It could be a coincidence. It could be merely fluke that three weeks ago I walked into a cinema showing Me Before You relatively relaxed, calm and at ease with myself and left it shattered and tearful; descending within days into a depression so sudden and severe I’m still struggling to drag myself out of bed in the morning; my desire to live completely sapped.
I should clarify: I don’t blame Jojo Moyes’ now world-famous story for my recent mental health crisis. I do blame it for forcing me to confront hard truths about how I see disability and love, in a way that I’m not wholly comfortable with a book about disability written by an able-bodied author doing.
When I spoke at Eroticon back in May, I said that I didn’t think writing disability should be the preserve of the disabled, and I think I still agree with that. I also read out this quote, from Susie Day: “If yours is the first time a reader has met a fictional someone “like them”, it’s almost inevitable that you will disappoint.” And oh my, how Me Before You has disappointed the disabled community.
The conversation around the book has been too lengthy and too nuanced for me to replicate all of the arguments here. At the risk of massively oversimplifying, most of the backlash has come from the fact that Will, the book’s protagonist, tells his carer, Lou, to ‘Live Boldly,’ just before he travels to Dignitas to end his own life. The implication? That ‘living boldly’ is something only the able-bodied are entitled to. If you are interested in the various commentary from the disabled community, Kim Sauder has an excellent round-up post here.
I recognise why the book is problematic based on the above, and yet, at my lowest, I fall very much into the ‘some people actually feel that way,’ camp, which, you know what? Makes me feel guilty as fuck.
I’m a firm believer that the relationship between how you feel about your body and your level of (dis)ability is not linear. That is to say: there will be some people who are para- or quadriplegic and feel every day that life is worth living, just as there will be some of us who, in comparison, look essentially ablebodied, but struggle hugely to accept our bodies the way they are.
So going in to Me Before You, knowing in advance how it ended (thanks, mum!), I thought I’d be able to handle it. I thought I was personally far more able to deal with the reaction to disability that I share than I would be with a plot line that essentially saw a man whose condition left him suicidal saved by the love of a good woman.
Oh, how wrong was I?
Books are funny things. Stories are strange. In real life, we want to believe we’re rational, sophisticated creatures who won’t be satisfied with a trite, neat little ending that goes against how we see things play out in the real world (or I do, anyway). And yet, when it comes down to it, a book which doesn’t follow the conventions laid down over centuries of literature can be strangely unsettling. When I said I was planning on ending my own novel, which is about a relationship between two people who are clearly terrible for each other, with the woman leaving and realising that she’s just fine on her own, someone in my writing group warned (rightly, I think): ‘People are going to be disappointed, you know. They’re going to expect a happily ever after.’
I scorn the happily ever after. Or, more accurately, it makes me uneasy. Do I think #liveboldly should be confined to the ablebodied? No, but that’s easy for me to say, when I’m fundamentally independent despite my disability: I live alone, I travel, I drive, I work. Do I think #happilyeverafter, in a romantic sense, is the preserve of the able? I’m afraid I do, yes. I don’t expect to find someone who’ll love me in spite of the disability.
So I needed Me Before You to tell me otherwise. I needed it, there in that popcorn-scented, slightly grubby Vue, to promise that I could find love, and not only that I could find it, but that it would be enough for me to forgive myself, to find peace. And it let me down.
Will finds love. He falls in love with Lou. Lou falls in love with him. But for Will, it’s not quite enough: it’s not the powerful, executive, highly-sexed, action-sport-heavy life he led before the accident that caused his quadriplegia, and he picks the assisted-suicide route anyway. It broke my heart.
What did I want Me Before You to be, on a personal level? Did I want it to represent me, and the way I see the world? I don’t know. Maybe. But I think more than that, I wanted it to lie to me. I wanted it to tell me that love could save me. Because unless he’s out there, and he can love me first, how the hell am I supposed to do the same?