proceeded to tell us that his board chair was very rude, demanding, aggressive, did not listen to him when he spoke, talked over him, always new what was right.

This is just the way he had described his father only moments before. The family system’s therapist who was our facilitator said to him, “You need to talk to your father.”

We all thought that the next words would be “And tell him how hurt you were by these behaviors.” But no, she went on, “And ask him about who he was as a child. Get him to tell you stories about his own family and his life before he was married to your mom.”

What the therapist was encouraging was making his father a whole person, with many stories, shadows and all, with a life beyond the one his son defined for him so that he could let his board chair also be a whole person beyond seeming a bossy, pushy, rude person. It is when we define people in small boxes we can forget to offer them our understanding and compassion.

That’s family systems’ work.

David Williams, a Harvard sociologist…said of the new characterization of Atticus, “As an America raised in this society with negative implicit biases against black people, you are not a bad person. You are simply a normal American. We have to come to grips with the reality that this racism is so deeply embedded in our culture that it shapes how we see the world, it shaped our beliefs, our behavior, our actions toward members of other groups. We have to examine ourselves in a profound way.”[9]

Perhaps it’s time to look at ourselves more closely, not so that we might feel bad or strive to become perfect but so that we might know ourselves, our beauty and ugliness, our acceptance and racism, our love and hatred. We are all of this and now Atticus lives inside of us instead of outside of us. And now our humanity is all we have to make a difference with.

It is time to deconstruct our racism and so allow ourselves the shame and pain of our history and the willingness to know people, including ourselves, beyond the boxes we give them.

So what to do with this new version of Atticus, this fallen hero, who makes compromises, who can see only so far past his own context, and allows others to speak horrible words in his presence because he knows he has to live in his small town and continue to be respected. It is an Atticus we all know too well.

To make Atticus whole is to make him into each of us, to bring him home, to encourage a more balanced and therefore healthy triangle between us, our history and our future.

And so we are here, home, with all of our humanity, beautiful and broken and so needed, so worthy, so capable of making of this world a place where there is room for all of us to flourish.

It’s up to us. It always has been.




[2] Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman (New York: Harper Lee, 2015), 245. Jonathan Mahler “The Invisible Hand Behind Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’” The New York Times, July 12, 2015.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman (New York: Harper Lee, 2015), 245.

[5] Jennifer Maloney, “What Would Gregory Peck Think of “go Set a Watchaman’” The Wall Street Journal. July 17, 2015

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Isabel Wilkerson, “Our Racial Moment of Truth” NYT, Sunday, July 19, 2015.

[9] Ibid.