“No one knows for certain how much impact they have on the lives of other people. Oftentimes, we have no clue. Yet we push it just the same.”
Fair warning, this post contains spoilers for both the book and Netflix series adaptation, as well as potentially triggering subject matter.
About a month ago I flipped through Netflix, selected a series entitled 13 Reasons Why and binge watched the entire thing in a day and a half. Afterwards, I switched off the television and I cried. Two weeks ago, I read the book that inspired the series in a single afternoon. I turned the final page and wept.
If you haven’t been following the internet storm around Jay Asher’s powerful YA novel and its television adaptation, it centres on 13 tapes recorded by 17-year-old Hannah Baker prior to her suicide. Each tape involves a specific person who Hannah feels played a role in her tragic decision, and as per her instruction, the tapes are passed from one person to the next. This very dark premise touches on themes of high school bullying, slut-shaming, rape, the meaning of consent and the tragedy of teen suicide. It never shies away from presenting its subject matter in the most raw, honest and straightforward way possible. This approach has also garnered more than its fair share of criticism. Do a quick Google search and you’ll find article after article debating whether the series glamorises suicide. For myself, reading about and watching a young girl silently sink deeper and deeper into what we know from the get-go is an inevitability, was nothing less than harrowing.
Because I have been a Hannah Baker.
I kept quiet while being severely bullied in school. I simply relented, never fought back. The shy, silent target. Easy.
I stood quietly while being sexually abused. I still often wonder whether he took my silence for some perverted form of agreement, and I don’t think the cloying shame that week left me with will ever quite fade.
I sat silently on my bed while my mind conjured scenarios in which I would have taken my own life in an angry, vindictive manner. Because then they would finally see and hear what I couldn’t show or tell them.
I relate to Hannah’s nightmare. There was never anything glamorous or heroic about my thoughts. They were a sticky tar of shame and fear which I am infinitely grateful I never gave in to. I feel that I should add that what kept me going throughout those years was writing – for many people a refuge and a therapy – and reading about girls who went through the same things I did. I was still silent, but I was not alone after all and imagination kept the darkness at bay. Although, at 30, I am yet to tame it and I do note that speaking up and getting professional help would have helped me heal a lot more successfully. But I am here, and for now, that is enough.
When you read Jay Asher’s book, Hannah’s voice is initially angry, bitter and you may suspect that she made her decision out of spite. But as you continue – as she talks about having her reputation scandalized by rumour, being objectified and ridiculed, watching a girl get raped by her boyfriend’s best friend and being raped herself – there is an undeniable sadness and desperation, a longing to be heard and helped. In the Netflix series, her suicide is graphic, almost sickening because it seems so real. But it is in no way glamorous. In both adaptations the effect on her classmates is brutal; they are left with guilt as to their perceived part in her decision and forced to confront their own actions, which iterate the devastation felt by those left behind. It is never a pretty act.
And it is this, the controversy surrounding this story, the shame and silence of its characters, their failure to hear or see Hannah’s need, that makes this a book and series we should be watching and reading. Because Hannah’s story ends in tragedy, we need to pay more attention. Because she failed to get the help she so badly needed, we need to look deeper and listen closer. Because Hannah’s ordeal belongs to all of us – we have been her, or we are her now, or we have sensed her in the silence of someone close to us. And we need to be the person who asks “are you okay?”, and then we need to be the person who listens when the answer is “no”.