‘Thirteen Reasons Why’ Doesn’t Set the Bar for Suicide Awareness, So What Is Its Purpose?

Let’s talk about this.

thirteen reasons why gets pulled from colorado school district

Another day, another takedown of a controversial book. This time: Thirteen Reasons Why.

Jay Asher‘s bestselling young adult book—which was recently made into a since celebrated TV series on Netflix—has been temporarily removed from library shelves in a Denver, Colorado community following recent acts of suicide committed by seven students, ABC News reported.

First published in 2007, Asher’s novel Thirteen Reasons Why chronicles a high school student named Hannah Baker who recently commits suicide. The novel starts with Baker’s classmate, Clay Jensen, discovering a box on his doorstep containing 13 cassette tapes—each of which is labeled with the name of other classmates, Clay included, whom Baker acknowledges for prompting her decision to kill herself.

On Tuesday (May 16), Mesa County Valley School District Curriculum Director Leigh Grasso ordered that librarians temporarily stop circulating the book on the basis of the show. “It would be hard for anybody who has dealt with suicide to not have a heightened awareness of things, to perhaps be a little more cautious about things,” Grasso stated.

Unrelated: Denver, Colorado parents speak out against Thirteen Reasons Why

Since its television premiere on March 31, the franchise as a whole has been met with a lot of judgment by viewers and media outlets alike for its glorified depiction of suicide. In fact, one of the biggest complaints many have with the show is one graphic scene, in particular, that shows Baker cutting her wrists in the series finale.

Even so, Grasso’s decision was not made without its precautions. Since the beginning of the school year, many suicides had been reported in the region, seven of which were Mesa County students. Having watched the series for herself, Grasso believed the explicit representation of mental illness and suicide on the show was reflected the same way in the book, therefore influencing her decision to withdraw the book. Possibly, in hopes of mitigating families who have had members commit suicide.

Though, after administrators and other representatives who did read Thirteen Reasons Why circumscribed that the graphic material exhibited on the show was not drawn the same in Asher’s novel, the book was made circulatable again. Even so, Colorado isn’t the only state to challenge the book’s position in public libraries. New York, California, and Minnesota communities have also rallied against the book. The latter of which came about earlier this month (May 6) when the author was met with more critics during his speaking gig at a Minnesota high school, to which Asher fielded.

Book bannings are nothing extraordinary (ahem, remember Rainbow Rowell‘s Eleanor & Park controversy back in February?); there is a whole slew of works in the American literary canon that have since been removed completely from school curriculums, libraries, you name it.

The bigger question, though: What good does banning a book really do? Does exposing youth to the consequences of bullying, rape, and mental illness prove helpful? Or does the mere act of sheltering promote prevention? It’s totally subjective.

thirteen reasons why jay asher
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Based on the context of the book itself (i.e., Thirteen Reasons Why), I, too, would have to air on the side of caution before allowing my children to read a book such as Asher’s. And here’s why.

When I first started reading as an actual hobby and not as a banal homework assignment, I became one of those kids who really liked reading high school dramas. My favorite series being Robin Wasserman‘s Seven Deadly Sins; it was the first time a book actually spoke to me about the anxieties of what it meant to feel like an outcast, to feel ugly and unwanted and constantly out of place amongst your peers.

Pair those sorts of novels with a reliable obsession with shows like Degrassi: The Next Generation and you’ve got yourself a real teen starter pack, I tell you. I distinctly remember picking up 13 Reasons Why when it first came out back in 2007 from a Borders here in Michigan (remember that place used to be a thing?!) before they were eventually acquired by Barnes & Noble Booksellers, subsequently breaking my fucking heart.

Anyway, I remember hearing Selena Gomez was going to star in the film version all the way back then, so I knew I had to buy a copy. I started through the first couple chapters, and I’ll admit I was engaged; Hannah is a very funny and convincing character, though unintended I’m sure. She and I were seeing eye-to-eye those first few chapters, though I’d never been sexually assaulted, I could only imagine the humiliation and shame she must have felt having to confront every day. Clay, however, not so much. In fact, it was Clay’s persistent self-doubt that really made me DNF the book altogether. So I did what everyone did back then, I read the spoilers and never gave the book a second thought.

Looking back, I think even then I knew there was something problematic about a book with a premise that justifies self-murder in the face of bullying and sexual abuse as a teaching point. I also think that during my time, some 10 years ago, the world was not as sensitive as it is today. It’s like every fucking day you hear buzz words like ‘triggered’ or ‘offensive’ or ‘SJW’ appear all over the place, from YouTube to real news, it’s inevitable.

As someone who was a high schooler during the mid-2000s era, if you were to tell me that the world would turn as mushy as it’s become today, I would scoff the notion. Back then, the parents in our neighborhood raised us to be fighters (literally and figuratively), to rise above bullies and depression. While a tad stern, more often than not their methods proved helpful to us. It did, in fact, make our generation stronger.

That isn’t the case anymore, so I can’t speak for this generation. Which is weird because it only reaffirms how much has changed. At my high school, there were no reports of suicide or rape, and bullying was quelled with actual fist fights. However, that doesn’t mean these things aren’t happening in other communities different from my own, and I can acknowledge that. Not to mention, it also sucked that, in the Netflix series, Hannah’s outcries go unheard by her adviser, which, in my opinion, was a bit of an unrealistic conclusion. (But then again, generation gaps are still at play.)

So in that respect, my experience doesn’t align with Hannah’s. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t disturb me that she takes her life to teach her aggravators a lesson. You did this. You made me do this to myself. It’s all your fault and this proves it. Honey, that’s not how this works. That’s not how any of this works.

So I raise the question, Should we really be pushing narratives like these that encourage people to give others that much power over our own lives? Where is the merit in that? In my opinion, those are some very scary and risky messages being syndicated here.

Now, that’s not to say that I don’t believe bullying and depression are small matters. I suffered from immense depression during my teenage years: I’ve been blackmailed, publicly shamed, and called just about every name you can think of. I was not, by any stretch of the imagination, an exception to ridicule. But that’s just it: it’s a right of passage that everyone has gone through, and it’s shitty for all of us. In the end, it steeled us and made us rebounding. Which is why knowing this generation is so fragile to the touch, so flinchy and constantly on the verge of some mental breakdown really scares me. I worry that Thirteen Reasons Why and books just like it could potentially push these kids over the edge.

I’m rambling, but my final point is this: I totally understand why so many people are speaking out against 13 Reasons Why. However, I don’t believe that simply pulling a book is going to keep teens from reading it. Hello, that’s only going to want to make them gravitate to it more…I mean, banning any book is ridiculous, but a book like Thirteen Reasons Why is honestly very lukewarm content compared to the likes of Fifty Shades of Grey. Which, believe it or not, Mommy and Daddy, your 15-year-old has probably read already. Twice. Case in point, banning a book will only make it more desirable, and Asher’s is clearly no exception to that rule.

But instead of bitching about whether I enjoyed the book or its moral message, the least I could do is offer another book in place of it that I believe could be more purposeful. I mean, don’t take my word for it but I think this suggestion isn’t too far off from the latter, but I think it was more moving than Asher’s.

albert borris crash into me
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Of all the teen books I remembered from my youth, one really stood out to me above all of the rest (and what’s even stranger is I wasn’t anticipating on liking it as much as I did): Albert Borris‘ Crash Into Me. It’s a lesser-known book that was first published in 2009, and it’s Borris’ only work to date.

If memory serves me correctly, the novel encompasses four teenagers with suicidal tendencies who decide to take a “suicide road trip” together. They visit various gravesites of infamous celebrities who also claimed their lives, and at each site, we learn a little more about what’s driving these characters to want to kill themselves. Sure, that last part sounds pretty macabre but it felt like so much more than that.

What Borris does is gives his characters life in that we learn who they are independent of one another, and what personal struggles they’re dealing with. Another aspect that I felt made this book really well-done was its diverse gamut of characters: Kurt Cobain-obsessed Audrey; Frank, the crybaby jock; Owen, an emo kid who witnessed his younger brother’s death; and self-hating lesbian Jin-Ea, who is the only Korean in the novel.

Of course, their suicidal drifts are triggered by the events and the things that have taken place in their lives but the amount of introspection Borris provides about each of them really touched me. Since there is not really much of a plot, the character development becomes crucial to understanding what motivates these kids to want to kill themselves.

I won’t give away the ending but I can totally say this book gave me a lot of insight on the issues of depression, sexual identity, and stress that comes with anxiety and shame; these were all things that also plagued me when I was in high school. While the nature of suicide is handled lightly in some parts of the book, I can admit, the ending is not as cookie cutter as the subject at hand. It’s worth a read, especially if you’re looking for something to companion (or trump) Thirteen Reasons Why.

In any case, suicide and thoughts of such are no laughing matter.

If you or someone you know is in a crisis and has expressed thoughts of suicide or self-harm, please tell someone who can help right away. Below are resources and suicide prevention hotlines you may use at any time:

Suicide Prevention Hotline: Chat or Call at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255) to be connected to a trained counselor at a suicide crisis center nearest you.

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Written by Paris Close

Paris Close

Editor-in-chief at Paperback Paris. Saving myself for Andy Cohen. Give me Gillian Flynn, or give me death.