Recently I read the new story collection, “You Think It, I’ll say It”, by Curtis Sittenfeld, whose work often features adult women still seething at the injustices of high school.
It made me want to watch Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why, based on Jay Asher’s 2007 YA novel about a teenage girl, Hannah Baker, who leaves a suicide note blaming her classmates before taking her own life. Her ‘note’ is actually a set of audio tapes, passed between thirteen recipients under threat of being exposed by a third party.
As nice kid Clay Jensen listens to the tapes, trying to figure out his place in the story, Hannah’s tale unspools in flashbacks. Played by Katherine Langford, she’s prettier and sweeter than an uptight, petty Sittenfeld heroine.
Each tape focuses on one individual, and a whole episode is devoted to that character and about what Hannah says they did wrong, and about everything that was going wrong in their own lives, which, we discover, was a lot…
Because we move from mean girls and school cliques to sexual harassment, multiple rapes, victim blaming, abusive parents, fatal car crashes, gun incidents, drug addiction, self-harm and more. It seems like a lot of problems for a dozen or so under-18s, even if the cast do look more like 25.
Netflix even nightmared up a second season/sequel to Asher’s book where Clay – now straight-up cray – develops a saviour complex and runs an amateur rehab clinic under his parents’ noses, while Hannah’s absentee parents sue the school whose teachers lazily ignored a brutal culture of bullying and rape.
Supposedly a ‘realistic’ portrayal of teen life, they’re all feverishly conforming to that TV contrivance of ‘protecting’ their parents from reality, and being a ‘good kid’. Oh Netflix! We’re a few weeks into the UK summer vacation, and all I’ve heard are teenagers complaining about boredom and being unable to find any clean underwear!
That’s the immature demographic Netflix are targeting – and winning, by being edgy and smugly socially important. I get that certain aspects – such as the bullying and social pressures – hit home for many young female viewers, but the show is so implausible, bleak and slow-moving that I don’t get the appeal.
Thirteen Reasons Why, by Jay Asher (2007)
After ditching the show before the end of Season 2, I was curious about the novel, so I checked the YA section in my local bookshop. “We’re not allowed to shelve that in YA!” cried the sales assistant, nearly fainting, although he agreed it’s marketed at young people.
It was sold out, anyway.
Asher’s book is both gentler and sadder than the series. Instead of cramming in every social issue, it’s tightly focused on the mind of one suicidal girl, and Clay’s rising horror as he listens to the tapes over a single night.
At times their voices merge confusingly into one, and the premise still feels a touch far-fetched; I think if you have a dozen kids involved, somebody would have confided to a parent.
The school isn’t radioactive, but bullying goes on everywhere, and ongoing exposure can be a factor in suicidal behaviour. The book nails how hurtful gossip and rumours can be, and how one or two malevolent individuals, or pack leaders, can dominate a school or group.
Hannah clearly felt victimized, but as he listens Clay contradicts her – not because she’s a liar, but because of her mental state. He listens, powerless, as tape Hannah goes down a reckless, self-destructive path. (“You knew it was the worst choice possible….You wanted your world to collapse around you. You wanted everything to get as dark as possible.”)
He remembers Hannah withdrawing and avoiding eye contact, but he avoided talking to her partly because of what other kids would say if they knew he liked her. He had no idea who she really was; he just believed what other people said. Then all the chances were gone.
It’s a bittersweet coming-of-age, and I think the message is less about trying to ‘save’ others, as it is to reach out, and be friendly and undaunted by toxic peer groups. Maybe schools and colleges could be easier for the Hannah Bakers of the world.
The number for the Samaritans in the UK is 116 123. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Further international suicide helplines can be found at http://www.befrienders.org.