Discussion: My Sincerest Thoughts About “Thirteen Reasons Why”

Posted April 29, 2017 by Ellen in Discussion Post / 3 Comments

HEADS UP: This is a sincere call for caution from this post’s author. I write very candidly about suicide here, going into specific details, personal and otherwise. Please pass on reading this if you feel you might be overly distressed by the subjects of suicide and/or self-harm. The last thing I want is for anyone to be hurt by reading this. 

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve heard that Netflix adapted a YA book into a TV series. It’s called Thirteen Reasons Why, and lots of people are talking about it. In fact, there are some high schools in Canada where the teenagers will be talking about Thirteen Reasons Why all the more, because the administrations forbid any talk of the show on school grounds. How fucking hilarious! Don’t they know teenagers? Like, at all? I understand why they’re afraid, from the bottom of my heart, but is banning literature (or other forms of media) ever a good/appropriate/rational/effective response?

Discussion Point #1: Is banning literature (or other forms of media) ever a good/appropriate/rational/effective response?

What Is Thirteen Reasons Why About? Why is This Blogger, Ellen, So Opinionated?

Thank you for asking.

Teen suicide is the subject matter of the show. That’s the reason why there’s been a lot of conversation about it and why some adults are freaking out. There’s a scene in the TV series that depicts a parent’s worst nightmare — walking in on the dead body of their child.

I’m not a parent, so I can’t understand this fear fully. But I will share this. When was a suicidal teen, the only thing that stopped me from making a commitment to kill myself was the idea that my mom would be the one to find my body. Even though I was in so much pain, I couldn’t do that to her. I couldn’t. And even if I left home to kill myself, which I considered as an option, I knew it would still wreck her life. And then, someone else would find me anyway, and they would probably be wrecked by my actions, too.

On the flip side, for people who actually make suicide attempts or commit suicide — they are not being mean spirited. I know that they love the people close to them just as much as I did and do. They don’t want to hurt anybody, either. But they’ve reached a point in their anguish, or their illness, where it is so, terribly intense that they are not. thinking. clearly… They’re not.

Some suicidal people may be calm. Very collected, even. But they are not in a rational state. They are broken. So even though, deep down, they don’t want to wreck the lives of family, friends, and strangers, they’re in a place where they can’t access those feelings.

Somewhat on a side note, this is why I’ve always felt iffy about suicide being “illegal.” Obviously, our government wants to monitor suicide and be able to send police to prevent it, because it’s horrible. But suicidal people are not guilty of something by wanting to die. They’re not bad people for that.

In a similar vein, some religious people believe suicide is a mortal sin, and doing it sends you to hell. Bullshit.

Discussion Question #2: Should suicide be illegal?

So, although I never made a serious attempt on my life, I know people who have. I’ve also been enormously impacted by  the actions of a person who ‘succeeded*.’ I won’t go into any detail, because those are not my stories to tell. But because of these things, I have some strong opinions and a lot of experiences to back them up with.

I use the word ‘succeeded’ here with a great deal of ironic disbelief. Because the phrase “succeed in committing suicide,” is very emblematic of the way people who ideate think. But it’s oxymoronic. Suicide is the ultimate Pyrrhic victory for the people who go through with their plans — tantamount to defeat.

I Read Thirteen Reasons Why a Few Years Ago and Hated It

Everything personal I just shared above is why I really loathed Thirteen Reasons Why when I read it.  I believe I saw somewhere that Jay Asher, the author, may have been suicidally depressed at a point, which inspired the book. I’m honestly puzzled, then, why his representation of a suicidal person is so artificial.

I will be upfront — I don’t remember much detail from the book, and I don’t care to revisit the story. So what I’m about to write is based off of very impressionistic impressions.

In the book Thirteen Reasons Why, a teenage girl, Hannah Baker, kills herself. She also holds thirteen people responsible for her action and sends them cassette tapes telling them how they played a part in ending her life. The protagonist is a teenage boy who had a bit of a crush on Hannah, and when he gets a cassette tape fingering him, he is full of disbelief, but then goes into a downward spiral of guilt and remorse.

I wish I could explain why I hate this premise with clarity and succinctness and piercing insight. I don’t think I can. But I’ll do my best.

Discussion Point #3: Did you read the book or see the TV show? Both? 

Hannah Baker Isn’t Representative of a Typical Suicidal Teenager

The way Hannah put vast amounts of work into recording and mailing cassettes before her suicide doesn’t strike true. From my own experience, I know how suicidal people are often sick and/or incapacitated with pain. Obviously, there are exceptions, but Hannah’s engagement in and energy with her revenge-plot seemed out of character for someone who is so battered by trauma that she just wants to die.

I think I may have said those words a thousand times to myself and to specialists when I was a teen — “I just want to die.” For many suicidal people, that is the only thing they want.

Then there are people who commit murder/suicides. They don’t “just want to die.” They want to die, and burn shit down as they do it.

I think Hannah Baker falls under the latter category. Because her revenge plot is sick and twisted. There were people on her list who deserved punishment for what they’d done to her, for sure. But in the book, there were totally blameless people who had unintentionally and passively spun her in a bad direction. So, Hannah could have let them know about that without sending them aggressive, manipulative cassette tapes after her death, telling them that they had a part in killing her. Jesus Christ. By doing that to innocent people, she’s actually doing more to hurt them than they ever did to hurt her.

I know Thirteen Reasons Why is a work of fiction, but we are allowed to raise our eyebrows and point fingers when we read weird shit. Remember when everyone was like, “Wait… Edward Cullen is stalking Bella Swan. He’s sneaking into her house and bedroom without permission to watch her sleep, not knowing if he can keep himself from killing her each night. OMFG and WTF! That’s not romantic; that’s insane.” Those responses were valid. I think my complaints about Hannah Baker are, too. Her depicted actions are not typical or acceptable behavior.

Discussion Point #4: Is Hannah a victim who became a predator?

What is ‘Suicide Porn’ and is Thirteen Reasons Why Part of That Whole… Thing?

When people are preoccupied with sex, they watch porn. When people are preoccupied with death, particularly their own, they read, watch, and listen to stuff about suicide. I know this because I did it.

Prepare yourself, because this is going to sound warped.

When I was a teenager, my favorite book was The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides. For those who don’t know, it’s a fairly accessible piece of literary fiction about a religious family with five daughters. The youngest girl, Cecilia, kills herself at thirteen, and then, about a year or so later, the rest of the sisters make a suicide pact and follow suit. The book is narrated by a chorus of neighborhood boys who are obsessed with understanding it all. As a reader, you become obsessed with that, too.

I’ll just say it. The Virgin Suicides is complete and utter suicide porn. It’s an awesome book to read, and very lovely, but it makes the act of suicide seem mystical and profound. I ate it up as a depressed teen. I especially felt this soulful connection with Cecilia, the first daughter to kill herself. I thought she was so fucking brave and profound and really authentic. 

Warped, right? So, I can understand the Canadians who don’t want their kids ideating even more about suicide because of a popular and easily accessible TV show.

So is all literature depicting suicide… porn? No way. Take Madame Bovary, the French novel about a woman who marries badly, has an affair, and then swallows arsenic. Gustave Flaubert details just how wretched that act was, describing her desperation, her agony, and her excruciating pain while she died for hours. I read that as a depressed teen, and I remember my English teacher looking us all dead in the eye and telling us how Madame Bovary thought killing herself would be this romantic escape, but really it was a extremely sad, painful hell of a waste. Thank you, Ms. Caruso. You reached me that day.

Take also, The Bell Jar. It’s an incredible, autobiographical piece of fiction written by Sylvia Plath, who eventually stuck her head in an oven while her children napped. Sylvia is seen as a very romantic figure among suicide enthusiasts, if you didn’t know. Maybe some of those people find The Bell Jar romantic, I don’t know. But when I read it as a — you guessed it — depressed teen, I thought it was nightmarish. As the protagonist becomes more and more critically depressed, Plath somehow managed to, like, twist her language to make it mimic what it feels like to be mentally ill. And it’s not lovely to be sick in that way. It’s not evolved or intelligent. Reading the prose of The Bell Jar is a legitimate experience of horror. You feel relief when the narrator gets treatment and starts feeling okay again.

As for Thirteen Reasons Why, I read it after I was recovering from a depression. I didn’t feel enraptured or impressed by Hannah in the slightest. As I mentioned before, I thought she was spiteful and deranged. But that is NOT to say that other readers won’t find her impressive.

Discussion Point #5: What book featuring suicide and/or depression have you read, and how did it seem to depict the subject matter, in your eyes?

In fact, it’s the TV series that’s really getting into hot water over suicide porn. (Note: I have only seen the first episode.)

There has been a lot of debate, especially, over the graphic depiction of Hannah’s suicide. Unlike the book, where Hannah overdoses, TV-Hannah slits her wrists in a warm bathtub. Some people argue that it’s properly gruesome and realistic. I read that the makers of the series added in a few dreadful details that only people who have cut into their own skin and through flesh would know about. So, someone did research to find out about those things and put them in intentionally. Supporters of the series also cite the moment when Hannah’s mom discovers her. Apparently, it’s a scene that will stick with you for life. It’s supposed to reflect the true brutality of suicide for the people who are left behind.

However, other viewers have criticized the show’s use of the very romanticized “blood in the water” trope. I get their point. Remember that scene in The Royal Tenenbaums, when Luke Wilson’s character cuts his hair, shaves his beard, then slits his wrists in the sink? That part of the movie was fucking terrible to see, but I was pretty impacted by the romance of it as a teen. So, just because the TV adaptation of Thirteen Reasons Why has some horrifying realism about the particulars of bleeding out, I’m not convinced that will be enough to put off viewers who are going through suicidal ideation.

Discussion Point #6: If you’ve seen the TV series, what did you think of that scene?

Is There a Bright Side to Suicide? No, There’s Not. Except One Small Thing That Is Somewhat Okay in the Middle of Infinite Suck

Ugh. That was a lot. But it’s all very important, especially to me.

Death is life’s inevitable conclusion. And it helps sustain new life. But it’s scary and it’s sad. We never want to be parted from the people we love. We know it has to happen, but we hope it will happen at the very last moment it possibly can. So when a person takes their own life, it’s really hurtful. You wonder about all the scenarios how they could have lived and been well again. And to know someone you loved went through that much pain, it makes it hard to live yourself.

There is only one upside in that situation, if it happens. The person you loved was in so much agony, was so sick. And the fact that they’re gone is… I don’t have words. There are no words. The only okay thing, I think, is that they’re not in pain anymore.

I know that might be incredibly controversial. I understand if people think so. I truly do. Suicide should never, ever “have” to happen.

You don’t “find peace” after death. At least, I don’t believe that. But if it suicide does happen… at the very least, they’re not in pain anymore.

The people left behind hurt, though, and will always hurt. There are no words.

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