They all killed her.
That’s the tagline Netflix used in the trailer for a new series premiering in March, 13 Reasons Why. It’s a compelling clip that’s sets up the show as a Pretty Little Liars-esque murder series “based on the best selling mystery” by Jay Asher. The problem? 13 Reasons Why isn’t a whodunit crime caper. It’s a story about teenager suicide.
The series is based on Asher’s 2007 Young Adult novel of the same name. The book follows high schooler Clay Jensen after he receives a package of cassette tapes and is instructed to listen to them (“if you want to know the truth, just press play” is the closing line of the Netflix trailer). The tapes are recorded messages from his former classmate, Hannah Baker, and are delivered to the 13 people she claims contributed to her decision to commit suicide. Each person has one side of a
tape devoted to the story of how they hurt her. From love interests to former friends and random peeping Toms, Hannah casts a wide net of people she blames for her death.
Asher has said he intended the novel to be an exploration of the importance of basic human kindness. He wanted to show how the smallest offenses could create a web painful enough for someone to take their own life. Essentially, the book makes the case that teenagers should be nice to one another, not out of basic human decency, but to ensure the survival of their peers.
Teen suicide is a serious concern. It is the third highest cause of death for those aged 15-24 according to U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Experts believe adolescents are most at-risk of committing suicide when a mental disorder is compounded by seemingly overwhelming external circumstances. Asher is right that the “little things” really do matter to people considering suicide.
What Asher—and Netflix—apparently didn’t consider is the consequences of suicide contagion. Margo Sanger-Katz of The New York Times, reports that “at least 5 percent of youth suicides are influenced by contagion.” When a high profile celebrity commits suicide, suicide rates across the nation tend to rise. In response, advocacy organizations have set up guidelines for how the media should cover suicides. Anything that glamorizes taking a life—perhaps by turning it into a bingeable Netflix series—or minimizes the consequences of suicide for loved ones and friends is not recommended.
One of the more searing scenes in the book takes place in Peer Communications class. Hannah has anonymously written the teacher a note confessing that she is contemplating suicide. Her classmates discuss the note and determine that without knowing who wrote it they can’t really help. They’re suspicious that it’s just a cry for attention. It’s not the only time people accuse Hannah of attention grabbing. Marcus, one of the boys accused on the tapes, tells Clay that Hannah “just wanted an excuse to kill herself.” Hannah herself questions if “maybe I was just looking for attention. Maybe I just wanted to hear people discuss me and my problems.”
These are just afterthoughts. The majority of the book is dedicated to laying blame on the 13 people who receive the tapes. If only they had been a little nicer, not been so petty, hadn’t hurt her, maybe none of this would have happened.
Kindness is a moral responsibility, not a survival tactic. Mental illness is real. Depression is real. 13 Reasons Why de-legitimizes the existence of these conditions by portraying Hannah’s death as the inevitable consequence of her life circumstances.
I read 13 Reasons Why years ago during a phase when I checked out almost every single Young Adult book the library had in stock. I was unimpressed and forgot about it until last month when I reread it after seeing the trailer. This time, I was furious.
Suicide is tragic. It is also preventable. One of the ways to prevent suicide is to discuss it in a reasonable and intelligent manner. 13 Reasons Why is not interested in reason or mental health. It is interested in drama, guilt, and intrigue. The Netflix series appears to be ramping up this angle and turning the story into an entertaining mystery.
The show claims that pressing play will reveal the truth. Science and common sense suggest the opposite.