13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher

9780451478290

by Jay Asher
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

There’s been a lot of buzz about this one, especially with the tv adaptation. Principals have sent notes home from school about not letting your teen watch it without talking about it with them, and being especially aware of kids who might be susceptible to suicide. Adults everywhere are weighing in on how they think the suicide and rape and bullying were handled, mostly in the tv version but also in the book. So, I thought it would be wise to capture my own thoughts immediately after inhaling the book. (I haven’t seen the tv version and I’m not sure I will, but I will refer to things I’ve heard about it.) Here is an example of an article where some of these issues are discussed.

The full summary (SPOILERS), for those who haven’t yet read it: The story opens when 16-year-old Clay receives a shoebox full of cassette tapes in the mail a week or two after the suicide death of his classmate, Hannah. As he listens to the tapes, he learns that they are a sort of suicide note from Hannah, an explanation of why she took her life. She says that there are 13 tapes, and 13 reasons why she did it – and therefore 13 people implicated. Those people will receive the tapes in order. When Clay is done, he is to send them to the next person mentioned on the tapes. Clay snags his friend Tony’s Walkman to listen (yes, this takes place in present day, aka 2007) and takes all night. He remembers receiving a map of town with several places starred and a note saying to keep it and that he would need it soon. Clay digs out the map and wanders town, remembering many of the events through Hannah’s eyes. He seems to have had a crush on her, but didn’t make a move because of the reputation she had, which she claims was unwarranted and based completely on rumors. The person who started the rumors is on her list, as is the guy who raped her, and finally the teacher/guidance counselor who did not try hard enough to get her to talk and know her options.

I almost feel like I shouldn’t do a traditional review, like whether it was well written or not (it was, if you’re curious, and well-paced) – this book is so controversial that almost doesn’t seem to matter. There’s been much talk about how there are some generally-followed conventions about depicting suicide in the media, and the tv show especially bucks them all. The basic story is one of suicide as a sort of revenge, which it seems people don’t think teens are capable of understanding is not the main reason most people try to take their own lives. There is a risk of copycat suicides as a result, but I do think most teens understand that’s not how real mental illness, depression, and suicide risk works. As a teen, I would have read this as a vicarious tale – I would never have done it myself, but would have been curious as hell about how the people left behind, the ones she’s seeking revenge on, felt afterwards. There has been a lot of response to the very violent nature of the rape and the suicide as depicted. One thing I’ve heard is that the producers changed it from pills that are mentioned in passing to a scene of slit wrists for the shock value and to take it out of the realm of fantasy “suicide is easy” land and force teens to deal with the terribleness of it.

Which brings us to the rape scene. I do want to be careful about not victim-blaming – for whatever Hannah was going through, the guy who rapes her should not have done it, and the other girl who looks the other way is complicit, and neither of those things is okay. But. Hannah, in typical, risk-taking teenage fashion, seems to understand that this is what will happen if she enters the situation and does it anyway. She seems to be self-sabotaging to up her martyr status, and so part of me felt like she brought it on herself in part. But at the same time, rape is hardly ever clear-cut and she should have been safe being in a hot tub with another person and not been violated.

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