Let's Talk About the Most Infuriating Book I've Ever Read

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

I've always liked to stay current on pop culture. OK, I didn't listen to "Despacito" for, like, three weeks after it first came out, & I haven't gone to the movies in about a year, but, uh... I try. Even if I don't see or listen to something myself, I try to read up on it so that I at least know what's going on, conversationally.

When everyone started obsessing over the new Netflix show 13 Reasons Why, based on Jay Asher's YA novel of the same name, my first instinct was to binge-watch it with the rest of the world. Every time I logged into Netflix, there it was, flashing across the top of the screen, waiting to be watched.

In the past, I would've done it. I would've put myself through an agonizing binge, knowing it was going to tear me apart & then suffering the emotional consequences anyway. I would've watched it just so I could say I had.

But I didn't. 

One nice thing about growing older is knowing yourself a little bit better - & in this case, I knew I was better off not watching 13 Reasons Why. I asked two close friends, just to be sure, & both confirmed that if I wanted to get in on the cultural zeitgeist, I should read the book instead. Less painful, they said. Better executed, they said.

I finished the book this week, & let me tell you: If that was the less painful, better executed version of 13 Reasons Why, I am so freaking glad I didn't try the TV show.

Put plainly, 13 Reasons Why is dangerously irresponsible. It makes a mockery of suicide & puts teens at emotional risk. It's meant to show that our actions, no matter how small, can have deep impact on those around us, but the message I see in it is very different. And much more sinister.

13 Reasons Why teaches teens that if someone they know commits suicide, it might be their fault. Do you know what a dangerous idea that is? What a horrifying accusation that is? 

Maybe you don't. But I do.

I know because I spent a decade of my life trying to convince myself that someone else's suicide was not my fault. That I didn't drive my ex-boyfriend, in some way large or small, to hang himself in his garage. That furthering my own story didn't put an end to his. Quite simply, that I didn't kill someone just by being a misguided, mistake-riddled teenager myself.

Unless you've lived it, you probably can't understand what that feels like. You probably can't conceive of the guilt & pain & self-loathing that comes with wracking your brain for every single interaction you ever had with someone & all its possible effects - wondering whether those acts drove someone to end their life. Especially when you were young & already full of pain & self-loathing yourself. That is a lifetime of baggage & torment. 

In 13 Reasons Why, 13 high schoolers receive a set of cassette tapes that contain voice recordings by Hannah Baker, a fellow student who overdosed on painkillers. Before ending her life, Hannah recorded these tapes to tell 13 individuals how they contributed to her suicide. Some of their infractions are huge - one is a peeping Tom, another the accomplice to a rape. There's no denying that some of these people have committed massive, life-changing, & perhaps unforgivable sins.

But the others? For the most part, they're just normal goddamn teenagers who hurt Hannah by, say, not really wanting to be her friend anymore. By putting her name on an undesirable superlatives list. But grabbing her butt once. By asking her for a ride to a party without really wanting to hang out with her. Hannah doesn't seem to be depressed; she seems vindictive & angry, sharing these stories as a means of perpetual emotional torment of those who hurt her - many of them unknowingly.

One of the girls Hannah accuses of contributing to her suicide is a girl whose rape she witnessed while hiding, drunk, in a closet at a party. Can you imagine the cruelty of telling someone they drove you to suicide by slapping you in the face once... when you could've stopped their rape, but didn't? Those are some seriously unequal actions - & that is some serious bullying, even in the afterlife.

And that, for me, is the crux of it: 13 Reasons Why represents a massive act of bullying & emotional manipulation. To accuse someone of killing you is, truly, the ultimate cruelty. That person can never apologize; they have to live with what they've been accused of for the rest of their lives. 13 Reasons Why tells teens that if they hurt someone, willfully or otherwise, & then that someone commits suicide, it is their fault. And that is patently not OK - nor is it true.

When someone chooses to end their own life, that's exactly the key: They choose it. 

Plenty of us - all of us, I'd wager to say - have been hurt by other people. Maybe we've been hurt to the point of agony, thought we'd never recover from it, that we might never feel OK again. And yet, most of us make the choice to push forward, to keep living - & in time, we learn to live with the pain we've experienced. 

In doing so, we begin to understand other people better. We begin to understand human nature, to see that we are more than what has happened to us & that, conversely, other people are more than what they've done to us. Imagine if something stupid you did as a 16-year-old turned out to be something you had to live with forever - if it was something that was said to have killed someone. 

I have never been as angry while reading a book as I was while reading 13 Reasons Why. For the life of me, I cannot understand how anyone read this book or watched this show & saw anything except what I did. How could anyone think this story line was justified? How could this book make it to print, much less to its own hit TV show? How is this show anything but dangerous & damaging?

I know, I know. In choosing not to read this book until well after the hype surrounding the show had died down, my "hot take" is actually a pretty cold one since the show isn't a topic of conversation anymore. But you know what's always an important topic of conversation? Mental health. Suicide awareness & prevention. Depression. Bullying. All of this.

This book is trash. Period. It never should've been published. It does not deserve the attention & adoration its received in the media. It should not be on the air (errr, Netflix). It should be held up as a shining example of exactly how not to treat suicide.

Now you're probably going to want to read it, right? Don't say I didn't warn you. But seriously - if you want a great teen TV show, go watch Riverdale instead, or read literally any other book. Because this one is not worth the ink used to print it.

If you're struggling with thoughts of suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or chat with them online. They're available 24 hours a day, every day.

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