How We Treat Other People: an Examination of Thirteen Reasons Why

Back in January, I blogged about my favorite books I read in 2016; one of them was Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why, so you can imagine my excitement when I scrolled through Netflix one day, and I found it had been adapted to a series. I watched the first episode, and then I got busy with life and couldn’t watch anymore. Soon I heard stories of schools banning the book and I saw articles about how struggling teenagers should not watch the show because it could trigger suicide. So, I made a point to finish watching the series.

I remember when I read the book thinking of it as a tragedy and hoping that Hannah’s tapes were all a hoax, that she was still alive out there. It’s similar to the feeling of when I read Hamlet with my English 30 students. Every time, I know Hamlet is going to die; that is his fate, but I still have some hope that he can divert it somehow to live a long life and fulfill his potential.

Yes, I know they are fictional characters. However, as I tell my English 30 students, we can learn about life, passion, and the human condition through fiction. And, that is why I love it so much.

So, what can we learn from Hannah Baker’s story?

By the time I got around to watching the series, I had forgotten most of the book (that’s what happens when you are over forty and read a lot).  With each episode, the story came back to me, but it was like watching it with fresh eyes.

Initially, I did not like Hannah Baker. I thought she was a narcissist, similar to the psychopathic Amy Dunne in Gillian Flynne’s novel Gone Girl. She appeared to be someone who thought the whole world revolved around her, she blamed everyone else for her problems, and she took the time to create tapes that appeared as some sort of revenge.

Then my interpretation of her changed.

It was the episode when Courtney rejected her because their secret rendezvous was exposed. I know one of the criticisms of Thirteen Reasons Why is that it does not address mental illness. Is there enough research to support the fact that every teenager who suicides is mentally ill? Or, is it possible that someone who is mentally ill can put up a front to appear completely normal? What about someone who is highly sensitive? Think about how rejection would hurt that person, especially someone who has been rejected again and again, or told several times throughout their life they can hang out with various people as long as no one knows about it. Apparently, they are not quite cool enough for other people to know they are friends. We live in a day of swipe left and swipe right where people become commodities: something to use and something to discard. Never mind feelings, because that would just complicate things too much.

But Hannah Baker was resilient; she held her head high, and she kept on going. She even found a hobby she was passionate about: writing poetry. Allowing herself to be vulnerable, she exposed herself, only to be laughed at by idiots who do not understand art and self-expression. How many times has someone come up to you, excited about an idea or a project, only to be torn down and told it is stupid or they will never be good enough, so why bother trying? In our jealousy or couldn’t-give-a-fuck attitude, we destroy the spirits of other people.

Then there is the incident with Bryce, the entitled one. Apparently, his life is more important than anyone else’s, and other people are just a commodity, something to be used, and something to be discarded. He takes Jessica and he takes Hannah, and he thinks it’s okay. Prey upon girls who are unconscious, prey upon girls who are vulnerable, because it’s all a game. Destroy their reputations and destroy their lives, as we do when we spread rumors, and never strive to hear someone else’s story, because clearly, the whole world revolves around us, and fuck everyone else. We are entitled; no one else matters, just as long as we are heard and get what we want.

So, Hannah Baker killed herself. It wasn’t glorified; her mother found her, and it was sad how she hoped her daughter was still alive.

The whole point of the novel and the series is to examine how we treat other people. I know we are not supposed to blame ourselves when someone suicides, but sometimes a smile, a like, a kind word, or a willingness to hang out with someone who isn’t popular or other people hate upon, can go a long way.

As for Hannah Baker, she was too young to realize that life gets better. Clay liked her, and if she would have talked to him, he would have understood. Also, the story, through the counselor, is a criticism on how professionals can get caught up in their own lives and beliefs, causing damage to other people. If he would have told Hannah that she needed to work harder to get to Columbia instead of saying it was unrealistic, or if he would have understood the fact that she was raped, she might have been saved.

As for banning the book or telling people not to watch the series, those who identify with what they’ve heard about Hannah will find a way to get their hands on the book or see the series. And those who could learn something from Hannah’s life would miss out. Good literature is supposed to inspire us and question our position in this world; that is what Thirteen Reasons Why does.