The last time a book affected me so deeply was when I read Her by Christa Parravani. Then, as now, it revolves around the suicide of a young woman, and the effect it had on those who loved her.
I haven’t even read 13 Reasons Why yet, and frankly, I’m afraid to.
There are quite a few reasons why (no pun intended), and the first is the treated subject matter: teenage suicide.
The Why of Suicide
In Jay Asher’s novel, the character Hannah has already killed herself by the time the book begins. The story revolves around a series of tapes Hannah recorded, detailing the reasons why she chose to take her own life, and how those tapes are sent to the people she felt were responsible.
As the title suggests, 13 Reasons Why tries to tackle the question of exactly why teenagers and young people try to take their own lives, and does so by depicting many of the most common traumas that young adults face: bullying, sexuality, violence and rape among them. However, I’m not quite sure this cuts it; millions of teenagers face these same difficulties (both in real life and in the book) and don’t end up committing suicide. So why does Hannah?
Without reading the book, of course, I can’t know for sure, but it doesn’t sound like Asher directly confronts the inner mentality of the suicidal person. While we learn all about the events and people that pushed Hannah into the decision, do we really get any insight into what Hannah was thinking the moment she ended her life? (If you’ve read the book, please enlighten me.)
It takes the utmost strength and a sense of complete despair, in my personal experience, to commit to the conclusion that you need to die. Suicide is not a weak option; it is not an easy way out. As a suicidal teenager myself, I once spent months, if not years, ideating why I should die, and how I should do it. And even when I tried, I was afraid of the consequences of failed completion. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life miserable, but I certainly didn’t want to spend it paralyzed.
I will probably write a separate post on the thoughts behind suicide, but I don’t know if 13 Reasons Why successfully addresses this.
The How of Suicide
In the Netflix adaptation of 13 Reasons Why (which I’m also afraid to watch), we directly witness Hannah’s suicide by exsanguination. In the book, thankfully, it’s left somewhat more ambiguous as to how she dies. I say thankfully, because frankly cutting your wrists is a shitty way to try and kill yourself.
There are, of course, a thousand and one ways to die, and the vast majority of them are far from pleasant. Most involve a great deal of pain and no small mess, and while it’s easy to idealize suicide in the days and weeks that lead up to your attempt, on the day—in the moment—things change. You start to ask yourself if you really want to watch your blood gush from your body. What if the gun doesn’t destroy the brainstem? What if the rope doesn’t break my neck, and I slowly choke instead?
Of course, there are a lot of people out there who are able to push themselves past this place, who carry out their attempt regardless; and many who are tragically successful. Nonetheless, deciding how you’re going to take your life is a major decision for those who are suicidal, and the depiction of Hannah’s suicide in the Netflix series (which I have watched, out of context), makes it seem frightfully easy, and nearly consequence-free. We don’t see Hannah grow pale; we don’t see her go into hypovolemic shock, we don’t see the shudders and twitches as her body desperately tries to save itself.
(Equally, the cuts she inflicts didn’t seem likely to bleed out as much as they did.)
In the novel, Asher manages to avoid this issue by never directly describing how she died. This was probably the safer route to go, if for no other reason than if you’re going to graphically depict a suicide, then you’d better be prepared to show it’s grisly reality. Netflix, I’m sorry to say, glamorized it.
It’s the Same As My Book
There is a final, selfish reason I’m afraid of 13 Reasons Why, and that’s simply because it treads the same bloodied waters as my own book, A Gothic Symphony. I have to make it clear, I started writing A Gothic Symphony in 2005, two years before Asher’s book was published. Until Netflix picked up the story, I didn’t even know the book existed.
Yet we discuss many of the same things: violence, sexual assault, death and suicide. And while I’d like to think that I’ve taken a different approach than Asher in this regard—I deal more directly with self-harm and the deep, deep depression that precedes a suicide attempt—I’m also afraid of the comparisons. I’m afraid that people will see A Gothic Symphony as, essentially, a rip-off.
I’m also afraid he did a better job of it.
Like Asher, I don’t depict a final suicide. Unlike Asher, it’s left ambiguous as to whether Amy, the main character, completes her suicide or not. I wanted the reader to imagine their own fate for Amy—including one of hope.
With all of this combined, I’m still uncertain whether I have the stomach to read 13 Reasons Why. Having watched the suicide scene on Netflix, I’ll probably be giving the series a miss.
What do you think? Should I read 13 Reasons Why? Does it sound like A Gothic Symphony is just a rip-off? Let me know in the comments!