What You Should Know About 13 Reasons

Is it possible to understand why someone would commit suicide? 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher is a best-selling young adult novel that explores this question. In March 2017, Netflix released a series based on the book that sparked a buzz on social media. Many teens have been mesmerized by the show, and many parents are concerned. I recently finished reading 13 Reasons Why, and here’s what you need to know.

Premise

A few days after Hannah Baker commits suicide, Clay Jensen finds a package of cassette tapes on his front porch.  Hannah recorded the tapes right before her death, and Hannah’s haunting voice explains what and who made her decide to kill herself. Only people who played “a role” in her suicide are on the tapes and will receive them. Clay listens somewhat unwillingly to Hannah’s monologue, wanting to learn his part and dreading what he might hear.

What I liked

I liked the unusual structure that Asher uses to tell Hannah’s story. Hannah’s voice fills Clay’s head; she feels present, but he’s painfully aware that she’s not. Also, it’s a great example of irony. Hannah gave up on life because people never listened to her or understood her. They chose to embrace rumors and gossip instead of getting to know her. Recording the tapes gives Hannah a way to tell her story without interruption or misconception. She finally has a voice, but by the time people hear and understand, it’s too late.

In a disturbing scene, students scoff at a suicide note left in a Peer Communications class at Hannah’s high school. In the author notes at the back of the book, Asher says the same thing happened at his own school, and part of his motivation to write the novel was to increase awareness of the stigma of suicide and to encourage more candid conversations about it.

13 Reasons highlights some important warning signs of suicide, including changing appearance, giving away personal belongings, and, what should be obvious, mentioning suicide.

13 Reasons forces readers to consider how their actions affect other people. Says Asher, “… even though Hannah admits that the decision to take her life was entirely her won, it’s also important to be aware of how we treat others.”

What I didn’t like

The two main characters of 13 Reasons Why are passive, and I had trouble engaging with the story. Clay listens to the tapes and reacts. He doesn’t take action, he just laments the tragedy.

Hannah is equally passive. Her tapes reveal that she was upset by rumors about her reputation, and she felt misunderstood and abandoned by people she thought were her friends. These are very realistic emotions, but we don’t see Hannah doing anything about them. She witnesses a rape but feels incapable of stopping it. She climbs into a hot tub with a boy she knows just wants sex, and she gives in to him. Hannah is less compelling than someone like Melinda, the protagonist from the YA novel Speak, who is a victim of rape and rumor who struggles to recover.

Book vs TV Series

I have not seen any of the Netflix episodes, but I have heard that the series is a suspenseful, violent drama. In the show, Hannah slits her wrists to kill herself, and this is graphically depicted. In the book, the actual suicide is never described, and readers only know that Hannah decides pills will be the best method. Also, apparently the rape scene is quite graphic in the show, but in the novel, the incident focuses more on Hannah’s feelings and reactions than on what is physically happening.

Seeing and hearing disturbing scenes affects me much more than anything I read. If I’m upset by a passage in a book, I can skim over it, but with a TV show or movie, the images are harder for me to escape or forget. For that reason, I will probably not watch the show.

As always, I recommend teens and their parents read the book before seeing the show. This is an important topic, and if the book or the show increase awareness about suicide and encourage honest dialogue about it, than 13 Reasons Why has accomplished something important.

My 15-year-old daughter read the book and agreed with my assessment of the characters and story. She isn’t interested in watching the show because she feels it glorifies suicide.  I didn’t ask her if she knows anyone who has mentioned suicide or what to do if someone does. Perhaps we need to address that.

If you have read 13 Reasons Why or seen the show, please share your thoughts. What other shows and/or books offer good insight into the issue of teen suicide?

Thanks for adding to the conversation!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Julia Tomiak
I believe in the power of words to improve our lives, and I help people find interesting words to read. Find me on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, Pinterest, and Google+. Member of SCBWI and Wordsmithstudio.org.

7 Comments

  1. This is a great discussion! I read the book before starting the TV show, which I am still only about halfway through. I thought the book was very good, and so far, the show is too. It’s a huge argument on whether it glorifies suicide, but I have to say, so far it really doesn’t.

  2. I have not read the book or watched the show, and I don’t intend to do either. I do appreciate your review, though. My daughter watched a few episodes of the show but stopped because it was too disturbing for her.

    I know you read my Dear Evan Hansen post – that show handles teen suicide in a raw and authentic way. And the messages are so hopeful – that “you will be found” – you will be seen, that life is worth holding onto.

    1. Thanks for this input Dana – perhaps Dear Evan Hansen may be a good alternative to 13 Reasons – or an adjunct – for addressing this issue.

  3. To begin, props to you for formally addressing a topic that is very controversial.

    I do agree that this topic, media, whatever you might call it glorifies suicide. But it doesn’t just do that. To preface, even more, I am a teen, and I have XX chromosomes. In being someone who knows how some teens feel about it and in being a teen myself this is a very bothersome situation. There’s a direct line, one-half of teens I’ve talked to think it’s great! Just treat people nicely! Just enjoy this show it’s an “entertaining” drama! T-shirts and trend wash over and over these fellow adolescents who I regret to say are my peers as they enjoy what is just another show. Then there’s another half, who realize this may not be the best representation of this topic. The presentation of the new trend, which is seemingly just the show but the book is applied to this as well, is the confirmation of teenage girl or teenage stereotypes about suicide. While yes stereotypes do apply, that’s why they are called stereotypes, this media completely ignores the mental illness portion. The disregard for the mental illness portion is HUGE in my book and for the other teens who feel this way. Which is not exactly why the show or book is upsetting to this portion of teens, it’s the lack of reach out or help offered for teens. Kind words can only get so far and the encouragement to acknowledge and get help for mental illnesses for those who need is is crucial in addition to discussing this topic. There’s also small, a very small sliver of teens, me included, who have almost a triggering effect with this. As someone who has been depressed, as someone who has self-harmed, as people who have been to the breaking point. It reinstates all of those feelings all over again. Over, and over, and over, and over again. With the proud stigma and trend with this new phenomenon, the waves of reminders of how alone you feel, how alone you felt, and how alone you seem you will always be is such a painful daily in-your-face reminder. I’m so glad people are initiating a conversation about this topic but please, remember, do it correctly. Offer help to those who need it, be kind and gentle while talking about a topic that is very painful to those who have been there, and treat everything with grace and realize this isn’t just fiction. It’s realistic fiction. Realistic in meaning people’s ACTUAL lives.

    That is all, congratulations! You have read all of my babbling 😀 I hope you keep these words to heart.

    1. I’m so glad you shared these excellent points! I can’t speak for the show, but you’re right, the book doesn’t mention mental illness, nor does it give much information about how to reach out and help people who are depressed or contemplating suicide. There are some phone numbers and websites at the back of my copy. The book is noteworthy for starting the conversation, but, I agree, there are issues that need to be further addressed for meaningful discussions about teen suicide and mental illness. Thanks for being brave enough to share your thoughts so that others might do the same. It makes me sad to know you have been so troubled, and I hope that you have found people you can trust to talk to. (By the way, I’m willing to be one of them.) Your words have definitely touched my heart.

  4. This has been a huge topic of conversation around here and I was hoping the Word Nerd would address the book and show. There is a lot of concern from health professionals and teachers in our area, who have sent letters home, informing us of this new series. Like your daughter felt, many feel it glorifies suicide, that you “live on” being remembered well instead of misunderstood and/or maligned and yet…you ARE DEAD. I am curious to read and watch the show. With teen anxiety (esp among girls) on the rise, this is a really important issue to talk about. I believe suicide is the #2 cause of death for teens (so so sad). Thanks for the review!

    1. Yes, once we get decent internet I might take a look at the show. I’m glad professionals in your area have been addressing it head on – perhaps providing helpful information and deeper understanding of this tragic and complicated issue. Thanks for sharing.

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