Monday, 3 November 2014

13 Reasons Why - Jay Asher

Over the summer I read this book by Jay Asher. It's called 13 Reasons Why and was recommended online as a good book to read if you enjoyed The Fault In Our Stars.

13 Reasons Why runs with the tagline,
'There are 13 reasons why your friend died. You are one of them.'

Clay Jenson comes home from school one day to find a package on his doorstep. Inside he finds tapes listing 13 reasons why Hannah, a girl from his school, took her own life a couple of weeks before. Once he finishes listening, Clay must pass the tapes on the next person on the list, and in turn they will pass it on until all 13 people have heard why they are responsible for Hannah's death.

It's a difficult theme to write about; teen suicide. It's an increasing problem, especially in Ireland and one that obviously has to be addressed. But not like this.

It's taken me a long time to write this blog post. I found the book very troubling, but I found hating it quite troubling too. I haven't seen a negative review of the book anywhere else (I Google searched), and I had to consider that maybe I was over-reacting. But the book wouldn't leave me alone.

Now, I could be really clever and write a 13 point list about why I didn't like this book, but that seemed way more time-consuming, and this book really does not deserve that level of dedication.

*Warning* *Spoilers ahead*
*And excessive use of the word 'Maybe'*

We have all been there in school - wanting to publicly humiliate our bullies, get revenge. In a fit of anger you plan how you'd do it. I know I did.

Maybe it's the immaturity, but as a teenager revenge does sound sweet. I can understand Hannah's motivation; she felt she had been pushed around, she was victimized, she had had enough. I can empathize with those who take their own life. I know how difficult living can be. What I can't empathize with is the fact that she sent out those tapes to other teenagers.

To me the concept of sending tapes to 'show people who they really are' is something a sadistic serial killer would do to his/her victims before murdering them; These are the reasons I picked you to kill first.

I kept reading in the hope that it would get better, that there would be an ending where readers and Hannah realise that this is not a good way to deal with how you feel; that sending these tapes will not help in anyway. That if anything, it would cause reprehensible damage to these kids for the rest of their lives. They would forever feel responsible for Hannah's death. They might even end up taking their own lives. So I yearned for realisation for Hannah, for the author, and for readers that mental health was a complex subject. That it's an illness. That suicide is not the way to escape the pain. It just causes more pain in it's place.
This was not the case.

Everyone Hannah sent the tapes to were meant to be 'responsible' for her death. Some of them had bullied her, made fun of her, betrayed her. Some of them had missed the signs. They were all made to feel responsible as she revealed their deepest secrets, their worst attributes to all everyone else who received the tapes. They were part of an exclusive club; the 13 who killed Hannah. (All except narrator Clay of course, who was merely sent the tapes because Hannah liked him). Apparently recorded suicide notes are how teenagers confess their feelings these days.

The bullies who had made Hannah's life a living hell didn't grow throughout the book. They didn't learn from what they had done, instead a few of them decided to punish some of the other names on the list. They weighed some crimes as worse than others, and egged the house of one guy who was deemed the worst perpetrator. They were no better for hearing Hannah's tapes, so why did she do it?

Hannah asks for help (not openly/but through what she considered to be strong hints) from the school counsellor and he lets her down. He dismisses her and doesn't take her concerns seriously. He is also sent the tapes. In this book, help services, or what are supposed to be 'help' services are inadequate. There is no point in asking for help because you won't receive it.
Hannah says: 
'I think I've made myself very clear, but no one's stepping forward to stop me.'

But what kind of message is that to send to young people? 
Instead, kids (or anyone) who feels like Hannah should have been encouraged to seek help. Not told that there is no point in reaching out; no will listen.

The book ends (and begins with) Clay posting the tapes to the next person on the list. His only understanding of Hannah's suicide is that now there are people who he can blame.

How about teaching teenagers the signs of mental illness? How about educating them about mental health?
Asher doesn't do this. Hannah can be seen to start withdrawing, she no longer values herself. But Asher never touches on the complexity of mental health. This review in The Guardian even points out that the 'premise' of 'Hannah's cool voice and impeccable planning do not seem like the actions of a teen who is bent on self-destruction.' She goes on to call the tapes 'preposterous'. This book wasn't written to educate, it was written to entertain. But when it comes to mental health, that's not okay with me.

So what was the redeeming feature? Well, I'm not sure there was one... 

Jay Asher says that Hannah's decision was her own, but that it's important to be aware of how we treat others.
I am not going to argue against this statement. Hannah says herself that 'No matter what I've said so far, it all comes back to - it all ends with - me.' It WAS Hannah's own decision in the end, but it is difficult to sympathise with a girl who then tries to destroy the lives of those she left behind.
Or at least it was for me.

My biggest worry about this book was that it glamourised suicide. It made it a fun game; a tool with which to seek revenge. I'm sorry, but for me, death was just a release from life. There was never any blame on other people because I blamed myself more than anyone else.

How we treat others is obviously important. 'Don't bully' is a simple message, but didn't Hannah basically just bully them back? She sent them the tapes to hurt them, to destroy their public image. Just as they had done to her. In the end, she is not a better person than any of them were.

Maybe it's because I've witnessed first hand the ripple effects suicide has on people; on people who were friends with the person, on people who only fleetingly knew them, and on people who had never even met them.

When there's a suicide people often blame themselves:
'What did I do wrong?'
'Was it my fault?'
'Did I miss the signs?'

In this book, it is your fault. And that's a very scary thought.

The book has been really successful. It's a bestseller in America.
But for me, that's whole other concern. That young people are lapping up this idea of revenge suicide. But for now I seem wholly alone with that view point.

Maybe, I just like happy endings.

No comments:

Post a Comment