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