“Me Before You” & What It (Actually) Says About Living Fully

Me Before

Before we begin, a quick sidenote/warning: 
This post is about some thoughts I have on the popular movie (and book) in theaters right now, Me Before You.  There’s a bit of controversy you’ve probably heard about already, and I have a perspective that I believe needs a little more traction on the interwebs. I’m willing to bet that there are plenty of people in my position who feel the same way…but in order to share this opinion, you have to talk about some really painful stuff. So, most people are just going to let it slide, telling themselves “It’s not really that big of a deal. I probably shouldn’t even feel this way. I’ll just be quiet.” But I don’t accept that. I’m going to be honest and transparent. It’s hard for me, and I don’t really want to do it, but I believe this side of the story needs to be told – because Jojo Moyes sure didn’t tell it. 

If you don’t know the plot of the book, here’s a handy-dandy link to the Wikipedia page. That way I can save space by not relaying it here.

[Obviously, the remainder of this post contains spoilers. If you’re cool with that, check it out after the jump!]

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I know a lot of people love Me Before You, and I respect that. Tons of my friends have been raving about the movie recently, and I’ve been hearing about the book for forever. To be fair, I haven’t seen the movie. (And I don’t plan to.) But I know that the ending is the same, and that’s all I need to know.

I have this rule. I always try to read a book before I see the movie based on it. I saw that movie trailer for Me Before You, and I was interested. It looked good, and the cast looked promising. (It’s got Daenerys, Finnick Odair, Clara the Impossible Girl, and Neville Longbottom. Come ON, guys!) I decided to check the book out from my local library after having it on my “to-read” list for forever, so that I could see the movie when it came out.

At first, I liked it. I thought maybe I would be underwhelmed, but at the start, it was enjoyable. I started getting into it. And by 3/4 of the way through, I was thinking, I actually really like this book! The writing was decent, the characters were interesting and likable, and it was a story that made me want to keep reading. I had been warned that it was a tearjerker. I was prepared for some emotional turmoil.

But then, as the number of remaining pages dwindled, a knot started forming in my stomach.  And not just because I knew it was going to be a sad ending.  Not in an Oh this is a good book and I care about the characters way.

This was a visceral, gut reaction that made me feel physically ill.

That sounds really extreme, I know. You need a little backstory to know where I’m coming from. [Dramatic voice:] And this is where it gets personal.

I am not a quadriplegic, so my story is not the same as Will Traynor’s. However, I am “disabled”.  (I have an “invisible disability”, because it’s possible to hide it, and many friends and acquaintances may not know I even have one. However, I want to point out that those with invisible disabilities should be treated with respect, and their illness should be considered as valid as any other.)  

I’m not in a wheelchair, but my body doesn’t always function the way it should. Sometimes it’s worse, sometimes it’s not too bad. At my last checkup, my doctor told me that I could consider myself successfully in remission. In other words, right now I’m actually doing pretty well.  But even in remission, the ability to live a normal, healthy life is something I have to fight for every single day. 

In Me Before You, Will is depressed and feels as if his whole identity has been erased by his accident and subsequent disability. He was an active adrenaline junkie and playboy, and now he can’t do the things he always loved – the things with which he defined himself.

I have been through this experience, albeit in a different situation.

My freshman year of college, my health completely spiraled out of control. This is not the place for me to share my whole story because it is long and messy, and a tangent for another day. (Soon, I promise.) But I can tell you what my doctor told me. My doctor said that I would never be able to sing, or perform onstage, again, without a “medical miracle”. Because of my body’s inability to function properly, I would have to give up the thing that made me who I am, the thing that I loved doing most in the world: musical theatre.

I was told by my doctor that the best thing for me to do would be to leave college and go home, and if I planned to attend college after I recovered, I would have to choose a major that I could do “despite” my disability.

I dealt with severe depression. And yes, I also asked myself the questions Will posed in Me Before You: “Am I still myself without the things I most love? Is a life with this disability really worth living?”

I will admit, in my darker moments, the answer I gave was “no”.

Like Will, I had defined myself by the things that I did. I was a singer. It was the filter through which I lived my entire life.  And without my voice, my music, I lost my sense of self. Beyond that, I was in severe physical pain every second. Walking, driving, using my hands, everything was difficult and painful. I couldn’t sleep at night because of it. I considered myself a “malfunctioning” human being. Sometimes, the thought of living like that for my entire life felt like it would smother me.

So yeah. I think I had an idea of what Will Traynor was feeling.

Thanks to my own little army, made up of my amazing family, friends, doctors, teachers, the Disability Services at my university, and my own sheer stubbornness, I managed to stay in school. Eventually, I even got that medical miracle, and today, I can sing. Still, that was the hardest year of my life. And now, as a senior, it hasn’t gotten that much easier. I am not in nearly as much pain, and my body is chugging along just as best as it can. But I still have to work to stay in remission.  I stay on a stringent diet, take daily medications, and spend more time in doctor’s offices and hospitals than I would like to admit. 

And still, I may wake up one day, in the middle of a “flare up”, and realize that it’s time for me to slow down, and focus on being healthy. I may need to adjust my life so that I can focus on doing something that everyone else gets to do automatically:

“Just live well. Just LIVE,” as Will says in Me Before You.

When I read Me Before You, I related much more to Will than to Louisa. I am not, in any way, saying that my experience is anywhere near as devastating as Will’s, or someone who is a quadriplegic.

What I am saying is that there are many people in the world who can relate to Will in Me Before You, in many different ways.

Which is what made the ending so problematic.

At first, I was happy to see him portrayed as a very “real” character, in all the ugliness and difficulty of disability. I didn’t even care that much (as some might, and rightly so,) that the book was centered around how miserable he was, because guess what? Having a disability is often miserable, especially early on. I felt it was probably faithful to the experience, and I was happy to see someone with a disability in such a popular book. And as he began to enjoy things again, and live his life with Lou, I felt that. I went through it with him and thought back to how I learned to be a “whole person” to the best of my ability. 

And then he killed himself.

It was like someone had slapped me in the face.

To me, it was a defeat. And I’m not saying I don’t think there are definitely gray areas in assisted suicide, or that we shouldn’t think about it more in-depth, or even that it shouldn’t exist. That’s not what this post is about.

What I’m saying is this: the author wrote an entire book where an AB (able-bodied) person tries to teach a quadriplegic to love life. He has a family that loves him, he found love with a girl who understands him and his disability, and he has more than enough wealth to pay for his care for his entire life. 

Will Traynor had much more in his favor than many real people in his position have.

And in the end, he decides it’s still not good enough. Why? Because his life doesn’t go “the way it was supposed to go”. Sorry, Will. Life never goes the way it’s “supposed to”.  The fact that you think yours is one of the few that should probably has something to do with your privileged upbringing, but that’s a whole ‘nother ballgame.

And finally, I would be remiss not to mention the final “straw that broke the camel’s back”, so to speak. The epilogue, and Lou Clark. 

Not only is it Will’s disability and subsequent suicide that gives Lou the inspiration to stop laying around like a lazy, unmotivated dolt, and actually do something with her life…his death ALSO gives her enough  wealth to travel the world, by way of a very convenient will. (You know…she doesn’t have to work for it or anything.)

It reminded me of the Manic-Pixie-Dream-Girl. In this classic (and annoying) trope, you have a brooding, unmotivated male who simply can’t go on because he’s too stuffy, or heartbroken, or just plain lazy. But never fear! The MPDG is here! She is quirky, sassy, childlike, a little wild, and just the thing to break this sad excuse for a man out of his funk. She also has zero independent goals for herself. She appears, makes the man’s life better, and then disappears so he can move on to bigger, better things.

Sound familiar?

In Me Before You, Will serves as the MPDG to Louisa, the unmotivated main character. But instead of classic “quirkiness”, Will is quadriplegic. And what could possibly scream “I have no independent goals” more than wanting to kill yourself in 6 months? And while Lou is the main character, and it’s told from her perspective (for the most part,) various chapters switch between other characters. We get chapters with a PoV from Will’s mother and father, his medical caregiver, and Lou’s sister. Guess what primary character doesn’t get a chapter (or a voice)? 

Will.

Call it a literary choice if you want. I don’t see it like that.

This book, and especially the ending told me that Will was only there for what he could do for the AB character, Lou.

Will tells her to live life at it’s fullest. “You only get one life. It’s actually your duty to live it as fully as possible,” he says. But according to the end of the book, that only applies to an able bodied person. 

This is an example of the ableist mentality at it’s finest. It was written by an AB person, from the perspective of an AB person, for AB people. Not that an author has to be disabled to write a good book about those with disabilities. But to me, this book used Will and his disability as a plot device, and nothing more.

As much as I want to watch this movie, and enjoy this book, I can’t. I don’t want to insult anyone who does. You are very much entitled to your opinion. But I encourage you to think about this from as many different perspectives as possible. There are so many kinds of people in the world, living countless varieties of this thing we call a “life”. They are all valuable.

To whoever is reading this, disability or no, you are valuable. Life doesn’t always make sense, and it is often painful. But there are so many possibilities and ways to live your life – to the fullest of your own ability. Do not let anyone – author, character, friend, family member, or even well-meaning but silly bloggers like myself, tell you that your life is not just as much worth living as anyone else’s. There is always hope for more wonder, messiness, joy, and love than you could ever imagine.

So yes, take Will’s advice. “Just live well. Just LIVE.”  But do not follow his example, or internalize his thinking. Look to the real world, for people who have lived life to the fullest. “Just live,” but then, go one step further, and follow the example of one of my inspirations, Superman himself, Christopher Reeve. Choose hope.

“A hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles.” 

“Once you choose hope, anything’s possible.”

– Christopher Reeve

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