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Atticus Finch and Bill Cosby—Fallen Heroes?

Gregory Peck is shown as attorney Atticus Finch in a scene from the 1962 movie "To Kill a Mockingbird," January 1962.

In what must be the greatest literary shocker of the past century, Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman—a companion to the widely read 1961 Pulitzer Prize winner To Kill a Mockingbird—went on sale Tuesday, detonating the sterling reputation of a much beloved and respected fictional hero.

In Lee’s latest work, Atticus Finch—the stolid, strong-willed white lawyer who, in To Kill a Mockingbird, risked his social standing within a small-minded Alabama town in the 1930s by defending an innocent black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman—is shown to have become an anti-black racist.

This shocker from the immortal realm of fiction, revealed last week when The Guardian published the first chapter of Lee’s new book, reverberated throughout the minds and hearts of folks who live in the flesh-and-blood world. For a great many people who have read and been inspired by Finch’s moral courage and rectitude, the revelation is akin to learning that a very real person, say Bill Cosby, is not as noble or honorable as previously believed.

Finch stood alone in Lee’s imagined world as a paragon of Southern white male liberalism, possessing an independent will that refused to bend to the conservatism of his racist environment. He was memorably immortalized as the square-jawed, bespectacled, white-suited gentleman advocate portrayed by Gregory Peck in the 1962 film based on the novel.

Talmage Boston, a Dallas lawyer, credited the literary and celluloid portrayal of Atticus Finch with sending legions of people into the legal profession since 1960, when To Kill a Mockingbird was first published. In a 2010 Texas Bar Journal article titled “Who Was Atticus Finch?” Boston wrote:

In addition to the novel’s commercial success, the character of Atticus Finch, through Lee’s writing and Peck’s acting, has pointed generations toward the goal of becoming lawyers—not just run-of-the-mill lawyers, but lawyers aspiring to serve the bar with Atticus-like integrity, professionalism, and courage.

Such sentiments are easily understood when they stem from a story with such overt idealism and imagery. As Finch says when warning his children to avoid yielding to the racial fears and prejudices of their environment, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

The storyline of To Kill a Mockingbird is tragic: Justice is perverted when the falsely convicted black man, Tom Robinson, is shot to death as he tries to escape from prison. Yet optimism lives in the lessons Finch teaches his impressionable daughter, Scout.

I’ve not read Go Set a Watchman in its entirety—only the opening chapter online. But according to an early review in The New York Times, Lee’s new novel casts a darker light on the hero that generations of readers thought they knew so well. In Go Set a Watchman, Finch’s feet are not merely made of clay but stuck in the Alabama mud of his day. He attends a meeting of the Ku Klux Klan. He asks his idolizing and dismayed daughter Scout, “Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?”

For fans of To Kill a Mockingbird, this is heresy, and they are not happy. Indeed, over the past decade—as racial attitudes have softened across America—families have named their babies Atticus with record frequency. According to figures compiled by the Social Security Administration, 846 of every 1 million boys were named Atticus in 2014, making it the 370th most popular boys name in the nation, up from 937th in 2004.

“Until Friday, naming your baby Atticus was a way of honoring someone who fought racism, and it was more popular than it had ever been,” Shane Dixon Kananaugh reported for Vocativ, a web-based media aggregator. “That may now change.”

While I do not share such strong antipathy toward the shifting perspectives of Atticus Finch, who is, after all, an ink-on-paper figment of Lee’s imagination, I sympathize with these feelings. I know what it feels like to lose faith in an imagined hero: I still have not recovered from the horror of learning that my parents lied to me about the reality of Santa Claus. Few things in life are as upsetting as learning that someone is not really all that we believed or wanted to believe.

Which brings me back to Bill Cosby, who once was such an unassailable paragon of paternal virtue that he was widely beloved as “America’s dad.” But amid allegations of rape from dozens of women over the decades, as well as his reported admission in a 2005 court deposition of purchasing drugs to give to women in order to have sex with them, his shining star has fallen in a dramatic flameout.

Cosby’s fall from grace is a real-life horror that would be unbelievable if written as a novel or made into a movie. Yet there are people—his wife and business manager, Camille Cosby, for example—who do not believe the worst of the allegations. And there are others, viewing from the outside, who express passionate emotions—both positive and negative—at the mention of Cosby’s name or upon seeing his image.

As with all human interactions, the world that both real and imaginary celebrities occupy is a messy and complex place. Life is rarely as happily-ever-after simple as depicted in a fairy tale. To recognize truth, we must live with contradictions and complications that make mush of easy beliefs regarding good and bad; virtue and evil; and even humanity itself.

In a column posted on CNN, journalist Frida Ghitis cautions against viewing people—or characters—as too heroic. “If you want to admire someone fully, you should not look too closely,” she wrote. “If you want to admire them smartly, you should brace yourself for at least some measure of disappointment.”

Now more than ever, in the age of social media and diminished personal secrets, we learn inconvenient truths about the people we admire with alarming frequency. What are we to make of our newfound knowledge? Are these figures of adulation to become erstwhile heroes or just humans in a different costume?

Hero worship has less to do with the objects of our affection and more with placing them on a pedestal in the first place. We simply do not know much about the people—racists or rapists—we choose to blindly celebrate. The real lesson learned from Atticus Finch in fiction or Bill Cosby in reality is caution against regarding either as a perfect person. Our heroes are rarely more than complicated human beings struggling, as we all do, with the swirl of promoted virtues and hidden sins coursing through their lives.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.