The Three Worst Stories That “Me Before You” Tells About Disability

This post includes plot spoilers for the movie “Me Before You” and the book on which it is based.

I’m about to commit a journalistic sin, by rendering an opinion on a movie that I haven’t seen and don’t plan to see. Me Before You, based on the bestselling book by Jojo Moyes, stars Emilia Clarke as Louisa Clark, a young woman in her mid-20s who is partially supporting her family (parents, grandfather, sister, and nephew) by working as a personal aide to Will Traynor (played by Sam Claflin). Will, a former banker in his 30s who was paralyzed from the neck down in an accident, lives in his wealthy parents’ home, in the same English village where Louisa lives in far less luxurious circumstances.

Because of lukewarm reviews and a plotline I despise for reasons outlined below, I haven’t seen the movie, but I’ve read the book. All quotes in this post are from the novel.

MeBeforeYouLouisa’s job is to keep Will company during the day, while doing basic caregiving such as feeding him and dispensing medication; Will also has a private nurse who tends to his significant physical needs. Louisa soon learns that she was hired on a six-month contract because Will plans to commit suicide with the help of a Swiss organization, but promised his distraught mother that he would wait six more months before traveling to Switzerland to end his life. Louisa, with Will’s parents’ support and financing, undertakes a plan to rekindle Will’s zest for life, culminating in an ambitious but successful tropical vacation in Mauritius. Furthermore, to everyone’s surprise, Louisa and Will fall in love. Certain that Will will change his mind, now that he understands that he can still have new adventures and a loving relationship, Louisa is devastated when Will says he is sticking to his plan. He loves Louisa, and has truly enjoyed the outings and vacation she made possible, but none of that is enough. He can’t love Louisa the way he wants to love her. He can’t have the kind of adventurous life he used to have.

“The thing is, I get that this could be a good life,” Will tells Louisa. “I get that with you around, perhaps it could even be a very good life. But it’s not my life. I am not the same as these people you speak to [in online chat rooms for quadriplegics where Louisa has gotten advice]. It’s nothing like the life I want. Not even close.” Angry and hurt, Louisa initially refuses to speak to or be with Will at all, but ultimately travels to Switzerland to be with him and his family when he dies. Will, who pushed Louisa to look beyond her simple hometown life, leaves her enough money to allow her to go back to school, travel, and generally leave behind the kind of life she has lived thus far, focused on earning money to meet her family obligations.

Me Before You tells three particularly damaging stories about life with a disability.

Story #1: People with disabilities have hard lives that aren’t worth living, and are burdens on their loved ones.

Disability advocates are speaking out about how Hollywood regularly portrays people with disabilities as having lives that aren’t worth living, as this video from the Center for Disability Rights sums up nicely. Me Before You bluntly voices the common cultural assumption that people with disabilities are burdens, particularly on their loved ones, which makes suicide a selfless act of love. Will tells Louisa, “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 else could give you.” That his death enables Louisa to fund the kinds of adventures that Will considers a non-negotiable part of any life worth living just reinforces our culture’s tendency to assess disabled lives primarily in terms of how they compare with and affect non-disabled lives, instead of on their own terms.

One of the strangest aspects of the story is how Will’s attitude further stigmatizes disabled lives. Will is convinced that he isn’t like other quadriplegics, especially those who are living satisfying lives with their condition. “I led a big life. I am not designed to exist in this thing [his wheelchair],” Will argues. In another passage, he says, “This is not the life that I chose.” With remarks like these, Will expresses ideas that we would consider absurd and offensive if applied to anyone other than people with disabilities—that some people are “designed” to live limited, quiet lives without adventure or excitement; that the only valuable life is one governed by our preferences and choices; and that when we realize our life has turned out very different from how we thought it would be, suicide is a rational response.

When someone justifies leaving behind a spouse and children by saying, “this isn’t how I thought life would be, this isn’t the life I wanted,” we generally respond by saying, “Join the club,” and condemning such a response as selfish. But when Will Traynor says the same, we’re meant to see it as wise self-knowledge. In addition, when Will, whose family has the resources to provide skilled 24-hour caregivers and luxury accommodations to meet his needs, insists that he is not like “those people” who have chosen to live with their disability, he further marginalizes an already marginalized population. The experiences of other disabled people—those who build satisfying lives with far fewer resources than Will has—are irrelevant and meaningless because their lives don’t meet Will’s high standards. As a friend recently pointed out after we both read an essay in which the writer portrayed her mother as an inadequate grandparent because she has a physical disability, having a disability or loving someone with a disability doesn’t always prevent you from being an ableist jerk.

In criticizing how Me Before You portrays disability, no one is denying that an injury like Will’s is devastating and difficult. It is natural and utterly human for someone to mourn the loss of independence, pain, isolation, and sheer physical and psychological challenge of living with a debilitating condition, and such feelings are likely to resurface throughout someone’s life. But Me Before You renders these emotions normative and primary; they are not difficult emotions that people can learn to accommodate with the help of other people, medication, and/or therapy, but the only feelings that really matter. They aren’t one perspective on life, but the only true perspective.

Story #2: Life is subject to a dualism that separates the body from the mind/spirit/soul, so that the “real” person exists separately from his or her body.

When Louisa, after hearing Will’s stories about pre-accident trips to Paris, suggests that they could figure a way to get him back there, Will says, “I want to go to Paris as me, the real me,” meaning the “me” before he was injured. I’m very familiar with this sensation that one’s body is limiting and betraying one’s true self; I have often felt this way, even though I’ve had my disability since birth and have known no other way of being. Physical disabilities bring difficulty and grief with them. But difficulty and grief aren’t the whole story. People with disabilities—including those who have a disability acquired later in life—can and do learn to revise their sense of self, can and do try new things and fall in love and build happy, satisfying lives.

As tempting and straightforward as it is to believe that my impaired body is somehow betraying or limiting the “real me,” the truth is far more complex. Our interior selves—our minds, souls, and spirits—do not exist separately from our bodies, but in constant communication and relationship with them. My disabled body has helped to shape everything about who I am—good and bad, healthy and not, strong and fragile, wise and foolish, fearless and afraid, grateful and bitter, joyful and sad. Christianity is so compelling to me because, contrary to a common misconception that faith is about developing an ethereal spirituality that ignores the demands of the body, our faith is grounded in the material—God the creator of soil and sky and water, of bodies with fur and scales and feathers and skin, God incarnate in a man who hungered and thirsted, who sweat and shivered, whose skin was slicked with blood at birth and death, who suffocated to death on a cross. To believe that the “real me” exists apart from my body, that the only realities that matter exist outside of and beyond the physical, is to deny the very nature of humanity and the world, and for believers, to deny the nature of God.

Story #3: Because life with a disability is so difficult and limited, suicide is a rational, even admirable, decision.

People with disabilities will have hard days, unfair choices to make, and pain and hassles in their life that able-bodied people don’t have. But none of that makes suicide a rational, admirable decision.

Our culture idolizes perfect bodies, and not just in the sense that we are all pressured to look like the tanned, toned, Photoshopped celebrities whose images are everywhere. We make physical health, along with physical attractiveness (as measured by narrow and subjective criteria), an idol. We believe we have control over our bodies, and ascribe moral weight to our perceived ability and willingness to exercise that control: Eat this way, exercise that way, and you’ll be guaranteed health. But that’s never true. We can maximize our bodies’ health by making healthy choices, but we can’t control our bodies. Physical health can indeed bring us joy and enable us to do good things. But there are so many other aspects of life that matter as much as, or more than, physical health— good relationships, satisfying work, a safe home. Those are things that everyone has—or ought to have—access to regardless of how well or poorly our bodies work. But in a culture that idolizes physical strength, independence, health, and narrow ideals of beauty, prejudice against those who are disabled, unhealthy, physically weak, or who fail to meet our narrow definitions of beauty becomes justifiable. We come to believe an impaired, dependent body is the worst possible fate, which makes suicide a reasonable choice. I remember when Robin Williams committed suicide and then a week or two later, the news media reported that he had recently been diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Suddenly, people were saying, “Oh, NOW it makes sense.” No, it doesn’t. Illness and disability don’t make suicide a rational and good decision.

Note that we do not make this same cognitive leap with other kinds of impairment, including mental illnesses for which suicidal ideation is a symptom. We don’t look at an able-bodied person—including people with severe depression or who have gone through devastating losses, such as the death of a loved one—and say, “Oh yeah, suicide makes complete sense given the situation. Good call.” We are sympathetic to their despair. We may truly understand it, particularly if we’ve gone through a similar situation. But we also recognize suicidality for what it is: a pathology, a disconnect, a sign that immediate and urgent help is required. We treat suicidality with compassion, therapy, and medication, not with encouragement. We refuse to agree with the suicidal person’s assessment that his or her life isn’t worth living. While we have all felt that we will die of a broken heart, we don’t consider suicide a noble and reasonable response to a heart that is broken.

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Oddly, Me Before You purports to be about embracing life and living as fully as possible. The film’s tag line is, “Live boldly”— a strange message for a story that celebrates the refusal to accept any life other than the one over which you exercise maximum choice and control. “You only get one life. It’s actually your duty to live it as fully as possible,” Will urges Louisa during one of their conversations. Unless, that is, you’re a quadriplegic convinced that you are more interesting, discerning, and adventurous than other people, that your primary role in your loved ones’ lives is that of burdensome limitation, and that the only choice you have—despite the many resources at your disposal making other choices possible—is suicide. In that case, Me Before You asserts, it’s actually your duty to kill yourself.

About Ellen Painter Dollar

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer focusing on faith, parenting, family, disability, and ethics. She is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Faith, and Parenthood in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). Visit her web site at http://ellenpainterdollar.com for more on her writing and speaking, and to sign up for a (very) occasional email newsletter.