After weeks of reading and participating a bit in discussions about “Me Before You,” (the book and the movie), and its severely problematic view of disability in general and assisted suicide specifically … after engaging with this for so long, I only remembered yesterday that a recent TV show told a somewhat similar story, with a lot more depth and a much different outcome.
I did a Disability.TV Podcast episode last year about a storyline on HBO’s “Girls,” in which one of the main characters, Jessa, becomes a personal assistant for a woman named Beedie, an older, successful art photographer who uses a wheelchair. I’m not sure, but I think the Beedie has Multiple Sclerosis. After awhile working with and getting to know Jessa, Beedie says she wants to die and asks Jessa to obtain the necessary drugs. As in “Me Before You,” her reasons are a bit sketchy. She mentions pain, but has shown little evidence of it interfering with her life. By most objective measures, even factoring in her disability, Beedie has a good life. As does Will in “Me Before You.”
Anyway, Jessa objects to being asked to help Beedie kill herself. Jesse’s objections carry real conviction, but in the end she respects Beedie’s “choice.” She gets the drugs, and seems resolved to sit by Beedie’s bedside and hold her hand as she dies. At the last minute, though, Beedie cries out that she’s changed her mind, and Jessa basically leaps across the bed to the phone to call 911.
Some time later … days? weeks? … Beedie’s daughter shows up, pissed as all Hell about what happened, certainly very angry with Jessa, this random hippie chick her mother hired to take care of her. She’s determined to bring her mother Beedie home with her and take care of her herself. Again, Jessa objects, and is ready to fight for Beedie’s right to live where she wants and do what she wants. She also can tell, as we can, too, that while Beedie’s daughter is basically right about the suicide attempt and Jessa’s role in it, she is also a royal pain and a control freak who will take over Beedie’s life if she’s allowed, and make her miserable. Yet, Beedie lovingly but firmly calms Jessa down and says she’ll go with her daughter.
It’s far from a satisfying ending, but throughout the story, you really get a sense that Beedie is a strong person who goes through a crisis, and is willing to make difficult choices, but will never really lose control or self-respect.
This “Girls” story doesn’t have a clear anti-assisted suicide message, or a pro one either. It’s all ambiguity. Yet, Beedie decides to live, which makes it 100% less harmful than “Me Before You.” I also think the “Girls” story correctly links the appeal for some of assisted suicide, with the importance of choice in the lives of people with disabilities. The links are a bit tangled, but they are there. Plus, Beedie and Jessa are much more real, complex, relatable characters than Will and Lou seem to be, by far … and sketched out in a fraction of the time, in literally a handful of scenes over two half-hour TV episodes.
Assisted suicide doesn’t have to be a pop culture taboo. It can be discussed in a realistic and life-affirming way … or at least a non-death-affirming way. It can be done. It has been done.