by: Arthur Rosch
A personal examination of Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why, and a call for an open dialogue about bullying, rape and suicide…
Suicides are complex events. They can be acts of rage, despair, or even noble sacrifice. There’s no way to generalize suicide. I spent six years as a suicide hotline volunteer, counseling those who were thinking of ending their lives. I was trained to never be judgmental. I was trained to listen. Sometimes that’s what it takes to bring a person back: someone who listens.
Thirty years ago I discovered my mother’s lifeless body lying sideways across her bed. Her lips were blue, her face, the purplish color of a bruise. There were two empty bottles of Nembutal on my mother’s night table. She had taken her own life.
I reveal these personal experiences because I’ve just finished watching the Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why. It’s a dramatic series about suicide, adolescent bullying and rape. Watching the series, based on the book by Jay Asher, shook some bones hung in my own closet of secrets. It made me realize that secrets can be dangerous.
13 Reasons Why isn’t merely powerful, it also occupies a unique niche as entertainment. With its brutally intense subject matter, 13 Reasons Why demands the viewer’s attention. I was glued to the story and the series somehow manages to deal with traumatic issues without getting preachy or sentimental. I am well aware of the many critiques of the series, in that many outspoken detractors believe that the way suicide is portrayed could potentially encourage more adolescents to take their life, but I fear that we’ll lose more of our children if we don’t engage in discussions about bullying, rape and suicide with our youth.
The book/Netflix series centers around the suicide of fifteen-year-old Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford). Before taking her life, Hannah leaves a box of cassette tapes. This is her legacy, her suicide note. On these tapes she describes the people and events that lead to her death. These tapes are narrated by Hannah as the series unfolds. They single out key people in her life who have betrayed, misunderstood, or criminally abused her. By the end of the series we have heard and witnessed her tragic story.
The teenagers in this series are portrayed as emotionally isolated. Each character inhabits a solipsistic universe full of intense but unexpressed feelings. These kids can’t or won’t talk to their parents. Their parents may as well be from another universe. The kids can barely talk to each other. It seems as if American teens are the loneliest people in the world. The stress on them piles up. They’re supposed to be preparing for college, right? Then what? The job market? There are huge demands made on adolescents to prepare for the world’s insanity, for a job market that has changed beyond recognition by time they’re ready to look for work. And on top of all this, they are coping with budding sexual desires and angst. Are these kids depressed? Fuck yeah, they’re depressed! Where does an adolescent get help for such lethal depression?
There’s an expression used by the French: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” This is true at a basic level but things have changed and changed profoundly. When I compare my experience of high school with today’s high school, I have to wonder, what happened?
The answer is, the Internet happened. Smartphones, laptops, and tablets happened. The effect of having these tools and toys is that gossip travels with the speed of light. It travels fast and it travels far. Gossip is a staple of interaction among high school age people. Girls gossip ferociously. Boys lie shamelessly. Digital media can transform an ordinary event into a ruinous assault on one’s reputation. An adolescent’s reputation is crucially important as reputations are often built on perceived sexual behavior. Sex is now everywhere. Children have sex younger and they have it more promiscuously. They are oblivious to the emotional consequences of sex until they’re embroiled, confused and deeply hurt by it.
In this way, adolescents face a different world today. In my time at high school the great threat was nuclear annihilation. Today such threats are multiplied. The teenage imagination has to deal with a world where politics is so rotten it’s seen as a futile joke. An atmosphere of threat is pervasive. We face unpredictable but real disaster from climate change, terrorism, tsunamis, volcanoes, earthquakes, and plagues both natural and man-made. The earth is moving under our feet. How does a young person come to grips with the future if the future is so uncertain? The pace of change is dizzying. The nature of the future is beyond imagination. How does anyone think rationally in such an irrational world?
Addressing suicide and what leads to the decision to take one’s life is a vital issue. We need to talk to our children more. We need to be available to them and we need to train people to help them find their way, both emotionally and socially. Currently, we’re not doing any of these things. The funding for psychological counseling in school is vanishing along with funding for band and arts programs. Parents are so busy coping with economic pressures that they have no time or energy for their children. This is tragic and points to a fundamental flaw in our culture. Time is money and money is time spent away from our kids. I don’t know what to do. Circle the wagons? Slow down? Pay attention? I realize I may be guilty of being preachy and I apologize, but watching 13 Reasons Why scared me.
I fear that in our ever-evolving, short-attention span culture, these issues will reach a peak within our media and popular culture, and the fuss over 13 Reasons Why will reach a crescendo, only to then, quickly disappear. We can’t afford to let that happen.
Read more from Arthur Rosch here.