Netflix’s new series 13 Reasons Why is America’s latest obsession, and with good reason. I read one review that described it as “a high school melodrama for adults who like watching high school melodramas.” That’s a fair assessment save that 13 Reasons Why has a lot more to say than something like Party of Five or Riverdale ever will or did. It’s got us talking in my house about teenaged angst and suicide but also about teenaged happiness in general, all of which are relevant topics as we prepare for our oldest to start her first year of high school this coming fall. Our daughter is also named Hannah, and like the protagonist of 13 Reasons Why, she’s not an obvious cool kid, though like the show’s Hannah, she certainly has her share of friends. How we navigate the coming storms together is a matter of acutely critical importance.
So. 13 Reasons Why starts with Hannah Baker’s suicide, and if I have one issue with the show, it’s that they only too rarely take Hannah to task for making what is ultimately a selfish decision that she—very obviously—knows is going to hurt the one person that she—again obviously—knows cares deeply for her. Hannah’s suicide crushes her would-be boyfriend Clay Jensen, and the fact that she dedicates an entire tape to him lets us know that’s she not innocent in his pain. At a certain level, she’s angry at Clay—she lashes out at him as surely as she lashes out at everyone else on the show—even as she acknowledges in plain English that he did nothing wrong. He’s the only consistent ally she has on this show, and at a time when he is mourning the loss of one of his best friends due to a car accident, she hammers him in the most deeply personal way that she possibly can. She knows that it’s going to hurt him, even devastate him, but she takes her own life anyway.
Reality is that suicide is an ultimately selfish act.
This is too rarely called out on the show. Hannah is presented as blameless for the most part. That’s not fair. I mean, I don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings with this, but we all have to own our actions—whether we want to or not. That’s not just MY truth, that’s actual truth. That’s real. This show is entirely about owning the consequences of mistakes and decisions, but the one person that it won’t hold accountable is the one person who hurt her own best friend in the very worst way possible. She may not want to own that, and the show may not want to force her to, but it’s still her decision, and it still hurt her friends badly.
You think I don’t know it? My father killed himself. So did his father. Dad’s dad locked himself in his garage in the middle of the night with the engine running and died of carbon monoxide poisoning less than six weeks after my own father and mother were married. I never met my father’s father, but family history says that he was a violent drunk and a chronic asshole. My personal belief is that he couldn’t stand to see his own son finally happy and lashed out in the only way that he knew would force a reaction. Meanwhile, my father drank himself to death, and if this wasn’t as violent as slitting one’s wrists or putting a gun in one’s mouth, I assure you that it was just as deliberate. My dad died because he had a disease in alcoholism that he refused to treat, that because of this disease and his depression he lost perspective about what mattered in his life—until nothing did. Ultimately, he drowned in his own pain rather than turning to face it. That he did this at the end of a life that was otherwise defined by his ability to fight and win against the odds is something that I still struggle with almost every day.
|Me and my dad in the spring of 2002, shortly after I moved to Hoboken.|
This is also what happens in 13 Reasons Why, save that Hannah goes more the route of my father’s father, using her final actions to hurt the very ones who love her most. That sucks. It is and always will be wrong.
My dad died in 2007, and I’ve made a decision in the years since to honor and remember the good man that he was rather than the angry stranger that he allowed himself to become. This has taken time, perspective, and a whole Hell of a lot of miles on my bike and in the pool. But the guiding principal of my life—now, today—is to break the cycle of familial neglect and abuse and to move my family forward on my own terms. And I’ve done that. I’ve learned to move forward. That’s MY truth.
But when Hannah kills herself, that’s it. The possibilities of growth and recovery—of victory—are gone forever. That must change the way that we see her. It must undermine her place as an otherwise sympathetic character. We all need to see that. It’s good that Hannah stops being a victim, but it’s so very, very bad that the first people she turns on are her own would-be friends.
We talked to some friends from church about this a week or so ago—younger friends; Millennials—and they were appalled that Sally and I both thought that Hannah was largely to blame for her own choices.
“But she was raped!” they cried.
It’s true. Hannah gets raped. It’s a brutal, horrifying, humiliating scene, and it scorches the earth in its wake. It is very hard to watch.
Lots of people get raped, unfortunately, and when I say that, I’m not blaming the victims or minimizing the crime. I’m pointing out its ubiquity. Reality is that some twenty-five percent of women (or more!) get raped. The question, then, is not whether you know someone who’s been raped. The question is whether or not the persons you know who’ve been raped trust you enough to tell you about the pain of their experiences.
The first time someone told me about her rape was at West Point. We were cows (juniors), and it was a lazy Sunday afternoon in the middle of spring. The sun was out, and neither of us had anything pressing going on. I think we’d been making social plans. Talking about leave or whatever. We were friends, and we were just hanging out, shooting the breeze. This was not weird, nor was it deep conversation. Then out of the blue, she says:
“I was raped. I was in high school, and my boyfriend raped me. It was date rape. He forced himself on me, and afterwards, I didn’t know what to think. I even kept having sex with him afterwards because I thought, ‘That’s what you do. You have sex with your boyfriend.’ But it was awful, and I didn’t want it, and it took me a long time afterwards to realize that I was okay, and that not all men were like that.”
I was stunned, to say the very least. This was a West Point cadet, a woman who would go on to be a successful Army officer, a wife, mother, and a top-notch businesswoman. She was also a rape victim. I don’t know how she moved past it except that she was tough as shit, like a lot of West Pointers I know.
Like a lot of women I know.
Like a lot of women you know.
A lot of women have been forced to overcome rape, and they do it. It’s is a horrible, brutal crime. However, it is not an excuse for suicide.
* * *
One of my favorite aspects of 13 Reasons Why is the way that it unapologetically demonizes the super-smart get-ahead academics at Hannah’s school. We’ve been conditioned to expect a guy like Bryce to be a villain. He’s a jock and an asshole. We all know Bryce; entitled dicks like that are exactly the reason that this country is going to Hell. But seeing the show’s whip-smart Asian lesbian as a villain—and as perhaps the show’s most ruthless villain at that—is a lot more unconventional. Courtney will throw anyone to the wolves to get ahead, even a friend she used to crush on who just got raped.
It’s amazing, really. That right there is some amazing writing.
While we’re talking about Bryce, the writing of Bryce’s character is also amazing. I was all set to hate on the show for—predictably—blaming the captain of the football team for all the school’s ills. But that’s not exactly the show’s truth. Bryce may be an entitled dick, but what makes his character work is the fact that he doesn’t see himself as a bad guy. I mean, if you’re another guy, and you know Bryce, he is a legitimately Good Dude. The show points this out repeatedly. He’s there at every turn for his friend Justin, who’s otherwise in the middle of some horrifying shit of his own, and even when he’s beating the Hell out of Clay, there’s no malice in it. He beats Clay up, even kicks him—twice—while he’s on the ground, but it’s not because Bryce is angry. Bryce is not angry. He’s simply the king of the school, and he has to defend his turf—physically—in no uncertain terms. Once that’s done, however, and dominance is re-established, Bryce pours Clay a drink, and they sit down to talk it out.
This is important, and not just to Clay. Bryce respects what Clay’s just done in trying to stand up for himself. That took courage, and Bryce respects courage, especially physical courage. Granted, Clay’s gesture could not be allowed to succeed—Clay had earned a beat-down and got one—but Bryce is not exactly pissed that someone tried to push him off the mountaintop. He knows exactly how he got where he is. Similarly, he knows exactly what he has to do to stay on top. But Clay is a man, and Bryce respects men.
It’s women that he doesn’t care about.
This brings us, indirectly, to a point about rape, and it’s this: people are fucking animals. I laud the way that today’s society is trying to push issues of consent, but I also tell my daughters to pay attention to their surroundings. My truths are these: some people are bad, some things are worth fighting for, and sometimes the world only makes sense when you force it to. You can’t trust other people to work in your best interests. Sometimes you have to fight and win.
And do you know what? That’s not just MY Truth. That’s actual truth. Real life has life-and-death consequences. Every day. We forget this because we live in America, and it all seems so safe all the time. However, our safety is an illusion. We’re safe because of the work of people we rarely see and our too-lightly regarded social contract. We’re safe because by the Grace of God we were born here and not Aleppo, Syria. None of that changes the truth of people, which is that a lot of them will do whatever they think they can get away with.
I’m not blaming Hannah for not fighting back, nor am I arguing that what happened was her fault. She was attacked. They make it pretty clear that she was beaten more emotionally than physically, that what happened to her was as much about the run-up to her rape as it was about the rape itself. She couldn’t fight because emotionally she just couldn’t fight. It’s not that she was physically unable to throw an elbow into Bryce’s larynx; it’s that she couldn’t do it in her current mental and emotional state. She was already too bruised and too beaten.
In the Real World, however, Hannah’s best move was to throw a hard elbow into Bryce’s larynx. Because: 1) Bryce had refused to recognize her verbal non-consent, but physical violence would have spoken a language that he understood intrinsically, and 2) a man’s larynx is as vulnerable as his groin. You don’t have to hit a larynx hard to get a response. If you have to fight off a rapist, going for the larynx is a good first step, and if that doesn’t work, drive the heel of your hand into the underside of the man’s nose. Also: scream! Prospective rape is not the time to be timid or demure. I wish that the same folks who talk so much about consent would also talk about the importance of answering violence with violence when that’s the only language that might be understood. Because people are animals, and sometimes that’s the way you have to treat them.
Remember: Bryce doesn’t see himself as a rapist. Many rapists don’t. Thus, the most important thing that a potential victim can do is whatever might change the rapist’s perspective. The words, “You’re raping me,” should be spoken clearly and loudly and accompanied by violence to push the point. Bryce is an entitled dick, and he’s going to take whatever he thinks he can get away with. We see this again and again, and we see it in the Real World, too.
People are not nice. It’s a stupid mistake to expect that they will be.
* * *
The show talks a lot about kids getting bullied, and we see some pretty mousy behavior in its first half. But by the middle, I think the nerds are giving as good as they’re getting, and Thank God. It drives me crazy the way that Clay and his friends let people push them around early. It’s flat hard to watch. Once he finally starts pushing back, though, things change. Clay is far from powerless, and he and Hannah both have a lot of friends at that school. They both, but Hannah especially, need to learn to accept the positive without letting the negative get to them so consistently. Maybe that’s the perspective of a forty-three year old West Pointer, but it’s still the truth.
People like Hannah. Yes, there are rumors about her. However, I didn’t get the sense that anybody actually cared about those rumors save Hannah herself. However, she just couldn’t let anything go. She even gets upset when people compliment her for having the Best Ass. I mean, I get why she was upset, but you have to own who you are and define yourself, or other people will do it for you. Friends are friends, but most people are assholes.
This was the hardest part of the show for me. I was a New Kid many times, and I know what it’s like to try to fit in at a new school. One thing I can say for certain is that you have to own who you are. But Hannah—and to a lesser extent, Clay—keep waiting for someone to come in and save them. They want a “friend” to show up and make everything alright. That’s no one’s truth. In Real Life, you mostly have to save yourself first.
Instead, Hannah pushes her best friend away, physically then emotionally, and then she won’t even talk to him about what she’s feeling. Then she kills herself. All of that is on her. Similarly, adults keep asking Clay about Hannah, and he can’t simply say, “Yes, Hannah was my friend. I really liked her a lot.”
How hard is that? He’s dishonoring her memory with that crap.
I liked the show, and it’s given us something to talk about. But I don’t much care for the way it lets Hannah off the hook for taking her own life, and I don’t particularly care for the way the kids all try to “honor what Hannah wanted” after she’s gone. If she wanted a say, she should have stuck around and said what was on her mind.