Me Before You: Why One Story Is Such A Big Deal

It’s been a looooong time since I’ve written and I could devote a series of posts as to why, but a magical thing has happened in that there is a current topic that strikes a chord with me and I actually have a little bit of time to sit down and collect my thoughts on it.

The past week my social feeds have been filled with angry articles and blog posts about the movie Me Before You, coming out tomorrow. I had seen previews on TV. It looked like a sappy romance about a woman who falls in love with a man who uses a wheelchair while caring for him… eye roll. I figured it was about how novel or brave it is for an able-bodied person to fall in love with a disabled person. Caregiver falls for patient, how tired.  Terrible premise for a movie and reeks of inspiration porn. But, as I read reviews **SPOILER** it became clear that it was actually worse than that. A major plot point of the movie is Will’s intent to take his own life through assisted suicide rather than live as a quadriplegic, a desire that he ultimately fulfills at the movie’s conclusion at a clinic in Switzerland. His condition is not terminal and he makes it clear that the reason for his suicide is that he would rather be dead than use a wheelchair the rest of his life. The two months that Will and Louisa spend together inspire her and are a sweet parting memory for him. They go their separate ways and he follows through on his plan. He leaves behind a sizable sum for the able-bodied Louisa to presumably #liveboldy — this is the official hashtag for the movie, I kid you not. This is supposed to be an actual theme in this movie: that you only get one life and you are supposed to live it to the fullest. All the while its main character is taking steps to end his, which is supposed to be understandable because who would want to live that way right?

Lots of people actually. I’ve been reading their stories all week. SO MANY great responses. One today from an 11-year-old. I’ve collected a few of my favorites at the bottom of this post.

This seize-the-day theme in Me Before You is dependent upon the idea that Will’s life essentially ended the day of his accident. Rather than his new connection with Louisa showing him that there is life beyond his disability, it seems to highlight perceived barriers to living his life as fully as he would like to, and he therefore confirms his opinion that his life is not worth living at all.

In addition to the voices in the disability community, I’ve also read a lot of rebuttals from those outside: Did you read the book? The screenplay is written by the author so I assume she did her best to preserve her original intentions, and it sounds like a lot of people who have read the book feel equally outraged. No one else wanted him to do it. At first, but as I understand it they all accept and some even “come around” to encourage and assist him in his decision at the end. It was not the author’s intention to… Most of the evil in this world is done by people with good intentions. Some people actually do feel this way. There is a really great post at the end of this blog that addresses this one so I won’t try. This is just one perspective, one person’s story. 

This is the one I’d like to focus on. It is just one perspective, one story. The problem with this, and perhaps why so many are hurt and angered by this movie is that droves of people will go out this weekend, get the big bucket of popcorn and sit back and indulge in a harmless romance. They will leave with tear-stained cheeks and feel all gooey-good and uplifted. They will connect with Louisa and be inspired to go out and live life to the fullest like she will do, presumably a better use of Will’s money. They will think about Will’s storyline as a tragic thing that happened and met its logical conclusion.

And the next time they hear a story about a disabled person taking their life, they will not be righteously angry, they will just sadly shrug. Those things happen I suppose. Or the next time they read about a parent “mercy killing” their disabled child, they will have empathy not for the child, but for the parent. What a hard decision. I’m sure it was an act of love. It seems like a harmless movie, but a very dangerous idea sneaks in there: disabled people are probably better off dead. 

I’m sure you’ve figured out by now why this strikes such a strong chord with me. As a parent of a child with a disability, I encountered the false assumption that his life is not worth living before he even left my womb. The most difficult and pervasive aspect of his disability is this idea, not his actual disability.

So sure, this is just one story, but we live in a society where it’s pretty easy for an able-bodied person to not interact with disabled people on a regular basis, or ever, and gain a real understanding of that experience. Many will go see this movie and make formative opinions about what life is like as a wheelchair user based on one piece of fiction, without actually knowing someone who lives that life everyday. These opinions have tragic real world consequences. My feed is constantly filled with them, and they don’t make me sad or wistful, they make me angry. Go ahead and google “disability suicide rate” or “murder suicide disability.” I’ll wait here.

How would this story be different if Will was a veteran? Or someone struggling with depression? Would we accept his death as easily? Or would we look at what else we could have done? Fight harder. Stage an intervention. Implore him to pursue counseling. Do everything we can to make him see that life can still be worth living.

The idea that disabled lives are precious is pretty baseline for a lot of things. If people don’t think disabled lives are worth living, how are we supposed to convince the world that they deserve basic human rights, widespread accessibility, a free, appropriate education in the least restrictive environment, a livable wage, quality healthcare, freedom from bullying and violence, freedom from sexual assault, equal consideration for organ transplants, self confidence, financial security… and the list could go on forever. It’s a really big deal.

One of my favorite quotes is “Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson). We often go to the movies or read fiction to escape the harshness of reality, but one of the reasons I love fiction is that it holds a mirror up to humanity and illuminates how we view the world. This might be one story, but it speaks volumes about how we view disability, and our response to this movie tells the disabled community how we view them. I’m not saying boycott this movie (I plan to see it at some point in a “keep your enemies close” kind of spirit), but if you do go see this movie this weekend, take these perspectives with you and walk in with open eyes. Don’t let Khaleesi’s earnest eyebrows or Sam Claflin’s adorable dimples turn you into a mawkish puddle of sentimentality. I’m sure a lot of good intentions went into this movie, but the fact remains that people are going to walk away with a romanticized view of assisted suicide concerning disability and that is morally wrong and could potentially fuel an already huge public health issue.

2 thoughts on “Me Before You: Why One Story Is Such A Big Deal

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