**Trigger warning: this post contains repeated and constant mention of suicide in different forms and methods. Please, please don’t read this if this may cause you any distress. It also contains spoilers for the series/book, but this is a post discouraging audiences from engaging with it in the first place.
In eighth grade, I read Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why upon publication. I heard rave reviews about the depth and complexity of the characters. I was curious and read the book from cover to cover. I was… generally indifferent. The protagonist, Clay, conveniently was the only character who Hannah had loved in the entire series. The protagonist then becomes a knight in shining armour: rattled with guilt by his passive bystanding, but his hands were clean enough to confront others who Hannah Baker had named.
As I aged, I remembered the storyline again after seeing the Netflix series. I have only read the book, but I remember it well; and I can now see all the darker corners. At fifteen, I had lacked the sophistication to express what was actually wrong with it, but I will have a go now in thirteen reasons:
- Thirteen Reasons Why enters perilous waters by even claiming that a suicide can have a one-dimmensional perpetrator/victim dynamic, or that Hannah was even justified in naming people as if they were her murderers.
- But it’s the reality: when we grieve, we look for someone to blame. We unleash the fault narrative to override our grief.
- This is where Thirteen Reasons Why fails. Instead of being a nuanced exploration one of the most complex issues to ever exist, the series turns into a poorly written teen thriller. A whodunnit where as if investigating Hanna Baker’s murder. The suicide is a plot device for cheap thrills, drama, blame, guilt and remorse cycles.
- It isn’t different from your Pretty Little Liars or Gossip Girl or Riverdale. Yet, to revolve around literally the biggest cause of death for young adolescents, it has the responsibility to be sensitively handled. But it doesn’t.
- The concept capitalises upon ‘cancel culture’ – the fact that every human being in Hannah’s life who did those cruel things to her are unworthy of redemption or a platform to defend. There was the unspoken expectation that the remainder of their life was to be spent in guilt.
- But this black-and-white narrative hurts the survivors too: if we make this a simple ‘A commits heinous acts against B’ and ‘Therefore, B commits suicide,’ then does this not undermine the strength that survivors of abuse muster everyday just staying alive? When the narrative that presupposes suicide to be a natural conclusion to acts against human dignity, it dangerously presumes that anything less than suicide must not be painful, or serious enough. Only when the survivor is dead can we, as passive bystanders, conclude that their pain was valid?
- To claim a person is beyond redemption. On the flipside, to claim a person is not sufferring enough because they are still alive. What a sickening, sickening conclusion on so many levels.
- In the book, Clay (the protagonist) reaches out to a girl in his class who he suspects of being suicidal. She exhibited all the signs. The moment is symbolic as his transition from silent, passive bystander to an active bystander. This is what he learns from Hannah. It is meant to be courageous; and on some levels, is noble act. I think we should all reach out, connect and empathise with people whenever we can.
- But the context is rather toxic. Clay blames himself for Hannah’s death and is determined not to let this happen again. The conclusion falls flat. Because repeat after me: you are not responsible for not being attentive, present or there for someone enough.
- But there is one person that you are responsible for: yourself.
- What I wanted to see in the conclusion is other students step forward with their own mental health issues after Hannah’s death. Where the context jolts them awake to their reality: if I don’t get help, then I may end up dead. Because mental illness is an illness: you need to get the help you need.
- Because the essence of mental illnesses is that you’re always invalidating yourself.
- Conclusively: in Thirteen Reasons Why, the roles of the bystander, victim, survivor, perpetrator, and abuser are handled shallowly with dangerous connotations of blame, invalidation and retraction of boundaries. I truly don’t recommend this book to anyone — not even for a cursory read — because of the subconscious messages you are exposed to as a viewer.
Please note that I critiqued the book only. The television series, I am unsure if the same themes pervade, but I have been told that it’s a pretty close adaptation.