Tuesday, 29 August 2017
A Review of 13 Reasons Why
I think everyone and their mother has heard about this book at this point, so I'm sure that synopsis won't come as a surprise. However, it might surprise some people to know that this book and show do a very bad job of educating people about suicide.
This is trivial compared to most of the problematic aspects of this book, but the prose is odd, not helped by the dual narrative style. "I did this, then that. Then I did this." Hannah tells us what happened to her, then Clay tells us what he did and where he went. And why did Hannah record her thoughts on tapes? Surely any teenagers nowadays knows several other ways to record herself? Privatised YouTube videos, for example? She'd be in as much risk of those leaking out to the general student population as she is with the tapes. At least the TV show tries to explain this, somewhat. However, it just comes off like Asher has no idea how central technology has become to the lives of teenagers.* Also, so much girl hate. I can't think of one positive female relationship that Hannah has in this book.
The reasons why someone commits suicide are much more complex than this book seems to think. They can't be broken down into thirteen easily defined reasons. There aren't really "reasons" why someone kills themselves, in a lot of cases.
Telling a group of teenagers, who aren't professionals with any training in this at all, who are also trying to figure out where they stand in the world, and how to relate to each other, that they are somewhat at fault if a classmate commits suicide is awful. Suicide is no-ones fault, but people who know someone who kills themselves can carry guilt that they didn't do more to prevent it. The book spends so much time showing where people went wrong, that it never stops to show what people can do to help. A better message would be showing people trying to reach out to Hannah, encouraging her to talk to them.
The overarching message of the book "be nice to people." Hannah killed herself because people were horrible to her, and that can certainly happen. However, the book and show seem to imply the opposite is also true - that if you are nice to someone, they won't kill themselves. There is a quote from the show "if one of us had been the friend she needs, Hannah would still be here today." But the thing is, you can't say that for definite. So now I feel like friends of people who commit suicide are going to wonder what they did wrong, even more than that already happens. When the reality is that sometimes, you don't do anything wrong, you can do everything right and still not manage to prevent a suicide.
And the thing is, this had the potential to do good. It discusses objectification and sexual harassment, and shows how even a nice guy like Clay can play into it, without even meaning to. It could have opened up an interesting discussion about suicide and depression in teenagers, showing that even teens considered pretty with loving families can experience it. The only times the world "depressed" is mentioned in this book is to snark about Holden Caulfield. The part where Clay was surprised that Hannah wore make-up - girls can wear make-up because it's fun, even if you think we didn't need it, and honestly, we really don't care if you think we need it or not considering that it's not for you - should be taught to all teenagers. But none of this really helps when the basic premise of the show is outright implausible.
And the less said about the Netflix series, the better. The worst thing that could have been done was taking this book, making it more inaccurate and more accessible to people, particularly the group most at risk from the subjects discussed in this book. At least in the book, Clay has the decency to listen to the tapes over the course of a night. But I guess they had to stretch it out into 13 episodes somehow. With a lot of unnecessary filler, too.
For further reading, try googling "problems with 13 Reasons Why." I especially recommend you check out Emmareadstoomuch's "Thirteen Reasons Why I Hate 13 Reasons Why" which discusses the problems with this book better than I ever could.
I wouldn't recommend this book for teens with depression, and I wouldn't recommend for teens trying to help someone with depression, either. I've yet to read a young adult book I would recommend to either of those groups. I'm also not counting All The Bright Places, which uses suicide as a plot device for romantic angst.
*Edit: I thought the book had been published later than it was. At the time this book was written/published, technology and social media wasn't quite as ubiquitous as it is nowadays. However, it does make the books seem dated to modern readers.