I am purposely behind on the “13 Reasons Why” train. Besides the fact that I try not to watch what everyone else is watching when everyone is watching it, I waited this one out because I wasn’t sure my heart could handle it. I was right. It broke.
For those of you who don’t know or haven’t heard of this phenomenon, it’s a Netflix series based on the novel by Jay Asher. And one of my most sincere hopes is that nobody will walk away from reading this thinking that I don’t think Mr. Asher is an outstanding author, because that would be false. I think he’s outrageously talented. In a genre (Young Adult) where so many books are the same and the language and styles are so easy to just “copy and paste,” Mr. Asher stands out. For that, I absolutely applaud him. From here on out, I’m not talking about him or the series on Netflix, because I didn’t watch the series. That’s right…I did not and will not watch the series. I read the book. And I’m talking about the story…not the author or even his style. Can I make myself any clearer?
First of all, this story was gripping. I don’t know how I hadn’t heard of it until it was a series. It was THAT good. It flowed well and wasn’t predictable at all, which I’m all for. But while I’m all for not being predictable, some of the “sides of the tapes” just had me scratching my head. Second of all, I am of the school that teaches that if you believe a book is “good,” if you like the book, it’s a good book. Reviews and awards don’t matter if you can’t stand the book. So whether or not I liked it doesn’t matter. But what I was left to deal with after I read it absolutely matters to me.
Please let me give you a quick description of the book, according to me. If you’d like to read one that maybe is a little more professionally written, click here.
A teenage girl named Hannah Baker commits suicide. In her final act, she sends a package with 7 audiotapes to the first person on a 13-person list. Each tape has two sides, A & B. The recipient is to listen to all the tapes and then package them up and send them to the next person on the list. All the recipients play some part, are a “reason why,” of Hannah’s suicide. Some of them seem to be larger reasons and some of them are things you or I may not even pick up on in the lives of a teenager. That doesn’t matter. They were all big to Hannah. That’s what matters. And that’s my 2 cent description. Seriously, if you need more depth, there are hundreds of websites dedicated to this phenomenon. Google it.
So from the moment I figure out what this girl, this Hannah Baker, has done (recording and sending these tapes to “reasons why”), something inside me starts stirring. If I’m being honest, I actually felt my ears get hot, my heart thud via my upper lip, and my eye begin to twitch…all tell-tale signs that I’m pissed off or scared. I wasn’t scared here. I was absolutely not scared here.
I am not going to go through each of the reasons (which just means I’m not going chapter by chapter) in this post, mostly because of what I said before: it doesn’t matter if anyone thinks her reasons are right or wrong. They were hers. I’m hopefully doing a good job of relaying the fact that I honor that. Whether or not Hannah Baker’s reasons made your or my list of “Acceptable Reasons to Commit Suicide” doesn’t matter.
I am also not going to get into the current argument in church circles and middle school circles and high school circles and parenting circles about the fact that this book either glamorizes or glorifies suicide. I can’t get into the space in my heart to really even form an intelligent opinion on it. That’s not what this post is about either.
If you have read my blog for any amount of time or you know me in real life, you know that suicide has reared its horrifying head in my life more than once. You know that my oldest friend and her brother were murdered by their father, who then committed suicide. You know that I’ve struggled with depression since I was a preteen and that I have considered suicide more than once. I may not have ever given suicide the satisfaction of naming it, but it nearly became my final chapter more than once. You don’t know that my younger cousin committed suicide when she was 16 and the toll that took on her family. You don’t know because that’s not my story to tell.
My own story involves a fight every single day to overcome what is known (as I have come to understand) as “survivor’s guilt.” The often understated fact is that when someone dies, however they die, they leave behind people, whether they want to or not. Those people, present company included, replay every interaction we have ever had with the person who is gone. “Was I kind enough?” “Why didn’t I see what was going on?” “Did I love fiercely enough?” “Could I have stopped this?” The list of guilt-ridden questions goes on and on and on. And every milestone that pops up, every birthday, every graduation, every marriage, every newborn, brings a tinge of guilt because our loved one isn’t here to enjoy this and we are. It is the most difficult and damaging thing I have ever tried to understand. And while my battle is not near what so many other people in my life fight moment to moment, it is real, it is mine, and it is why I struggle even to this moment to NOT think that watching “13 Reasons Why” is a bad idea for someone like me. The struggle I have with the content of the book is real and hard enough. I cannot even imagine watching the events unfold on a screen…never to be UNseen.
I know that a lot of people in my life truly and purely believe that every teenager should watch this series and that it should be talked about in school. I know that a lot of people in my life truly and purely believe that no teenager should ever watch this and that talking about suicide in regard to this series in school is a terrible idea that somehow glamorizes or glorifies suicide. I don’t fit in either of these camps.
I’ve asked my sons not to watch the series without talking to me so we can sit first and have a very difficult conversation about my own struggles and, to my knowledge, they haven’t. While I truly and purely believe that mental health and suicide need to be talked about loudly and from a big stage, I do not think that this series was the answer. It probably opened the door to conversation and I think I should be grateful for that. But I am also asking you, as a parent or an aunt or an uncle or a friend or a guardian or a boss of a teen or even preteen to do something big: teach the young people in your lives not to be little a-holes. Teach them the importance of being kind and being decent and not taking the easy way in being like others around them who are not. Teach them to stand up for themselves and for the people in their lives who might just not be able to stand up for themselves…for whatever reason. Maybe that’s where we start. Will it be easy? Nope. Wanna know why? Because sometimes, we’re little a-holes, too. And I say “we” in an incredibly inclusive way. I am not always the kind of person I want my kids to model. I’m not always kind or caring or decent. But I will tell you one thing I am keenly aware of and that is the fact that everyone is fighting their own battles. It could be a battle I’m able to see or not, but in every single human, there is a battle. Why would I choose to make it harder for them?
Whether or not we agree on the damage or the good this series has done to our kids doesn’t really matter to me. It’s done. The series has been watched, the book read, conversations had, and opinions formed. What DOES matter to me is where we go from here. And my honest, embarrassing answer is: I DON’T KNOW. I don’t know my role in this conversation besides speaking about my story when people ask or I see a genuine opportunity. And I truly believe it’s time I stopped waiting for genuine opportunities to just “pop up.” It’s time I start creating my own genuine opportunities, no matter how uncomfortable they may be. It’s time to stop caring about comfort and start working harder to be what someone needs in what may be one of their most difficult moments.
I am able to write this because I made a choice; I made a choice more than once to keep going. It doesn’t make me stronger or braver or better…it just means I’m still here. And those of us who are still here have a responsibility to those who are thinking of leaving and that responsibility starts right here, right now, in this moment, with me telling you: I am here. I am here and I will listen and I will help.