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Why I Stopped Watching 13 Reasons Why

I was really excited about it. I figured I’d watch it all. But sometimes a Netflix series is not the best idea for a version of a story. And sometimes art raises questions that it’s not fully ready to answer.

Maybe a few episodes, not a series, would have been the way to go. Maybe if this adaptation from a book were not trying so hard to be hip to our binge-watching age, the story could be something I could really embrace. Maybe if a fleet of psychologists, educators, and parents were already behind the show, and had been instrumental in aiding the transition from the medium of pages—which generate different sensations—than images flashing at you from a screen—we might not have so much controversy. Those are my three reasons why I had to stop.

I read Jay Asher’s book, the inspiration for the series. The plot is a page-turner, based on a unique premise of a girl leaving behind 13 cassette tapes explaining the reason for her suicide. It is not a brilliantly-written book, but when it was released, it struck a chord, and Asher now travels to schools to discuss bullying with students. I applaud him for that. And I think a book doesn’t have to be an expert in all things—in other words, the author doesn’t have to master psychology, counseling, suicide prevention—in order to write about it. But yet when you put that story out there, you are now subject to any and all experts, pundits, parents, and the youth who follow your story, and you must answer to them.

After the fourth or fifth episode, when the protagonist is still a tortured soul unable to listen to all of Hannah’s tapes explaining her reasons for her suicide, I thought, “Enough already. Dude, listen to the damn tapes!” The book was not plagued by the overextension of plot. The book moved swiftly though each person’s hand in bullying Hannah or not helping her soon enough, or how one person was not “the reason.” So that was the first reason I stopped watching.

The outcry from concerned adults sparked me to pay attention again to why they opposed the series and make me wonder if I should clarify my reasons for stopping. Now that I analyze more carefully what I saw, I’m troubled. I’ve been thinking again about what it means to parent a teenager, or to teach students in middle and high school. I learned last year that two former students had committed suicide. And I know what it’s like to have someone come to you and admit they have thoughts of hurting themselves. And after listening to some psychologists talking about suicide contagion, I’m wondering whether the story, by its sheer length as a miniseries, overexposes people to the idea.

Suicide contagion, as the HU.S. Department of Health and Human Services describes it, is “an increase in suicidal behavior in persons at risk for suicide, especially in adolescents and young adults” that has been seen to occur after “direct and indirect exposure to suicidal behavior.” If the creators had been willing to do two or three episodes, that choice would have possibly captured the book better, maybe because it would have forced the story to be tight in the way a feature film must be. I wonder if catharsis isn’t as likely in a binge-watching experience as with a real-time, unified experience of theater or feature film. I wonder if instead of us being purged and cleansed, we’re not saturated with a persistent sadness we can’t really handle. I’d love to learn more from a psychiatrist about catharsis and art and how that might heal us.

In this adaptation, Hannah’s tone of voice on her tapes can sometimes sound like someone glorying in her revenge—a tone that didn’t come through as strongly in the book if I’m recalling correctly, so my impression echoes the concerns I’ve heard that the series promotes a revenge fantasy. Suicide is not “the last word,” however much someone might fantasize it is. It’s loss, for everyone.

With Netflix, the cast grew, and because of the timing of this series, so did the necessity to modernize with social media in ways that the book could not, being published in 2007. Things got super-sized in this version. Not surprising: our culture can’t seem to do things in moderation. We over-feed ourselves, we over-share, we over-think, we perseverate.

I have a fourth reason why I stopped. If we could guarantee in this age of Bring Your Own Device Everywhere that teens, preteens, and eight year-olds were not watching Netflix unsupervised and that the conversations were happening and warning labels were noticed, I could feel more encouraged about Netflix’s aims. But for now, I’ll err on the side of a book that by its very medium slows things down.

One good thing about the culture we live in, and the choice Netflix made? There are students out there who contribute to the culture of bullying, and this culture makes suicide an easier choice for some. And if those individuals who perpetrate cruelty, or the “good people who do nothing” when witness to bullying saturate themselves in this story, and walk for a moment in the shoes of someone bullied, will they change?

I hope that the TV version wakes up some who weren’t stirred to action by a book or someone else’s pain. Maybe that’s the overriding reason—reason enough—to keep exposing people to the story.

More information on the series:

Minerva with Too Much to Say

Us writers, we have wa-a-a-a-a-y too much to say. Just like teachers, just like teens. All of whom I’ll find a way to mention in this post.

One time when I was teaching English, I took a group of 10th graders on a walk. We were reading Jon Krakauer’s book, Into the Wild, about Chris McCandless, who risked his life in the wilderness of Alaska instead of embracing a mainstream lifestyle. We took a meditative walk on a trail through the woods in a local park and preserve. “15 minutes of quiet,” I told my class. “That’s all you have to do. Walk. Breathe. Think.”

But Jeremy couldn’t stop talking.Minerda hides in the girls' bathroom after being bullied by other girls in school.

“Jeremy!” I called as gently as I could. “Please, be quiet!”

“Okay, Ms. Fairchild.”  And yet he kept talking.

“Jeremy!” I raised my voice. “I mean it!”

“Okay, okay!”

We had quiet for a brief respite. Then: more chatter.

“Jeremy!” I’d had it. “Why can’t you meditate for a minute? Close. Your. Mouth!!!”

“But Ms. Fairchild!” he called back. “I just have so much to say!”

He’s a musician now. I’m so glad I couldn’t shut him up.

I was that talkative kid, and am that kid still. Many people who become teachers are the highly verbal souls, storytellers enamored of narrative and lovers of wordplay. We love the stage, the drama, the moment when the right words fall into the right order.

Minerva Mae Christopoulos is that girl brimming with opinion, and synonym, and late-breaking tickers of news. She wants to be Christine Amanpour. She wants to expose corruption and be a journalist in a world where people are a bit fuzzy on what constitutes honest news. Her hashtag? #truthwillout.

Robin Follet found a way to bring her character to visual life in our collaboration, Minerda, and visualize the writerly kid who keeps jabbering when one no one wants to listen. Robin’s amazing illustrations do the talking, in a way my novel couldn’t. I tried a prologue. I tried weaving in back story, so people could empathize with Minerva and understand why she’s so angry at certain girls when she hits high school. The solution was a prequel in the form of a graphic novella–and it became a rewarding collaboration.

If you know my work, you know that bullying threads through all my books: How Wendy Redbird Dancing Survived the Dark Ages of Nought; in my forthcoming novel, How Minerva Mae Christopoulos Set the Record Straight; and in my short-story collection, The Flat and Weightless Tang-Filled Future. Wherever people indulge what Dr. King called “the drum major instinct,” dividing us up by race, religion, sexual orientation, and every other label, there’s a story to tell about the power plays. I want to explore how we can rise above the meanness.

Bullying is a case of “too much to say” in all the wrong ways. It’s viral now because the Internet lets us wag our tongues all day and night. Anonymously. And what’s the most fascinating thing to wag your tongue about? Conflict. Fear. Hate. We love drama. Our culture is obsessed with spectating pain. We’ve got Twitter wars, we’ve got trolls, and all kinds of new phrases for today’s ways of hating on one another.

As a person with so much to say, and as fallible as anyone else, I have to ask: How can I expose what’s happening? How can I help change the dialogue?

We handed our kids something with more computing power than our first rockets into space–the smartphone–and then we walked away, saying, Good luck out there, kids. Godspeed in the biggest and most unsupervised library/public park/cage fight you could ever imagine.

Art helps us stop and ask why. I write because I figure it’s a way to reach a kid who needs the hotline at the end of the book and get her asking for help. It’s a way to help the parent, teacher, or counselor ask a teen how his day was. This book is for any of us haunted by someone’s words, still rattling our bones and shaking our confidence in grown-up situations, reminding us to change the dialogue in our heads. Maybe because of art, we’re sometimes a little softer, gentler with each other, for having walked momentarily in memory or someone else’s shoes.

Art allows exposure. My books out the dark, ugly scrawl of what we text, post, and tweet, unable to see the face of the recipient but still so sure those words need to be said. All my stories are grounded in the technology of the time and show how we and our kids navigate the wilds of things such as Twitter, Tumblr, ask.fm, and Snapchat. Once you see it in black and white, not so ephemeral, it might hit you in the gut and wonder if you should pass this book along to a teen. That’s some ugly stuff Lyn just printed. Then check a teen’s phone and then you might just pass this along. Because my books celebrate the youth who question this, who want the verbal violence to stop, and who will actually take some kind of action to stop it.

A side note about Snapchat, known as the sexting app: it’s now known for “stories.” One blogger recently shared how and why Snapchat is popular with the under-25 set because of the ability to a) share a tale and b) live in the now, just like physical interaction. You send your series of snaps (stories), the in-the-moment life you’re leading. No filters, no edits, no lies. No comments, no likes.

Less scrutiny means less chance for bullying.

If the epidemic of verbal violence today were a viral or bacterial outbreak, we’d take immediate and forceful action. We’d find the sources of transmission and intervene. Quarantine, clean, remove what’s necessary. We’d wash our hands of the ubiquitous technology–i.e., turn it off, monitor better, say it’s time for a break now–and rest in the moment without comments. My generation wasn’t haunted by tormentors during the ABC Afterschool Specials, because we could turn off school when we got home. We didn’t have to pick up the phone or go outside. We silenced the exchange for a time. We got a break, but kids today do not.

Let’s fill the airwaves and the wifi with whatever is pure, good, right. And whenever we can, stop, disconnect from the drama, and tell the truth.

As Minerva might say, fist in the air: #truthwillout.