Fiction Review: Thirteen Reasons Why


This is a little out of scope for my blog but I'm aware a number of my readers are the same age as me - somewhere in their forties or fifties with adolescent children. This is a review of Jay Asher's novel which is the basis for the Netflix series of the same name.

Thirteen Reasons Why is the story of Hannah Baker, a high school student who committed suicide. She left behind a set of thirteen audio tapes, explaining why she killed herself and the people who contributed to that. She claims the recipients are being watched and if they don't listen and pass them on the tapes will be released publicly. The novel follows the most recent recipient Clay Jensen, who does not understand why he is considered part of the reason she killed herself, as he cared about her though was never as close to her as he wanted to be.

Hannah feels trapped and betrayed. She has the reputation of a slut, despite having only gone so far as to kiss a few boys and nothing more. She feels betrayed in friendships, was the victim of a peeping tom, witnessed a rape, and various other dark moments which the tapes detail.

The novel and the series have generated a fair amount of controversy, being accused of glamorizing a suicide. I've mixed views on this. I do not like the near-supernatural power she seems to exude in death, able to force these people to listen to her tapes and pass them on. On the other hand, it also shows some very realistic reactions to the event. Clay is crushed - not only is he crushed, he is angry, as he would have been there for her had she let him. They made out at a party shortly before her death but she then pulled away from him, for reasons he could not understand.

As an adult, it seems easy to view Hannah's suicide as extreme. She won't be in high school forever, she does have people who care about her. Though it's decades away, I still remember high school well enough to remember how it is very much your entire world and the thought of life after it seem foreign. Moreover, it is very likely she's suffering from depression and would have benefited greatly from therapy. She never does pursue therapy, though she does make one attempt to get help from a guidance counselor, though it is a last-ditch effort, after she has largely made up her mind - essentially, unless he can fix everything in a single conversation she is committed to ending her life.

Should parents allow their kids to read this (and watch the series, of which I've seen enough episodes to know that while not identical, they are very similar)? It's a tough call. My own kids had begun watching the show on Netflix before I was aware of it and while I generally give them a wide latitude in their reading and viewing, I'd've been hesitant about this one - especially with one of my kids suffering from depression and having had instances of suicidal ideation. I spoke about it with her therapist who wasn't a big fan of the show but felt that forbidding it would turn it into a "forbidden fruit" and instead encouraged me to also watch and/or read it so I could discuss it with my kids. I have completed reading the book and have been working my way through the Netflix series.

And I think that's where the critical point is - adolescents at risk for suicide absolutely should not watch the series in isolation. However, suicide is a real and large problem and it does provide a starting point for conversations. We've talked about what other options Hannah had, we've questioned whether she really gets closure from the events which hurt her by killing herself and releasing the tapes. From that perspective, it is a useful tool. And I'm very pleased with how damn angry it showed Clay - he was sad, but he was also pissed at Hannah as he absolutely would have been there for her.

While I'm not against physician-assisted suicide in the case of fatal and painful diseases, suicide is often a part of a mental illness, and in such cases it is the mental illness that should be treated.

Call 1-800-273-8255

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