“Welcome to your tape”
Several weeks ago I heard about “13 Reasons Why” from a friend who is a youth pastor in Ohio. Before that moment I hadn’t heard about the series, the book, or any of the controversy surrounding it. When he explained the idea behind the show I responded with one word – “nope”. I didn’t want to watch this show. I didn’t want to continue watching it after I’d made it through the first couple of episodes. I really didn’t want to finish the series because I had heard about the ending of episode 13. There are a lot of things about my job at Hope that I truly enjoy, and generally speaking watching videos or listening to music to try and engage students in conversation is one of my favorite parts. This was a major challenge for me. That doesn’t mean everything about the show is bad or that you shouldn’t watch it, you’ll read more about that at the end of the blog, but I found myself emotionally drained, deeply saddened, and crying afterwards. And not the good, weeping for joy crying, but the ugly-sobbing-and-snotting-everywhere-hoping-no-one-is-around-to-see-you crying. That being said, before we get into everything that is “13 Reasons Why”, I feel I need to explain a few things.
First, I am not an expert on suicide, nor do I have a social work or counseling degree. And while I’ve spent a considerable amount of time talking with students who have struggled with self-harm, I, like many of you, contact licensed counselors when I encounter students who are dealing with these thoughts.
Second, I am presenting this as a part of a much larger conversation. I would hope, if you’re trying to fully understand the issues surrounding this book/show, that you would seek a multitude of sources before forming your own conclusions. I’ve spent the past week immersed in articles, books, podcasts, and conversations with youth workers and students trying to get a better grasp on what people are thinking/feeling. I’ve listed many of the resources I used in the resource section below for your consideration.
Third, I have watched the TV series, but only read a few excerpts from the book. I focused on sections of the book that were changed when it was adapted to a series.
Fourth, this issue hits close to home for me. In the almost three years I’ve been working at Hope close to 10 youth have died by self-harm in the tri-cities area. Not all of these teenagers went to our church, but the ripples that these deaths caused have been really difficult on our community. I can’t sit here and say that I’m not a little biased about stories that include self-harm.
Fifth, and maybe I don’t have to say this, this is my opinion. That opinion comes from a specific worldview that may be different than yours. I’m aware we’re different and you may disagree with everything I’m about to express. That’s “ok”. At the very least let’s dialogue about what you believe I was wrong about. I am hopeful those conversations happen after writing this.
“I’m about to tell you the story of my life”
Let’s start at the beginning. The premise of “13 Reasons Why” surround a girl (Hannah Baker) who dies by suicide and leaves behind 13 tapes which explain why she chose to end her life. Each tape focuses on a different person and how their actions played a part in her suicide.
To get an idea of the atmosphere our story takes place in, less than two minutes into episode one several girls walk up to Hannah’s old locker, which is covered in notes about how beautiful, special, and wonderful she was. The girls take selfies pretending to look sad, and post them on Twitter with the hashtag “neverforget”. The next scene shows different students looking through all the Twitter posts of fellow classmates who used the same hashtag. There is a sense that people are posting and viewing these pictures as a way to garner likes or retweets instead of for Hannah. The audience is very quickly painted a picture of a school that doesn’t seem to care much about this loss. Or at the very least, didn’t care for very long.
As we move further into the episode our main character, Clay, discovers a box of tapes on his porch from Hannah and upon listening to the first one is sent on a whirlwind of a journey trying to learn of his part in her death. Along the way Clay discovers how other students at the school hurt Hannah and pushed her towards taking her own life. Clay navigates his way through the tapes, the people on them, and his response to their actions. Things seem to slowly spiral further and further out of control for our main character episode by episode until he gets to his own tape in episode 11. Once he discovers his part in Hannah’s story he comes to terms with it and passes on the box to the 13th person on the tapes, Mr. Porter. Clay then decides to try and do something positive at his school by reacquainting himself with an old friend who seems to be hurting, and they drive off into the “sunset” to end things. There are huge moments in between those points, but that’s the general story.
“When you hold people up for ridicule, you have to take responsibility when other people act on it.”
I had a rollercoaster ride watching this series. I found myself struggling to watch another episode one moment and unable to stop watching the next. I’m going to separate this into some positive and negative elements of the show and then give some thoughts on how to use(or not use) the material presented in “13 Reasons Why” at the end. Here are a few things I found to be helpful about the show.
- Your actions have consequences: One of the most dominant themes in the show centers around this point. In episode 12 many of the students on the tapes are sitting around a table at the local coffee shop discussing how they should handle testifying for a law suit Hannah’s parents bring against the school. One of the students, Marcus, says “The first thing we have to do is find out what they know[the Baker family].” But Alex, a one time good friend of Hannah’s responds by saying “Or the first thing we have to do is tell the truth.” Most of the students come to the realization that they can’t simply brush what they did under the rug. They need to face up to the consequences of their actions. This is seen repeatedly throughout the show with specific emphasis on family obligations/responsibilities and friendship.
- Bullying comes in many shapes and sizes: When I ask middle school students what bullying looks like I get pretty similar answers. I hear that bullying is pushing kids around, saying mean things about their appearance, or making jokes to friends about them. All of these are seen during the course of “13 Reason Why” as well as cyber bullying (sending nude photos of classmates), gossip, peer pressure, the list goes on. I think it’s important to validate the difficulties students face and the anxiety that they can feel from social interactions. This regularly pops up in both narration and dialogue between the students.
- You CAN make a difference: It’s unfortunate that this really only comes across fully in episode 13, but Clay gives a speech to the counselor, Mr. Porter, in that episode which ends with the statement “It has to get better. The way we treat each other and look out for each other. It has to get better somehow.” The underlying sentiment is that students can make a difference in the lives of their peers by how they treat each other.
- Self-harm (not just suicide) is real: While the show is all about a girl who dies by suicide, there are other forms of self-harm that we see throughout the episodes. Jessica becomes an alcoholic, Justin abuses drugs, and Skye self-mutilates. The consequences of these actions are highlighted in each persons life, and none of them are glorified. When Clay confronts Skye about her cutting she says “suicide is for the weak”, indicating that she self-mutilates to cope. Clay realizes the severity of the situation and in episode 13 decides that he’s going to make a difference in Skye’s life.
- Issues-a-plenty: If you can think of an issue affecting students today, it’s probably discussed in some way during the show. The ones I can think of off the top of my head are – suicide, drinking, drinking and driving, responsibility, peer pressure, drugs, violence, bullying, depression, voyeurism, sexual assault, rape, self-worth, vulgar language, self-harm, intimacy, friendship, technology, social status, parenting. I’m sure that I’ve missed some. While the show covers a multitude of issues, many of them are not covered in very helpful ways. For example, while everyone seems to agree that Hannah was severely picked on, Tyler, the school photography and resident creep, is regularly shoved to the ground and picked on. And while the people that bully him are often stopped short of major violence by a passerby, more often than not the passerby also says some derogatory comment about him before leaving. So this one is more neutral to me than a positive.
- Being a teenager can be really really difficult: Maybe I don’t need to include this, but I regularly see students getting a lot of criticism from people because they “have it easy”. I get some of this criticism. The difference between a 40 year olds responsibilities and the responsibilities of a 16 year old is pretty massive. But so is the age gap. And the maturity gap. And the intellectual gap. If nothing else, “13 Reasons Why” expresses in awful clarity how difficult it can be to navigate the battlefield of a high school. The decision to go or not go to a party paralyzes Clay. The decision to kiss or not kiss a boy consumes Hannah. We have to understand that as students develop these things become easier but as late adolescence occurs later and later, the difficulty of high school is only going to increase for students.
- The other stuff: I enjoyed the vast majority of the acting, the music was beautifully integrated into the scenes, and the general quality of the production was really high. It didn’t feel like an average teenage movie/show. The characters of Alex, Justin, and Jessica were incredibly well done and the depth of emotion you felt about them when they weren’t always on screen was telling.
“I cost a girl her life because I was afraid to love her.”
While there were some very clear positives throughout the series, I found myself more often than not frustrated or sad with how things were portrayed. Here are some things about “13 Reasons Why” that were difficult to swallow.
- You can’t root for anyone but Clay and Hannah: This was a big problem for me. The other characters, specifically Justin and Jessica, have terrible stories. They experience things that no one should ever have to, and I wanted to feel sorry for them, but found myself unable to do so because of how they were portrayed. It felt like I wasn’t allowed to appreciate the other characters because they were “bad”, even though Clay and Hannah did things themselves that weren’t great. Specifically Hannah tells Jessica in her tape that Jessica quit coming to Monet’s for hot chocolate dates, and that’s what started the break in their friendship. But when Clay is speaking with Jessica about the tape she indicates that it was in fact Hannah who stopped coming. Unfortunately, because we see so much junk that Jessica has done we’re forced to believe Hannah.
Tony mentions this to Clay later on in the series. He says “from the tapes, I know her[Hannah’s] truth… [but] I don’t know what your truth is”. I wish this message had been presented before episode 11. As the narrator and victim in the series, we’re automatically going to gain trust with Hannah, but the other stories involved are just as important to remember.
- Revenge suicide is a problem: Hannah put a lot of effort into hurting every person that hurt her while she was alive. She even ensures that her plan is going to be carried out by threatening to have someone(Tony) release all the tapes if they don’t go through the agony of listening to all 13. I agree that the students on the tapes did some awful things both to Hannah and the people around them, but there are far better ways to go about enacting change than the method Hannah chose. That’s really the problem in general though, did Hannah actually want the kids on the tapes to change? Or was she doing it just to cause them pain. It feels far more like the latter.
- Alex’s decision: I think this might be one of the most overlooked things that happens in the series. As episode 13 is ending we find out that Alex has tried to take his own life by shooting himself in the head. This is left unresolved as the credits roll. It’s actually kind of an afterthought to the whole story. As the series progressed it felt like other students on the tapes were also feeling like they too should kill themselves. Justin finds himself homeless with no friends and running away with a loaded gun. Clay stands on the edge of a cliff and says “Why shouldn’t I just jump, just let go?”
Suicide ideation is something that occurs in people who are close to another individual who dies by suicide. The idea becomes a focal point for them and it’s difficult to shake. Imagine how much more difficult it would become if the person who died recorded a tape telling you (and everyone else) how you’re responsible for their death. It’s really difficult to separate Hannah’s tapes from Alex’s suicide attempt. We may get more clarification on this if there is a season two, but currently we don’t know what he was struggling with.
- Hannah died, but feels alive: This was pointed out to me by a friend of mine, and when I went back to take notes on the series it struck me. It’s really unfair to the people watching as well as the people in the show that she narrates the episodes. I found myself on numerous occasions thinking “No, she’s going to be ok… Clay loves her… they’ll figure it out…” And then episode 13 happens and you experience Hannah’s suicide. Everything comes crashing down. The audience spends so much time seeing Hannah in flashbacks and Clay’s dreams she not only lingers in the show she becomes as much a central figure as Clay, who is still alive.
This method, while being an incredible effect for a director to pull off, gives the impression that someone who dies by suicide can still be present in people’s lives after they’re gone. And while we have memories, pictures, and videos of the people who decide to go this route, their decision has a permanence that is not expressed well in the show. Despite multiple people saying “she’s gone” you don’t believe it until the very end. And with the producers leaving open the possibility of a second season off of another series of tapes from Hannah, who knows when it will feel like she’s gone. I think this sends a mixed message to kids who are dealing with thoughts of self harm. If they planned it as well as Hannah, is it possible they could have as much of an impact as her? Would it be worth doing if they could?
- Parents are useless(mostly): While there are a few interactions between the parents and students that show genuine interest and care, most of the parental units aren’t very present in their kids lives. Bryce’s parents are absent in all 13 episodes of the show while they’re off skiing in Aspen or partying in Ibiza. Hannah’s parents are so worried about their store and finances they aren’t there for her in the midst of really difficult moments. Clay’s parents are the most engaged throughout the show, but that seems to only happen after Hannah’s death. Clay identifies this as well when his parents start behaving differently by wanting to have family breakfasts. It’s pretty clear that Clay hasn’t ever experienced this type of intentional interest in him or his well being. His dad is shown as always being distracted or on his iPad, while his Mom misses some of their breakfasts due to her job as a lawyer.
There are some redemptive moments mixed in to the different storylines, such as Jessica’s dad taking an active interest in her when she finally opens up about being raped, but they’re so few and far between I was left feeling like none of the parents did much right or wanted to do much.
- Hannah didn’t take the high road: This hinges on believing that Hannah becoming someone we grow to trust and believe as the show goes on. I think that Hannah making the tapes was as much about convincing herself that she had no other choice as it was to convince everyone else this was her only course of action. It has the potential to leave us thinking that she chose to end her life to make people wake up to the problems in the high school. I may be being too harsh here, but I don’t believe it’s healthy to believe Hannah was a martyr. Her decision was one that didn’t benefit anyone around her, nor herself.
- Showing an accurate depiction of a suicide may be harmful: If you haven’t seen episode 13 of 13 Reasons Why it’s difficult to describe how real Hannah’s suicide actually is. It’s clear she researched how to kill herself in the most effective way. There were multiple times in the three or so minute scene that depicts Hannah ending her life and being discovered by her parents that I had to look away or close my eyes.
On the one hand, I see why showing her death makes sense. Because we’ve grown so close to her over the course of the show and have this sense that she’s still alive there is a need to be very clear about the reality of her decision. The scene provides a real ending to her story and solidifies to the viewer that she actually is gone.
On the other hand, I think it’s incredibly dangerous to show such a vivid recreation of a suicide as it could give people who are considering similar actions a plan for accomplishing it. Along with that, Hannah’s suicide goes very “smoothly” in regard to the actual act of cutting herself. She has no problem breaking the skin or going deep enough to penetrate her veins. In other words, it seems pretty easy. As I said above it’s a three minute scene, with the actual act of cutting herself only taking up around 30-45 seconds of that. Having read many accounts of people who tried to die by suicide with a razor blade in a similar manor, it’s not always easy, and often incredibly painful. I worry people may follow Hannah’s example but wind up giving themselves long lasting injuries.
- Was it all necessary: There are two brutal rape scenes, Hannah’s suicide, and a several day dream moments from Clay’s perspective where Hannah is covered in blood. My initial reaction to these moments was the thought “man, that seemed unnecessary to get the point across.” But a conversation with my good friend Andrew(that Youth Pastor from Ohio) changed some of that thinking. What if the point of 13 Reasons Why is primarily to educate guys on the realities of being powerless? Hannah’s rape scene in episode 12 starts with what could be taken as a fairly erotic situation. There’s a teenage girl in her bra and underwear sitting in a hot tub. There are millions of middle and high school boys who deal with fantasies about things like this. Bryce’s initial come on to Hannah even seems fairly playful, but as the scene continues it soon turns into something horrifying. Despite Hannah’s efforts to get away from Bryce, he is bigger, stronger, and inebriated. What happens next immediately destroys any fantasy of a consensual encounter and we’re left with the dehumanizing act of rape. It’s not a short scene, and as it continues we see Hannah slowly give up. It’s heartbreaking.
Andrew’s perspective, which I agree with, is that the scene may not have been necessary for a female audience to see. Witnessing Hannah arriving at the party, and seeing the initial interaction with Bryce may have been enough. But to truly convince a male audience of the realities of rape and how it affects women, it may have been beneficial.
- Binge Watching TV: This is not expressly about 13 Reasons Why, although I think it shares in the problem. When you watch a traditional television show you view it for 30 minutes or an hour and then have a week in between before you see it again. With this show and other shows like it on apps like Netflix or Hulu, there isn’t necessarily any breaks at all. For example, I watched the first few episodes with my wife and then powered through the remaining 6 or 7 by myself in a work day. I stood up afterwards and felt like I had run a marathon. Why was I so drained? And how come I felt drained for the rest of the day? The problems with binge watching are time and distance. For 13 Reasons Why I went from heavy episode to heavy episode with no time in between to process what I had just seen. If I had watched it as a traditional television show I would have had a week to wrap my head around what was going on and how to respond to it. When Kari and I watched Friday Night Lights (easily my favorite television show ever made), there were multiples times where we would finish an episode and I would ask to take a break. I couldn’t handle back to back moments that wrenched my heart.
Unfortunately for most high school and middle school students, time and distance aren’t things they’re too concerned about. The majority of the students I spoke to or heard about that watched this show watched it in the span of a few days. I think that has the danger of compounding the already heavy nature of 13 Reasons Why and making it difficult for kids to have good perspective on what’s going on. If you’re planning on watching this show with your kids I highly suggest taking breaks in between to process what’s happening on the screen. Powering through it like I did has the potential to be as hard on them as it was for me.
“We all killed Hannah Baker”
Clay says this repeatedly in episodes 11 through 13, and is the most problematic statement I heard throughout the show. It’s problematic for a few reasons(that are really all the same reason):
- The only person that killed Hannah Baker, is Hannah Baker
- While you are responsible for your actions, and your actions have consequences, unless you picked up a gun/knife and used it to kill Hannah Baker, you did not kill her.
- Being a decent human being should be a requirement of every person everywhere, and the things you say or do to people have lasting impact on them. But that does not mean that if you said something harsh to a classmate and then they decided to kill themselves, that you are responsible for that act. This type of language has the potential to cause soul crushing guilt to a person.
- The only person that killed Hannah Baker, is Hannah Baker.
My heart broke for Hannah during the duration of the show. As each episode ended I hoped that the next one would be better for her. I hoped that somehow things would be different than I heard and episode 13 would actually be a story of redemption and hope. But when the credits rolled on episode 13 Hannah was gone. It’s a tragic story. But there were other avenues that Hannah didn’t explore even though she said the counselor was the last option.
She never told her parents.
Let’s not miss that.
She never told them.
Yes, her parents were distracted. Yes, they had tons of stress from their business. And yes, they yelled at her when she messed up the bank deposit for the store. But telling them may have been a step in the right direction. And now we don’t know how they would have responded because she took away that opportunity. Not you, not me, not Clay…Hannah took away that option.
“I guess that’s the point of it all: No one knows for certain how much impact they have on the lives of other people. Oftentimes, we have no clue. Yet we push it just the same.”
So, what now? Well, I think you have three options.
- You can choose to ban the show from your house and not engage it
- You can watch the show yourself
- You can watch the show with your kids
My two kids are five months old and about to turn three, so when it comes to this show it won’t be around or relevant when they’re old enough to watch shows other than Octonauts, PJ Mask, and Daniel Tiger. I’m grateful for that given the amount of turmoil this show has caused. For some of you with older families, your kids have already watched the series. For others, your kids have heard about if from their friends but haven’t seen it themselves. As a family you’ll have to decide how you want to handle what happens from here on out. I wanted to write this (longwinded) review to give you an idea of what to expect regardless of the route you take. I’ve provided what I believe are some helpful options depending on what route you take.
Option 1 – Ban and ignore it: Of the three options, I think this is the least helpful, because it leaves you(the parent) at a disadvantage. Your children will most likely hear about the show in class, in the lunch room, or on the practice field. Knowing what is and is not true about the show gives you the ability to have a truthful conversation with you kid if they come to you with questions. If your first pick is option one, I’d like to suggest instead you go with option two.
Option 2 – Watch it yourself: You don’t have to experience something that is evil to know that it is evil. And while I’m not saying 13 Reasons Why is evil, I understand that argument being used. However, what we’re discussing here relates to your job as a parent to raise your kids in a way that prepares them to be healthy adults, while also honoring God.
If you were to take a look at the history of music I’ve listened to on Spotify in the last year you would notice some oddities. I’ve listened to “Bad and Boujee”, the entirety of Drake’s “Views” album, Shawn Mendes, and unfortunately some Harry Styles. I listen to this music because having kids say “rain drop, drop top” and having no idea what they’re talking about makes it tough to engage them. That doesn’t mean I love the music, although “stitches” is really catchy, but it helps understand where they’re coming from more easily. Similarly, when your kids come home from school and are talking about “tape 3 side 2” and how it perfectly describes their friend Sarah, it has the potential for you to feel disconnected and uncertain of what’s really going on in their world. But if you can engage them in that conversation having watched episode six and knowing what it includes, it gives you an advantage.
The difficulty of this is that it exposes you to something that you can’t get out of your brain. As a parent I’m sure you’re used to sacrificing things for your children, but I want to caution you from diving in head first to this show. I would watch an episode and give yourself time and distance to think it through before you get into another one. Especially if you have a history of self-harm or depression. If you’re married, decide if your partner should watch the shows instead. Gaining an understanding of what your kids may be facing but harming yourself isn’t ideal in any way.
Option 3 – Watch if with your kids: I think this option is useful with a few stipulations.
- They ask about it.
-This is a big one for me. It may not be helpful to introduce the content of the series to them if they’re not already engaging it. Ask them if they’ve heard of the series and if they say they don’t really care about it, don’t push the issue. I think you should still be aware of what happens in 13 Reasons Why in case they later change their minds.
- Your kids are old enough to engage the material in a healthy way.
-If I was talking about my own kids I wouldn’t show this to them if they were under the age of 15. This is my number, but you’ll have to come up with what makes sense for you and your kids. Some kids mature faster and can handle things at a younger age. Others need more time.
- You engage them in conversation the entire time.
-“We can watch this show, but after each episode we’re going to talk about what we saw and how that affects you.” Maybe say it in less of a lame way, but let them know you don’t get to shut off the tv and leave the room. Follow up on things you saw that troubled you. See if it troubled them as well.
- Give yourselves time and distance.
-Watch an episode. Talk. Give it a couple days. Repeat. This will allow your kids time to process the material and dialogue about it with their peers at school if they want. Let them know if they have questions during the break they can always ask.
- Consider censoring the more graphic scenes
-I am hesitant to suggest this, but as a 30 year old I struggled watching the two rape scenes and Hannah’s suicide. If you think your kids can handle the show, but you don’t want to expose them to something that graphic, you might want to avoid those few scenes. Episodes 12 and 13 are the most egregious in this regard. You’ll have to watch them ahead of time (and tell your kids ahead of time as well so they don’t flip out) and be prepared to move past them. Netflix makes it easy to do this because their timeline shows you a preview of what is on screen as you scroll past it.
- Break it all down after episode 13
-Have an extended conversation after the series ends. Give them a chance to tell you how the series made them feel. What struck them as helpful or harmful. How it challenges their thinking or actions. You’ve just watched something really powerful, they’re going to be affected in some way, shape, or form.
“You can’t go back to how things were. How you thought they were. All you really have is…now.”
I hope this was helpful. 13 Reasons Why is a series that deeply affected me, and from talking with students in our youth group, it affected them deeply as well. If you choose to engage this material, I’ll be praying for you, and I hope you’ll approach the material with a posture of prayer as well. The things that is missing from Hannah’s story is hope. And we have a hope that can transcend crappy friends, hurtful actions, and painful memories. As you walk with your kids through this content be sure to remind them that Hannah’s story is missing a relationship with Jesus. It’s missing someone reminding her that she was uniquely and specifically created by a God that cared and cares for her so deeply. This series as a whole is missing people who are motivated by a love of God to reach out to the broken and downcast to give them hope. If there is one thing we’ve learned from 13 Reasons Why it’s that we need to be people who are willing to go into dark places and tell people about the love of Jesus. If we can do that, I believe there will be less people who feel as lost and hopeless as Hannah.
The National Association of School Psychologists Guidance for Educators/Parents/Students on 13RW
Suicide Awareness Voices of Education(SAVE) Talking Points for 13RW
NY Times Article on the dangers of 13RW for teens at risk
CNN article on 13RW potential dangers mixed with a helpful message?