A few years ago, I read a book that would stick with me for years to come. Jay Asher's 13 Reasons Why is a short but potent read about life, death, and the impact we have on each other. As a teacher, the lessons within those pages struck me to the core. Asher's brutally honest look at suicide, sexual assault, and the life of the modern teenager was an important read because it kept me in touch with the real issues facing youth. It's a book that keeps haunting me and forced me to never be complacent when thinking about these issues.
The Netflix series 13 Reasons Why has the same impact as the book--but in an even more in-your-face kind of way. This series is not a light watch for the weekend or a series you'll linger through. I finished the series in a week and, despite the havoc it wreaked on my emotions, I'm thankful I invested the time in this series. The show brings up powerful issues for teenagers and adults alike. This is a show everyone should watch for the conversation it opens and the reminder that you are always impacting others. It reminds us that every choice has a consequence, if not in our own life, than in the lives of others.
The story is about Hannah Baker, a teenager who takes her own life. Before she commits suicide, however, she leaves behind 13 tapes with the 13 reasons why she did what she did. The tapes involve 13 different people from her school and really outline how she got to the place she did.
The main character, Clay, is given the tapes at the start of the show. He knew and even loved Hannah. At first, Clay seems to play an innocent role in the situation. In many ways, even by the end, Clay doesn't see as culpable as the other players in Hannah's story. However, the changes in Clay and his actions show us how guilt can rack even the most innocent players. Suicide doesn't just take one innocent life; it takes the lives of those left behind. Moreover, Clay's character shows us that not acting can be just as bad as acting. Clay didn't really do anything horrible or wrong; it was in his inaction that his guilt shines through. Still, Clay is a very likable character. Throughout the series, you can feel his pain his regret, and his hurt over what happened. Out of the thirteen, it is clear that Clay, even from Hannah's eyes, was the kindest to her. However, he also had the biggest chance to pull her back to life and did not. This leaves him in a really bad place.
Hannah's character is portrayed through flashbacks. The actress does an amazing job at portraying a hurt girl spiraling toward her demise. She also portrays Hannah in a way that you want to just rush through the screen and hug her. You want to befriend Hannah. You want to shake her and tell her you are there for her. You want to save her from the demise you know is coming. Throughout the series, against all possibility, you keep praying for it to turn out for her, for it to be a mistake. Her character pulls you in and makes her inevitable death at the end painful for the viewer. You can feel her hurt. You can feel the hole she leaves behind in life when she chooses to leave.
Above all, this series demonstrates the impact every choice you make has. Each of the thirteen played a drastic role in leading to Hannah's feelings of loneliness and abandonment. Taken by themselves, their actions might not seem horrific. However, when combined into Hannah's story, it is apparent that each one put a piece in the puzzle. It shows you that you can never understand what someone is going through. You can never understand how an unkind word or action may lead to the final straw. It reminds us all to be more compassionate, more understanding, and to reach out to those who seem a little lost. It reminds us to be more human. What seems like a senseless prank or a harmless event can actually be a major, final straw to someone dealing with many things on their plate. It also reminds us not to overlook anyone, not to forget anyone. I think it raises awareness in all of us to watch out for those who may need help.
13 Reasons Why is a prime example of how each action on our part can lead to something bigger. At the beginning of the story, it isn't clear why Hannah did what she did. Things don't seem so bad. But as things pile on and everything gets more complex with every choice, with every word, with every event, it becomes clear that things snowballed out of control for Hannah. Perhaps the most heartbreaking aspect of the series is watching the parents struggle with their guilt. The flashbacks show us how in hindsight, things we thought really mattered didn't matter at all. It shows us how we need to keep our priorities straight and understand what matters most. Most of all, it shows us how we can never truly believe someone isn't capable of something. We must always be aware of those who matter most to us.
This series sheds an honest light on all angles of suicide, from the schools' roles to peers' roles to parents' roles. It shows in a brutal fashion how heartbreaking and devastating suicide is. It shows how one can be pulled into suicidal thoughts. It also, on the other hand, shows how easily someone could be pulled out of it. Hannah talks about how many chances she gave life. She talks about how she just needed someone to go after her, to reach out, or to simply offer her some sense of hope. It reminds us that we don't have to be heroes to save someone; sometimes it just takes a simple word of acknowledgement or a smile.
Furthermore, the love aspect of the series is also gutting. We see as the series goes on that Clay truly, madly loved Hannah. We see the life they could have had. We see how a confession of his love, how a simple sentence could have changed both of their futures. Near the end of the series, the counselor says to Clay:
"We can't bring someone back to life with love."
"We can try."
The series shows how sometimes love, a connection with another, can save us. Hannah didn't have good experiences with guys or with love. However, she still shows us how the right love can potentially bring us back, give us hope, and make us want to hang on. The gut-wrenching part of the series is that Clay realizes this too late and is left with the haunting guilt of the realization. Furthermore, he's left behind wondering what could have been. There are several beautiful scenes in the series that paint the beauty of their love and what it could have been.
13 Reasons Why is a powerfully disturbing series. It weighs on you long after the thirteenth episode ends. It haunts you, especially if you are in a field working with teenagers or if you are a parent. However, it is a must-watch for everyone--not because of its entertainment value or because it has great actors/actresses. On the contrary, it is a must-watch because it is an essential reminder to all of humanity what life's value is and what our role is in life. Everything we say and do has an impact on those around us. The series stirs questions about what kind of impact we are making. Are we making choices that could save the Hannah Bakers around us, or are we making decisions that would land us on one the 13 tapes?
Thank you to Jay Asher and to the creators of the series for opening this dialogue with our teenagers, with our educators, and, most of all, with ourselves.