I watched the first season of Thirteen Reasons Why on Netflix when it came out. There was a lot of controversy when the show was first released. I recently noticed that it is in its fourth season and re-watched the first. Lot’s of people were unhappy about the way it portrayed suicide and how graphic it was. I became curious about the book it is based on. When I looked it up on Goodreads, I found similar expressions of outrage and concern. Naturally, I decided to read the book for myself.
Both the book and the show are about a teenage girl who kills herself. Before she does, she leaves a set of cassette tapes explaining the thirteen reasons why she did it. Each of these reasons corresponds to a person, and she describes how each of them contributed to her feeling of hopelessness and that life was pointless.
I found two main criticisms of this book, and while they are legitimate, they are not enough to overcome the importance and power of the underlying theme of the story. The first is that the main character Hannah is simply not sympathetic. She is a whiny, self-absorbed teen that as a reader it is hard to root for. While I can understand this criticism, I don’t completely agree with it. Most of us were at least a little self-absorbed as teenagers while we attempted to figure out ourselves and our place in the world. That still doesn’t take away from the tragedy of the story or the message underlying it.
The second criticism is that it glorifies suicide by giving such a strong and sympathetic voice to someone who killed themselves. This has some basis in fact. We get to know Hannah and see how she suffers. And she gets to have her story told. She gets heard, and the way she gets heard is by killing herself.
Most suicides don’t leave any kind of note let alone a set of tapes. But the author uses the tapes to show how every little touch point in Hannah’s life was an opportunity for someone to see her as an individual and connect. Anyone at one of those touch points could have made the difference and gotten Hannah the help she needed. The tapes are a literary tool to explore each of these interactions, small to horrifying, that give the reader a chance to see that.
Talking about suicide is essential to addressing it. It’s important for everyone to realize how they touch the lives of others everyday, how we each have an opportunity to notice others and be a bright spot in their day. If this book causes people to ask questions and become more alert to how they treat those around them, so much the better.