In Me Before You by JoJo Moyes, wealthy Londoner Will Traynor becomes quadriplegic after an accident. Understandably, Traynor grieves the swashbuckling life he led previous to his accident. Still sullen and sarcastic two years after his accident, his mother hires perky caregiver Louisa Clark on a six-month contract without telling Louisa that Will has scheduled an appointment to have a doctor in Switzerland assist him in taking his own life at the end of the six months.
Overhearing a conversation, Louisa finds out Will’s plan early on in her six month contract; she goes on a mission to convince Will to change his mind. They develop a close relationship, but at the end of the six months he still insists on carrying through on his plan. Louisa is devastated.
Not Dead Yet, a disability advocacy organization, characterizes the film based on the novel this way:
“Me Before You” is the latest Hollywood film to grossly misrepresent the lived experience of the majority of disabled people. In the film, a young man becomes disabled, falls in love with his ‘carer’ and they have an incredible 6 months together. Despite her opposition, however, the hero does the “honorable” thing by killing himself at the Swiss euthanasia clinic Dignitas – leaving his fortune to her so she can move on and he is no longer a “burden” to her. Based on the best-selling novel of the same name, “Me Before You” is little more than a disability snuff film, giving audiences the message that if you’re a disabled person, you’re better off dead.
To be fair to Moyes, through Louisa’s explorations in online support groups, the novel does portray other perspectives on quadriplegia than Will’s. Louisa meets many friends online who either have quadriplegia or are friends or lovers of people with quadriplegia who have accepted life with their disability.
Not Dead Yet’s description says that Will takes his life to “honor” Louisa and no longer be a “burden” to her, yet the novel highlights a different motivation: Will’s ongoing grief at all he cannot do. Still, Not Dead Yet’s harsh description finds support in the novel. This clip from the novel emphasizes the idea that Will’s life is without options:
Louisa shows up at the clinic where Will is waiting for his appointment to take his life. She begins their conversation,
“So . . . “
“You’re not going to—“
“I’m not going to try and change your mind.”
“If you’re here, you accept it’s my choice. This is the first thing I’ve been in control of since the accident.”
Then the novel continues in the first person from Louisa’s perspective, “And there it was. He knew it, and I knew it. There was nothing left for me to do.”
Even after his accident, Will lives a life of privilege, going on outings and even a delightful trip to Mauritius during Louisa’s time with him. He has a powerful impact on her life by convincing her to look beyond her small life with her family to imagine the possibilities for her future. Yet, in the novel Will refuses to recognize the “control” he has exercised in these and many other situations, and the reader is left with the impression that “die” or “not die” is the only choice this quadriplegic can make.
I don’t want to minimize the challenges that people face with their quadriplegia, cerebral palsy, or other physical disabilities; however, glamorizing suicide as the only way one can exercise control in life when dealing with a serious physical disability is false and dangerous. The folks I know have managed to forge lives of meaning and purpose, finding joy in life and bringing joy to others in spite of and sometimes through their disabilities. By the end of Me Before You, Will just looks like a spoiled, rich kid who decides to die because he can’t have his way.