At the recommendation of a friend who knows me well, I made the time recently to watch the first season of the Netflix series, “13 Reasons Why” (based on the 2007 novel of the same title). It is a hard-hitting and sobering treatment of a variety of gut-wrenching issues faced by young people (and older people) in modern times: suicide; drug and alcohol abuse; bullying; body-shaming; the complexity of social media; sexual pressure and assault; fiercely-guarded cliques; disappointing friendships; heartbreaking family dynamics; betrayal. At its essence, the show tells the story of a young, vibrant, and broken soul named Hannah Baker and the “13 reasons why” she chooses to end her life.
There is considerable debate around “13 Reasons Why.” Some critics and counselors believe that it romanticizes suicide and nurtures the dangerous idea that suicide can be justified by a set of clearly articulated reasons. Other critics and counselors believe that, if it is experienced in the context of healthy community, the show can be a powerful doorway into important and life-saving conversations about matters too frequently ignored. This debate, I think, is worth having but cannot be resolved here.
So, why am I writing about “13 Reasons Why”? To tell you the truth, I am not sure. I think it has something to do with the tears that I shed toward the end of the final episode. Tears over Hannah’s loneliness, isolation, and heartbreaking decisions. Tears over how cruel people can be to one another. Tears over what I would imagine is an all-too-realistic depiction of some of the dynamics of high school life.
My experience with “13 Reasons Why” made me want to listen more attentively to the people around me so as not to miss their joy and their pain. It made me want to repent of all the different ways in which I have been guilty of bullying or ostracizing—through my fierce arguments or my insensitive words or my harmfully-wielded opinions or my posture of defensiveness. Most of all, it made me want to value young people even more deeply and to invest more of myself in the journeys that they are navigating.
If you ever consider the possibility of watching “13 Reasons Why,” please know that it is not for those who prefer their television shows to be thoroughly sanitized. It does not look away from the ugly circumstances that many people face, including suicide (meaning that potential viewers need to be aware of the starkness of the show and the possible emotional triggers that it may present). There are plot contrivances that sometimes hinder the storytelling and sub-narratives that occasionally strain the viewer’s credulity. But, by the end of season 1, I felt as though I had been ushered into an important story, one that illuminates both the sweet delight and the crushing despair that might reside within the heart of the person standing right next to us.
Clay, Hannah’s friend, gives expression to the new kind of community that he hopes Hannah’s death will inspire: “It has to get better,” Clay says. “The way we treat each other and look out for each other, it has to get better somehow.”
Indeed. It has to.