Me Before You by Jojo Moyes
My rating: 1 of 5 stars
I decided quite a long while ago not to do negative reviews. I write fiction myself, it doesn’t seem quite right somehow. But in cases like this where the book isn’t so much badly written as dangerous I feel the need to make exceptions. It’s actually disgraceful that this book was ever published. Shame on you Penguin Random House!
Okay so first of all I admit I didn’t read the whole book. I got as far as page 53 before giving up but that was quite far enough to figure out how the whole disability issue was being handled. Reading a novel is supposed to be fun or at least a mind expanding experience but for me trying to read this was just too painful. It was infuriating not to mention disturbing. It didn’t help my temper knowing that it was so popular and had received so many five-star reviews.
So instead of reading the whole book I skipped ahead to confirm what I’d already heard about it: that the book ends with the assisted suicide of the disabled character, Will Traynor. Now I’m not one of those rabid folks who are opposed to assisted suicide under any circumstances. On the contrary, I acknowledge some medical conditions are truly dreadful and I believe people should have the right to end their lives if they choose when their medical situation has become intolerable for them. But I don’t need to read the entire book to see that Will Traynor really isn’t very badly off. He’s merely a wheelchair user. He even has partial use of his hands. He has full use of his senses and his intelligence. He has no problems communicating. He’s an educated man and still an attractive one. There’s no end of things he could do with his life from a sitting position. Indeed he could easily have continued being a lawyer. He has so much to live for (okay, being a lawyer isn’t what I’d choose, but whatever). Why was it assumed he had to spend the rest of his days wallowing at home in self-pity?
As for his mental state, partial paralysis is something you get used to. In itself it isn’t a cause for lifelong depression. A sudden catastrophic accident such as the one Will suffered could be described as like a grief: for a time it’s very hard and upsetting but eventually people get over it and adjust to their new situation and carry on with their lives. Some people even say their lives improve after their accident. Sometimes a near death experience can make people re-evaluate their situation and give greater value to the life they have left. Other people find their circumstances improve in much more practical ways. Say someone is in a bad place before their accident, for instance, they are trapped in an inner city life of poverty, gang violence and crime. The accident is likely to mean they are taken out of all that; maybe as part of their rehabilitation they are given the opportunity to start playing wheelchair basketball and before they know it they are at the Paralympic Games competing for their country. These kinds of stories really do happen so sudden disability does not mean the rest of your life will be miserable or even necessarily worse than it was before the accident.
It seems Will Traynor enjoyed extreme sports before his accident. There’s no reason at all he couldn’t still have engaged in sport, even perhaps extreme ones. Just watch the Paralympics and Winter Paralympics. Try watching some wheelchair rugby players who have a very similar level of disability to Will Traynor. Or watch some sit-skiers hurtling down mountains at ungodly speeds. If someone continues to be depressed years after becoming disabled it’s not the disability at fault but something else. It could be the negative attitude of friends and family to the disability. It could be the prejudiced attitude of the disabled person themselves. If before their accident the person assumes life is not worth living for anyone with a disability, they may well continue to believe this for some time after their accident and become depressed in a self-fulfilling prophecy. They may be blind to all the possibilities open to them as a disabled person or resistant to even trying them because of a misguided sense of pride. But these are problems of lack of education and misinformation rather than problems inherent in the physical disability and it’s just not credible that someone of Will’s level of education and intelligence would continue to hold such dumb views indefinitely. It could be poverty and basic lack of access to things that would bring a fulfilled life which are the problem though again that’s clearly not an issue in Will’s case. But even if it was none of these things, plenty of physically able people are depressed for no obvious reason at all. The real problem with this book is the fact it equates physical disability with incurable lifelong depression. This is plain wrong. Of course some people with physical disabilities suffer from depression. But so do lots of able-bodied folk.
The fact that the affect of disability on mental health is vastly overstated is not the only problem with this book. It’s also fundamentally that the disabled person—Will Traynor–isn’t portrayed so much as a person at all but rather as a disability. The way the viewpoint character—Lou–and her family speak about this man and speculate about his situation even before meeting him shows a fundamental lack of understanding of disability. Frankly it’s insulting to anyone with a disability to be viewed in this way. For instance, from page 24: “I pictured myself wiping the drool from the old man’s mouth, maybe asking loudly, “DID HE WANT A CUP OF TEA?”” If this is the first thought that comes to mind when Lou hears the words “person with disability” then she has a problem. What this phase is actually saying is she assumes disabled people are 1. always old; 2. always physically unattractive; 3. always non-communicative. And incidentally, if someone does have a hearing disability or an intellectual impairment SHOUTING AT THEM IS NOT THE WAY TO TALK TO THEM!
She goes on to describe herself as terrified of this person she’s never met. For example, from page 35: “What if he just stared at me, head lolling, all day? Would I be freaked out?” The whole beginning of the book presents the first meeting as something she is deeply afraid of. It goes way beyond the usual nerves to be expected on the first day of a new job instead trying to portray Will Traynor as some kind of monster.
Then the first time she actually meets him is extraordinary. At the moment she is first introduced to him, Will Traynor does a mocking impression of someone with cerebral palsy in an attempt to scare her further. To begin with this impression is worthy of Donald Trump. Presidential candidate Trump famously did such an impression of a journalist with a disability and was widely condemned as a result but here we have one disabled person openly mocking another.
But even worse than the mocking is Lou’s reaction. She describes what she sees as though what we are witnessing here is something out of a horror novel. For instance: “… After a pause, he let out a bloodcurdling groan. Then his mouth twisted, and he let out another unearthly cry.” Unearthly? Really? And this: “another prehistoric sound emerged from somewhere near his chest. It was a terrible, agonising noise.” It goes on in this manner for half a page or so.
The point is, if Will Traynor’s impression was sufficiently accurate that Lou believed he really did have cerebral palsy or a similar disability, why was she seeing it in such dramatic terms? Why was it scaring her this much? What’s the matter with the woman? I’ve known lots of people with cerebral palsy and they really aren’t scary people. A certain amount of nervousness would perhaps have been understandable seeing as it was her first day in a new job, but this much was just overblown.
I wondered if Lou’s terror was being set up as a straw dog. Maybe her prejudice was being established early in order to knock it down later on when she came to love Will as a person rather than as a scary disability. But even if that’s true Lou—and Will, and all the other characters too whose attitudes to disability are all just as bad–had irritated me far too much in those opening pages for me to be able to keep reading.
One closing point. I hear this book has been made into a film. While reading the first 50 pages and later writing this review I remembered hearing about a film that the Nazis had made to support their euthanasia project. This was the project where they murdered tens of thousands of disabled people. So I Googled, and sure enough they did make a film. It was called Ich Klage an (I Accuse). I haven’t seen it and there’s limited information online but as far as I can tell it’s remarkably similar to Me Before You. In fact, it might even be less objectionable from what I’ve read about it here.
Like Me Before You it’s a love story. Like Me Before You it seems the film doesn’t blatantly support involuntary euthanasia (mercy killings) at all but rather supports assisted suicide (voluntary euthanasia). The main difference appears to be the disability. I’m not a doctor but in Ich Klage the disability in question is Multiple Sclerosis which can be terminal and I suspect towards the end is one of those conditions which unfortunately can be extremely unpleasant. Arguably in such a situation a disabled person of sound mind should indeed have the right to choose to end their own life on the basis that their quality of life had become intolerable. But there’s absolutely no excuse for arguing in a novel like Me Before You that someone of Will Traynor’s degree of disability, whose condition is in no way life-threatening, who has everything to live for, has any physical reason for wanting to end their life. Even if he was living a much less privileged Western life where he had far fewer opportunities for work or leisure and a much poorer quality of life, ending it all would still not be an acceptable solution. What he would need in that situation was help out of his poverty not a lethal injection.
So I didn’t like this book. I’ve given it one star. I wish I could have given it none at all although I suppose that’s unfair as I’m sure as a novel it’s perfectly well written. But bearing in mind this is such a controversial area it’s really very depressing that the author apparently didn’t make any effort to really understand disability and in particular how it affects mental health.
Speaking as someone who writes fiction and who reckons she knows a fair bit about disability, assisted suicide and disability isn’t an area even I’d feel confident to tackle. It’s a minefield; I don’t pretend to have all the answers. The novelist treads on this ground at their peril.
But this book exists, and it’s popular, and I and other people with disabilities will have to live with it. Although how we’ll ever teach people to understand what it’s really like to have a disability when people with disabilities are portrayed like this in fiction I’ll never know. And how can we ever allow assisted suicide to become legal for those who really need it when people are being told mere wheelchair use is enough to make a life not worth living?
I’m not sure people will ever really understand what it’s like to have a disability. And as long as books like this are allowed to be published and are popular that certainly will never change.
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