“Live Boldly! Live Well! Just Live!” shout the ads for the tear-jerking melodrama “Me Before You,” which is based on the best-selling novel by Jojo Moyes. But that’s not the message of the movie, not by a long shot.
Better Dead than Disabled is more like it.
Will Traynor, the wildly rich and incredibly handsome hero, who has quadriplegia as the result of an accident, has decided to end his life at age 35. Even though he’s fallen in love with Louisa Clark, his relentlessly charming paid companion, he decides that his life’s not worth living because it can never be the same as it was before the accident that paralyzed him.
So sympathetically is his decision portrayed in the film, so persuasive are his arguments in favor of assisted suicide to his family and Louisa, that I could almost feel the audience, comprised almost exclusively of young women sobbing into wads of Kleenex, nodding their heads in agreement.
And that’s the problem. The movie’s got it all wrong. I am the founder of FacingDisability.com, a website that contains more than 2,000 videos of people with spinal cord injuries (quadriplegia and paraplegia) talking about how they cope. I have interviewed scores of people who are living with spinal cord injuries, asking them about all aspects of their lives—everything from rehabilitation to personal relationships. Many of them, injured just like the movie’s hero, and at a similar time in their lives, have careers, spouses and families and are living rich, fulfilling lives. They are working as teachers, architects, corporate executives, health-care managers, lawyers and doctors. They play sports, take vacations, go to jobs and raise children. After their injuries, they have chosen to pick up and carry on to create lives that are worth living. They say it isn’t easy. But they do not decide to end it all.
It’s a safe bet that most of the people who see “Me Before You” or read the book (six million copies sold so far) will never know what goes on in the real world of spinal cord injury. That’s because it’s not likely they will ever encounter a person with quadriplegia as part of their daily lives. In a US population of some 320 million, there are only 280,000 people currently living with a spinal cord injury. And the fact that spinal cord injuries are so rare makes it easy for people to buy into the wrong-headed idea that people with paralysis are better off dead.
So the real tragedy of this movie is the power of the Better Dead Than Disabled message that it foists on masses of unknowing readers and moviegoers who may never know any better. And for a person with a new spinal cord injury, and for the people around him, “Me Before You” could even be an invitation to suicide.
Thea Flaum is the award-winning television producer who created the TV series with Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel. She is currently president of the Hill Foundation and founder of FacingDisability.com, a website for families facing spinal cord injuries.
Is the film portraying disability in a false light?
is it using it and oversimplifying it for entertainment value?
Beautiful write-up about the movie. Often the movie is taken at face value not thinking of how it can shape how we think and view others. Thank you Thea for sharing your thoughts and insights. Powerful
Thank you for your comment. Before reading it, I had no idea what this movie was about, other than a disabled person. My 11 year-old daughter who is disabled from the chest down due to a car accident 4 years ago, was looking forward to see it, and me too, but after reading your comment I don’t want my daughter to feel sorry for what happened to her. She’s so full of life and even under the circumstances, she’s managed to live a happy life; of course this is just the beginning, but so far her attitude has been so positive. My daughter needs to be inspired to live a fuller life, not to end her life due to her disability. Thank you.
I have not, and will not, see this movie. Both my son and brother are in wheelchairs, they are living their lives to the fullest. I feel, as you do, that this movie may send someone who is contemplating suicide, over the edge. Paralysis is NOT a death sentence, it’s just a different way that one needs to see life and adapt. I wonder if the author and producers even consulted with wheelchair bound people for their views. Shame on them.
Thank you, Thea Flaum, for so eloquently expressing exactly how I felt when I walked out of the movie, Million Dollar Baby. I haven’t seen MBY and I don’t think I will. I am an occupational therapist who specializes in working with individuals with SCI & I think it’s high time someone educated in the field produce a mainstream film that highlights the stories told/heard on FacingDisability.com. The site has been an outstanding source of education & inspiration for people with whom I’ve worked, one of whom said to me that his paralysis was one of the best things that ever happened to him. He said his SCI allowed him to see what his drinking was causing him to miss out on in life…introduced him to some of the most important people he holds closest today… and awakened him in many ways to the most important things in our short and amazing lives. You’re a hero, Thea Flaum.
I wonder how many people with spinal cord injuries the author interviewed. Ever since I heard about the movie, I have been uneasy about the impression this movie will give. Like Thea said in her closing statement, this movie could be an invitation to suicide, particularly to the newly-injured patients. I had a spinal stroke in November 2012 at the age of 71. Sure, my life has changed, but I have adapted. It definitely is not the end of the world. Sure I get depressed, but I just need to get off my pity pot and realize there are people who are worse off than I. Thanks, Thea, for the great article.
In addition to my comment above, I am concerned about the message that assisted suicide is available for depressed people, and not used exclusively for patients who are terminally ill. Voters are being asked to vote for or against assisted suicide. When they see this movie, they may form the opinion that anybody can ask for a lethal dose of drugs if they wake up some morning and feel they are depressed. In general, this movie gives wrong impressions from the very beginning.
I am disabled and I have a good life & I am happy.. Dying has never entered my mind even though it’s not an easy life. Everyone has issues to deal with in life you just roll with it. 🙂
I wish I had read this blog before I downloaded the audiobook a few days ago, as it will tell the opposite story of my life. Dying only crossed my mind once, that was when the accident happened and I was very scared that I was going to. As a C4 quadriplegic, I have lived the last 16 years since my injury completely full of life thanks to my spouse, children & many friends and family.
I have had friends who have chosen the suicide route unfortunately and with a movie like this, those that feel their world is caved and and do not know what todo ,could be greatly influenced.
Hi,I’m Don.I’am a full time husband and caregiver to my wife of almost 34 years,next month. Nova had an aortic dissection 4/15/2008, resulting in experimental surgery. The outcome was 2 strokes and her spine dying during the procedure,thus,Nova has Aphasia, and is paralyzed from the bottom of her breasts down to her feet. She wanted to die,and said that she and all of us would be better off if she had died in surgery. Our granddaughter told her that it just would not feel right without her. I learned how to do the bowel program, how to give shots, do an indwelling foley catheter, change dressings and operate a wound vac machine ( including the failure of equipment and over the phone instructions on how to repair. Oh,by the way,you only have 20 minutes to get it going before skin damage occurs). So I got mad and told her that it hurt me that she had the thought to just give up,quit the fight.Nova is a very strong will and mind person,but at that time, she felt helpless and broken..beyond repair.
Go forward,slowly healing mind and body, 8 years,2 months,28 days. That brings us to right now,July 12,2016. We are Blessed, in all of the time gone by, we have met Thea, had 6 more grandchildren( total 10 ),and best of all,I have Nova and she has me. Win/Win. A family member had an idea to get Nova on his boat to have some water fun. We are working on the platform for Nova’s chair, she should be on the boat by August.
We all need Positive people around us,clear thinking, caring,loving thoughts. No one really needs to see a movie about a depressed quadriplegic and assisted suicide.What is the social redeeming content ? Thank you Thea,for your excellent article,and the strength to go look at drek(shit).
I love your blog I have a 31 year old son my life as well as his siblings was forever changed right along with his but we loved him an for that reason we fought every battle with hI’m an it has been one hell of a roller coaster ride we lost family friends but you know it was my son who held us together his ability to get up every morning to fight not knowing for what they did not even bother to step out of the room to tell me he had less than a fifty fifty survival an if so a nine year life expectancey he was just 16 just turned 16 his father walked out an never looked back an he heard it all my only regret is I did not push him harder to do an be more but dispite my words I fell into there trap I Because i tryed to put a life time in nine not facing that his exspiration date was coming well guess what only god determines that he turned 31 an we just past 16 years we have had our close calls an I am really tired I have begun to realize I need a life of my own some of my dreams need to be met an he needs to let go of me but the important thing is he is ok an he has so much to give the families he could help is unreal he’s good with people. …