Though the recollection of such dark things is painful and hazy at best, from time to time I must remind myself that I was not always as able-bodied as I am now. I once looked tearfully into my mother’s stricken face and begged her to drive me to a clinic. I wanted to be euthanized.
The circumstances were tricky, as they always are. I was only twenty years old. I had become very suddenly bedridden and chronically ill, with extremely limited cognitive function. It was frightening. As a (previously) athletically inclined, voracious scholar halfway through her education, I found my position to be nigh unbearable. And I could see no way out.
Today, I want to talk about Jojo Moyes’ sensitive novel Me Before You. This book, and particularly its cinematic successor Me Before You, has been embroiled in quite the festering pot of controversy. The disability rights activist group Not Dead Yet has been outspoken about their views on the story, claiming that what Moyes has done is paint the disabled as less valued members of society. They have even dubbed Me Before You a “disability snuff film”.
Here is a great article from The Telegraph that explores all sides, including statements from members of Not Dead Yet, who make some great points.
Film director Thea Sharrock, author Jojo Moyes, and even actor Emilia Clarke, who portrays the protagonist in Me Before You, have issued statements defending their work and insisting that devaluing the disabled was never their intention. Clarke’s consistent answer when confronted about the hot button issues in the story is to suggest that people read the book. Read the book. Really read. The book.
I could not agree with her more.
Because I think we’re past this, I’m going to spoil it for you. Will, the young quadriplegic in Moyes’ story, dies. He dies, he goes to Switzerland to be euthanized. It’s absolutely heartbreaking, because we as readers are given the chance to get to know him. We see him as valuable. Louisa, his young friend, sees him as valuable. His parents see him as valuable. In fact, they all plead with him to reconsider his decision.
I’m going to make a leap, because I’ve been there. This isn’t actually about disability. This is about depression.
Will decides he is unhappy with his new circumstances, and nothing anyone says will convince him to recant. He doesn’t want to live. The crux of the story is actually wrapped up in freedom of choice; e.g. whether or not Will deserves to make his own decision.
As a writer, Moyes is gentle. She is exploring individual and complex characters. I don’t believe for one moment that she is suggesting people with disabilities should, as Dickens has said, “die… and decrease the surplus population”.
Now. That said, I cannot recommend the film. The treatment is on par with a classic romantic comedy, rendering the experience disconcerting and eerie. Notwithstanding excellent performances by every cast member, I found the movie to be a waste of my time. The book however, was not. It was life-changing. And interesting. And challenging. It may be that the concept is too big for the silver screen, too layered, too nuanced.
I am one woman, and this is my personal opinion determined by the amalgam of my own experiences and worldview. This is my distillation:
It is no secret that “hope deferred makes the heart sick”. I am speaking generally, to any person, able-bodied or no, who has been denied something they want. Unrequited love, a failed career, lost faith, financial woes. Life is hard. If you are in a position that you don’t like for long enough, sometimes you’ll want to cash in. Get off the ride. Leave the club. I think it’s important to acknowledge that depression is a thing. Longing for death is a thing that some people struggle with. And we need to talk about it.
If what Me Before You is really asking is “To be or not to be?”, that’s noble enough.
I hope you decide to be.