Why I Won’t be Watching Me Before You.

This is a one-off blog post about the book and film Me Before You, and why as someone with spinal cord injuries I find it offensive.

Me Before You? Isn’t that the universally adored novel by JoJo Moyes so many people find ‘truly inspirational’? Doesn’t it feature a disabled person, something you’ve been banging on about for at least two years?

Like many in the disabled community I do find it offensive, and the bit about the book being adored by lots of readers is true, but do check out the Amazon reviews that are three stars or below and you’ll find plenty of objections to the novel. It does feature a disabled man, but I don’t think it helps in the slightest, and instead sends out an irresponsible and sadly predictable message regarding disability and how someone copes after a ‘life-changing’ accident.

Spoiler alert: ‘Will’ is quadriplegic after an accident, but is depressed and wants to go to Switzerland to end his life. His mother asks him for six more months, and appoints ‘Lou’ to basically suicide watch ‘Will’, though at this stage ‘Lou’ doesn’t know that. ‘Lou’ is recovering from a trauma, has lost her confidence and not reached her potential. Through caring for ‘Will’ she improves her confidence, but he still opts for euthanasia. One of the reasons being he doesn’t want to ‘hold her back’. As he is wealthy, he leaves a sizeable amount of income to Lou after his death in Switzerland.

I don’t think the book is really about ‘Will’. Instead he is there to facilitate the change in the mindset of Lou as she has lost her confidence due to past trauma.

Disabled people don’t exist to make carers feel good about themselves. We don’t decide (generally) to set someone free by suicide or euthanasia, so they can ‘live boldly’ as we are such a burden and are holding them back in life (!).

“I’ve watched you these six months become a different person, someone who is only just beginning to see her possibilities. You have no idea of how happy that has made me .I don’t want you to be tied to me, to my hospital appointments, to the restrictions on my life. I don’t want you to miss out on all the things someone could give you.” (p426)

There are a host of conditions encroaching on me. I can feel it. I don’t want to be in pain, or trapped in this thing, or dependent on anyone, or afraid…” (P.428)

Now I’m not saying living with such a disability is easy, but if I had read this book when first injured, when I was lying in my hospital bed, unsure of whether I would ever walk again, unsure of whether I would ever work or have relationships in the future, then this book would’ve made me depressed. I worry that newly disabled people will read this book/ see this film and assume from it they are a burden, that they will think they won’t be ever capable of having a decent quality of life.

I think it is a missed opportunity to show that life after injury is possible. Yes, it’s a different life, but many people with spinal cord injuries go on to live very complete lives. They are workers, fathers, mothers, lovers and can, if society lets them, be full members of a community.

Also, very few people, if any at all, have the level of wealth ‘Will’ does, so our death (by whatever means)doesn’t result in a tidy pay-out to a care giver – instead it usually results in costs to those left behind, due to the financial insecurity many disabled people face

His (‘Will’) wealth is an interesting point, because it allows the author to side-step any of the real issues that disabled people face, from having their benefits cut to not being able to get a job. Or not being able to take up a place at university (due to poor access) or because or poorly delivered segregated ‘special’ schooling.

‘Will’, for example, didn’t have to wait two years for a modification to his bath, as the Occupational  Therapists are over stretched. Indeed, his wealth means the author can address his disability purely from an outdated medical view of disability – that it is his injuries that are disabling. This is rather than the social model, which means it is factors in society, like my bath modification not being fixed, that actually cause disability. The social model means if society was really geared up for disability, then disabled people would have a chance to flourish, on a level playing field, just like anyone else. Sadly, we are still some way off society being set up for disability, and although there are hints of this in the novel, due to his wealth it’s never fully explored, which is another missed opportunity.

‘Lou ‘uses a spinal injuries forum to get advice and information, and at one point is asking for advice on what activities she can do with ‘Will’. Though instead of calling him ‘Will’ or ‘my friend’ or even ‘the person I am looking after’ she refers to him as a ‘quad’.

Now I’ve been on lots of these forums and I’ve never seen this, referring to someone by the (shortened) name of their disability, rather than by name. Again this is a very medical model approach – focusing on the disability and not the person. She also at one stage talks about ‘Will’ not wanting to live. The author makes another curious decision here.  She decides to print in full the ‘response’ from a person (Gforce) with quadriplegic:

“Can you really put yourself in his shoes? Do you know how it feels to never be able to empty your bowels without help? To know that forever you are going to be stuck in your bed/unable to eat., dress, communicate with the outside world without someone to help you?” P.270

‘Lou’ apparently gets messages on the forum from “other quadriplegics criticising Gforce for his bleak words, protesting that they had found a way forward , that theirs was a life worth living” (P271) but instead of writing these responses in full, like she did with ‘Gforce’ it’s just expressed as an aside. Again, through these choices, the author is reinforcing the ‘I am a burden – medical model’ theme of the book.

Me Before You is described as a romance, but where is the sex? I’ve never known Hollywood to hold back on sexual scenes, but we can’t blame them, because this was a decision made by the author. She decides to make it a ‘love story’ between ‘Will’ and ‘Lou’, but actually ‘Lou ‘has a able bodied boyfriend, to satisfy her needs.

People with spinal cord injuries are capable of sex. We are capable of becoming fathers and mothers. We don’t suddenly lose our sex drives just because our spine is damaged. Why the author made this decision I don’t know, because it would’ve challenged this misconception held by a lot of the general public. However, she avoids this and as such it’s yet another missed opportunity.

Perhaps, even more concerning is the different first person POV chapters. We hear from everyone, bar ‘Will’ – questions must surely be asked about that. Maybe she was trying to stress his lack of control, but what it comes across as, is a sanitised view of disability, cleansed and made palatable for her audience.

So you might think all this is unimportant, it’s just a book – but it isn’t just a book anymore it’s a major mainstream film, and to add further insult to injury they have an able-bodied actor playing ‘Will’. We don’t accept ‘blacking up’ anymore so why are we not using the many disabled actors out there? From this interview with director Thea Sharrock in The Guardian, it doesn’t sound to me, as if it was seriously looked into:

‘Claflin was given the lead role after a number of actors were considered. We spoke to a few but there were limited options, with due respect to those we saw…To be honest, it was always a question of finding someone who would meet what the studio was going to require as well as what we needed.’ Vanessa Thorpe, Arts and media correspondent, The Guardian, 22nd May 2016.

So, not only are disabled actors not getting these parts, in a time period where disabled people are often accused of ‘faking’ the extent of their injuries, we have an actor ‘pretending’ to be disabled, who one minute is in the wheelchair, the next he is striding up the red carpet.

It would have been good to get the views of Sam Claflin who plays ‘Will’, so naturally disabled people took part in #AskSam on Twitter, where he refused to answer any of their questions. Likewise JoJo Moyes only responds to positive comments about the book and/or film. Maybe in the coming months she will try to argue that she’s encouraged a debate, it’s just a pity she decided to make it so one-sided, and not in support of disabled people.

The Single Feather (Pilrig Press) is a novel where the protagonist is definitely ‘Rachel’, who is paraplegic. It doesn’t end with Rachel killing herself or opting for euthanasia, but something truly radical, instead. You could argue (quite correctly) that it was written in reaction to novels like Me Before You. However, as a disabled writer, who hasn’t written the traditional ‘misery novel’ about disability – is anyone hearing my voice?

The Single Feather is reviewed in Able Magazine.
The Single Feather is reviewed in Able Magazine.

The page numbers refer to the p[aperback edition of the book, which for obvious reasons I won’t be linking here.

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7 thoughts on “Why I Won’t be Watching Me Before You.

  1. kendraolson says:

    Thanks for this, Ruth. A very brave, well written commentary. I agree with all you’ve said and especially appreciate your point about Hollywood no longer accepting actors who ‘black up’ so why should we accept those who are fake disabled? A test I often use is to substitute an ethnic minority for the disabled person in question. If it would not be acceptable for the ethnic minority person to be acting in a certain way or being treated in a certain way then it is not acceptable for the disabled person. It is shocking how few people realise the extent of the discrimination out there. I certainly will not be seeing this film.

    1. R.F.Hunt says:

      Thanks Kendra! Sadly, discrimination against disabled people is lagging behind many of the other types. It really should’ve been a red line in producing this film, in giving the role and huge opportunity to a disabled actor. As for the scenes (I’m told they were brief) where it is prior to ‘Will’s’ accident, then a body double could’ve been used. However, the problems with this book begin with the premise, which totally avoids what is most likely and believable.

  2. m88 says:

    Hello! I’m at work surfing around your blog from my new apple iphone!
    Just wanted to say I love reading through your blog and look forward to all your posts!
    Keep up the superb work!

  3. Tasha says:

    I actually have to agree with what you have written after reading the book. Initially I had seen friends argue the points you have made by stating that the story is more about depression and less about disability. I don’t agree anymore. I’m actually a caregiver and the story is awful.

    1. yes, they make disabled people look like a burden on society, and this story is going to hurt a lot of individuals with disabilities.
    2. As a caregiver Lou breaks wills confidence and privacy by telling her family and boyfriend EVERYTHING.
    3. I feel like the female character was living off will, using his money and his family money to go on a holiday of her choice so long as will can also participate. She gets drunk when she is the one solely suppose to care for will.

    Authors are entitled to write whatever they want, and we are entitled to judge the book and it is morally wrong in many ways. I just hope that this movie disappears as fast as possible.

    Much love
    Tasha

    1. R.F.Hunt says:

      Thank you for reading and your comments. I fully agree with the points you have made. I feel it’s sad this book and movie have gained such a large audience who seem to think it’s ‘inspiring’. However, as you point out that’s not the view of many who are disabled or are carers who know the truth. I wrote The Single Feather in response to books like this….
      Thank you, once again.

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