13 Reasons Why – A Conversation Starter
At May 8, 2017
It’s difficult for those of us who watched Selena Gomez’ Netflix production 13 Reasons Why – based on the book of the same name – to describe it to those who have not. The series was seen by many as well done, with compelling character development and a subtle but consistent sense of suspense. The viewer is positioned in real time, reflecting on circumstances that led up to the crushing suicide of Hannah Baker: a gentle, energetic, smart, funny, high school student who wanted the pain she was living to stop. And to do that, she thought she needed her life to stop.
While the production is a depiction of the events seen by Hannah as leading to her suicide, suicide isn’t the problem; a teen mindset that sees suicide as a solution to problems is the problem.
A lot has been made of the series in print, in broadcast media and online, and you are encouraged to seek out more about the genesis, impact and what professionals as well as lay people consider the production’s effect. This review, however, looks at the gray areas blurring around black-and-white questions provoking black-and-white answers. Our job as a community is to bring clarity to the blur, because human connectedness deepens when we work through the gray. It is where we find or build the safe places we all need to live rich lives.
Not a Work of Fiction
13 Reasons Why might be a work of fiction, but the feelings and social interactions are not. Feelings and social interactions are important – and when we don’t deal with what’s important, what’s important becomes urgent; that’s where many of us are seen as falling down: we’re waiting until we’re facing the wreckage of the urgent to realize we missed the building blocks of the important.
None of the issues we see in this series are new. And we can hear the adults among us saying “These kids today – I can’t understand all this instant technology and school stuff…I don’t speak their language! I’m out of touch.” Before we go there, maybe we should admit that while the players and the topics are new, the issues they’re dealing with are not. Crude exaggeration, campaigns against innocents and the wildfire of gossip are well known to us in yellow journalism, McCarthyism and newspaper columns, all dedicated to destroying reputations and the sense of social belonging, leaving human debris in their wakes. We’ve been there. The players and topics are new…but the issues are as old as time. So let’s go there.
With deep gratitude to the characters in the production for bringing this out in stark detail, we can look at 13 topics for conversations that give our children the space to identify, express and have validated what they’re feeling; this space is where they develop skills for navigating difficult choices and reinforcing self-valuing. Holding this safe space is an important step for all adults – remembering that any child is everyone’s child; all children are our children.
These subjects might not be easy for anyone…even the adults among us…but left unexamined, they lead to misidentified ideas of supremacy and equality, despondency and hope, irrelevance and value, all themes threading and overlaying 13 Reasons Why. These subjects might be yes/no, but it is in the gray areas of finding our way from “not any more” to “not yet” that we make peace with the messiness of being human. The work pays off, however, in resilience, courage, self-trust and wisdom – critical tools for a productive, happy life no matter what our age. This “finding our way” begins early in our lives.
Some of us might remember a human interest story a number of years ago when Rachel (not her real name) a little girl of 5, came home from kindergarten in tears, refusing to go to school the next day. Hysterical, she told her mother that all the little girls in school hate her, and she had no friends. Pulling on the threads between the tears, the mother learned that one of the little girls – today we’d call her a mean girl – hurtful and manipulative, creating a clique to have more bullying clout – told all the other little girls in class to wear a red dress to school that day…but not to tell little Rachel. So when Rachel went to school – with all the little girls in red dresses except her – she became intimate with the feelings of ostracism, humiliation and worthlessness. She felt real vulnerability…real betrayal, real shame. What five-year-old has the emotional life experiences to give language to these feelings? What self-resources can she call on for holding her balance? That’s where we all come in – with our sensitivity, empathy and emotional sheltering to help the Rachels of the world develop discernment that leads to trust, and experiences that fortify self-worth so the slings and arrows from the likes of mean girls don’t penetrate to the core of who they are.
Staying With It
This is not one conversation. It’s an ongoing dialogue beginning early in life, setting a high bar of close interaction, allowing places of safety and solidity to form. It is a pylon – providing mooring for those of us flying around in wobbly circles before we’re able to form a centering post of our own. This dialogue is a place of guidance, not judgment; alternatives not absolutes, and openness, not isolation. It’s an environment that goes beyond those “yes-no” questions and “yes-no” answers.
In the end, Hannah Baker tells us “None of you cared enough.” This conversation is that safe space of extended, respected time, where talk can be picked up, moved along and revisited. It’s where we show each other that we do care enough to listen for what’s not being said and to see what we’re not being shown. When the guidance counselor at Hannah’s school tells her in the last tape of the production “There’s something that you need that you’re not getting,” he leaves it to Hannah to identify what that is; Hannah might have felt emptiness and worthlessness, but she didn’t or couldn’t express her despair. So it was left unsaid…and unheard.
To be sure, there are no pat answers, no simple formulas. We will make mistakes and must find ways to learn and recover from them. We all do the best we can – not necessarily the best that is possible – but what we think is the best we can. Given our view of the world and of ourselves, no one ever does anything wrong. But what if we saw and heard ourselves, each other and the world differently? What if we created the environment where whatever is said, whatever is demonstrated, we were safe to feel and share and be understood? What if our children knew they had a shelter, a refuge from what they see as a turbulent world? A place to help them create their own sense of safety and peace?
What if we saw 13 Reasons Why as a catalyst for these and other conversations? Beginning the conversation about the conversation could be a good first step.