Thirteen Reasons Why, three words that took the nation for a wild ride.
The Netflix original series aired in March of this year and as I’m sure the majority of you know, infuriated the vast population of adults and authoritative figures. Teenagers connected sincerely with the story of Hannah Baker, a 16 year old who commits suicide, leaving behind her only cassette tapes explaining why she did it. Adults were angry that such a topic be discussed on a major platform of entertainment catered to teens, explaining that it is too graphic of a show and might set off a ravaging spree of suicides.
These points are valid, but what I don’t think adults understand is that suicide is not a foreign thought to most of us. Restating statistics is of no use to this article because we all know that suicide is the second leading cause of mortality in teens. Rattling off some charts and numbers is disgustingly insensitive, confining youth to a few decimal points instead of understanding the circumstances and adapting to them.
I read Jay Asher’s book in the eighth grade as I was beginning to discover my mental health issues. Being 13 and sitting in my English classroom surrounded by kids who were happy and weren’t nervous all the time, made me feel alone. Really alone. I turned to books to try and decipher my obsessive thoughts and destructive tendencies into something readable, something I’d be able to explain to my parents. In a matter of months, I read every book about mental health that I could get my hands on. It went all the was from Salinger to Ned Vizzini and John Green. I couldn’t come down from this high of finding characters that thought the same things as me and acted the same ways. It was magical. I picked up Thirteen Reasons Why at the library and flew through it in a day or two. It is one of those stories that you get sucked into and suddenly is ten at night and you’ve forgotten to eat or pee. The story engulfs you. You become Clay and Hannah, breathing in the split dialogue.
To be entirely honest, the book was stunning. It was beautiful and I could see that, but I did not appreciate it. How could I? I was still in middle school where the biggest drama was who kissed whom on the front lawn and who got suspended for cursing in the hallway. Suicide was this abstract thought that I was mature enough to absorb, but not old enough to really understand.
Two years later, I’m more exposed to the concept. Except this time, it isn’t conceptual, it is near me. It is around me. It is a silent killer that no one ever wants to talk about. After the series aired on Netflix, I watched it all within a weekend. It was a beautiful story with sections fleshed out so well, I didn’t care about the minor alterations to the storyline. The book I thought I knew suddenly meant so much more. My teachers watched it, and I’m guessing most of the people at my school did too. A letter went out to the parents of the school. And that’s what got me upset.
The letter itself spewed all the right keywords out to the parents. Don’t let your kids watch this! Psychologists say it’s harmful for teens. It was putridly absent of emotion, like a computer pieced together a couple headlines from Google News and sent it off. The letter didn’t mean anything.
My English teacher was the only one who openly discussed it, wanting to hear what we had to say. He provided us resources to help us and talked about how high school was rough for him at one point. This man even printed out a comic strip that he read when he was younger and that had helped him, giving each of us a copy and reminding us of how much we mattered. We talked about it for the majority of our class time, but he didn’t care. No grammar lesson was more important than a student’s life. That was moving. He deserves all the praise in the world because he was not computer generated. He was raw and blunt, and that’s what we want to hear.
The television show brought this sad undertone to the whole student body. It was as if one of our own students had committed suicide. I think that is the biggest contribution Hannah’s story has provided to our society. Asher wrote her to be remembered, and that she was. She is a person teenagers have and will continue to identify with, to share experiences and thought processes with.
No matter how hard the media tries to cover up suicide and continue with their run-of-the-mill pamphlets, thinking they’re going to stop suicide through spitting words out instead of listening to America’s youth, it will still happen. And it is. At shockingly high rates.
Thirteen Reasons Why shoved us into a rough territory that we need to pave. It started a discussion previously unheard in mainstream news and public school systems. And for that, I think we need to stop trying to suffocate fictional stories and face the issue as it lives.
Jay Asher’s Postscript, September 2016:
“I wanted Hannah to live, and so did the readers who got to know her. Even if she angered some of them with her words and decisions, they still wanted her to be alive. I’ve heard from so many people who said that by acknowledging they wanted Hannah to live, despite all the pain and hopelessness she expressed, they realized they are also worthy of the choice to live. And they’re absolutely right.”