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.
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!