by Shania Pence
“At the end of the day, we tell stories. We’re storytellers, and our job, probably more than anything, is to entertain. But you get a piece of material like this that’s about something, you know, you take that seriously and you really hope the discussion begins and will continue.” -- Tom McCarthy, Executive Producer, in 13 Reasons Why: Beyond the Reason
The first time I came across the book Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher, my friend was reading it in the mandatory ten minute reading time after the announcements in our freshman class. I asked her about it, and she told me I should read it. She did not tell me what it was about but that I would like it. The truth is, I liked it a lot more than people would expect.
I was depressed. I was scared. I silently thought about my death, which was not that hard to do because I am the quiet, shy girl no one really knows. Just like Hannah Baker, every time something bad would happen, I would think about giving up. I would think about what the people I went to school with would think if one day I just stopped showing up. I thought, specifically, about all the little things people were doing without them realizing they were affecting me. Like the time freshman year when someone, who I called my friend, took my phone and started saying that I touched myself whenever I saw a male classmate of mine. This led to me getting a note during Health from two boys who asked if it was true. I’m sure the friend, and the two boys I wasn’t friends with, didn’t think they would hurt me like they did. But rumors like that can ruin all four years for someone. I was only in high school for six months and I was wanting to give up on building lasting relationships. Shortly after that, I asked that same friend if she took something from my house because it seemed to have disappeared after she stayed the night. Instead of getting a response like, “No, but I hope you find it,” or “OMG, I accidently took it, sorry,” I got text messages from her boyfriend telling me I was a snake and that the world would be better off if I burned. I’m sure he didn’t know I was already thinking about “disappearing.”
I I picked up the book not too long after that and started reading. I started looking for the things I needed to confirm I wasn’t alone in wanting to give up on life. I found what I was looking for, but what I learned was not what I was expecting to learn. I thought I would learn that I should give up on living. But, instead, I learned that even if I can’t see my Clay Jensen, he exists. He does care, but might be too shy or afraid from the rumors to show it. I also learned that even though I feel like Hannah Baker, I am also Clay Jensen and every person on the tapes. I spread rumors that are damaging to others. I judge others based on their body parts. I treat people based on my perception of a rumor. Although I don’t go out and look through people’s windows, I do look at their social media so much that it could be considered obsessive. I tell lies. I make plans and back out without telling the other person. I take away hope from others. I take things that don’t belong to me. I walk away when I know the person needs me to stay. I witness things and do not do anything to stop them. I know I could have done something to possibly stop someone from dying. I take advantage of people whether they know it or not. I don’t chase after someone when they open up to me and I tell them I can’t help.* The truth is, we all are each and every person who led Hannah Baker to end her life.
*For those of you who watched the series but did not read the book, the order I used is based on the book. I highly suggest reading the book.
The Netflix Original Series also stopped me from giving up. Due to stress from school, extracurriculars, and relationships, I was beginning to give up again. All the small things people do that make me sink in my seat a little more add up. For example, when I walked out of a meeting after feeling like I was being verbally attacked, the only consolation I was met with by the person who chased after me was "It's all in your head." I get that to others, it might not have seemed the person was trying to call me out, but, mixed with other stresses, that’s how it felt. I did not hear that others should also step up to the plate and take responsibility. Instead, I heard that it all fell on me to make sure everything that needed to happen would happen.
I watched the entire series of 13 Reasons Why the first night it was out. I’m not saying that was a good (or smart) decision, but since I recognized a lot of my own insecurities and memories, I could not stop. If I did not have the support from the two people who keep me sane and responded to my text messages that made no sense, I would not have made it through. Once I started watching, I was reminded of why the book means so much to me. Every tape depicted and everyone saying it was all in her head was a reminder of how it will always be a struggle. You might think it’s a little thing, but to someone who is constantly thinking about death -- more specifically her own -- it is the little things that add up, and the little impacts you have on others do affect them.
Critics have said, or written, that the people who watch the series in one night do not understand. They say individuals who have mental illnesses could not possibly watch it all in one sitting because it will trigger memories. Watching too many episodes at one time could also make someone who is happy, and has been for a while, go back to being in a depressed state. Everyone is at different stages of where they are in that moment and their outlook on life, which will always be changing. The claim that those who watch the series in one night cannot possibly understand mental illness is robbing them of every empowering moment they have accomplished. It is important to acknowledge the fact that there are some individuals on the path to recovery that have been able to sit through the entire series in one night despite triggering memories.
Yes, the show is graphic. Yes, the show does go into details about mental illness that could cause someone to become depressed. The portrayal of mental illness depicted is close to what someone might feel or see, but no two people have the same experiences. Although the series is glorified, a dramatized show as controversial as 13 Reasons Why will bring in individuals who might not watch a documentary on mental illness. 13 Reasons Why reached more than the people who wanted to watch it because they somehow found an interest in learning about suicide or the story (whether they read the book, lost someone they love to suicide, or are contemplating suicide themselves). It also reached people who wanted to watch it to give their two cents to the conversation about the controversial aspects of the series. The author, Jay Asher, states in 13 Reasons Why: Beyond the Reasons, “The whole issue of suicide is an uncomfortable thing to talk about, but it happens, so we have to talk about it.”
I have heard and read people say that watching a girl commit suicide will cause others to commit suicide. Yes, the book and series exists because a girl commits suicide, but the message they give is much larger than suicide. As I stated above, to some individuals, all the little things add up. For example, Hannah Baker pictures certain milestones, like her first kiss, being different than it was. When Justin twists what happens to make him look “cool,” it makes Hannah look weak and easy. But she can’t say the truth because Justin is already one of the “cool” kids at school; thus, making her look jealous or regretful.
Some parents will not let their high schoolers read the book or watch the series because it is centered around suicide. The messages in both (book and series) are not only about suicide. Many of the individuals who worked on the series stated that the hope of the series is to bring to light the seriousness of every aspect of the tapes. The series is one way to show the truth and “ugliness” survivors go through everyday. Someone who watches the series might see the seriousness of something like rape and the importance of standing up for not only oneself but for others.
Individuals have also said that Selena Gomez is dramatizing a suicide for ratings and to get back in the light. 13 Reasons Why does not end the story at Hannah Baker committing suicide. Instead, it is surrounded around why she commits suicide.The series is one way to open the dialogue. Justin Prentice, who plays Bryce, said in 13 Reasons Why: Beyond the Reasons, “As a society, we tend to shy away from these hard topics. Sometimes in cinema we do that, too. [The series] is great because it says, ‘No, this is a problem and it needs to be addressed.’” Selena Gomez and everyone who worked on the series does not shy away from mental illness and the impact it has on individuals. Instead, they try to depict how individuals who go through some of the events (i.e. rape and sexual assault) react and are often blamed for the event. In the hopes of getting how everyone in the situation feels correct, trauma psychologists were brought in to talk to the actors about what might be going through their heads at certain points in the scenes.
It is important to note that the series should open the conversation up and not just be the conversation. Mental illness is a serious topic and many people are afraid to come forward to say that they have seeked help before. Break down the walls to create conversations in classrooms like some of the teachers should have done with the concerns Hannah wrote more than once about. At the same time, peers need to realize that saying the person who wrote something like that is “only seeking attention,” hurts. It might have taken everything in the person to write the comment, but saying something like that will make it so the person is never comfortable coming forward because there is always the possibility of everyone figuring out it was them. The most important thing everyone can do is continue the conversation. Asking simple questions like “How are you?” and meaning it can open dialogue. It can make someone recognize that you care and are there for them.
If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, please go to 13reasonswhy.info for information on help. Brian Yorkey, Executive Producer, states in 13 Reasons Why: Beyond the Tapes, “If someone watching this is feeling like their life doesn’t have worth, I hope that you see around Hannah in this show, all the people who care about her, and know that there are those people in your life as well.”
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