Thirteen Reasons Why: I Used to Think… But Then I Learned… And Now I Think…

Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher.There is something very empowering in the following train of thought: I used to think… But then I learned… And now I think…

How often do you hear people speak like that? It doesn’t happen often in my circles. In fact, maybe never. That includes coming out of my own mouth, by the way. And when I talk about the state of civil discourse in our country, a lot of it, for me, is people being able to take in new information and adjust their beliefs accordingly. I’m tired of people digging in their heels on one perspective and never changing or growing. I’m tired of digging in my own heels.

How Jay Asher changing my mind about Thirteen Reasons Why

I watched Thirteen Reasons Why on Netflix to see what the fuss was about. I mean, I knew the fuss was about a show focused on teens and suicide, but did the controversy go further than that? When I learned it was based on a book, a book almost ten years old, I was surprised. When I learned from my design co-op at work that the book had been required reading for her in the seventh grade, I was even more surprised.

Fortunately, I was able to read this book just in time for a talk from the author, Jay Asher, at my local library, giving me the opportunity to process the written story and the televised version of that story alongside thoughts from the author.

I used to think…

My opinion going into the talk by Asher was that the Netflix show was pretty shocking. I understood why it had people upset, but wasn’t sure what to do with that information.

The book was less dramatic to me. Had I flip-flopped the order of consumption, I may have had a different perspective. The book just felt… so much more vanilla. I found myself asking several times, “Wait. This? This got you that upset?” That said, what the book did better than the show for me was to demonstrate that Hannah, the main character, was working from a false construct. Many times she would say something like, “And no one would talk to me.” Or, “No one would understand.” In the book, the other main character, Clay, would reply, “You never gave us a chance to try.” Or, “Yes, I would have. I wanted to.” Things like that. It stood out to me. If those moments were in the show, I missed them.

And then I learned…

"If our society did a better job of taking about issues like this, there would be a lot less need for books like this," Jay Asher said about Thirteen Reasons Why.Asher, has been going to schools and libraries talking aboutThirteen Reasons Why for ten years now and has his talking points down pat. He made a lot of comments that resonated with me. I think they helped me reframe his book and the show based on it.

“If our society did a better job of taking about issues like this, there would be a lot less need for books like this,” he said.

Agreed. That’s an important point to ponder. One mom in attendance at the library talk, with her teenage daughter sitting next to her, asked the author if he was familiar with Malcolm Gladwell’s argument about suicide in The Tipping Point. I’ve not read that book, but the argument essentially states that data around suicide is much like fashion trends. When teens are exposed to suicide, whether the conversation point or the actual act, they are more likely to copy the act. So by talking about the act, you are opening up the option for more suicides. Maybe. But probably not. When leaving the library, I heard two people talking and comparing that argument to the idea that we can’t teach sex education because it will make teenagers want to have sex. Both arguments presume that the thoughts aren’t already there and that teens aren’t discussing it. That is just plain wrong.

Asher made the point that he felt like he owed it to people who have experienced suicide attempts first- or second-hand to pay respect the bigness of the act. He wrote about the suicide scene intentionally, and encouraged Netflix to show it intentionally in the televised version. His argument was that in film and books we’ve been fading to black on the hard moments for decades and that’s not working. We’ve been trying to not show the things, but the things keep happening.

He talked about the schools who were sending notes home to parents telling them to not let their children watch the show or to not talk about the show at schools. Assuming the tried and true adage about forbidden fruit being sweeter – so people were likely watching the show in spite of school and parental warnings – wouldn’t it be ideal to have adults talking about it with students instead of pretending it doesn’t exist? When you don’t do that, you remove the adult from the conversation. I think back to my Catholic grade school’s decision not to teach us sexual education. Then someone got pregnant in the seventh grade and they had to play catch up. It was too late for one student and the adults’ task was much bigger. Rather than laying the foundation for healthy behavior, they had to address a big roomful of misinformed youth.

And now I think…

Suicide is too big, too scary and too way final to not engage in discussions about. Both Asher and Kurt Dinan, the writer in residence at the Cincinnati Library who led the Q&A, said that when schools and organizations encourage reading of Thirteen Reasons Why, it’s a sign that they are open to the discussion. When they bring in the author, it’s a sign that they are open to the discussion. When adults are present, it’s a sign that they are open to the discussion. And the discussion is so important.

My reaction to my co-op saying Thirteen Reasons Why was required reading for her in the seventh grade was wrong. I was shocked and I shouldn’t have been. She had teachers engaging her and her peers in an important, life-saving conversation and its one more people should be having.