13 Reasons Why–A Book Review
“You have to read it, Mrs. Haupt!” The student insisted I borrow the book, against my protestations that end-of-year duties had me buried. It sat on my desk for weeks, and several students tried to borrow it throughout the duration of the school year.
The book 13 Reasons Why has stirred up a lot of conversations lately, due to the recent Netflix series based on the book. While the book was published in 2007, 2017 brought it to my attention as well as many others. I have not seen the Netflix series. My students inform me the events in the book are made more severe and dramatic in the series.
For those unfamiliar with the book, the basic premise is this: a teenage girl, Hannah Baker, commits suicide. But before she does, she makes 13 recordings on cassette tapes. Each recording is dedicated to a person who contributed to her unhappiness, and she explains the bigger picture of how their actions affected her. She calls it “the snowball effect” in describing how the actions and interactions of various people brought about her decision to end her life.
Starting the book, I was somewhat against it. Just hearing the storyline made me uncomfortable. I don’t pretend to be a mental health expert, but I do know that to be emotionally healthy, you cannot shift all the blame to others. You must take control of your own mental health. But with that bias stacked up against it from the beginning, the book pleasantly surprised me. Here are some good takeaways, and some cautions:
- What you do has consequences; take responsibility. All of us tend to run our mouths and go on with our lives without a care. In this quickly unfolding drama (it’s a page-turner), Hannah Baker shows her listeners that it’s not so easy as that. Slowly but surely, throughout the 13 recordings, she traces the domino-effects of certain actions. She acknowledges at times that the instigator didn’t necessarily intend some of the consequences, but doesn’t let them off the hook. Teens need this reminder. We all need this reminder. “You don’t know what goes on in anyone’s life but your own. And when you mess with one part of a person’s life, you’re not messing with just that part… you can’t be precise and selective.”
- You have a choice–make it. The narrator of the book, finding out everything in retrospect, recognizes that choices Hannah made. Others didn’t force her to commit suicide; she made a choice. “I was there for you, Hannah. You could have reached out but you didn’t. You chose this. You had a choice and you pushed me away. I would have helped you. I wanted to help you.” He acknowledges he could have done more (couldn’t we all), but he doesn’t let her off the hook for choosing to push away those who would help. I thought this was important. In the end, he recognizes the power of choice and makes a better one than he would have before Hannah.
- Lack of parental presence: Hannah’s parents are completely nonexistent in this book. She briefly nods at them near the end of the tapes, but they have virtually no role of support or neglect in the unfolding story. I understand, I really do, that teens sometimes feel isolated from their parents with all the drama at school and on social media, but I still feel that parents have more impact on them than what is represented in this novel.
- Glorifying suicide as revenge: unfortunately, this book does glorify the revenge suicide, the idea that “they’ll be sorry when I don’t show up at school tomorrow. They’ll feel bad for what they did then!” This is a terrible, dangerous, poisonously self-pitying way to think, and it is how many teens feel. But the book does not follow each character that hurt Hannah to see their sorrow, shame, or regret. However, I wish that in the end, Hannah had decided to get back at her tormentors by becoming strong and overcoming everything life threw her way. The tone of the tapes revealed a strong, reflective person, and I think if she had chosen to find revenge through resilience, it could have been such a story of hope.
- Glorification of mental illness: I am afraid maybe it is a misrepresentation of a depressed person. Having experienced depression myself, I found myself a bit skeptical of the tone of Hannah’s tapes. She is witty, expressive, clever, self-possessed in her tapes. Depressed people, due to the lack of seratonin in their brain, often feel sluggish in their thoughts. This is why they are given to sleeping so much, and why they cannot always explain what is wrong. The brain’s neurons and pathways lack the lubrication to work quickly. As the tapes progress, Hannah does show more mental anguish, but she would have been at her most depressed at the beginning of the tapes, when she had made her intricate plans to die. I’m not sure a clinically depressed person could have managed the kind of plan she executed.
Despite these cautions, I think it is a book worth reading. I think it would be a great context for conversation between parents and teens. Even though I am around teens a lot, I still found myself surprised at a few of the ways they perceived different situations. It’s hard to understand the way an offhand comment can affect a teen, but this book highlights the cause-and-effect of relationships in a powerful way.