“How could this man whose skin I had felt that morning under my fingers–warm, and alive–choose to just extinguish himself? How could it be that, with everyone’s consent, in four months’ time that same skin would be decaying under the ground?”
–Jojo Moyes, Me Before You
TW: physician-assisted suicide (PAS); ableism
Disclaimer: I approach this week’s post with more than my usual trepidation. I realize that Me Before You was, and is, a controversial book among the disabled community. In the interest of making sure you get the perspective of actually disabled people, I’d recommend you check out posts here, here, and here, as well as the hashtags MeBeforeAbleism and MeBeforeEuthansia. Of the posts I’ve read, I think this is among the best, and it’s entirely written by a disabled man, as opposed to two of the pieces above which highlight several quotes and tweets from a variety of disabled individuals. If you only read one post about Me Before You, read that one. Seriously, even if it means you skip the one I’m writing, go read what O’Connell says.
For my own part, I had to work up a lot of energy myself just to open the book, for fear of what I would encounter inside. I fully expected to hate the book–and not just the book, but the story. That, however, is not what happened, and I would like the chance to explain why. If you haven’t had the ending spoiled yet, expect to have it spoiled by the end of this post.
Will Traynor, the man around whom this novel revolves, is a quadriplegic man who suffered a serious spinal cord injury in an accident a few years prior to the action of the novel. He is the one to whom Louisa, our narrator, refers in the above quote. She has just inadvertently discovered that Will, her employer, is planning to commit suicide at the end of a few short months. Lou’s shock at Will’s choice seems in keeping with an anti-PAS position. This seems, in and of itself, rather uncontroversial. Lou wants Will to stay alive.
In fact, the whole narrative thrust is to keep Will Traynor alive. That’s what Lou wants, what Will’s family wants, what Will’s other caregiver (Nathan) wants. The only character adamantly opposed to Will staying alive is Will himself. The story is a tragedy. It does not celebrate Will’s final choice, nor does it encourage it. The narrative leaves Will dead and everyone around him broken.
The message of the story was, I think, actually quite poignant. The portrayal of that message through the actual novel was unfortunately rather flawed. In that vein, I’d like to suggest a couple ways in which Me Before You could have been a book to be celebrated, rather than saddled with trigger warnings.
1) Will Traynor as the narrator
Me Before You revolves around the life of one man and his decision to end his life. Yet, his voice is the one that we never hear. Each of the other main characters gets at least one chapter of narration: Camilla Traynor, Steven Traynor, and Nathan the nurse. Louisa narrates the vast majority of the book. The novel, just like its characters, dance around the main character and main point. The closest we get to hearing Will’s story is a third-person prologue and Will’s letter in the epilogue. Will himself never gets to tell his own story.
It’s as if Moyes is scared of the implications of letting a disabled man tell his own story. How would the novel have gone if it had begun in Will’s voice? “My name is Will Traynor, and I am ready to die” or “I, Will Traynor, of sound mind and s***** body, request admittance into the Dignitas clinic.” Doesn’t change the narrative necessarily. Perhaps Will still decides on physician assisted suicide. Perhaps he still leaves everyone in his wake broken and confused. But at least we’ve had a chance to see inside his mind. After all, our narrators admit that Will can be closed off and difficult to read. Maybe under that brusqueness is a genuine desire to live combined with an inability to see how he can.
2) Focus on the inaccessibility of the world, not the burden Will makes of himself
To be fair, the novel does attempt this in some ways, and as I read, I felt the frustration building–the world doesn’t want Will in it. No wonder he wanted to die. That’s a stark truth. It’s a brutal thing to read, much less write. But imagine how much more brutal it is to live that–not because you are a burden, but because the world makes you feel like one.
I’m not sure the novel could get around Will feeling like a burden, especially if it was rewritten sensibly in Will’s own voice. But there are subtle ways to say it, to point out that society is hostile to the disabled community, and that such hostility is not the fault of the disabled.
Because when it comes down to it, at least part of the reason Will wanted to die was the pity he could sense from others. Other people thought Will’s life wasn’t worth living, so he learned to believe the same. Had Me Before You been written with a clear view of how abled people undermine the quality of life of their disabled peers, there would have been no question as to how needless Will’s death was–and yet how painfully necessary he believe it to be.
3) Actually addressing Will’s frustration with the lack of choices in his life
Will regularly complains of the loss of his ability to choose. In fact, he cites this very issue as part of his reasoning toward PAS. After two years of never deciding what he’s going to do (or even what he’s going to eat or wear), Will sees that suicide is the only option he can make for himself. He can choose to die.
The problem with Me Before You is that it misses the point. Will rants about the problem, and he sees no other solution. He’s been beaten down by the lack of freedom in his life. He’s been coddled and babied until he can’t bear it anymore. He wants to be independent. And he tells Louisa all these things. But here’s the thing: she and Will’s other caregivers could have given him other choices. Little choices, like what to eat or what to wear. Bigger choices, like if he wanted to go out and where to go. Big choices, like whether to find a career again or where to go on vacation. Instead, Will’s caregivers conspire behind his back, making all those decisions for him, deciding what his limits and abilities are.
Some part of me wonders if Will wouldn’t have chosen to kill himself if he’d been allowed to make his own decisions, if he hadn’t been relegated to the annex to be dressed and fed by people paid to make all his decisions for him. What if Louisa had bothered to ask Will if he liked horse races? What if, after the fact, she had realized her mistake? What if she’d asked where he’d be interested in going on vacation, or even just what he’d like to do that day? What if the people taking care of Will had valued his choices–and not just nominally and in the last six months of his life?
So, is Me Before You a slap in the face for many members of the disabled community? I think the numerous blog posts by quadriplegics and other disabled individuals have made that clear. But I wonder if the story of Will Traynor is inherently tied to its iteration in Louisa’s voice. Perhaps his story could have been something so much better.
What it could have been is not, of course, what we have. But, for me, Will was a compelling and complicated character. He opened my eyes to new ways in which society fails to value all people and treat them with dignity in life. Maybe Will thought his only option was an attempt to dignity in death, but if that’s the case, the blame lies with society, not with his condition. I hope someday to read Will’s story in his own words, as unlikely as that dream is. Will might have taught us a few things about the way society treats the disabled. That would be a book worth reading.
So, to sum up, because this post has been long and perhaps a bit convoluted: Me Before You is a book (and now, of course, film) that glorified PAS and implied, however unintentionally, that the disabled life is not a life worth living. Will Traynor, with all his grumpiness and anger and every one of his flaws, is actually an interesting person. He’s problematic, no doubt, but problematic characters aren’t the end of the world. Sometimes they’re quite human and, as such, compelling. What would have made Will’s story worth hearing, though, is to leave the reader angry–angry that the world pushes disabled people to believe their lives aren’t worth living. A story like that might cause us to look at our own lives, to look in the mirror and ask how we’re contributing to the tragic deaths of people as wonderfully human as Will Traynor. But maybe we’re just too scared to read that type of story.