I first read Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher almost three years ago at the recommendation of a friend. I read it, loved it, and recommended it to others. Now, as I’m doing my bookshelf challenge this year and encountering some rereads, I have come back to Thirteen Reasons Why, three years older and with a little more perspective. This book was not as widely known (at least, from what I could see) until Netflix produced a television series based on the book. The minute the show went live, controversy started flying. People accused Netflix of glorifying suicide and promoting unhealthy coping techniques.
Having read the book, I knew I should sit down and watch the show. So I did. It is… sobering, to say the least. I never went to public high school, so I don’t know how accurate the portrayal of the high school environment was, but if it is even remotely accurate, we have a serious problem on our hands. But as I watched, things kept happening in the episodes that I simply could not remember from the book. I brushed it off as a lapse in memory. I read a lot of books, after all. Since reading Thirteen Reasons Why the first time, I’ve read well over a hundred books. I’m bound to forget a few details.
But as I reread Thirteen Reasons Why recently, I was shocked at how completely different the book was from the TV show. They are barely the same story. The only aspects that even put them in the same room are that they are both stories of a girl, Hannah Baker, who committed suicide, left behind thirteen tapes for thirteen people who were her “reasons why,” and I think most of the “reasons.” This may sound like most of the book or show, but it really only scratches the surface of the events of each.
In the book, Clay listens to the tapes in one agonizing night. In the show, it takes (from what I could tell) at least a week, if not more, for Clay to get through all of the tapes. But the book isn’t just Clay sitting in his room with a Walkman, listening to cassette tapes left behind by a dead girl. He follows the tapes around town, experiences flashbacks, remembers things about Hannah Baker, and remembers some of the incidents she describes in the tapes. The show takes you back through those flashbacks, those incidents. But, unlike the book, the TV show absolutely sensationalizes these incidents. They’re dramatic, mysterious, and sinister.
If you just watched the show, you would think Hannah Baker’s classmates were trying to drive her to suicide. Like everyone was out to get her and she was whiney, spoiled, dramatic teenage girl that everyone hated. The show turns Hannah Baker’s character from a sixteen year old suffering from depression and loneliness to someone out for revenge for all the things people did specifically to get her to kill herself. TV show Hannah’s suicide came not from hopelessness, but rather a Taylor Swift-esque aim for revenge (“look what you made me do”). The point of the tapes went from showing how normal teenage antics can isolate individuals who are suffering to portraying teenagers as vicious masterminds out to ensure the girl who is not like the others kills herself.
Can you tell I wasn’t a huge fan? I watched it all the way through because I believed it was important for me to do so. A friend and I will be keeping up with each other as we watch season two. As someone who frequently finds herself in counseling situations, it was important for me to see the type of mindset people could be coming from. And if someone I knew watched it and was traumatized by the show, I would be able to better help them. However, I strongly discourage anyone who is in a difficult place from watching Thirteen Reasons Why and possibly from even reading the book.
But this is a book review. So what of the book? From a counseling perspective, I believe Jay Asher’s intention was to show the thought process behind someone who is at the point of the act of suicide. Unlike the title would lead you to believe, the book does not blame the thirteen individuals on the tapes (well, there is one it blames, and for good reason) for Hannah Baker’s actions. The book demonstrates through the voice of the girl who committed suicide the slow fade that brings a person to that point. Depression isn’t always obvious, it doesn’t drastically change you in a split second. It slowly eats away at you, feeding you lies, telling you the unintentional slights of people are intentional, telling you that you’re worthless, and more. The book is a call to awareness, to hearing what people are really saying, and being willing to listen. It also brings awareness to the fact that rape isn’t always reported, objectification of bodies can be devastating, and that when someone comes to you talking about suicide take that crap seriously.
Thirteen Reasons Why (the book) can honestly be taken in many ways. You can assume it glorifies suicide. You can assume it excuses personal choices and places the blame on others for what someone ultimately chooses to do. But I have chosen to allow Thirteen Reasons Why to make me more aware of what people could be going through. To make me a better friend, counselor, and advocate. To make me a better listener. And to make me ensure that everyone I interact knows that they are loved, valued, and that their lives matter. This, ultimately, is what we need to take away from any suicide story. People are suffering silently every day. Be a friend, a true friend. Anyone with a little compassion and love in their hearts can talk someone off the ledge.
Thirteen Reasons Why gets 4/5 stars.
And, as always, if you need someone to listen, my inbox is always open. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is also available to anyone who needs it, 24/7, at 1-800-273-8255. You can also Google them for their online chat.