The message of the book isn’t—as the author claims—that every person has a right to die with dignity, but that the only logical response to becoming disabled is to choose to kill yourself.
Boys Don’t Cry.
To Kill A Mockingbird.
Books and movies have the power to change society and how we view the human condition. They give us the opportunity to put a name and face to something we might not otherwise encounter in our day-to-day lives, and allow us to reconsider our own position with perhaps a renewed sense of empathy and understanding.
When Rain Man came out in 1988, few people had even heard of savant syndrome—now part of the autism spectrum—much less knew anything about it. In just over two hours, Raymond Babbitt gave us a glimpse of what autism could be like for some (I say could be because Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal isn’t the most accurate), but through his eyes, mainstream society not only discovered autism, but began to accept it in a way it never had before. Rather than just assuming the mother of an autistic child in the throes of an anxiety-induced moment at grocery store was just a “bad kid,” we began to understand that no, they were both having a difficult moment and needed our acceptance, not our ridicule.
It became something not out there, but instead the movie allowed society to see Raymond Babbitt as an (albeit fictional) human being with emotions and needs. And that, friends, changes the world.
The same can be said for Brandon Teena and living as a transgender person, as well as Andrew Beckett struggling with AIDS and discrimination, and Atticus Finch in the racist south.
It’s also why Me Before You by Jojo Moyes troubles me so much. I haven’t seen the movie, but I did read the book back when I was doing research for my novel, Into the Deep End, because I was reading anything and everything I could get my hands on regarding Spinal Cord Injuries. A book with a character who had a SCI was a trilling prospect.
Because the message of that book isn’t—as the author claims—that every person has a right to die with dignity, but that the only logical response to becoming disabled is to choose to kill yourself. Even if you’ve found a really wonderful, loyal, ridiculously optimistic woman who loves you anyway.
Storytellers have the responsibility of understanding the message they are sending through their narrative and honoring the parts of society they are portraying through their characters’ lives. It can’t be enough to make the audience cry and say it’s served its purpose; rather, because the story will stick with them long after the last phrase has been uttered, we authors have to do some real soul-searching on what message we want to send.
When I was writing Into the Deep End, I knew I had to honor the men and women who had sustained spinal cord injuries. Through my character’s eyes, I wanted the readers—many of whom I knew had little knowledge of what that truly meant—to come away not just entertained, but empathetic, educated, and maybe a little bit enlightened, too. I wanted the reader to close the book cheering for the main character, Luke Stevenson, while at the same time seeing our disabled population in a different way—not just as fodder for inspiration porn, those awful memes of some kickass double amputee on a race track who few could beat on their best day with the caption “What’s your excuse?”—but as full-fledged functional members of our society, not only capable of rich, fulfilling, amazing lives, but living them.
And that’s the opportunity Me Before You misses. We don’t see Will Traynor find that moment for himself, despite the odds life stacked against him. Instead, he simply gives up, and the audience is left with little more than, “Yeah, I probably would, too.”
That, friends, does little to change our society, our dialogue, or our acceptance of what it means to be disabled. It’s the true tragedy in Me Before You.
A native Texan, Leesa Freeman often sets her books in the places she loved growing up. She lives in Connecticut with her husband and two daughters. Find out more about her books The Wisdom to Know the Difference and Into the Deep End at her website.