Tuesday, April 4, 2017

"Thirteen Reasons Why," and the problem with stories about young suicide

I’ve seen some posts about a new Netflix series based on a novel, “Thirteen Reasons Why.” It’s a young adult story, but it resonates with a lot of adults as well. I want to explain why the premise of this book troubles me. It’s not an isolated theme; I have seen multiple popular books follow this storyline. To be clear, I’m not criticizing anybody who enjoyed the book or the Netflix series. This story moved many people, and you have a right to enjoy whatever you do. Also, I’m not saying the author had no right to write this. I am very wary of artistic censorship and don’t want to discourage creativity. But I believe that in the interest of compassion and good taste, some topics ought to be approached more thoughtfully.

“Thirteen Reasons Why” is about the suicide of a 17-year-old girl named Hannah who was bullied. Shortly beforehand, she recorded a series of thirteen cassette tapes. They were sent to thirteen people, explaining why each of them were responsible for her death. A friend of hers had agreed to anonymously deliver them. The narrative is told through the perspective of Clay, a boy who Hannah addressed on one of the tapes. He has just received them and is listening to her story.

I spotted the book in a store a few months ago and was put off by the premise. Then I learned it was a bestseller and that it’s even on the summer reading list of some high school teachers, intended to help them understand teen bullying and suicide. They facilitate group discussions on this book. I recently watched the first episode of the series on Netflix. Not because I was drawn in, but because I wanted to see if my initial impression would hold up.

The introduction opens with a sketchy animated bicycle, drawn in the style of the animations from Juno. I like that style, but there was something a little jarring. It set the tone for something twee and cute. The first episode begins with a shot of the recently deceased Hannah’s locker, adorned with layers of adoring notes from her classmates. “I love you,” “I miss you,” “You were so beautiful.” There are hearts and paper flowers and a photo of her smiling and gorgeous. She narrates from the first scene, speaking from her cassette tape. This makes it seem like she’s watching and aware of how everyone reacts.

As the episode plays out, there are several issues made apparent. The first is that her suicide, while accurately portrayed as tragic, is romanticized. I get the impression that it’s supposed to be poetic. It sends the message that killing yourself in high school will immortalize you as young and beautiful. It will redeem your own transgressions and leave everyone in awe of you, talking about how wonderful you are. It’ll be a great form of revenge, leaving everyone sorry for any way they’ve done you wrong. You’ll be a high school celebrity preserved in a heart-shaped photograph behind rose tinted glass.

This is the last message that a high schooler struggling with mental health issues needs to absorb. I know because I was one of those kids. I still struggle a lot with depression. If this book had come out when I was fifteen, I would have eaten it up with a spoon. I already had that mentality. Throughout junior high and high school, I was heavily fixated on suicide and engaged in self-harm behaviors that once got me committed to a psychiatric ward. I used to look up autopsy photos, research different suicide methods, and practice writing goodbye notes until I had the perfect draft. This was partly because of life situations and partly because of innate morbid depression. A lot of people dismissed it as shallow attention seeking. While I did seek a lot of unhealthy attention in my mid-teens, the self destruction was not insincere. It stemmed from genuine distress and genuine crises in my environment. While “Thirteen Reasons Why” would not have influenced me to kill myself, it would have lured me into further obsession with that topic. I would have romanticized it to no end, believing the horrible cliché that suicidal people are “just angels who want to go home.”

Overwhelmingly, people don’t have helpful beliefs about suicide. Many vilify those who do it, saying they are selfish and cowardly. Others will almost canonize those who have made that choice. Although these responses are opposite, both come from the glorification of suffering. 

People who condemn victims of suicide feel that suffering is meaningful, and that you are cutting corners if you end your life to escape. That’s why they call it cowardly. (Some may have been traumatized by a loved one’s suicide and are angry, feeling abandoned. That’s understandable, but becomes harmful when used to condemn everyone who feels suicidal.) On the other hand, people who romanticize suicide victims seem to believe that suffering, in itself, makes you noble. It’s the idea that a person is a hero because they experienced terrible pain. It is true that many of us find meaning in our pain and can use that to develop more empathy. But framing suffering as heroic only encourages people to become stuck in such suffering, and can discourage others from offering help. This shows up in every societal level, from interpersonal relationships to political “bootstrap theory.”

Help needs to be delivered in more than one form. You need friends and social relationships, but friends are not therapists and shouldn’t be placed in that role. Emotional support is distinct from depending on one or several people to solve all our problems. I have made that mistake in the past, and have been on the receiving end as well. It’s a huge weight to hear somebody say, “You’re the only one I can count on” or “You’re the only reason I can get up in the morning.” If you have mental health problems yourself, they can be triggered by that type of emotional drain. At the same time, many people with those problems are afraid to reach out because they think that talking about it at all will be a burden. This is why balance needs to be sought, and more than one type of help is needed. Friendship and therapy can’t replace one another.

In stories like “Thirteen Reasons Why,” the message is that suicide could have been prevented if others reached out, and that unkind treatment drives people to suicide. It’s true that many people have said they decided to continue living because others were helpful. It’s true that social isolation and bullying contribute a great deal to suicide, especially for teenagers. It’s hard to envision a world outside of high school when you’re that young. But in “Thirteen Reasons Why,” Hannah explicitly blames the people on her tapes. Some of the acts committed against her were horrific, while others were petty. The author wanted to communicate that even seemingly trivial things can add up. That’s true, but the kids in the story who committed the less aggressive acts will now spend the rest of their lives shackled to the idea that they made her kill herself, all for getting jealous or gossiping or making a hurtful comment. They did all of these things as kids. This doesn’t mean they weren’t responsible for their behavior, but I don’t think a person should be damned for life because of a shitty thing they once did in high school. The author, Jay Asher, may not have condoned her behavior. But the overall story conveys the idea that these kids were responsible for her death and that suicide is an appropriate act of revenge.

Hannah sends the tapes to Clay and, in the beginning, states that he is one of the reasons she is dead. But then later, in the ninth tape, she apologizes for implicating him in this. She tells him he is the nicest person she ever met and that he didn’t make her feel suicidal. She says she had actually fallen in love with him and wished they had more time together.

I know the audience had to wait to hear Clay’s tape in order to create suspense, and to offer a cliffhanger. But in the context of the story, it was cruel. It came across as manipulation. She knew he had feelings for her and had been a good friend. Hannah initially blamed Clay—knowing full well that he had never harmed her—and then strung him along to make him listen, only to basically say, “Just kidding; it wasn’t your fault.” All of this sounds terrible. And adding that she would have been his girlfriend if she had chosen to live will haunt him for the rest of his life. He will always wonder if he could have prevented this.

It’s relevant to the plot that Hannah is beautiful, which the other characters respond to with jealousy and frustrated attraction. I can see how that would play into the story, but it implies that her death was even more of a loss because she was pretty. I have never found a story about an unattractive girl who died tragically. This isn’t only an issue with “Thirteen Reasons”; it’s an ever-pervasive theme. As it adds up, it drives home the message that pretty girls’ lives are more valuable. Specifically waifish, doe-eyed, white, artsy, indie, middle class or wealthy girls. They are the source of endless fascination, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl whose life came to a tragic end. This is a trope I call “Manic Pixie Dead Girl.”

It’s notable that much of the bullying was slut-shaming. The author may have intended to show that slut-shaming causes damage, but that message was diluted by the fact that Hannah had never done the sexual things she was accused of. It was repeatedly stated that she was “innocent,” that she had never done more with Justin than kiss him. Not only that, but it was her first kiss. The rumors were presented as even worse because they were lies. But why should it matter whether or not it was true? Isn’t it wrong for people to bully others about their sex lives to begin with? How was it anybody’s business if Hannah had hooked up with Justin, or whether it was her first kiss or her fiftieth? The gossip wasn’t bad because it was untrue; it was bad because it was judgment in the first place.

I’ve heard a lot of people say they liked this story, including some who have been bullied and have been suicidal. Jay Asher has said that numerous teens have reached out to him to thank him for writing the book. I’m glad it has been helpful for so many. I’m happy this book exists for them. Maybe my reaction is unusual, but some of these implications worry me. Suicide shouldn’t be portrayed as a cute, quirky hipster trend; as a way to make others sorry; or as a way to gain permanent love.