TEEN SUICIDE IN THE CROSSHAIRS
NETFLIX’S THIRTEEN REASONS WHY
You are no doubt aware of the controversy that’s emerged as a result of Netflix’s much viewed “Thirteen Reasons Why;” it’s the most Tweeted television show right now. Based on a 2007 novel by Jay Asher, the television adaptation follows the same format as the book: Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford) recorded thirteen cassette tapes before she committed suicide and each tape implicates someone whom she feels contributed to her demise. I’m not a psychologist nor a medical professional so I don’t have any data to back my views of the program. But school educators, mental health professionals and school counselors object to the show’s premise believing, they feel, that it both glorifies suicide and doesn’t do enough to educate parents, educators and the public about the warning and “trigger” signs associated with young adult suicides.
As the plot unfolds, Hannah has put her tapes in the hands of Tony (who late in the series outs himself as gay) who after, listening to them, passes the package on to Clay, Hannah’s nerdy friend and marginal love interest. Tony (Christian Navarro) serves as a guide to Clay (Dylan Minnette) as he delves deeper into the tapes and their incriminating revelations. As the episodes progress, it becomes clear that there are forces at work that do not want to have “the truth” about what happened to Hannah revealed and work to stymie what becomes an effort to squash Clay’s efforts to get to the truth.
It wasn’t until I was into Episode (Tape) No. 6 that I began to see the influences, patterns and webs that Hannah’s tapes illuminated and, as she proclaimed, brought her to the conclusion that she had nowhere to go but to take her own life to escape from them. At first, more than halfway through the tapes, what we see are fairly typical and mundane high school cruelties: casual bullying, rampant cliquishness, hallway taunts, locker room belittlements and gratuitous shaming. Pretty much what you and me and every other high school youngster is faced with as with thread the gauntlet of this often perverse and confusing high school web of social relationships.
Up until tape 6 or 7 nothing that happened to Hannah seemed terribly unusual or unique. But then it slowly dawned on me that the point wasn’t that Hannah had been subjected to some uniquely cruel and unusual situations but had experienced taunts and disappointments just like many of her peers. Just like you and me. What I realized is that it wasn’t the nature of what she experienced but how she personally responded to the cruelties of an otherwise typical set of high school conditions. Some kids can cope quite admirably; others cannot. Hannah was a member of the latter category. This, I think, is one of the main themes of “Thirteen Reasons Why,” that how youngsters react to what’s happening to them is much more important than the nature of the banal cruelties they may suffer. The point is driven home when one of Hannah’s “friends” is revealed to have suffered from very similar acts of violence against her as did Hannah.
As for the criticism of the show that it does not educate? I find this fairly specious. First of all, it’s fiction, not a “how to detect the signs of impending suicide in teenagers” guide for parents and teachers. Second, one of the “lessons” learned from “Thirteen Reasons Why” are the reactions and actions – mainly non-actions – from Hannah’s constellation of the adults in her life. They display a decided lack of awareness in recognizing what is happening to Hannah and there is a glaring lack of practical means available to help her. Everyone, as the tapes proclaim, is complicit. Hannah’s downward spiral proceeds apace as friends, classmates, parents and school personnel don’t seem to have a clue. Then there are the ex-post facto lawsuits that have the effect of shutting down whatever might have been learned by parents and teachers from Hannah’s tragic story.
Frankly, and I conclude this from a standpoint of benign ignorance (I just absolved myself of responsibility as did all the characters in “Thirteen Reasons Why”) but I do have some limited experience in dealing with attempted suicide. Two to be precise. In one instance, the attempt followed years of mental illness (bi-polar) and this is one point a professional made on a news reports. Many, one professional concluded, if not most, suicides are accompanied by some degree of mental illness. I have no data to back up this claim but it does make sense. In Hannah’s case, there was no such claim so I suppose this might be a valid criticism . And as for the criticism that "Thirteen Reasons Why" glorifies or glamorizes suicide, I don't find this at all a "take-away" from the program. Yes, Hannah's suicide scene is graphic. Yes, the show takes no moral stance about suicide. And, yes, Hannah seems to be a normal teenager until she commits suicide and I suppose this could be counted in the "glamorizing" column of critiques.
But I cannot accept the criticism that “Thirteen Reasons Why” doesn’t educate. As un-addressed as the "tools" available to potential suicides might be - suicide hot-lines, counseling, confiding in a friend or parent - their availability means nothing if adults fail to recognize what's going on. If nothing else, Hannah’s predicament illuminates in blindingly stark terms how seemingly mundane and common activities – bullying, shaming, cliquing, etc. – suffered over time can lead to tragic endings. How many times have you heard people claim, following the suicide of a child, a relative or a friend, that they had no idea that the person was so deeply troubled? For this aspect alone, I think “Thirteen Reasons Why” contributes a remarkably potent “lesson,” one that parents, teachers and all of us might take to heart. The invisibility of Hannah’s state of mind to those around her doesn’t serve to relieve our minds and salve our souls or forgive us for our ignorance but serves to highlight just how complicit we all are. Hannah's thirteen tapes might be seen as just blame and shame projected onto others, absolution one might call it, but her take on what happened to her opens a veritable Pandora's Box of cascading questions that have no easy answers.
As one critic stated: "Professionals are saying, along with many others on the internet, that the show delivers an extremely problematic take on suicide." And the professional are correct. "Thirteen Reasons Why" doesn't provide solutions. It doesn't preach. It takes no moral stance. It doesn't neatly wrap things up in a nice, easy to understand, un-problematic package, In fact, it raise many more questions than it provides answers to. But when dealing with teen suicide, any suicide for that matter, isn't this always the final outcome? Suicide is nothing if not problematic.
Take Care Folks! It Can Be Rough Out There!