Me Before You by Jojo Moyes
That hashtag was featured heavily in my Twitter time line over the weekend, as the film version of “Me Before You” hit theaters. I had purchased the book at Target while trying to pass the time after a work training, but didn’t realize there was such discussion around it. Even though I knew the film was getting some very severe criticism, I wasn’t familiar enough with the plot to know if that was because the film hewed close to the book, or strayed from it. Below is more of a discussion of the issues raised in the book than the book itself, and is full of all the spoilers. Content note for ableism.
Okay. So, here’s the entire premise: Will, a rich white guy who loves adventure, is hit by a vehicle and left with a C5-6 spinal injury, which means he cannot move most anything below his very upper chest. He has some movement in his hands, but has full feeling (as I understand it). He can’t properly regulate his body temperature. He uses a mechanical wheelchair to move about, and has an assistat who addresses his sanitary needs. He also has returned home to his parents’ mansion.
Louisa (Lou) is a young white woman from the other side of the tracks (in this case, a historic castle standing as a substitute) who was laid off when the cafe she worked in closes. Her family relies on her income; she ends up working as a companion for Will, although not focused on medical issues. As she finds out a few weeks after she starts her six-month contract, she’s been hired to try to convince Will not to follow through with his appointment at an assisted suicide facility in Switzerland.
The #LiveBoldly tag was started by the film marketing team based on the idea that Will helps Lou decide she wants more out of her life, even as he does, in the end, die by suicide. Many members of the disability community took on the tag and repurposed it to very rightfully point out that non able-bodied people a) are not able-bodied inspiration porn, and b) live boldly as well, thank you very much. They viewed the film (and the book) as essentially suggesting that all non able-bodied people have lives that are not worth living, and should go and kill themselves.
That sucks. That sucks that when we finally get someone who uses a wheelchair as a character in the film, it is both not the main character of the film (the book is written primarily from Lou’s perspective, and never from Will’s) and features an able-bodied actor instead of someone with similar injuries. I didn’t, however, take away the message from the book that life in a wheelchair is not worth living – I took it as one story. However, especially after reading more articles on the issue, I can see the frustration. It’s so rare that a person who uses a wheelchair permanently is the focus of anything in pop culture, let alone a best-selling book a major movie – why must it be from the perspective of the person NOT in the wheelchair? And why must the focus be on how unhappy the person in the wheelchair is?
I fully support assisted suicide for anyone with a terminal diagnosis who has made the decision that they are not interested in continuing to live with severe pain, and want to exercise more control over their lives. But I also respect the concerns raised some, which include:
– Health care: if assisted suicide is an option, will insurance companies stop covering palliative care of life-prolonging treatment, and instead just cover the medications that facilitate the death?
– Benefits: If someone is receiving financial assistance other than health care, once there is a terminal diagnosis of some point (say, six months), will the benefits stop if the ill person doesn’t choose assisted suicide before then?
– Family: If assisted suicide is an option, will terminally ill people choose assisted suicide much sooner than perhaps their symptoms would suggest in an effort to avoid being a burden on others? Or will family members ‘help’ the decision along in order to more quickly access things like inheritance?
It’s a failure as a nation and humanity that people have to even face these hypothetical situations. And we should be protecting everyone from abuse. But I don’t see that as a reason to deny the choice of death to someone who is ill.
Non-terminal illness or disability is another situation though, right? Even with a severe spinal cord injury, someone might live for decades. So why should we provide access to such an option, especially if it might be abused? Should we?
With all of these question in mind, I have to give this book a very low review.
Note: For a MUCH better analysis of this, check out this great article from The Establishment.