For a couple of weeks now, I’ve been debating if I should write something about 13 Reasons Why.
This dialogue has been running through my head. “I’m just a little metal blogger. I write romance novels. I don’t have a degree in film criticism or psychology or mental health. I don’t have a right to have an opinion about this show.”
The fact that I’m here now, writing about 13 Reasons Why, will tell you what became of that particular dialogue.
I binge-watched 13 Reasons Why over Easter weekend, with my husband by my side. If you haven’t heard of 13 Reasons Why, it’s the show aimed at teens that everyone is talking about. In it, Hannah Baker kills herself, and leaves behind 13 cassette tapes, each one talking about a different reason why she decided to commit suicide. Each tape is about a person, named on the tape, and Hannah had the tapes sent to the first person on the list, with the instructions that they were to listen, then send the tapes on to the next person, and so on down the line.
If it sounds heavy, that’s because it is. From about the third episode, I pretty much cried non-stop through the whole thing. It’s pretty horrifying.
It’s also brilliant.
Also, stuff that may be hard to read if you can’t deal with reading about suicide and rape and fun stuff like that.
Right? We’re ready? We’re cool?
Okay, here we go.
There has been a lot of criticism about the show, particularly about it’s depiction of three key scenes – two rapes, and Hannah’s actual suicide. After seeing the show, I went straight out and read the book it was based on, more for a writerly interest in how the author handled the complex structure of Hannah’s narrative alongside the narrative of the book’s other protagonist, Clay, who is listening to the tapes. In the book, these three scenes do happen (although Hannah’s method of suicide is swallowing pills), but they aren’t described graphically. The rape scenes in particular are very elusive – you understand them only through subtext.
The majority of the criticism falls on the graphic depiction of Hannah slitting her wrists and lying down in a bath, her parents finding her there later. Also, critics bash the whole concept of the show, citing it as a dangerous revenge fantasy that will encourage teens to commit suicide to show their tormentors. There’s talk that letting Hannah have a “voice” after her death through the tapes gives a false impression of the reality of suicide. And perhaps these criticisms are completely and utterly justified – I’m not a psychologist, and if people more learned than myself say that showing suicide actually convinces teens to do it, then I’m not going to sit here and disagree with them.
Personally, that wasn’t how I read the show at all.
I’ve been turning it over in my mind a lot over the last couple of weeks, of the role of the show in being responsible for suicides inspired by that scene. Of how, were I behind the show, I probably would have made similar decisions to those the directors and writers made, to those the author made.
The whole theme of the story was that although Hannah’s decision was ultimately her own, and it was shown to me time and time again to be the wrong one, the decision that caused untold damage to every person she ever cared about, that each person was responsible for their actions that helped lead to that decision. You can’t know what’s going on another person’s life, and that cruel thing you do or say because you’re scared, or you want to fit in, or you don’t know any better may not seem like much to you, but it’s part of the problem that can ultimately lead to this horrible end.
Personally, I found the suicide scene essential to the overall message of the show, which was the reality of how ugly and painful and horrific suicide is. Nic Sheff, a writer for the show, went into more detail in his defense in an essay he wrote for Vanity Fair. Nic describes his own suicidal impulses. During a dark point in his life, he tried to make himself overdose on pills, but then he remembered a woman he met who had tried to do just that. She survived — but while her body attempted to process the pills, she ran through a glass door and suffered massive internal bleeding.
“It was an instant reminder that suicide is never peaceful and painless, but instead an excruciating, violent end to all hopes and dreams and possibilities for the future,” Sheff writes. “The memory came to me like a shock. It staggered me. And it saved my life.”
He wrote Hannah’s suicide specifically to do the same for someone else at rock bottom: show them how painful and unpleasant and messy suicide really is, and dissuade them from trying it. He wanted “to dispel the myth of the quiet drifting off, and to make viewers face the reality of what happens when you jump from a burning building into something much, much worse.”
To me, the show succeeded in this. It wasn’t angelic or glamourous. It was sparse and horrific and utterly visceral. It will haunt me for a long time, and I don’t think I’m alone in that. It makes me want to do my bit to help anyone who is having those kind of thoughts avoid going through that, and putting their friends and family through that.
But I’m not about to go up against the peer-reviewed research that suggests this representation could encourage teens to commit suicide. I think absolutely no one, including the show’s producers, want that to happen, and I hope for everyone’s sake, it doesn’t. I’m not qualified to debate if that was a good move or not, just that for me, as an adult watching the show, it was one of the most powerful moments.
Is the art responsible for that kind of tragedy? Personally, I think art’s role is to throw light upon the dark places, to tell the stories that resonate with people, to be bold enough and brave enough to depict the ugly and the sad and the lonely sides of human nature. The whole point of 13 Reasons Why is highlighting how our behaviour and words impact others. I think it’s the wrong tack to blame the authors for being irresponsible, without first looking at what we, individually and as a society, can do to ensure that slut-shaming and bullying and rape and cruelty are no longer part of our schools and our lives.
Rather then directing anger at the art that highlights these issues, is it not better to direct that anger at finding a way to solve them?
The show took the first step – it raised awareness, it got people talking.
We all have to take it from here.
This is my story.
I’ve never really seen this theme played out in a book before. I’ve read a lot of teen books that deal with suicide and depression and bullying, but they usually focus on a key group of bullies and a key incident. In Hannah’s story, we see how each little event, many of them seemingly innocent, some committed by kids who are even more bullied or ostracised than her, lead up to a tragic and hopeless ending.
For me, this hit fucking close to home.
I’ve spoken briefly about what happened to me when I was in school. People said stuff to me that, out of context, doesn’t sound that bad. They called me blind, blinkie, blinkie bill. They called me ugly. They loved that word and used it a lot. They called me weird. They told me to go away. I had major bullies who did horrible things, who hurt me in ways that still haunt my dreams. But mostly, it was the everyday things people said, or stood by and let be said, that seemed harmless to them, but echoed in my head on constant repeat, like an annoying pop song you just can’t get rid of.
I’d been hearing those things from the age of six up until I left high school. Nothing I did made them stop, because what they were talking about was part of me. Teachers couldn’t stop them, conversations with other parents didn’t stop them. I don’t think if I’d changed schools, things would have been any better. I couldn’t miraculously become not-blind. I couldn’t change my face or my body. Even if I could, I don’t think it would’ve made much difference.
What happens in your mind after you hear those things, every day, time and time again? You start to believe them.
You hold them inside you until they become part of you. And when something truly traumatic happens to you, like what happened to Hannah in the story, you internalise it. You say to yourself, “of course this happened. It had to happen to me. It’s my fault.“
By the time I was fifteen, I believed it was my fault. I knew I could never change who I was. I just wanted it to stop.
I wanted to die.
I was tired and it was too much. I wanted to give up.
I thought about it every day, how I would do it, what I would say in my own note. I made an attempt I’d consider serious once, when I was sixteen. An ambulence had to be called. I hate that I put my parents and friends through that, but at the time, I honestly believed they’d all be better off without me.
As to the scene where Hannah confides in her guideance counseller … yeah, that one was familiar to me, too.
Like Hannah, I hoped it would get better, but I placed my hope in things that were bound to disappoint me. I gave myself over to my couple of friends at the time, and to my boyfriend, and I made them the sole source of my happiness. We had some of the best times of my life thus far when I was 15-16, but when I swung back down into the depths of my depression, I clung to them. And that wasn’t fair.
I had already given up. They were my last hurrah. I waited for them to hurt me, because I expected it, but I had no right to ask them to be perfect when I was falling apart and gave no energy to them. People aren’t perfect, and they fuck up. They fucked up and I fucked up and I got hurt and I had no tools to cope with that and that was totally not their fault.
So much of what Hannah described on the tapes – her feeling of numbness, the way events that were small to others became huge beacons on her own narrative, the way she said, “I’ll give life one more chance,” the peace she found in her final decision. All of it was painfully, achingly familar. All of it was wounds that had scarred over years ago.
To me, that was the power of 13 Reasons Why. It wasn’t a revenge story. It was a girl who didn’t know how to cope with the trauma she’d experienced because her spirit had been worn down by the casual cruelty of others.
I related to that so hard.
And it was also about a boy who wanted to love her, but who was afraid, for the same reasons that everyone was afraid. It was the story of his loss, and his struggle to forgive her for what she done, and to forgive himself for his fear. Clay’s story is so essential, because his struggle to come to terms with what Hannah did, and what had been done to her, showed him how brave he could truly be.
Clay doesn’t get talked about nearly enough in the articles about the show, but he’s wonderful.
I never saw the story glorifying suicide. I never saw a revenge story. What I saw was Hannah’s parents, and Hannah’s friend Clay, and all the other people on the tapes, trying to make sense of her death. I saw the ripple effect her death had for everyone on the tapes. The ending in particular was to me a cry that this has to stop, now, because it’s already too late.
What Hannah did, making people feel as though they were responsible for her death, was an awful thing to do. Ultimately, she made that decision. But she didn’t do it for revenge. She did it because she couldn’t speak when she was alive. She needed to speak. She needed to tell her story.
Being “frozen” and “silent” and “numb” were themes throughout the show. Often, Hannah has an opportunity to say something, but she doesn’t. She speaks about this on the tapes, how she wanted to, but couldn’t. How what she screamed in her head was different from what came out of her mouth.
Of course, suicide is the ultimate silence.
During the rape scene, Hannah doesn’t cry out. She doesn’t fight. I saw someone on a FB forum asking about this the other day. A lot of people shot her down, but I thought that was stupid. People need to ask questions like this. They need to understand. I said that, especially when you’re at the place Hannah was at when you internalise all the cruel and careless things that had been said and done to you, when a trauma like that happens to you, you internalise it, too. You say, “this is what I deserve.” You don’t fight because you believe this was meant to happen, this was what happened to girls like you.
Sometimes, when you’re frightened, you freeze. Not everyone can fight back. Not everyone has it in them to try to physically hurt another person, even if that person is trying to hurt them. I did martial arts at university, in part because I didn’t want to freeze, ever again, and my instructor said it was a common problem people experienced when they started – they had to break through a barrier in their brains that said it was okay to hurt someone. As it was, it took me two years to stop saying “I’m sorry,” every time I punched someone.
When I first came to Auckland, I was scared. I thought it would all just be an endless cycle of this shit. But I learned how much bigger the world was. I learned that what drove me in life was enough to keep me going when something bad happened. I made friends, I met my husband – the single best thing that has and ever will happen to me.
The people in my life now and the work I’m doing are all the inspiration I need to get up in the morning. Nothing that happens now ever seems that bad anymore. Because of them, but also because of me.
I didn’t die. I’m here.
I can’t explain what changed for me. I woke up one day, and I wanted to live. I looked around my room at all my fossils and books and Egyptian paintings and my cat sleeping on the end of the bed and thought there was so much in the world I wanted to explore and discover and know. I wasn’t ready to die.
The dark thoughts mostly stopped. So too did the importance I placed on what other people thought of me. I stopped hearing what people said or did to me. I stopped caring. So they thought I was ugly? Who cares – I could still have an amazing life.
And I do.
Why am I writing this now? What do I hope to achieve? I guess … life has been so incredibly good to me over the last fifteen years, I haven’t wanted to dwell too much on what did happen. I didn’t want people to look at me with pity or scorn. I didn’t want to hear that I was trying to gather sympathy, Maybe … it’s too raw and deep and personal to speak about still, even after all these years.
But maybe what I’ve written here will help someone. Maybe this will help you if you’re feeling hopeless, or to stand up for someone when people are being less than awesome to them. If it’s helped one person, then I consider it worthwhile.
13 Reasons Why is getting people to talk about these issues, and I believe that’s a good thing. I don’t believe a TV show or a book should be held responsible for a person’s decision to commit suicide, any more than the people on the tapes were responsible for Hannah’s suicide. It’s not meant to be a treatise on mental health issues. It was one girl’s story. And to me, it was painfully, personally real.
Dismissing it as sensationalist or dangerous is, I think, dangerous in and of itself.
There’s a great article on local publication The Spinoff for parents on 13 conversations you should have around 13 Reasons Why, that I think is a good resource for parents whose kids are watching the show. Maureen Ryan also writes about the show as a parent for the Chicago Tribune.
This is probably the hardest thing I’ve ever written on this blog, but I thought it was important. I wanted to present another side in the debate about how dangerous this show is. I don’t think it’s dangerous. I think not talking about it is dangerous.
So, I’m talking.
If you’re experiencing depression or having suicidal thoughts, here are some places you can reach out to for help. Please reach out for help. (NB: These are local to New Zealand. If you live somewhere else, check out the helplines in your area).
- Lifeline – 0800 543 354
- Suicide Crisis Helpline (open 24/7) – 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)
- Depression Helpline – 0800 111 757 – this service is staffed 24/7 by trained counsellors
- Samaritans – 0800 726 666
- Youthline (open 24/7) – 0800 376 633. Text 234 for free between 8am and midnight, or email email@example.com.
- 0800 WHATSUP (0800 9428 787) – Open between 1pm and 10pm on weekdays and from 3pm to 10pm on weekends. Online chat is available from 7pm to 10pm every day at www.whatsup.co.nz.
- Healthline – 0800 611 116
- For more information about support and services available to you, contact the Mental Health Foundation’s free Resource and Information Service on 09 623 4812 during office hours or email firstname.lastname@example.org
When I’m not writing here on the blog, I’m the author of paranormal romance and dark fantasy novels. I try to write about characters with real struggles who sometimes make horrible mistakes, but who use their brains and skills and kindness to overcome and triumph. You can sign up to my mailing list to get some free books and learn more about my work.