TW: Discussion of suicide, self-harm, rape, and mental illness.
I also relate a lot of it to my own personal experiences, so if you’re not familiar with my story, you’re about to be.
Aaand, spoiler alert for the show, I guess. Although I’m not sure why you’re reading this if you haven’t watched it yet.
I just finished watching 13 Reasons Why. Well, actually about twenty minutes ago, but it took me ten minutes to lower my heart rate from the brutal break down I had during the suicide scene. A few days ago, I had firmly decided I wouldn’t touch this show. I wouldn’t watch it. I didn’t want to wind up hyperventilating while sobbing hysterically during the rape and suicide scenes, like I knew I absolutely would (and I did). Yet, all I’ve heard and read about lately has been this controversy. There’s a pretty clear split: people either love it or hate it. I’m one of those people that likes to form my own opinion, especially when it comes to things that everyone is talking about, so I finally took a deep breath and began cautiously watching this show.
I have a lot of things I want to discuss in relation to this show, and I apologize if I go off on rants or tangents. I’ll try to make my points eventually.
13 Reasons Why makes me so frustrated that I want to scream. It’s decently close to really nailing what it’s trying to do, but the errors it makes in telling a story about suicide ruin the entire thing, even the good stuff.
As a writer, and someone who appreciates the art of storytelling, I think the mechanism it uses is really interesting. Not necessarily something new, but still interesting. The tapes. Each episode is a different side of a tape, and through flashbacks and voiceovers, the story is told. It’s intriguing. It keeps the audience interested. Who’s on the next tape? What did they do?
This entire concept is ruined by the fact that each tape is supposedly a reason why Hannah killed herself. It’s an artistically detailed suicide note blaming those responsible for killing herself and overlooking the real culprit: mental fucking illness.
It’s 2017, so I hate that I have to state this, but mental illness is serious. It can kill you. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. Approximately 121 suicides occur every day, with 25 attempts for every success. Think about that. This is real. While other diseases weaken your immune system and wind up killing you with pneumonia or organ failure, mental illness kills you with suicide. It’s the fucker that gets you to do the dirty work.
There’s a movement to start saying “died by suicide” instead of “committed suicide” because “committed suicide” makes it sound like it was an active, coherent choice. “Oh, I think I’ll die today.” People who have never been in that place call it selfish. Weak. Inconsiderate to your friends and family. But until you’ve been stuck at the bottom of the rabbit hole for months or years, don’t try to tell me it’s a choice. It’s the glowing exit sign out of the dark hell your mind has been trapped in. It’s the warm sense of relief that in just a few minutes, all of your suffering will finally be over. It’s warped perception, because your mind doesn’t go there until shit is really bad. It’s bullshit. And to this day, I will still scream from the rooftops that it does in fact get better if you just stick around to find out. Like Hannah, I needed someone to pick up on the fact that I wasn’t okay. And luckily for me, someone did. That didn’t magically fix my issues, but it bought me a little more time to at least get my head above water. However, I didn’t attempt to get someone’s attention or to get back at anyone. It doesn’t work that way.
It’s not a place you get to just because people are shitty to you. People being shitty to you amplifies already existing issues. Bullying does not cause suicide. Bullying can amplify the symptoms of pre-existing mental illness, and in severe cases, that can lead to suicide. There’s a difference here.
Another massive issue I have: this show basically walks you through a successful suicide step by step with visual aids. If it’s something a viewer is considering, lo and behold! A perfectly good way to do it. You can tell the story of suicide without a step-by-step visual. I have a lot of issues with exploiting trauma for views, and that’s what the suicide and rape scenes felt like to me. Showing a violent rape doesn’t help the story in any way. You can get the point of what happened across without fully depicting it.
The suicide scene fucked me up. My attempt was basically the same method, only I didn’t bother with the tub, and I only had enough time to do one arm before someone was banging on my apartment door. While watching, I was hysterical and seriously considered fast-forwarding through it, but instead I just closed my eyes and tried to not pass out from hyperventilating. Even though I knew how the scene ended, I kept wishing someone would knock on the door like they had for me.
One thing I really liked about this show is that it showed the aftermath of suicide. The people left in its wake. The scenes with Hannah’s mother almost always had me tearing up. Her daughter is dead. She’s trying to cope and figure out why. I feel like Kate Walsh nailed this. The desperation, the grief, all while trying to hold her life together and barely doing so. The only unbelievable moment was when she found Hannah’s body, and her first reaction was a very quiet, almost nonchalant, “oh no,” like she left her phone in the car. After that, the shock built and it became more believable, and I once again lost my shit over imagining my mother finding my body.
Early on, I was so annoyed by Hannah. Her tone in the first few tapes is superior, like she’s happy to finally get her revenge on these people. But as the show continued to develop, and her condition begins to get more and more unstable, I began to see myself in her. Which is interesting, because I know a few people that have the opposite opinion: that as she becomes more unstable, they find her more annoying.
As Hannah becomes more unstable, she begins to lash out more. She pushes people away while secretly hoping they’ll run back, and then is disappointed when they don’t. She screams at Clay and tells him to leave, when she just wants him to understand that she’s been through some serious shit with dudes and has trust issues. People cut her out because she’s a lot to deal with, and she winds up alone and isolated and contemplating suicide.
I actually overheard someone talking about the show today and they mentioned how crazy she was. Boy, did that strike a chord with me.
The general public seems to be way more understanding with internalizing disorders, because to some degree, almost everyone has experienced some type of depression or anxiety, and they can easily wrap their head around the concept of, “Okay it’s like that day you were really in a funk but every day for months or years on end.” People who don’t suffer from Major Depressive Disorder or an anxiety spectrum disorder can sort of understand that and try to empathize.
But as soon as symptoms become external, it’s a completely different situation. People can’t wrap their head around irrational thoughts or saying one thing and meaning the exact opposite. That makes no sense in their minds that are fully capable of rational thought. They don’t understand what it’s like for your mind to jump to conclusions so fast that you wind up with a version of reality that defies all logic. They don’t understand how crippling paranoia can be. They just see you, yelling about something that doesn’t even make sense. And all of a sudden, you’re difficult. Or a drama queen. Or overreacting. Or crazy. Or psycho. Insane. Too much to handle. The list goes on and on. For some reason, people don’t want to recognize that those people need help too.
I’m not part of the intended audience. I realize that. Trauma survivors are not the intended audience. But we still have to watch to see if they’re telling our stories correctly, and when they don’t, we have to call them out. Because our stories matter. Our stories help eliminate stigma and assure others who are struggling that they are not alone, and it’s okay to ask for help. Our stories of rape and suicide and abuse deserve to be told correctly.
So I will end by restating my main point that prompted this giant rant. The parts that 13 Reasons Why gets right are completely ruined by the overarching theme of the story: that thirteen people caused a girl to take her life. I’m sorry, but that’s just total bullshit.
If you have thoughts of self-harm, seek professional help or contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. If you have experienced sexual assault, call RAINN at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).