Supposedly a universally admired novel about disability, JoJo Moyes’s book has been turned into a film. RUTH HUNT explains why she won’t be watching it
LIKE many in the disabled community, I find Me Before You offensive. It might be adored by lots of readers but scratch the surface and check out the Amazon reviews that are three stars and less and you’ll find plenty of objections to the novel.
It may feature a disabled man but I don’t think it helps the disabled in the slightest. Instead, it sends out an irresponsible and sadly predictable message regarding disability and how someone copes after a “life-changing” accident.
Spoiler alert — the protagonist 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 carer Lou to basically suicide-watch him, though at this stage she doesn’t know that. Lou herself 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. He is there to facilitate the change in Lou’s mindset. But disabled people don’t exist to make carers feel good about their lives. We don’t generally decide 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,” Will says in the novel. “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.
“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.”
I’m not saying living with such a disability is easy. But if I had read this book when first injured and lying in my hospital bed, unsure of whether I would ever walk again, work or have relationships in the future, then this book would have made me depressed.
I worry that newly disabled people will read the book or see the film and assume that they are a burden or think that they won’t ever be capable of having a decent quality of life.
There is a missed opportunity here to show that life after injury is possible. Yes, it’s a different existence, but many people with spinal cord injuries go on to live very complete lives. They are workers, fathers, mothers and lovers and can, if society lets them, be full members of a community.
And very few people, if at all, have the degree of wealth that Will does, so our death by whatever means doesn’t result in a large payout to a care giver. Instead it usually results in costs to those left behind, due to the financial insecurity many disabled people face.
The fact that Will is wealthy is significant. 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. They may not be able to take up a place at university due to poor access or because they endured poorly delivered and segregated “special” schooling.
Will didn’t have to wait two years for a modification to his bath because the occupational therapy services are overstretched.
Indeed, his wealth means that the author can address his disability purely from the outdated medical view that it is his injuries that are disabling. This fails to take into account the “social model,” which recognises factors in society — such as a bath modification not happening — that actually cause disability.
The social model means that 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 this. There are hints of this in the novel but due to Will’s wealth it’s never fully explored — another missed opportunity.
Lou uses a spinal injuries forum to get advice and information and at one point enquires what activities she can do with Will. But instead of calling him Will or “my friend” or even “the person I am looking after,” she refers to him as a “quad.”
I’ve been on lots of these forums and I’ve never seen someone referred to by the abbreviated name of their disability rather than by name. This is a very medical model approach, focusing on the disability and not the person.
At one stage, Lou talks about Will not wanting to live. The author makes another curious decision here. She decides to print in full the response from “Gforce,” a person with quadriplegia: “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?”
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” but, instead of writing these responses in full as she did with Gforce, they’re 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 the pair, but actually Lou has an 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 have challenged a misconception held by a lot of the general public. However, she avoids this and as such it is yet another of many missed opportunities.
Perhaps even more concerning is that there are different chapters from every point of view, bar Will’s. Surely questions must have been asked by the publishers regarding that? Maybe the writer was trying to stress the lack of control he has or that decisions were being made about him.
But what comes across is a sanitised view of disability, cleansed and made palatable for her audience.
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, an able-bodied actor plays Will.
We don’t accept “blacking-up” anymore so why are we not using the many disabled actors out there? It seems, from an interview with director Thea Sharrock in The Guardian last month, that this issue wasn’t given serious consideration.
She says that Sam 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,” she said.
So, not only are disabled actors not getting these parts, in a time 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 a wheelchair, the next, striding up the red carpet.
It would have been good to get the views of Sam Claflin and, naturally, disabled people attempted to do so via #AskSam on social media.
But he refused to answer any of their questions. Likewise, JoJo Moyes only responds to positive comments about the book and 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 one that does not support disabled people.
Ruth F Hunt is the author of The Single Feather (Pilrig Press).