Me Before You fails to tap into any meaningful depiction of what it means to be disabled and it’s time for this wheelchair user to go off about it.
A little over two weeks ago I read Jojo Moyes’ Me Before You for the first time. Even though I’d had the book waiting for me on my tablet for probably over a year, it took the buzz of the upcoming movie adaption for me to finally pick it up. Going in, I had very few expectations. I knew I should brace myself for a real tearjerker of a story and that the plot somehow involved the romance between a young woman and a disabled man. Apart from those things, all I knew was that a lot of ladies on my timeline had been giving it a read and I didn’t want to be out of the loop.
I regret that decision now.
Actually, regret might not be the right word here. If my complete and utter disappointment in this story enlightens even one person as to why Me Before You is so problematic, then I suppose the experience will have been worth it. Also, it wouldn’t suck if some of you decided to pass on seeing the movie opening weekend. It’s important to note that this breakdown is only focusing on the novel itself. But seeing as Moyes herself was responsible for the novel’s adaptation to screenplay… Well, let’s just say I don’t have a lot of hope that any significant changes will have occurred from book to screen.
Before we get into the review, a bit of housekeeping:
- This post is going to contain spoilers for the book. Tons of them. If you wish to remain unspoiled, turn back now.
- The book, and therefore by nature this review, is heavily centered around the topic of suicide and assisted suicide, so if you are extremely sensitive to these topics, please proceed with caution. That being said, I’m not here to discuss the morality of suicide, legally assisted or otherwise. As I’ll explain, this story fails in many remarkable ways, not just suicide-related ones, but it certainly adds nothing of value in its particular portrayal of one of the most sensitive debates in human history.
- A little backstory on me for some context. At age one, I was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy and given a life expectancy of two years. Needless to say, I outlived that. Thanks to a supportive family, technological advancements, a steadfast dedication to health, and a little bit of luck, I’ve made it to the ripe old age of 27. For those unaware, MD is a progressive neurological disease that attacks the muscles in the body. I’m considered a full care patient. So like Me Before You’s disabled lead character Will, , I use a motorized wheelchair and can, for the most part, get around by myself on flat paved surfaces. That being said, I need help for virtually everything else. From as how the book puts it ‘having my bum wiped,’ to needing food prepared, to rolling over in the middle of the night. All of which is just the tip of the iceberg, to be honest. But this essay isn’t about me. I just want to provide you with some of my disability credentials, so to speak, before I start teasing out what has bothered me so much about Me Before You.
If you haven’t actually read the book yourself, Me Before You is the story of a content young woman, Louisa Clark (or Lou), who is leading an ordinary life as a barista in a small English village. Due to a downturn in the economy, she loses her job and is forced to take a position as a caregiver to Will Traynor, a man whom, two years prior, was in a traffic accident and was paralyzed virtually from the neck down.
Although Me Before You is centered around Louisa and is 90% told from her perspective, it’s actually Will that I have become aggressively fixated on. Not because he was such an interesting or compelling character but because he’s nothing more than a dehumanized plot point in Louisa’s larger story. The wider reaching implications of this has caused me so much worry and stress that I decided I had to make these feelings public. Let’s start by unpacking the character of Will Traynor and challenging some of his personality traits and behaviors.
Who exactly is Will Traynor?
There’s no denying that disabled people can have some dark days. The extra set of challenges we have to overcome are irritating at best and downright incapacitating at their worse. I’ve had a friend or two who has lived Will’s journey. (Albeit, without the comfort that piles of money, dedicated caregivers, and loving potential partners can provide to boot.) Feelings of depression, self loathing, and hopelessness aren’t uncommon. They aren’t uncommon when anyone loses anything, but what’s so troublesome about Will is that he is nothing more than his loss. He only exists as a backdrop for Louisa’s self-discovery, which she is quite literally bullied into by Will. In fact, his one defining personality trait in the whole of Me Before You is that he’s bossy.
Not only does Will belittle Louisa’s choice to work in a coffee shop, which she repeatedly mentions gave her great joy, but he mocks her for not having watched certain movies, tried certain foods, or known about various worldly topics. Eventually he begins giving her reading assignments and then quizzes her on the subject each book covers. Instead of calling Will out on his extremely elitist, condescending bullshit, Louisa takes it like a champ and uses the opportunity to actually broaden her horizons a bit. Maybe this is a good thing in the long run? But like I said, there are some serious issues with the manner in which it all unfolds.
Anyone who has taken even the most basic women’s studies course should have alarm bells going off all over the place while reading this book. The last thing Louisa – a victim of sexual assault, it should be mentioned – needs is another man grooming or shaping her identity. (Someone else write the essay about how rape shouldn’t be used as a way to develop a female character please.) If Will had any empathy or emotional intelligence of any kind, he might pick up on the irony of the situation. That he can ask for endless amounts of empathy and understanding regarding his decision to partake in assisted suicide, but Louisa doesn’t deserve the same.
Basically, this is information that speaks to the overall identity of who Will is, and I’m disappointed to say that he really is nothing but an arrogant, self-entitled bully, who has no more self-awareness than he did prior to his accident. Here’s a quote from the book that really cements this for me:
I looked back at him steadily. “You would never have looked at my breasts if you hadn’t been in a wheelchair.”
“What? Of course I would.”
“Nope. You would have been far too busy looking at the tall blonde girls with the endless legs and the big hair, the ones who can smell an expense account at forty paces. And anyway, I wouldn’t have been here. I would have been serving the drinks over there. One of the invisibles.”
“Well? I’m right, aren’t I?”
Will glanced over at the bar, then back at me. “Yes. But in my defence, Clark, I was an arse.”
Frankly, Louisa has him pegged. She’s completely right and he knows it. Will has always been superficial, self-involved, and pretentious, but what he and the other characters in the book fail to point out is that he hasn’t changed. Yes, Will was an arse before the accident and he remains one after. The accident didn’t change that about him. All that happened was that these terrible traits were heightened once he became confined to a wheelchair.
Will, like most of humanity, puts so much value on the external factors in life. Worth is measured by job titles, places seen, people slept with, adventures had, objects owned. And this book had a chance to subvert those notions and say something powerful. That we define our worth. That worth doesn’t even need definition. Each of us are valuable simply because we exist. No explanation required. But Me Before You doesn’t do that. It doesn’t even come close.
The book is upfront about the fact that Will is depressed and hopeless because he’s physically disabled. At every turn the sentiment is reiterated over and over. At one point he says, “Nobody wants to know how it feels to know you will never have sex again, never eat food you’ve made with your own hands again, never hold your own child.” Hell, it’s even validated by multiple external forces, including Will’s caregiver Nathan, who says that if, “they were like that, they’d want to die, too.”
No one thinks to mention that maybe Will’s depression stems from something indirectly related to his disability. That maybe Will has always put his values in the wrong place and it’s only just becoming a problem for him now that he can’t tick the same boxes anymore. Everyone automatically assumes it’s totally rational for a person to be suicidal after becoming physically disabled. And by doing that, Me Before You is just reinforcing these offensive, often commonplace notions, that disability is worse than death.
Not only is that condescending and out of touch, it’s dangerous. It’s one more chapter in the unrealistic narrative of what it means to have a good, fulfilling life, and one that puts pressure on abled and disabled bodies alike. What Will’s outlook – this mindset where if he can’t have everything, he doesn’t want anything – says about the rest of us is the most interesting concept the book has to offer and it goes completely un-called-out and ignored. Not even ignored – replaced – by this stereotypical depiction of what it means to be severely disabled.
A martyr by trade
So what exactly is the message of Me Before You if it isn’t, ‘This is Will. Will thinks life is hopeless now that he’s disabled. Don’t be like Will.’
Let’s go through Will’s goodbye letter to Louisa to see if it gives us any clues. After a brief introduction, we learn that Will has actually sent Louisa to Paris, a place they had talked about visiting together. Not only was this an all-expenses paid trip on his behalf, but it’s also the first installment of a larger sum of money he’s leaving to her. Because, as he explains, “I am conscious that knowing me has caused you pain, and grief, and I hope that one day when you are less angry with me and less upset you will see not just that I could only have done the thing that I did, but also that this will help you live a really good life, a better life, than if you hadn’t met me.”
Will Traynor, you are the walking definition of a martyr. Screw you.
“You’re going to feel uncomfortable in your new world for a bit. It always does feel strange to be knocked out of your comfort zone. But I hope you feel a bit exhilarated too. Your face when you came back from diving that time told me everything; there is a hunger in you, Clark. A fearlessness. You just buried it, like most people do.”
This is the most hypocritical advice I think I’ve ever heard, but okay.
“I’m not really telling you to jump off tall buildings, or swim with whales or anything (although I would secretly love to think you were), but to live boldly. Push yourself. Don’t settle.”
You know what’s bold? Doing what people don’t expect of you. Holding eye contact with a stranger when they refuse to look you head on. Showing up even when you feel embarrassed or uncomfortable or unattractive. There are so many ways to live boldly, Will. And you’re maybe the last person on earth who should be giving advice on the topic.
“If you insist on settling down with some ridiculous bloke, make sure some of this is squirrelled away somewhere. Knowing you still have possibilities is a luxury. Knowing I might have given them to you has alleviated something for me.”
Will’s right in that money does offer people more possibilities. But why he doesn’t think that applies to himself, I have no idea. Instead of examining how he’s in a financially privileged place that any person would pray for – mental health is mental health, but he could live the most privileged wheelchair-bound life possible, receiving the best care, partaking in any accessible leisure activity possible, continuing his career, mentoring, stimulating his mind, finding a way to pay it forward – he’d rather shackle the women he loves to the notion that she’s living off a martyr’s offering of redemption than attempting fulfillment in his own life.
“So this is it. You are scored on my heart, Clark. You were from the first day you walked in, with your ridiculous clothes and your bad jokes and your complete inability to ever hide a single thing you felt. You changed my life so much more than this money will ever change yours.”
How? How in the world did Louisa change you, Will? You got a new haircut? Because as far as I can tell, you had your mind made up about what you were going to do with your life long before she walked in. Despite her untrained yet well meaning attempts to enlighten you, you tuned her out. Always so sure you had the answers to everything. Because wealthy privileged boys are often taught they do.
“Don’t think of me too often. I don’t want to think of you getting all maudlin. Just live well.
Yes, Louisa. Just live. Live the life Will didn’t have the courage to.
The desexualized romantic hero?
Another bothersome element I found with Will’s depiction in Me Before You is his complete and utter lack of sexuality. Without getting too technical, let’s be clear about something. Quadriplegics can have sex. That sex may or may not resemble the traditional form of intercourse people are familiar with, but that doesn’t devalue the intimacy or pleasure that takes place during the act.
To be fair, Louise — bless her dear, sweet heart — does try to explain that to Will. “I don’t care what you…what you think you can and can’t do. It’s not black and white. Honestly…I’ve talked to other people in the same situation and…and there are things that are possible. Ways that we can both be happy…” But of course once again Will has made up his mind before Louisa even opens her mouth. He immediately shuts her down by saying, “No, Clark.” (Yikes.)
Here’s the thing, though. If this is being sold as a romance novel, then why don’t these two ever get it on? I’m not asking for page after page of graphic sex to be put on display, but these are two hot blooded, heterosexual people of opposite genders. If we’re supposed to believe that they’re falling in love, then wouldn’t at least one titillating scene between the two help sell that idea?
I’m going to try to answer my own question fairly and then I’m going to explain why that’s a little bit bullshit. It’s understandable that both of these people are coming to the table with some issues regarding sex and sexuality. Louisa was sexually assaulted as a teen — which is such a frighteningly convoluted plot point it almost makes me sick — and Will is so uncomfortable in his own body it’s believable that he’d be unwilling to engage in any overtly sexual behavior.
That being said, way to pass up another opportunity to subvert expectations, Moyes. Wouldn’t it be much more interesting to have a moment where Louisa can reclaim her sexuality and engage in some intimacy before she and Will are ripped apart? It’s not like she isn’t having sex. She sleeps with her boyfriend Patrick multiple times in the book. Long bouts of unfulfilling, passionless sex takes place. Wouldn’t it be cool and interesting if she did have sex with Will and it was fulfilling and hot and beautiful despite how untraditional it may be? Just to hear the ways in which Louisa is turned on by Will would be progress. But we don’t get much more than comments about his handsomeness or intellect. Even assuming Will wasn’t ready for anything too graphic, why couldn’t they both find some reprieve in each other’s bodies?
I’m not saying a couple needs to legitimize their love by becoming physical, but why does it seem like every time Will has the chance to act like a real person, a “real bloke,” around Louisa the moment passes? Of course men aren’t just driven by their sexual desires (even though at one point Will says verbatim, “Everything anyone does is with sex in mind.”), but an even more ingrained problematic notion is the tendency to assume disabled people are asexual beings with no desire for physical intimacy. Pro tip: Don’t assume things about people. Ever. Just listen and learn. Two things Moyes failed to do.
Basically, society has a narrow window for what it defines as ‘sexy,’ and I can tell you from personal experience that motorized wheelchairs are extremely low on the list of things people find tempting. (Their loss.) So why doesn’t Moyes make the unexpected choice and say to hell with that idea! Let’s make them touch each other! Because, again, this story has no interest in demanding respect for the disabled community. It has no interest in asking important, thoughtful questions. Will only exists to bludgeon people with his patheticness.
Cowards don’t evolve
We’ve acknowledged that Will is demanding, bossy, elitist, and condescending, but we haven’t really touched on how much of a coward he is. Now I know you’re probably going to assume I think he’s a coward for settling on assisted suicide and ‘taking the easy way out,’ but that’s not really where I find my beef. Plus, even though I’m avoiding speaking about the morality of suicide – I really don’t possess the wisdom or skill to break down such a sensitive topic – it’s dangerous to write off a whole viewpoint with wide sweeping strokes and I won’t do that to Will here. It’s beyond gross that the book validates, from multiple points of view, the idea death is preferable to disability, but every individual’s mental state is different.
I find that his cowardice lay in other things. Here’s another passage from the book between Will and Louisa:
“I don’t want you to look at me one day and feel even the tiniest bit of regret or pity that–”
“I would never think that!”
“You don’t know that, Clark. You have no idea how this would play out.”
Okay, listen, Will. I understand that depression is like a cloud over the mind that keeps people from seeing things as they really are, but when we combine depression with an impenetrable righteousness that excludes even the possibility that you might not have it all figured out, it’s a disaster waiting to happen. You can’t say in the same breath that Louisa doesn’t know how life will unfold and then assume authority over her and claim that you do. You’re making a decision on her behalf and instead of allowing her the dignity of her choice, you allow your fear of relinquishing control to overtake everything else. And that, sir, is cowardly.
Toward the end of the book, as Louisa is confessing her feelings to Will, she says he doesn’t have to let his chair define him. To which he responds, “But it does define me, Clark.” Later going on to say, “I can’t be the kind of man who just…accepts.” Ultimately, Will couldn’t put aside his fear or pride long enough to taste the liberation that comes from acceptance. Acceptance isn’t a dirty word. It isn’t weak or pathetic. It isn’t new agey or hippy dippy. It’s smart and insightful and it actually puts the power back into your hands. It says, “Okay, this is the way things are now. How can we work with this new environment? How can we make it into something even better than before?” Shit, it’s savvy business skills 101. It shouldn’t be something out reach for a man – a lawyer, no less! – as intelligent and cunning as Will is made out to be.
But Moyers wasn’t interested in giving Will Traynor an arc. It’s one thing to be sensitive to the feelings of an individual, but Will isn’t a living, breathing human being. He’s a one dimensional expression of a man from someone who failed spectacularly at displaying the nuances of a disabled person. How we portray people matters, especially when those people are part of a minority. We owe them special care and attention, and it’s imperative we get their depictions correct. Playing into old narratives and stereotypes adds nothing to the discussion and sets back any advancements tenfold. Where are the books and movies and narratives that spit in the face of inspiration porn? When are we going to take back the ammunition and stop letting these stories cloud the truth?
Louisa doesn’t love Will despite him being physically disabled. She loves him despite being a complete wanker. But how many people are going to come away from this book – or worse, the movie, which is being touted as the most heart-felt romcom of the summer – realizing that? It deeply worries me that Will Traynor will be turned into some kind of tragic romantic hero, as beloved as Augustus Waters, literally and figuratively throwing himself on the sword because he didn’t have the existence he imagined for himself or the hope he can give Louisa and his loved ones an ‘unburdened’ life. Because, clearly, that should not be the takeaway message from any book. It’s twisted and wrong and morally incomprehensible, to be frank. Will isn’t a hero and this whole premise isn’t romantic. It’s appalling that not only was this book granted publication – that no one sat this woman down and was like “hmmm, maybe don’t though,” but that millions of readers – let’s be real, able-bodied readers – buy into what she’s selling. It’s been sitting on the New York Times Bestseller list for 41 weeks and counting for heavens sake! People are clearly not getting the memo.
And, honestly, this just shows how far we have to go with de-stigmatizing disability. Because if this story sounds reasonable to you, then how in the world will anyone ever look at any disabled person without pity or regret? How will we ever be seen as true peers and equals if we start from such a dehumanized place?