*WARNING- SPOILER ALERT*
If you’re planning to read the book, Thirteen Reasons Why, or watch the Netflix series, you may not want to read further. This blog does contain a few spoilers.
I became interested in the book, Thirteen Reasons Why, when a reviewer of my book, Shattering Truths, said that fans of Thirteen Reasons Why would absolutely love Shattering Truths.
It is true that we explore similar topics, even though the premises are different.
In Thirteen Reasons Why, Hannah Baker takes her life and leaves behind cassette tapes that retrace her steps and explain her reasons.
In case you haven’t heard, the backlash over Thirteen Reasons Why is the perception that the book glamorizes suicide.
Romanticizing suicide in art isn’t new. Did people want to ban Shakespeare? I’ve listened to Don McClean’s Starry Starry Night and Chord Overstreet’s Hold On —song tributes to suicide victims that inspire hauntingly beautiful imagery, and their lyrics have moved me to tears. Maybe there is something about giving up that most of us can relate to—the notion that if worse comes to worse, no one can make us stay here. At the same time, we are also filled with profound sadness over the depth of another human being’s despair.
Interestingly enough, I once wrote my own book about the aftermath of a protagonist’s suicide— not Shattering Truths but an earlier work. I was nineteen at the time. The editor I submitted it to felt readers would not find this character sympathetic because, as a suicide, he’d be considered psychotic. That bothered me more than anything else—the distressing mentality—the heartbreaking reality—that even in these modern times, people are uncomfortable with any mental instability and quick to reject it. I submitted it anyway. The publisher said they would be interested only if I changed the ending and had my character survive. I wouldn’t do that. My whole point in telling the story was that the guy died, and he shouldn’t have. I shelved the project.
At the time, I did romanticize my character’s suicide. I hoisted the guy up on a posthumous pedestal and became obsessed with his life and death. But I didn’t want to die.
Sorry (and not so sorry) to say, that as a poet, a writer, and an artist, I embrace all of it—the good, the bad, the pretty, the ugly, the dark, the light and the scary.
But I am also an adult who realizes that death is not pretty, and it’s likely to be quite lonely and painful. Nothing about Thirteen Reasons Why gave me the impression that it would be anything but lonely and painful. There was never a moment I envied Hannah Baker or wanted to be her—before, during, or after. What happened to her seemed anything but glamorous.
I’d go so far as to say the story makes it clear that taking your life is not the solution; that there is always hope. A few minutes, days, or weeks could make all the difference in the world. That hope is extinguished when your light goes out for good.
I also happen to think that people who hurt you don’t deserve to take anything more from you!
From my perspective, the book actually provides clear examples of how not to behave, how not to treat others. It brings to light how little thought teens give to how their behavior may affect someone else, although, this is also sadly true of adults. Some will live their whole lives hurting and punishing others without thinking it through, without ever trying to understand the people they target.
That’s one of the messages in Thirteen Reasons Why. We need to be kinder to each other.
No doubt, some people will read this book and see it all differently. They’ll see that Hannah is talked about more and with more sensitivity after her death. They’ll see that people feel guilty. They may think that would bring satisfaction, but true bullies who destroy other human beings are not usually the ones who feel guilty. They don’t have consciences.
To a lesser degree, Hannah Baker herself lacks empathy in this story and is rather self-absorbed. That’s okay. Victims don’t need to be depicted as saints. A character can be tragically flawed in fact, and still not deserve the torment. It is normal for a trauma survivor to go through a period of victimhood that includes a great deal of introspection and a degree of self-pity. She has a human response to a rude and painful awakening. Yes, trauma does quite a number on the psyche. It changes a person, causing behavior that won’t make sense even to the survivor. The point is, what happened to Hannah Baker should not have happened to anyone. It’s sad that she’ll never have the chance to heal and evolve beyond what she became, so it’s a story worth telling and worth telling right.
I’m willing to bet that most of us can make a list of at least thirteen people who screwed us over and/or possibly scarred us for life. Some of the reasons might be the same or worse than what Hannah Baker experienced, but, for most of us, suicide was never an option we considered.
We are all different. We have varying degrees of ability to cope, and those who are coping well may be at less challenging stages of the healing process. To some of us, a burden is a challenge, and we push back. No matter what happens, we keep pushing. But not everyone can do that. It’s not weakness, and it’s not for lack of trying. We are where we are. None of us have control over the circumstances we are born into or everything that happens after that. We can’t be sure why we take the paths we take or what we need to learn. Healing begins when we are ready. It’s a long, grueling process that, unfortunately, some people will never begin.
I think it’s safe to say that Thirteen Reasons Why will be triggering for certain people and not others.
There’s always a chance that any one of us will find something we read, see, hear, or experience to be triggering. But that doesn’t mean we should censor ourselves, as writers, or as artists. We can’t. We can’t shy away from controversial subjects or prevent others from having those important conversations. For those wanting to sue and to ban, do we really want to set that precedent? Where would we draw the line? Would we have to stop talking about rape, about murder, about mental issues, and about everything that could be triggering? I hope not!
A common complaint people have made is that the book doesn’t delve into the mental illness factor when it comes to suicide. No, it doesn’t. Thirteen Reasons Why focuses on raising the level of awareness for bullying/harassment/character assassination, etc. and depicting how the victim feels—how a suicide victim feels. Hannah, in my opinion, sought to educate the culprits. She may have wanted them to feel her pain, too, but more for their benefit, I think, than in retaliation. As a trauma survivor, I can relate to wanting to raise the level of awareness. Even if the people who need to hear it most are not listening, someone is. And making a difference to anyone at all is a great start.
It doesn’t mean we should ignore the mental illness factor in our conversations about this topic. According to the University of Washington’s School of Social Work, “Of those who die from suicide, more than 90% have a diagnosable mental disorder.
Mental Health America states that “substance abuse may be involved in half of all suicide cases with 20% involving people with alcohol problems”.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse claims that drug abuse is a mental illness.
Sadly, families often have a difficult time acknowledging and accepting mental illness in a loved one. There is rejection, ridicule, even mind-boggling cruelty. For the person with issues, it leads to a social ineptness that only results in more ridicule and cruelty. The damage is hard to shake, and it’s heartbreaking because, with acceptance and unconditional love, a lot of the issues can be minimized or managed.
Shame is a key word here. Many parents and siblings are more concerned about what others may think. Are we sending a message of, I will not love you unless you are normal by my standards and anything less will be ridiculed and rejected? Are we teaching our “normal” kids to ridicule and reject?
The truth is, we have dangerous psychopathic narcissists running amok in this world, and they are considered normal by many. Meanwhile, people who struggle with things like autism, Asperger’s, bipolar, anxiety, etc. are met with skepticism.
I’ll admit, due to lack of acknowledgment/acceptance in my own life, it took me quite a while to realize and understand the problems I had with anxiety, OCD, and possibly other afflictions. I may never have realized if I hadn’t met some of the people I met along the way, people who had the same problems and steered me in the right direction. Awareness is key, and it helps to learn as much as you can about what you’re dealing with. It is a lifetime struggle with good days and bad, but it can keep getting better.
So, in light of all I’ve stated above, I believe Thirteen Reasons Why, is a profound experience for the reader. I felt like a part of the story, swept right in and completely absorbed, turning page after page. I loved the powerful descriptions of how the characters felt in critical moments. The book, written straight from the heart, shows compassion in abundance, and it brought me to tears.
Co-protagonist, Clay Jensen, in fact, shows considerable empathy while listening to Hannah’s tapes. He wants to understand what happened to Hannah. He not only forces himself to listen to every excruciatingly painful word—he follows her instructions, putting himself in her place and allowing himself to feel what she felt.
Imagine living in a world where everyone sought to understand one another like that! That would be beautiful indeed!
© Copyright July 24, 2017 by Kyrian Lyndon at kyrianlyndon.com. All rights reserved. No reproduction permitted without proper attribution.
2 thoughts on “THE THIRTEEN REASONS WHY BACKLASH: MY THOUGHTS AND BOOK REVIEW”
This is a well done, well thought out blog about many aspects of societal pressures. Bullying has become more intense due to the popularity of social media. I’m more aware of it too and I realize we are all different and we each react differently to a situation. Kindness is our greatest resource. It is our choice if we truly want to solve this problem.
Thank you so much for the comment, Michael. I agree that kindness is our greatest resource. ❤