I hope you’re ready because I’m about to tell you the story of my life. More specifically, why my life ended. And if you’re listening to these tapes, you’re one of the reasons why. ~ “13 Reasons Why” by Jay Asher
This week, a snowball started to roll downhill as schools and communities became concerned about the message that the Netflix miniseries “13 Reasons Why” tells about bullying and suicide. As the founder of Bullying Recovery, LLC and an author who also wrote a book about the extremes that bullying victims go to such as suicide and school violence, I felt compelled to give some thought to this controversy and why our communities became concerned about our teens watching this miniseries.
A few months ago, I published my own novel about how bullying can cause extreme reactions from the bully victims called “Crossing the Line”. I was asked by my publisher and did put a warning at the beginning of the book about the subject matter and the triggers it might cause to a reader. When I wrote the book, I did not expect to have to do that, but as I realized what the publisher saw, I totally understood that the story could be reactionary to others. This is the problem of the storyteller. Jay Asher wrote the book “13 Reasons Why”, which I read and was a far cry from what the Netflix miniseries was. The book was not that many pages and most of the characters were understood superficially at best. It’s not that Mr. Asher did anything wrong. He just didn’t delve that deeply into the characters, other than the bullying victim and the boy who is listening to her tapes to understand why she committed suicide.
But then, Netflix decided to expand the story into 13 one hour episodes, each one delving much deeper into the teens that the suicide victim blames for her choice. Yes, I said BLAME and this is the true issue of the controversy. This week, schools around the country sent notes home about this miniseries and the issue of teens watching it. The note I read said:
You may be aware of a new television series, 13 Reasons Why, that was recently released on Netflix. As the series is becoming increasingly popular and gaining more attention, we want to encourage you to talk with your children about what they are watching both at home or in the company of friends.
The series is based on the popular book by Jay Asher and follows a group of students as they piece together a story left behind by a classmate and friend who died by suicide. While the series touches on important topics, it is critical for children to process this information with a trusted adult if they have had the opportunity to view this series. We also want to share with you these talking points https://www.save.org/wp-
content/uploads/2017/03/13RW- Talking-Points-Final_v5.pdf, which may be of assistance as you engage in these conversations.
During our yearly Wellness Screenings, students learn the acronym A-C-T, taken directly from the organization Screening for Mental Health, Inc. When concerned about a friend, we want all students to take the following actions:
- Acknowledge that they are seeing warning signs and that it is serious
- Care: show the person your concern
- Tell a trusted adult
Your child’s counselor is available if you have additional questions or concerns — please feel free to reach out to them as necessary.
So, what is it about the Netflix show that caused a story that was written in novel form in 2011 to cause this reaction. The below list is 13 reasons why I think, as someone who both read the book and watch the miniseries, this controversy is real and something to be concerned about.
- Lack of Knowledge of the Victim – One of the problems that are in both the book and miniseries is the lack of knowledge we have of the victim, their prior history, and any mental illness issues. We see only a brief timeline where things happened and don’t get any knowledge of the true background of the suicidal person.
- The pain of the 13 Teens – On the miniseries, each character is given much more of a story and are more human than in the book. What I found, watching the miniseries is that most of those 13 teens didn’t do anything to really cause the extreme action of the suicide victim. So they are left in pain and some even take drastic action due to the guilt. It seems quite unfair.
- Suicide is seen as Unselfish – One of the bigger problems with the miniseries is the idea that the suicide is not viewed as a selfish act. Regardless of the reason, suicide is a selfish act and the lack of that message seems to be an unfair message.
- The bullying is only a minor part – While the original book made bullying more of the issue, in the miniseries, it is really sexual assault that plays the bigger role, which is not a bully action. So the message is not quite what I believe Asher had in mind.
- Superficial Characters – I felt that the 13 teens around the story are mostly superficial characters. It was, at times, hard to believe their own stories and that makes it seem even more like this is the way teens are when we know they have more depth.
- No parental depth of the survivors – Sure, we get a lot of messages from how hurt the suicide caused to her parents, but we really don’t see much of any other parents. The message that gives off is that the parents of the 13 others are not available to their children.
- No mental illness or mental health messages – Teens of today have stress, anxiety, and depression at a high rate. None of this is discussed in the miniseries. One would have to believe that would be a part of what would be talked about.
- Insulting to School Administration – OK, this is controversial, but we really only see one school administration person, the counselor. He is not only portrayed as clueless but also as no help to anyone. While we do know there is still an issue in the schools, this is quite insulting of all those school administrators and teachers that do care. To further say they may be causing a teen to a suicide is just not a good message.
- The “Sport/Jock” Favoritism – A big message is that the top jock at the school is a bad dude, but everyone looks the other way because he is a winner on the sports field. Blah, this message is so overused. Plenty of top sports athletes has gone to jail for their actions. I would like to hope that schools would not look the other way, just because they are skilled on the sports field.
- The true friend of the victim is made to believe they helped cause the suicide – The pain for this main character is truly the most painful to watch. Imagine that this person, who truly did nothing to deserve the lashing the suicidal person gave them on the tape. They now have to live with what they were told. To a teen brain, this is quite damaging.
- Why didn’t the victim leave a note for their parents – The teen who commits suicide spends an enormous amount of time telling the 13 teens why she did it but left no note for her parents. In the miniseries, her parents seem quite caring and loving. By leaving no note of apology, the suicide is left cold to the parents, who know nothing until quite later about the why. Then, all they have are these tapes.
- Lack of Communication Among the Teens – If 13 teens got the tapes and all listened to them, it would seem they would work to support each other. Instead, in the miniseries, these teens don’t tell each other anything other than “listen to the tapes”. This indicates that they believe everything the suicidal person tells them. That seems quite unrealistic and just plain sad if that is the state of the communication techniques among our teens.
- Blame, blame, blame, blame, blame, blame, blame, blame, blame, blame, blame, blame, blame – Yes, that is 13 blames. That is the biggest problem with this miniseries as well as what I feel in the book is a bit lost. Suicide is a selfish act. Yes, the suicidal girl is sexually assaulted and yes, she may have made that choice to take her own life. But the making of the tapes says that this girl thought deeply before she took her own life. In most all cases, suicide happens quickly after the damage and the decision is made quickly. To believe that this suicidal girl would first spend thirteen hours recording her blame of others and then take the action of suicide says that she was thinking about doing it for quite a while. That’s not very typical as most of the time the suicidal person makes a quick and rash decision after the immediate damage. Blame is hurtful and it is also usually a fast reaction to expel pain and tension. To see this as the main theme of the miniseries and even the book is a bit disturbing since we have no other information about the suicide person’s mental state.
I think we do have to be careful of the messages we give to our young people about these subjects. At the same time, I think we have, to be honest, and confront them head on. It is difficult to balance and one we should spend time talking about. Do I think the miniseries should have been made? Sure, I think that it is good to allow for this conversation. But I hope that we clear up the messaging of the causes that drive these young people to take their lives. Ultimately blaming thirteen others for a choice of taking your life is not the best message I think we should give. Although, I do understand that teens sometimes use blame as an excuse for actions. In fact, haven’t we all done that at one time or another.