On Sunday night, my wife and I finished watching Thirteen Reasons Why. But in the nearly 24 hours since the last episode concluded, I find myself in an emotional vortex that I wasn’t prepared for when I started the journey that eventually led Hannah Baker to end her life.
The story is told from the perspective of both Hannah and her classmate Clay Jensen, and it spans their sophomore and junior years of high school. Hannah’s suicide comes as a shock to her parents and her classmates, but the real mystery begins when Clay receives a set of cassette tapes in which Hannah records herself describing the thirteen reasons why she made the decision to take her own life. What follows is a a raw and honest portrayal of high school for many American students, and an odyssey of learning and growth for the characters and the audience.
Thirteen Reasons Why makes no attempt to water down its subject material, nor does it do a disservice to its authenticity by creating characters that are just good or bad. Even Hannah, who more than earns every ounce of sympathy with each transgression from her classmates, is respected enough by the writers to be kept human—possessing the flaws that being a normal person entails. This authenticity has earned respect from viewers and critical acclaim, but also intense backlash from a surprising audience.
Many of the headlines surrounding the series have focused on the fierce opposition of parents to such controversial subjects. Allegations that the show glamorizes or glorifies suicide have been leveled at the creative minds behind the show. Yet an attentive viewing of the show reveals anything but, as we see the emotional wreckage wrought by Hannah’s heartbreaking decision upon her parents, Clay, and others that counted her as friends. There’s nothing that her death achieves beyond additional suffering. We see that there were many people who had no idea what Hannah was going through, and many would have done more had they known the quiet turmoil she was facing alone.
Yet the other dangers facing students like Hannah are just as important a part of the story. The emotional, physical, and sexual violence that the students in the show face are intimately connected with Hannah’s fate, and parents need to see that connection. Doing so must mean facing a sense of hopelessness as a parent. Liberty High looks like much of suburban America, and it highlights the adult dangers that teenagers may be subject to. Thirteen Reasons Why doesn’t promise safety for anybody, and suggests that teens could easily make mistakes that leave permanent scars on their bodies and minds.
Those dangers aren’t disappearing from the hallways of schools or the bedrooms of house parties just because parents choose to bury their heads in the sand. Parents who willfully ignore these realities only fool themselves and imperil their children. That may be a harsh charge, but it’s an honest one. There’s a scene where a girl opens her father’s gun safe and laughs that her parents actually believe she doesn’t know the combination to open it. In many ways, it’s a metaphor for the ignorance parents have regarding their children’s lives. They’re not bad parents, but it’s easy for them to underestimate what their kids know and do.
Thirteen Reasons Why provokes discomfort and opportunity for all audiences. For teens, it’s a powerful call to reflect on the treatment of peers and ourselves. For parents, it’s a catalyst for difficult conversations amongst themselves and with their teenage children. From the start of her story with a broken heart to her terrifying last breaths, Hannah’s story is full of pain, trauma and regret. Part of me has been damaged by facing her truth and not looking away. But if shining a light on her narrative can change the story of a real teenage boy or girl for the better, it’s worth the price paid in heartache. Hannah could be anyone’s child or friend—including your own.