Me Before You: On Disability, Suicide, and Guts

They all think any minute I’m going to commit suicide. What a joke. The truth of course is the exact opposite: suicide is the only thing that keeps me alive.  ~ Walker Percy

Ordinarily I’d avoid commenting much on a movie I hadn’t seen. However, I’m willing to make an exception in the case of “Me Before You,” the sob fest du jour and a feel-good film about suicide. I’ve got three reasons.

First, it appears to be pretty awful—Rotten Tomatoes, the movie review aggregator website, gives it a 55 percent rating, warranting a smashed tomato icon. Granted, that’s better than the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot currently in the theaters (35 percent), and much better than “Warcraft” which opens this coming weekend (18 percent), but still, given the scarcity of disposable income and time these days, I shy away from smashed tomato films.

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I also skip movies rated “O” (Morally Offensive) by the Media Review Office of Catholic News Service, and nobody should be surprised that CNS reviewer Joseph McAleer slapped that classification on “Me Before You.” Based on the bestselling novel by Jo Jo Moyes, it’s the story of Will Traynor (Sam Claflin), a rich, handsome bachelor paralyzed in a motorcycle accident, and his bubbly, attractive caretaker, Louisa Clark (Emilia Clarke), who helps revive his zest for living. If it sounds like a movie tailored to pull the heartstrings and flood the lacrimal ducts, that’s because it is—even the trailer will catch you up a bit. At least it did me, despite being predisposed to disparage it.

My prejudice toward “Me Before You” is directly related to the third reason I’m taking a pass on it: I already have a firsthand report from a trustworthy critic—in this case, my daughter Meg who is 18 now, and no longer bound by my household restrictions on “O”-rated films. Nobody loves a tearjerker better than Meg, so I wasn’t surprised she went to see this one, and I anxiously awaited her objective assessment.

When she got home Friday night, Meg acknowledged that she liked it well enough—especially Emilia Clarke’s vivacious character. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone quite like her before,” she said. “Definitely unique.” But it was a tearjerker—did she cry? What was her Kleenex factor?

Zero—in a theater full of sobbing patrons. Apparently a friend who knew Meg’s penchant to weep at such movies expressed surprise at her lack of emotion. Meg said the romance was ruined by the “dumb” ending—the part where Will takes his own life in a Swiss euthanasia “clinic” (not depicted in the trailer) as a selfless gesture to grant Lou her freedom. “It had such a good message all the way up until then—being optimistic, helping others,” Meg commented. “But when he gave up his life so she wasn’t tied down, it was the most selfish thing he could do—ughhh.” She also made this telling remark: “I was just sad that all those girls in the theater were crying.”

Why? Because all those weepy girls were being manipulated into connecting romance with killing, and noble selflessness with suicide. They and others might allow themselves to be convinced that death is a rational response to disability and emotional pain, whereas, as Meg observed, the truly noble response to those things is to stick it out, to persevere, to carry on and find meaning in the life you have.

Easy for me to say, I suppose. I’m not paralyzed; I don’t have a debilitating neurological injury or disease. True enough, but there’s no need to rely on my testimony with regards to such matters. You want a feel-good cry-fest about the ennobling possibilities of living with significant disabilities? Try one of these:

  1. My Left Foot (1989). Daniel Day-Lewis won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Christy Brown, an Irish poet, playwright, and artist who suffered severe muscle impairment from birth due to cerebral palsy. Although his parents and siblings had considered Christy mentally impaired as well, he demonstrated both intelligence and tremendous gifts by an adept use of the one limb under his control—his left leg—which he used to write his 1954 autobiography and the basis for the film. This is no sugarcoated tale, and Christy was evidently quite a challenge to be around (which the movie fully portrays). Nevertheless, with the support of his family and others, Christy triumphed over steep odds, lived a rich life, and enhanced the lives of many others.
  2. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007). Brown being restricted to the use of a single limb was arduous enough, but consider the plight of Jean-Dominic Bauby. A wealthy French socialite, accomplished actor, and the editor of ELLE magazine, Bauby became totally paralyzed following a 1995 stroke except for the use of his…eyes. Even so, he and his caregivers concocted a communication system based on blinking, and Bauby was able to not only stay in touch with the world around him, but also dictate the memoir upon which the film was based.
  3. The Intouchables (2011). This film also features a wealthy paralyzed Frenchman, Philippe, who strives to overcome his handicap with the help of a caregiver, Driss, who soon becomes a fast friend. Based on the true story of quadriplegic businessman Philippe Pozzo di Borgo, the film is a celebration of life regardless of the obstacles we face—just to be alive, in other words, is always a gift no matter what. Indeed, the very much alive Philippe Pozzo di Borgo, despite his limitations, is actively involved in promoting research in assisting the neurologically impaired as well as opposing euthanasia.

Note that all three of these movies are based on the lives of very real people facing very formidable trials, and not one of them sought to end it all. Borgo, in fact, is in stark contrast to the emotionally manipulative “Me Before You,” which features fairy tale characters and a twisted ethos of death-as-heroism. Based on what I’ve read and heard, I think Not Dead Yet, a disabilities rights organization, is justified in labeling “Me Before You” a “disability snuff film.” They’ve called for a protest of the film on account of its skewed presentation of what life is really like for those incapacitated by injury and illness. “Our lives are not tragic, pathetic, or pitiful,” reads the leaflet NDY distributed for national distribution. “This film is.”

Suicide and killing don’t solve problems. They merely eliminate those with the problems—a point Pope St. John Paul II drove home in Evangelium Vitae:

To concur with the intention of another person to commit suicide and to help in carrying it out through so-called ‘assisted suicide’ means to cooperate in, and at times to be the actual perpetrator of, an injustice which can never be excused, even if it is requested…. True ‘compassion’ leads to sharing another’s pain; it does not kill the person whose suffering we cannot bear (66).

I hope you’ll join me in bypassing “Me Before You,” and in urging everyone you know to do likewise. It’s broadcasting the repulsive message that “if you’re a disabled person, you’re better off dead,” in the words of NDY. Our absence from the theaters just might broadcast a different and more hopeful message of our own.


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