(Trigger warning: suicide, death)
From the very first chapter, I started asking myself how I would write this review. Should I withhold my thoughts? This book is about suicide, and thus treads on very sensitive and emotional ground. Suicide is complex, and often difficult to discuss. Because of this, I feel the need to make a few disclaimers before I talk about how I felt about Thirteen Reasons Why.
1. I take suicide very seriously — as everyone should.
2. I know, and have known, people who have contemplated, seriously considered, almost committed, tried to and did not succeed, and committed suicide. I am aware of the effects of suicide on all parties involved.
3. I understand that suicide, its symptoms, and its comorbidities may manifest differentially in different individuals, and will be affected by the individual’s varying personal, social, cultural, racial, etc. lived experiences. Therefore, I understand that suicide is not only a personal issue, but is very much a societal issue.
Given all of the above, here are my feelings on Thirteen Reasons Why: meh + no + ugh.
This book made me uncomfortable — and not in a change-my-perspective way, but in a this-is-wrong-wrong-wrong way.
Thirteen Reasons Why takes a very important issue, and made an exploitative mystery-drama out of it (I’ll elaborate more on this later). It is poorly written, with cheesy dialogue, melodramatic writing (though I will concede that it might have been the point in Hannah’s narrative), and lifeless characters that embody teenager/high-school cliche tropes rather than real, human qualities.
Thinking back to my friends who took their own life, this isn’t an eulogy or a recognition of their suffering and pain. This is a book that does not explore the nuances, complexities, the tumultuous personal/individual emotions and thoughts of contemplation, but instead dwells on high school pettiness, a vindictive girl who takes her life, topped with a pretentious, half-hearted, shoehorned message of ‘be nice to each other, ok? because someone MIGHT DIE IF YOU DON’T’ in an attempt to be relevant.
This book is an insensitive mystery-thriller. Yes, it is compelling, but the only reason why is because we want to see who were the thirteen people that ruined Hannah’s life. This book feeds on society’s perverse need for closure. So the book is ultimately about stupid teenagers making stupid decisions (though their youth does not justify their actions) and the regrettable effect it had on Hannah.
And it is so, so, shallow.
This book misses what it ought to have been about – Hannah’s suffering. Instead, all of the focus is on the thirteen people and their actions. Hannah remains a mystery by the end of the book. The reader never knows the true depth of her suffering and her pain. Yes, she talked about how alone she felt, and how much it hurt her. We don’t need to know the graphic details of her pain. But it was glazed over, treated more like a reaffirmation of the effect it had, rather than something contemplative and thought-provoking. Putting it into simpler terms, this book is 10% Hannah’s pain, 75% people doing bad things and superfluous descriptions of those bad things, and 15% how shitty Clay, the narrator, felt.
The book’s message is conveyed in a way that postulates that we should be nice to others, because if you don’t, someone might kill themselves, and we should change our ways because, if you don’t, it’s going to make you feel bad and you’re going to feel awful for the rest of your life. (And the cherry on top is that Hannah hopes that you live with this guilt forever.) See, this book is not about Hannah and it is not about suicide. It is one disastrous manipulative guilt-trip.
‘But this is what Hannah did! She is just a character in a book and that’s the point.’ I am ranting and raving about this so vehemently is because this book’s underlying message really concerns me.
God, am I the only one who sees this as very problematic? Knowing how my then-suicidal friends thought, this book fuels that belief that people contemplating suicide need more power over their lives through revenge, or want their lives to have meaning, to be a lesson, so they become martyrs by punishing those who wronged them. And Hannah achieved that – she put herself in a position of power so they would be at her mercy. She succeeded in enacting her revenge, and that message is scary to me. Should those people in her tapes be punished? Yes, some of them did horrible and unforgivable things to her (and others). But they should not be punished with someone else’s life on their hands.
Let’s talk about Hannah. I can sympathize with her need to be understood and to be respected. But, she was bitter, whiny, immature, petty, and puerile. She was also manipulative, played mind games, and vindictive. (Yes, people did horrible things to her, but how are her actions an exception? Are they justified and why?) I mean – she makes thirteen tapes, detailing all the bad things that have happened her, narrated in a way that is very much about getting revenge and her twisted sense of justice. But, let’s be fair. Maybe that’s not Hannah’s fault, so I’ll be charitable; maybe Asher wrote her that way intentionally.
The issue, then, is that there is no talk or discussion on mental illness. Suicide has a high co-morbidity with mental illnesses. However, Thirteen Reasons Why makes no word about it, and this really concerns me. People who are mentally healthy do not do these things, lest commit suicide. When you talk about suicide, mental illness is an integral part of the picture and discussion. Whilst I recognize that not all suicides are attributed to mental illness, it more than often is.
To return to the point about her making the tapes: it is never addressed, suggested or acknowledged how Hannah’s actions were wrong. Instead, the narrator and other characters are left with the guilt and consequence hanging over their heads. Asher wrote Thirteen Reasons Why in a way that made Hannah to be the sole victim of the novel, and it sickened me; sickened me that this book is all about the implications of our actions, but completely ignores the implications of Hannah’s actions. People who have had loved ones take their life suffer their absence every day; they suffer by asking themselves question upon question about what could have been done to save them. Given the message behind Thirteen Reasons Why and given its themes of suicide, it is sloppy, poorly handled, and irresponsible.
Thirteen Reasons Why is a poorly written, horrible portrayal of suicide. I strongly discourage those who are suicidal or are having suicidal thoughts, and/or have lost someone to suicide from reading this book. There is very little to be gained from reading this book. If you enjoyed it and found something worthwhile in this book – great. But I could (and would) never, ever recommend this book to anyone.
On a final note, if you want to do more to help youth, don’t just ‘be nice’ (no one should get special rewards for being nice) — be aware, be open, be non-judgemental. Educate yourself on the signs, educate yourself on how to help and be there for someone who is suicidal, and understand that suicide is 100% preventable.
Book Name: Thirteen Reasons Why
Author: Jay Asher
Resources on educating yourself about suicide
- Suicide Prevention Awareness
- Tumblr’s Counseling and Prevention Resources
- Suicide Fact Sheet