As is wont to be with virtually all things, the internet populace is two-party opinionated on the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why: either it’s the worst thing that’s ever happened with regards to showcasing death by suicide in the media, or it’s the most moving call to arms for suicide casualty awareness and youth mental health support.
Scene: February 2017, yours truly + 20 other virtual strangers in an office pod on the second floor of an office building (occupied by Somos Orlando, a latinx outreach program for LGBT folk, families and allies). We are in an 8 hour workshop for mental health first aid targeted specifically to the youth. For 8 grueling hours, we observe interviews with suicide survivors (who go graphically in depth with their stories), we practice mock interventions in hypothetical scenarios that gradually increase their severity with deeper and deeper involvement, we even go so far as to facilitate mental health crisis scenarios by simulating auditory hallucinations—a colleague and I sit this one out, because this scenario hits just too close to our own special sense of unreality.
We are also provided with a litany of numbers, short-codes, addresses, names and procedures for providing support and temporary aid until a licensed mental health professional can take over.
This program was founded, supported and facilitated by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Presumably, as part of their demanding regimen, they would want to train would-be first aiders to be the most responsive and most conscious of symptoms indicating a mental health crisis and would educate the best practices to provide temporary verbal support and resources.
Oh the other hand, I see articles along the lines of this one, citing the concerns of such non-profits as the Suicide Awareness Voices of Education or the Australian organization Headspace, stating that exposure to graphic accounts of suicide or suicidal ideation, fictional or nonfictional, are perverse, romantic or otherwise harmful and the antithesis to suicide prevention.
With regards to these organizations and to the sages bidding their warning, I am exactly the kind of person that should not be watching 13 Reasons Why: a person who has endured extreme bullying and sexual trauma and who has survived suicide and self-harm; a person who frequently is challenged by impulsive and contemplative suicidal ideation and is prone to melancholy; a person who is very emotional and easily triggered.
Additionally, I’ve survived other persons’ suicides and the casualties of a massive massacre, all the results of targeted persecution, and my life has indisputably been marked by those events.
By no means is this blog post meant to persuade you that I watched 13 Reasons Why and was ‘fine’–I *wasn’t*. I wasn’t fine going in or fine coming out. (However, I had the access to supportive friends, my partner, my therapist throughout, and I had outlets of recovery following my watch period.) Nor is this blog post promising that you will be ‘fine’.
The remainder of this blog post is dedicated to why I watched 13 Reasons Why and why I whole-heartedly recommend that others who I know have been even remotely connected to death and grieving should consider watching with a heart open to compassion and a mind willing to observe and reflect.
1. The protagonist is impulsive, irrational, often unlikable and difficult to relate to.
Hannah Baker, the decedent of 13 Reasons Why, is sardonic, has an off-putting sense of humor, a ‘playful’ sense of superiority over her friends and is casually judgmental—and this is before she becomes introverted and bitter in order to cope with the recurring trauma of her high school career. In equal measure, Hannah is a selflessly devoted daughter, a witty and creative mind, a remarkably trusting individual (even after having been betrayed several times) and a supportive friend.
On her tapes and in other characters’ flashbacks, she is as contemplative as she is compulsive and as accusatory as she is affirming. Many of her survivors pity her and resent her to varying degrees.
In 2 years I’ve survived 2 suicides near to me and 50+ deaths and injuries resulting from an assault on a space dear to me. In every single case, all of those persons were transformed into martyrs, “angels”, “birds of paradise”, poster children for mental illness, scholarships, murals, or stakes to claim in community spaces and ‘friend’ circles.
Who knew that *Buzzfeed* of all fucking periodicals would publish an honest piece on grieving tragic victims as they were, spots and all:
“Does anyone have anything to say about Eddie?” Neema asked with an impish grin that momentarily brightened his grief-stricken face. “For once, he can’t talk back.”
To the persons I’ve known, I’ve written to them in their mortal absence. Sometimes I’ve been maudlin, while other times I’ve been frank. Persons even closer to them than I have grappled very publicly on their own blogs or in casual conversations. They’re as angry as they are somber. Which brings us to
2. The survivors are victims, too.
Every person who survives Hannah Baker is a victim of suicide.
Virtually every person (excepting, of course, one very irredeemable person) connected to Hannah is involved with her to varying degrees of culpability in deliberately mistreating her or, potentially, failing to be as present or accountable as their relationships could have promised. Every person missed an opportunity to atone for their actions or inactions. Every person has to live with the haunting “What if?” of survivor’s guilt.
Additionally, many of those persons are the prolonged victims of their own traumas, many of which Hannah was either witness to or aware of and, by her logic, failed to be accountable of in her own lifetime. Several of these persons are in abusive relationships or households, are heavily dependent on drugs/alcohol or have lurid fantasies of self-harm or harming others. The majority carry a deep sense of shame, but
3. … none of them cope the same way.
No two persons impacted by Hannah’s death can relate identically to one another. All of them become suspicious and wary of one another to varying degrees and shift between alliances based on singular and impulsive feelings of guilt, shame, resentment, anger, vengeance and helplessness and turn to vices, behaviors, impulses and rituals to proceed through grief to find a resolution, find justice or find solace.
4. There’s no defined beginning nor ending to the narrative.
Although the tapes only account for what happened during Hannah’s high school career at this particular school and extend to her relationships with the 12 named persons in her audio memoir, it’s clear that the her chronic stress and lack of support precedes this. Likewise, concerning many of the circumstances that haunt her former friends, frenemies and tormenters.
When the series protagonist, Clay, completes the tapes, they are passed on to Hannah’s parents who for the first time are undergoing this particular path of their grief journey. The sometimes pro- sometimes antagonist, Tony, has apparently listened to the tapes several times. Many of the persons named on the tapes claim to have either never listened to the tapes, or at least not listened fully.
Regardless of where they are at, all are managing their grief even after the token ‘mystery’ is ‘resolved’, because grief is not a linear set of stages with a pre-determined destination.
5. It’s not enough to take Hannah at her word–it’s just not.
This isn’t to say that Hannah shouldn’t be taken at her word–especially when concerning her experiences with sex abuse–it’s to point out that regardless of life or death, Hannah’s voice is still treated as conditionally verifiable and inaccessible to her classmates’ sympathies.
No matter how often she was encouraged to express herself, no matter what medium or tone she used to express herself, it was always conditionally “wrong”: too dramatic, too loud, too quiet, too vague, too graphic, too self-indulgent, too obsessed with others’ business, too hokey, too somber, etc., etc.–even in death.
It’s not until her classmates are able to experience her truth from her vantage (by following coordinates to locations where these incidences took place and following context clues laid by inside jokes, nuggets from eavesdropped conversations or transcripts from notes or diary pages while she narrates her experiences verbatim) that they can process her turmoil and acknowledge her suffering.
While it would be ideal to believe that empathy can be learned through spoken or written word alone, in our lurid post-Vietnam Conflict world of technicolor gore and our meme culture of passing along viral videos of executions as though they were happy lil’ frog comics, this simply isn’t the case. If it were, then the infamous shoe exhibition at the Holocaust museum wouldn’t be so gripping. To borrow a quick segment from this cross-linked blog page about why the ‘showing’ part of ‘show and tell’ is illuminating:
We don’t know why it [the Shoah] happened, but then we don’t know why water is H2O, either. It just is. And that terrified them. It didn’t do us kids any good, either.
But anyone can understand a room full of discarded shoes.
6. Suicide is not incidental nor isolated; it is pandemic.
One might so so far as to say it’s contagious, especially in teens.
Mind you, this does not mean that suicide is communicable. To differentiate the two: a communicable disease is one that is shared by infection, whereas contagion refers in general to shared disease by proximity. In the case of mental illness, one does not become infected by another’s mental health crisis; however, a mental health crisis can cause distress to another person’s mental state (hence why self-care is so important in the mental health professional community).
To continue this extended metaphor: inoculation is the act of developing preventive immunity to disease by exposure to a ‘weakened’ sample of the disease itself. In the case of 13 Reasons Why, the student body appears to suffer by having limited, stunted resources on suicide awareness and grief management. Much of this is largely perpetrated by an administration and a counselor who are unwilling or unable to acknowledge that the school itself is hostile environment and that terroristic bullying, sex abuse, poor classroom management are very real triggering factors in the pandemic spread of suicidal ideation among students.
By the end of 13 Reasons Why, several students are identified to be engaged in risky, self-harm behaviors; one actively attempts suicide, while others are dangerously suspect of suicidal ideation, not to be exempt from the potential of following through with a suicidal impulse.
What could have been different if an element of transparency had been introduced, side-by-side with outlets for therapeutic support?
7. Hope is not guaranteed, but it’s learned (and shared).
Our gold-hearted protagonist, Clay, is consistently Good™–and I mean, true and tried Lawful Good–but not without doubt or distress. Clay has several breakdowns along his grief journey as well as several fits of manic, over-zealous optimism. He, and several other characters, are prone to relapse along their paths.
In life, Hannah had several ups that followed or preceded the downs in her life; in her final relapse into distress, and in the moment where she gave up on hope, she had succumbed to a form of survivor’s fatigue not unlike that which is seen in patients who undergo extreme bodily stress during a major, potentially terminal illness (e.g., cancer). Recovery is an ambition rather than a guarantee, and hope is an aspiration rather than a promise.
Every person’s recovery regimen or strategy to pursue hope is an individualized self care plan; some plans are ‘bare bones,’ while others are complicated regimens filled with rituals, while others still are binding contracts, and others yet are more flexible guidelines or casual challenges.
While many of the outcomes of 13 Reasons Why are bleak or under-realized, others reach subtle and tremendous milestones of personal growth and experiment with putting their optimism into practice: e.g., when Clay reaches out to a friend he finds himself distanced from over the course of the series, Skye, at the encouragement of Tony, who gingerly challenges Clay several episodes prior that he is just as oblivious to what’s going on in her life as he was to Hannah’s.
8. Pain is real (and also shared).
Pain is a unique and individual experience, and one easily taken for granted. In our inter-connected hyper-reality, it is incredibly easy to lose sight of the fact that most persons will never experience certain degrees of pain firsthand (or even secondhand) because they simply are too far removed from the source.
For many watchers, the graphic depictions and choice words that illuminate on-screen violence and discrimination are triggering and maybe even beat-for-beat, scene-by-scene, shot-for-shot identical to true life experiences—-from either perspective (as the perpetrator or as the victim).
For just as many, these experiences may be completely foreign. Clay is the protagonist that best represents this demographic. He is the only person named on the tapes who has no inclination of why he’s there; because prior to Hannah’s directive, he had never experienced extreme bullying, homophobia, misogyny, sex abuse, guilt or shame first or secondhand.
Over the course of the series, he becomes consumed by pain and suffers it intensely. It would be naive to claim that he is ‘transformed’ or ‘enlightened’ by his crash course of suffering, but he is a stronger, more defined character, a more empathic person, and potentially better equipped to be a good friend and advocate by the end of the serial.
9. Neuroatypical is normal.
Many of the persons surrounding Hannah, including Clay, her parents, Tony, and others, are completely blindsided by Hannah’s suicide. Many of the named persons on the taped are stunned by the intensity of Hannah’s internal turmoil. For instance, Zach is stunned to realize that his inability to reciprocate to Hannah’s confessional letter (one which he presumed to have read privately) in an appropriate and timely manner scarred her so intensely.
Folks who live with chronic mental illness or who are experiencing mental health crises are remarkably indistinguishable from neurotypical folk.
Although many persons suffering from depressive disorders or experiencing depression may be aware of periods of being withdrawn, fatigued, dysfunctional or dissociated, many persons living with moderate to severe mental illness live (or are expected to live) hyper-functional lives. As a result, their suffering becomes imperceptible due to their efforts to ‘pass’ as neurotypical.
I can be dying inside while going through the motions of the day. It’s not difficult for me to know how others expect me to act. Acting fine is a cognitive process. You can probably mention right now how an emotionally stable or “mentally sane” person is supposed to act. It really is simple. A generally accepted lifestyle is one where a person wakes up every day, looks presentable, takes care of stuff that needs to be taken care of, eats and goes to sleep. This can sometimes be done regardless of how you feel inside. To say it’s difficult is an understatement, but it’s not impossible.
While Hannah does exhibit some ‘erratic’ behaviors associated with mental illness/suicide preparation, these behaviors are easily normalized with her typical personality; Hannah is high-performing, pulling double-duty at her job at the local movie theatre as well as her parents’ struggling independent pharmacy, regularly attends classes and shows ambitions for college (despite pulling average grades and lacking funding), participates in hobbies and attends parties (despite being self-conscious of her reputation) and opens herself up to make friends and maintain relationships (even as it becomes more difficult to relate and communicate to others).
Rather than an easter egg hunt for ‘signs’ or ‘symptoms’ to diagnose specific type of mental health crisis, 13 Reasons Why is an exercise in recognizing the importance of pushing the extra mile in your relationships—e.g., the “text me when you’re home safe” principle; the unprompted “I love you”; the random “I hope you’re having a good day”.
10. It is not the suicidal person’s sole responsibility to pull themselves up by their boot straps.
While from Hannah’s pov, her surroundings were bleak and unfavourable and added up to validate her suicidal ideation, she did not come to these conclusions without attempting several times to ‘break free’ of her suicidal cycle. Throughout her narrative, Hannah attempts to:
- Report her molestations and rapes
- Report her involvement and other students’ involvement in creating or facilitating dangerous scenarios
- Confront her friends and tormenters on their harmful behaviors
- Defend her innocence when falsely accused
- Be accountable and responsible for her own future
- Remove herself from risky scenarios and behaviors
- Avoid triggers
- Project her anger and depression into a productive hobby
- Speak to a licensed professional about her mental and emotional state
In short, Hannah does everything ‘correct’ to attempt to put her own self care plan into practice. These steps are ineffective or less effective not due to any lack of effort on her part, but rather due to a lack of support or an act of backlash (both intended and unintended).
A proactive culture that is already conscious and sympathetic to common triggers and engages in a dialog where these can be addressed safely and frankly: e.g., expanding safe spaces.
[…] here’s a reality check for those who patronize students who request “safe spaces” on campus: These [safe spaces] aren’t meant to insulate. They’re meant to promote growth by giving us the right to ask that our peers don’t speak hatefully, that our identities are not marginalized and that our professors and mentors warn us before they teach graphic content about rape and war. There’s a difference between censoring hateful speech and discouraging talking about difficult subjects.
By learning mindfulness and attentiveness, we learn to recognize that safe spaces are communal spaces. ‘Trigger warnings’ and ‘content warnings’ are defining, descriptive modifiers for our evolving and complex language that add nuance, not filters to remove dimension from dialogue (or to filter certain persons from dialogues, since, as aforementioned, these persons may be indiscernible).
11. Blame is complex (and shared).
Many of the characters on the show spend the majority of the series avoiding blame, while Clay seems to find a way to absorb as much of the blame as possible even when he has been pardoned. Ultimately, there is some consensus that Hannah chose to attempt suicide rather than to continue attempting self-care and recovery. Indeed, for many, this blame game is one of the most problematic aspects of this story.
But this blame game is inescapable in life.
Suffering is purposeless and multi-dimensional, and although we may try to attribute meaning or morality to it, and although we try to find one singular root cause to the ‘problem’, the fact of the matter is that the ‘one problem’ is actually a compound of several inter- and intra-connected problems, each of which adds more context and validation to another which would otherwise seem random, petty or insignificant. (Not unlike a car that starts to ‘go’ after apparently one component fails.)
And, of course, these ‘problems’ don’t exist in a vacuum.
Hannah’s extended narrative suffering is directly because of: rape culture, misogyny, patriarchy, the male gaze, (continued sex abuse and harassment; abandonment from fellow girls), capitalism (her parents’ struggling business), under-supported schools (poorly managed education system; limited student resources; low standards among faculty and staff), the generational divide (adults are disinterested in, ambivalent toward and generally unaware of millennial social cues), homophobia (particularly lesbophobia), and, of course, the stigma against mental illness.
While these social problems are the foundational scaffoldings of a large framework of oppression and suppression, shaking them on an individual level is the foundation of a broader shift in the machine. Personal acknowledgment of privilege, no matter how silly it may feel to admit to something that seems so ‘normal’ and ‘standard’ (e.g., mobility privilege/able-bodied privilege), is a substantial step in dis-arming these weapons of trauma.
12. Identifying isn’t the same as glamorizing.
The Hollywood-ification of tragic death is real. It happened to us. Within days, even the most tangentially related persons to Pulse and its immediate victims were barraged with phone calls, shadowed by reporters, propositioned by MTV. Even in the months after, before I opened up in my StoryCorps session, I was solicited by a local reporter who asked me to recount my immediate grief during a brief interview about Death Cafés in Central Florida.
Of course it was only a matter of a few shallow breaths before we wound up with our own shiny hi-res murder porn special.
It would be, again, naive, to ignore the implications of showing a young woman’s silent and lonely suicide in a bath tub only a short period after depicting her wordless rape in a jacuzzi. And it would be remiss to not challenge it, especially those of us who’ve been around the block also know that this is the sort of stuff that would titillate the likes of Georges Bataille (from an academic and a carnal pov).
From that, I can’t reasonably defend why it was important for me to watch Hannah’s suicide on screen. I simply can’t.
But I *can* articulate how it was affirming to the palpable fantasies that have played over in my head.
After Pulse, I spent weeks performing mental gymnastics imagining the club’s floorplan, imagining my typical haunt spots, projecting myself in each and watching myself. I filled in the blanks with glimpses from victims’ snapchats and survivors’ anecdotes. I imagined every conceivable way that I would have absolutely died if I had been in each of those locations at approx. 2 AM. I don’t do it as often anymore, but sometimes it strikes me.
Watching Hannah die on screen gave me a sense of relief. I didn’t have to do the mental gymnastics.
13. Death is permanent, as are the changes.
At one point, Clay is reminded that loving and caring about Hannah post-mortem won’t bring her back. In his frenzied quest for vengeance and validation, he admits that he knows this, but that he can still try.
Despite imagining scenarios where he could be accountable for his own intervention in Hannah’s life, Hannah is still dead. Despite being “live, in stereo,” Hannah is dead. Despite her ‘image’ being replicated into multiple formats, her consciousness is dead.
And it doesn’t take long for her identity to become perverted in death as it was in life, either–there’s a particularly striking scene where Hannah’s mom scoffs at a memorial at the school, noting that anyone who knew her daughter would know that she found roses to be tacky and cliché.
There’s no real way of saying that any character benefit from Hannah’s death directly (to bring us full circle back to #1)–but every character *did* benefit from what she was able to confide in her final hours of life, and perhaps they only did appreciate those benefits because of the sea change in the wake of the climate shift that followed her death. Becoming closer to death, becoming more familiar with the event and the permanence of it, not to mention the sheer likelihood of it, is sobering and humbling: carpe diem.
When charismatic and extroverted Neil Perry died by suicide in Dead Poets Society after the rush of performing is stolen out from under him by his father’s adamant dismissal, so apparently does the vibrancy and inspiration that Keating gifted to his students. Keating is removed from his position on the faculty, and the headmaster attempts to hard reset the class by starting from the very poetry lesson that Keating ripped from the textbook. Yet when Keating enters the classroom for the final time to collect his belongings, he’s astonished by the several students who forgo the old script and stand to attention for their captain.
There is no going back for these students. There is no reversal, no pretending it never happened, and no do-overs. Neil’s death and Keating’s removal are permanently locked doors that separate these students from the lives they lived before. Likewise, Hannah’s death is a permanent post in those lives she impacted: again, carpe diem.
Because, of course, death positivity is not about making light of individual deaths or learning neatly packaged lessons conveyed in aphorisms or listicles to validate these deaths—it’s learning to add value to life so that the sheer purposeless of death and the inability to validate it does not have to be the sole identifier of what made that life worth living.