Thirteen Reasons Why, and all of the things the other articles didn’t answer for me:
Each of us brings a backpack filled with biases, weighing on the way we see, feel, and interpret the world around us. As 13 Reasons Why has taken the world by storm, these biases are blazingly clear when scrolling through the countless articles commenting on the latest controversy. Suicide prevention advocates have called the show’s graphic depiction of suicide harmful, while others have suggested it could be life saving, by demonstrating the painful horror of suicide. The graphic depictions of rape and sexual violence have stirred up messages that comment on both the victims POV rather than the male gaze, and how triggering the all-too-real rape scenes were.
When I finished binge-watching the show myself (over a couple of long nights that turned into bleary eyed early mornings) I feverishly read through all the articles I could possibly find. This was both out of curious interest and a desire to formulate an opinion I had of the show, based on something other than my own knee-jerk reaction. I found plenty that resonated with me, undoubtedly; yet nothing that spoke to exactly what I was feeling. It took me a moment to realize it, but this was because so much of this show is so inherently personal to me, as it was to many others, and I simply wouldn’t be able to find something that spoke to my own experiences. We all have biases that shape the way we see the world.
Here are mine.
Part One: on the topic of Hannah Baker’s suicide
In Beyond the Reasons, the show provides a behind-the-scenes clip to the viewers, and they state that for every person that dies by suicide, an average of six people are directly affected. These are the survivors of suicide.
I suppose you could say I fit neatly in that category.
Shortly after I turned 20, I received a phone call on a payphone in Spain, where I was studying abroad, from my step-father. He told me in words I don’t recall that my father had died, by a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
It was just like it is in movies; my knees buckled, and I instantly felt my heart exploding with grief and tears. And guilt. More guilt than I possibly thought imaginable. I chocked out words that came out first, saying it was my fault. It was my fault my father died, in entirety, and the weight of the words coming out of my mouth felt heavy enough to push me six feet under. They weren’t a statement of self-depreciation or self-pity, the wound was far too fresh for that. The feeling of guilt for my father taking his life pulled the words from inside my body in the most guttural of ways; it was all I felt. I knew nothing else.
Two years prior, I ended a tumultuous and painful relationship with my father, that lasted 18 years and had broken my heart eighteen times over. I screamed at him over the phone that he had never raised me, and that the only thing he had ever raised was a drink. I screamed that I had never wanted money, I had wanted a parent. I screamed obscenities and anger and the kind of painful hatred only a daughter of an alcoholic can have. I loved him so much. But for the first time in my life, I knew that I needed to love myself more. I needed to let go.
I was my father’s only biological child. I never spoke to him once after that horrible, vicious phone call. I never replied when he sent me a birthday email the week later, or the one a year after that on my 19th. No email came on my 20th. No emails would come any more.
I believed that more than anything, my act of angry self-preservation by cutting him out of my life had ended his. The thought, “I left an old man to die alone” rang over and over again in my head like a mantra, and did for so long afterwards.
I know now this isn’t true. I know that my father had 52 years of suffering. He spent decades drowning himself in booze so that he didn’t have to feel whatever it was that made living sober unbearable. He most certainly lived with some sort of undiagnosed mental illness, and lived with an addiction more powerful than his love for anyone, including himself. He also, to my knowledge, had never been able to allow himself to seek help. I had begged him, time and time again, and I know that I was not alone in this. But I do not believe it ever happened.
What I know now is this: my father’s suffering killed my father. His lifelong pain, misery, alcoholism, accompanied by probable undiagnosed mental illness and deep trauma that I will never know for certain, took my father’s life. It poured the drink, lifted the gun and pulled the trigger.
Watching 13 Reasons Why, I couldn’t help but feel appalled at the totality with which those in Hannah’s life are blamed for her death. Characters speak lines to one another without a shred of doubt or contradiction in plain language, “We all killed Hannah Baker” and “I killed Hannah Baker for not being brave enough to love her”. There is no opposition to this; in 13 Reasons Why, this is the truth, undeniably. If other people did or did not do the things they did, Hannah would still be alive. This we know.
Or that is what the message tells us.
We have no idea what would have become of Hannah’s life if she did not die. We don’t know if one thing going differently would have extended her life by weeks, months, or years. Maybe it wouldn’t have at all, and would have felt insignificant in the face of all her other turmoil. But the thing is, we have no idea. People experience what Hannah Baker experienced and live. People experience things of “less severity” and die. The actions of the characters did not kill her.
What isn’t discussed at all in the show, are the internal factors that contribute to suicide. We have no idea if Hannah suffered from mental illness or what prevented her from communicating her thoughts to other people in her life who did love her unconditionally. We know none of this, because Hannah’s death was reduced to the actions of others and did not give so much as a nod toward the things that often lead a person to death: powerfully catastrophic chemical imbalances, untreated mental illness, and long-standing suffering.
It goes without saying that many of the things the 13 characters did are unforgivably horrific (looking at you, Bryce). No one is minimizing that. But what the show does, is minimize Hannah’s own suffering and possibly mental illness, separate from the mitigating factors.
Blaming others for someone else’s suicide is dangerous, harmful, and likely contributes immensely to those who are survivors of suicide losing their own lives in the wake of another’s death. It is irresponsible to show that as truth.
If you had asked me in the days, weeks, and months following my father’s death, what the thirteen reasons for his dying were, I would have told you:
But that. Is. Not. True.
I know that now. I do not carry the weight of his death as if it is my own weight to bear. The weight falls on his brutal alcoholism. Trauma. Mental illness. An inability to get help.
To suggest otherwise would be ludacris.
But it would also be untrue. It also is for Clay, and Jessica, and Alex, and Zach, and…
And maybe even for some of you reading this, too.
Part two to come.