This is going to be a controversial post, but I think it’s a dialogue we need to have.
As most of you know (unless you’ve been living under a rock) Netflix recently released 13 Reasons Why, a series based on Jay Asher’s novel of the same title (except that the book spells out “thirteen”; the show is so trendy). The show has sparked controversy due to the topics covered, but it has also brought authentic discussions about sexual assault and suicide.
Let’s start with the book:
I assume you know the premise of the book, but here’s a quick summary: Thirteen Reasons Why follows Clay Jensen through one night as he listens to a set of cassette tapes that appeared on his door step. The tapes are a form of suicide letter left by the late Hannah Baker, who explains the thirteen reasons she felt driven to commit suicide.
Jay Asher inspiration for Thirteen Reasons Why came from a relative of his who had attempted to commit suicide when she was in high school. Through conversations with her, it was evident that her attempt wasn’t the result of one isolated incident; everything affected everything. According to Q and A’s included in the 2007 edition, Asher talked to his wife and female writing partners about their high school experiences. He used those discussions to form Hannah’s struggles in the novel.
I believe that the purpose of this book is to truly create a dialogue among people, adults and teenagers alike, about suicide and depression. Not only is Asher’s writing phenomenal, it’s also thought-provoking. We’re able to feel the emotion suffocating Clay as he deals with the death of someone he truly cared about, and we’re able to understand the loss and isolation Hannah felt.
Besides suicide, Asher takes on sexual assault and harassment. Hannah’s downward spiral starts when a crush spreads a rumor that Hannah went farther physically with him than what actually happened. She only gave him a kiss, something that was intended to be sweet and innocent, but instead, she was labeled as a slut and “being easy”. Throughout the novel, Hannah finds herself in situations where she is objectified and judged due to her shattered reputation, by girls and guys alike. One character asks Hannah to join him at a burger joint, but then starts touching her and continues even when she asks him to stop. People hear her, no one helps, and when she finally shoves him off, he angrily calls her a tease as his walks out. There’s a rape scene as well, which Hannah witnesses. Hannah’s friend’s boyfriend lets his “bro” do what he wants with her while she’s passed out on a bed.
Now, the series:
Overall, Netflix’s series stays pretty true to the book. A couple of things are changed, and there’s more detail, but the premise is the same. The most major change is that the series follows a time span of more than one day. We see Clay struggle with interacting with people he’s heard terrible things about, and we see the suffering Hannah’s parents go through after her suicide. We see the guilt on the faces of people who hurt Hannah and the legal battle that ensues between Hannah’s parents and the school.
I feel like most people who have concerns about 13 Reasons Why came about because of the series, not the book. So, that’s what I’ll focus on from this point forward.
Honestly, I think the producers, the actors, and the crew fully understood the intensity 13 Reasons Why would have. They’ve set up a website that gives you access to information and suicide hotlines quickly, and they’ve created a 30-minute special entitled Beyond the Reasons that talks about mental health, sexual assault, and bullying through interviews from mental health care professionals and the cast and crew.
If you have any concerns or hesitations about 13 Reasons Why, please watch Beyond the Reasons. It really showed me the desire the cast and crew have to portray sensitive issues in an honest way.
The purpose of 13 Reasons Why is to create an opportunity for discussion, which honestly, I think is needed. I especially appreciated Selena Gomez’s thoughts (13 Reasons Why is basically her baby; she’s one of the executive producers for the show and has been working on developing it for seven years). In one segment of Beyond the Reasons, she says, “We wanted to do it in a way where it was honest. And we wanted to make something we could hopefully help people. Because suicide should never ever be an option.”
My overall opinion and ending thoughts:
I get it.
The content in Thirteen Reasons Why is tough.
It’s hard to deal with.
But that doesn’t mean that we don’t. That doesn’t mean we don’t acknowledge it or pretend that it doesn’t happen. I echo what Asher says in Beyond the Reasons: “The whole issue of suicide is an uncomfortable thing to talk about, but it happens and so we have to talk about it. It’s dangerous not to talk about it, because there’s always room for hope.”
In light of that, I think we need to be cautious. According to the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention, someone who is struggling with thoughts of suicide may be triggered by being exposed to it. I think we need to be educated. Suicide is the second highest cause of death in ages 10-34 (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and the tenth highest cause of death in the U.S. (American Foundation of Suicide Prevention). There are more suicides in adults than teenagers, but for every adolescent suicide, there are 25 attempts, whereas for every adult suicide, there are 4 attempts. On average, there are 121 suicides per day, and for every suicide there are 25 attempts – that means every day, roughly 3,025 people attempt to kill themselves. Every day. And this is based on data that’s existed far before 13 Reasons Why was created.
And I think that’s the point. I think that’s why 13 Reasons Why is so so important. It’s the wake up call we needed. As an educator (and someone who absolutely loves junior high students), I think it’s my responsibility to protect teenagers. That protection only comes when I understand them – their development, their ability to see the world, and their ability to handle what is happening to them.
Did you know that during puberty, kids undergo more emotional, mental, and physical development than they will at any other point in their life, besides infancy? And on top of all those changes, on top of trying to discover who they are and what they want in life, they have social media to document all of it. It’s the generation kids are growing up in – they go to school, then they go home and jump on devices (let’s be real honest here, adults to it to). This is their whole world. So, when cyber bullying happens, when rumors are spread electronically, your reputation is trashed. The picture is there, and it can say a million different things – everyone can create their own story of what is going on, you can’t go to every single person and say, “That’s not what was happening in that picture.” In Beyond the Reasons, Alexis Jones, an activist who works to instill the importance of respect girls in young men, says, “Because they’re (teenagers) so engaged and tethered to their devices, there actually is no safe place.” Dr. Rona Hu, a Medical Director of the Acute Psychiatric Inpatient Unit at Stanford Hospital who specializes in serious mental illnesses, agrees saying, “Adults don’t realize how much cyber bullying is hurtful because it didn’t exist when people my age were younger and cyber bullying doesn’t end when the school bell rings.”
Thanks for bearing with me through this! I’m pretty long-winded when it’s something I feel strongly about. I’m convinced the more we talk about these taboo subjects, the better off we’ll be as a society. We need to be educated about these issues, and we need to talk about them – we need to talk about mental illnesses and sexual assault or we’ll continue to hide and be scared. We’ll continue to not know what to do or how to help or how to fight for those who need protecting. Heaven forbid another Brock Turner situation happen.
If you pull one thing away from this, please be aware of what you do and say to people. We have the power to build or destroy one another. The smallest action could lead to a better path or a worse one, the choice is ours. In the words of Clay Jensen, “How many suicides does it take before people realize the s*** they say hurts.”
Above all else, know that’s it’s okay to not be okay. It’s okay to not be perfect. It’s okay to admit you need help.
- American Foundation for Suicide Prevention – https://afsp.org/
- Risk Factors and Warning Signs – https://afsp.org/about-suicide/risk-factors-and-warning-signs/
- Suicide Statistics – https://afsp.org/about-suicide/suicide-statistics/
- Asher, Jay. Thirteen Reasons Why. 2007
- Beyond the Reasons. Netflix. 2017
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
National Suicide Statistics
- Crisis Information