…and one reason why not

To the friend who changed my mind about “13 Reasons Why”:

I was trying to make the best of it. I had taken the following perspective.

Yes, the producers and Netflix approached it all wrong, despite their intentions — romanticizing suicide, almost excusing it, adding a voyeuristic quality to a teenager’s demise, and possibly triggering those who are susceptible to suicide or self-harm. They could and should have presented the concerns brought up in the series in an alternate, less endangering, more responsible way. However, now that it’s already out, maybe there’s some little bit of good to come of it in that it has started a discussion about certain topics, which, in effect, can help save lives.

That was my position.

For readers who are unfamiliar with the series:

“13 Reasons Why” is a Netflix series based on a young adult novel by the same name, which was written by Jay Asher and published by RazorBill (an imprint of Penguin Books) in 2007. Though the book and series have some differences, both major and minor, the general plot is about a teenager named Hannah, who, before completing suicide, records on seven cassette tapes (13 sides) what — or rather, who — she views as having led to her decision to kill herself. Each cassette addresses a different person or people on her list. Among the contributing factors are bullying, sexual assault, shaming, starting rumors, failing to defend her, not noticing the extent of her pain, and missing the warning signs of her impending suicide.

The package of cassettes are passed along from the first person on her list to the next, and the viewer is introduced to the story just as it reaches her friend Clay, whose cassette is toward the end of the line. Most of the story is depicted through the eyes of both Hannah and Clay, though the series, as opposed to the book, also focuses on the reactions and conflicts of the other people on Hannah’s list.

The producers intended to be as realistic as possible (whether they were successful in this endeavor is a discussion for another time), and the series pulls no punches and is extremely graphic in its depiction of violence, sexual assault, and yes, Hannah’s suicide.

Aside from the most serious problem with the series — triggering those susceptible to suicide or self-harm — I was irritated by the method of storytelling, both in the series as well as in the book. I felt that the use of cassette tapes to tell the story was a completely unrealistic gimmick to draw in young adult readers and viewers. Granted, books and digital media are forms of entertainment, and both the author and producers were using a device that would tie the story together and intrigue a certain audience. However, I felt that these methods cheapened the topics around which the story is based.

Similarly, it irked me that in the Q&A at the end of the book, the author had thought about this storytelling method before considering the subject of the book. I was also bothered by the working title; the main character is named Hannah Baker, so it was titled “Baker’s Dozen.” This, to me, was a gimmick that cheapened the subject matter even more. Both details made me focus more on “13 Reasons Why: A story of suspense,” as opposed to “13 Reasons Why: A story with an important message.”

I had the same gripes about the Netflix series. That is, the storytelling method cheapens the story’s message.

The series has initiated an outburst of differing opinions. The most pressing issues, as far as I’ve seen, relate to easy accessibility and the resulting lack of parental guidance, as well as irresponsible depiction of suicide and lack of references to its prevention — both of which relate to the concern that the series may negatively affect teenagers who are isolated, struggling, depressed, or vulnerable to suggestive images and storylines. Many argue that suicide is romanticized and depicted as being heroic in the series, and that it is incorrectly portrayed as a common and reasonable response to negative life events.

The National Association of School Psychologists, as well as the JED Foundation, partnered with Suicide Awareness Voices of Education, have issued statements about the series, stressing its inconsistency with safe messaging guidelines around handling portrayals of suicide in media and works of fiction. These organizations also provide guidelines for educators and parents on how to talk with pre-teens, teenagers, and young adults about these topics. These resources can be found at nasponline.org and jedfoundation.org (where a blog post by Victor Schwartz, MD, lays out the issue extremely well). Many schools have sent this material out to parents, both to provide talking points as well as to inform parents about how easy it is for their children to access the series — and many of our children, as young as those in middle school, have, indeed, been watching it.

And yet still, as mentioned earlier, I made the point that despite everything wrong about “13 Reasons Why,” now that it’s already out maybe there’s some little bit of good to come of it, in that it has started a conversation about certain topics.

I posited that within the series, important topics like suicide, bullying, depression, sexual assault, emotional and physical abuse, underage drinking, drug use, mental health and illness, the teenage mind, and differences in people’s point of view were presented. Resulting from the series, important topics such as warning signs and prevention of suicide, parental guidance, social media, the role and responsibility of the entertainment industry, school responsibility, parental responsibility, and personal responsibility were brought into question.

This was my position, after re-reading the book the other week, examining articles, speaking with others, and watching the series and the episode that followed, which analyzed the series and the intentions behind it. (To be fair, as shown in the episode at the end — which, in my opinion, was the only constructive part of the series — the producers did consult mental health professionals about how best to portray all the topics that were incorporated into the series.) The silver lining to an irresponsible program about important topics, I thought, was that the discussion will make people more aware and help save lives. Again, although the same points that are brought up in the series could and should have been brought up in a safer way, still they were brought up, so now let’s go from there.

And then, my friend, the above addressee — you made the point that even if there is a silver lining, it is very faint, and accompanies an enormous dark cloud. You said that this resulting conversation isn’t worth it if the series leads even one child to think that his or her death could be noble in any way. While I was focused on all the lives that could be saved, despite the series’ failures, you were focused on the one life that could be at risk because of those failures.

I was caught off guard by your reaction to my argument. This was not because I disagreed with your statement, but rather because I agreed with it entirely. Yet, until then, despite all the commentary I read about the irresponsible nature of the series, your idea about the many lives saved at the expense of a single life harmed had not sunk in.

This surprised me, because like many of the characters portrayed in the series, I, too, was bullied, depressed, and in a bad emotional state as a pre-teen and teenager. And, like you, although certainly to a different extent, I, too, have been affected by the suicide of someone I cared about. And as a mental health advocate, I have heard the stories of many who have thought about or attempted suicide.

It occurred to me that despite this emotional connection to the topics introduced in the series, I was looking at both the series and the reactions to it from an academic lens, as I was trained to do in college, as if I was writing a paper for one of my Journalism and Mass Media courses. (In fact, I started to write an entirely different column before scrapping it.) But real life doesn’t work like that — because while a more distant, academic approach certainly is one way to view all this controversy, it’s really not the most important way.

And so, my friend, thank you for looking at this whole, complicated, controversial conversation and simplifying it for me.

There are many reasons why viewers might feel positive, negative, or undecided about any aspect of “13 Reasons Why.” But at the end of the day, the truth remains that the same points should have been made in a more responsible way. And the most important reason why there is no silver lining to this series, even if it has sparked discussion, is that it has put at risk a single, solitary life.

About the Author
Dena Croog is a writer and editor in Teaneck, New Jersey, whose work has focused primarily on psychiatry, mental health, and the book publishing industry. She is the founder of Refa’enu, a nonprofit organization dedicated to mood disorder awareness and support. More information about the organization and its support groups can be found at www.refaenu.org. You also can email dena@refaenu.org with any questions or comments.