by Beth Saadati
While perusing at Barnes & Noble, I noticed the girl on the swing. I picked up the prominently displayed novel, scanned the back cover, read the included author’s interview. Suddenly a single thought overshadowed everything else: I never want to read this book.
Not because it wasn’t relevant. Not because I wanted to bury my head in the sand and pretend you and I live in happily-ever-after land.
Rather, because Thirteen Reasons Why was, to its author, fiction. Truth be told, I wanted to fling the novel across the room, because I hated knowing this FICTION was my—and way too many others’—nightmare…my nonfiction reality.
Nevertheless, curiosity got the best of me—it was an international bestseller, plus I wanted to see what the YA literature had to say—and, well, I always want to muster up enough courage to face the hard in life. (That run towards the roar thing.)
So, a few days later I pulled the book off the library shelf, snuggled into a cushioned chair and, without moving save an occasional blink, read the story from beginning to end.
That was thirteen (pardon the irony) months ago. I’ve been processing it ever since.
- Is Thirteen Reasons Why a page-turner? Obviously.
- Do I agree with the theme—we can go to school with classmates for years and never really know them—that Jay Asher shared when I briefly met him and heard him speak? Sadly, yes.
- Am I glad the novel encourages a conversation about tough topics that have, for far too long, been silenced and stigmatized? Definitely.
- But…Was I emotionally wrecked and, admittedly, physically sick after completing the book? You can’t imagine the extent.
Why? Despite some positive aspects of Asher’s work, the message it, perhaps unintentionally, communicates about suicide—whether through the Netflix hit series or the novel—is severely wrong in three major ways.
1. There’s nothing romantic about suicide.
Granted, in dark moments, it’s easy to romanticize thoughts of suicide. The self-talk goes something like this:
THEN people—heck, friends I didn’t even know I had—will come to my funeral
…and appreciate me
…and say good things
…and truly care
…and see that I mattered
…and, maybe, finally understand who I am.
While the picture’s partly accurate—people will do these things—the truth is others (it doesn’t matter whether it’s one or two, many or a few) appreciate who you are, like you, and see that you matter now. While you’re alive. While you’re HERE.
It’s just that, sometimes, even friends and family fail to take time to communicate how much they care. And, perhaps more often, we’re not always able to recognize or receive it, even when they do.
But back to the romantic notion of suicide—you know, the memorials left outside a school locker and all that jazz. In contrast, here’s what it’s really looked like after my daughter ended her life:
- It was the largest visitation the funeral home had ever had, plus a packed-out church with friends from every walk of life. But it wasn’t romantic. Or glorious. In the same place where a beautiful girl used to smile, dance, and captivate with her stories, a coffin sat amidst a billion unanswered this-side-of-heaven questions and intense sadness that stifled with its weight.
- It’s stopping by the gravesite in the sweltering South Carolina sun to find a daughter’s name marker covered with fire ant hills.
- It’s the tender embrace, the “I love you,” the parting goodbye no one was given opportunity to say.
There’s nothing romantic about suicide. Just ask anyone who’s lived it firsthand.
2. Suicide isn’t a means of revenge.
In Thirteen Reasons Why, Hannah Baker convinces us it is. She precisely plots her revenge with the recording of every cassette tape. In the end, it appears that she "wins." Which makes for an engaging story but, again, isn’t the way it really is.
This is about to get messy, but let me attempt to explain.
In the suicide letter my 14-year-old left behind, Jenna privately addressed three paragraphs to specific peers who had hurt her.
- Did these particular classmates come to the visitation or funeral? For the most part, no.
- Have they expressed regret about their exclusion and hurtful words? Except for one, none have.
- From all appearances (Facebook, Instagram, and graduation), has life continued as normal for them? Social media can lie, but it certainly seems so.
- Given the fact that many middle- and high-schoolers live in a “me bubble,” sometimes insensitive and oblivious to others, are those classmates even aware of the hurt they caused? I have reason to doubt they are.
Thirteen Reasons Why portrays suicide as an effective means of revenge. Believe me when I say it doesn’t work that way.
Instead, suicide devastates friends and family who did wholeheartedly care. They’re the ones who replay the “what if” memories, who struggle with survivor’s guilt, whose hearts break apart, who miss like crazy the one no longer here. Ultimately, suicide wounds the people you wouldn’t want to hurt.
In a culture infested with the demoralizing actions shown in the book—bullying, gossiping, rape, and much more—what’s the best “revenge” anyone can plan? Do whatever it takes to survive wrong that’s been done by fighting to overcome, forgive, and truly live.
3. Even when everything seems to say otherwise, help is available. And hope is here.
Hannah Baker appears to be out of options. “Friends” betray her. A teacher and guidance counselor let her down. Her parents aren’t too involved. None of that should have happened. Unfortunately, in this world it does.
What the story doesn’t show, however, is that help was still available. As was hope.
For Hannah Baker. And for my sweet girl.
The struggle is real. When hopelessness sets in, it can be so hard to see
…that anyone cares
…that anyone understands
…that anyone can help
…that anything can change.
But things can change. Others can help.
Granted, the process probably won’t be quick or easy. It’s like a high school senior, who emailed me after watching my daughter’s video, said: “Oftentimes I'll find myself wondering if people would care, since, at certain times when I tried to open up and explain it [depression], no one seemed to. Reaching out is often very scary.”
I can relate to his spot-on words. But don’t give up. You can find someone—a friend, a parent, a friend’s mom or dad, a teacher, a youth group leader, a coach, a professional counselor—who cares and wants to help, even if those you’d expected to stand by you, for whatever reason, can’t or don’t.
In addition to help, there really is true hope to continue on. Contrary to what we’re tempted to think, lasting hope’s not found so much in the big social media status-update stuff—the degree, the job promotion, the new car or house, or even the finally-found best friend, boyfriend/girlfriend, or spouse.
Rather, it’s life’s little moments that give reason to live.
- It’s when your smile brightens another’s day—or someone’s brightens yours.
- It’s when help you give carries someone through a difficult time—or someone helps carry you. (Think Sam and Frodo in Lord of the Rings.)
- It’s when you’re there to listen when a friend needs to talk—or someone listens to you.
- It’s when a friend unexpectedly says, “I’m glad you’re here”—or you get to remind someone of that too-often-unspoken truth.
Plus, there’s other real hope to hold onto:
- Though the road is often rocky for several years, perspective often changes when teen hormones stop raging and the frontal lobe of the brain is done growing (when the rational finally catches up to the emotional at age 25).
- Most importantly, God fights for you, can heal you, and is ridiculously will-die-for in love with you. Despite how it sometimes looks, He hasn’t forsaken you. He’s not going to.
So, to all the real-life Hannah Bakers, who have thirteen reasons—or more—to say farewell, please make a different choice, even when you’re pummeled by the storms of life. Because you can make it through. You really do matter. You’re worth far more than you know.
If you, or someone you know, have watched or read Thirteen Reasons Why, or if you wrestle with suicidal thoughts, please take a moment to read "13 Reasons Why Not." I was in the process of writing essentially the same post—with the same working title—when an editor from Focus on the Family told me about the article. Not wanting to reinvent the wheel, I decided to switch angles. The article, written by Daniel Huerta, a licensed counselor and vice president for parenting and youth at Focus, is excellent.
Also, if you’re the parent of a teen who’s viewed the Netflix series or read the book, I highly recommend downloading the free 23-page resource, "Parent's Guide to 13 Reasons Why," from Focus on the Family. Parents need to know how to talk about bullying, cutting, sexting, rape, and suicide with their teens. This resource is eye-opening, important, and practical. It will help.