Earlier this month, Netflix dropped a new series that became an instant hit. Because of its controversial depiction of teen culture, rape and suicide, 13 Reasons Why quickly became the most tweeted Netflix show ever. It the story of high school student Hannah Baker's suicide, as told by her through a series of cassette tapes she left behind. While it has been wildly popular with its target audience, teens and young adults, 13 Reasons Why is drawing criticism from various mental health organizations around the world who feel that this series is glamourizing suicide and normalizing voyeurism through a series of graphic rape scenes.
I didn't know any of this when I sat down to watch the series. And in the end, it wasn't those things that stuck with me. Not in the way the criticism frames them.
I work with a youth mental health and suicide prevention organization. At our team meeting last week, one of our team members suggested that we watch the series because of its themes and popularity. Someone had recommended the book to me a little over a year ago so I was familiar with the basic storyline though I had yet to read it. I purposed to begin to watch it over the weekend but once I tuned in I couldn't turn away.
It was painful to watch. It was heart breaking and frustrating. It was unbelievable but still so real. It was terrible and beautiful and dark and hopeful all at once. But above all, it was necessary. It was necessary that I, a mother, an aunt, a friend, an advocate, watch this portrayal of a hidden world that walks through my every day life. It was necessary that I learn from Hannah Baker and her friends. It was necessary that I watch and feel and learn. It was necessary so that I can do better, can listen better, can know better in my very real relationships with the very real teens that I love.
Here are the 13 Things I Learned from Hannah Baker.
2. My kids are a mystery to me. I am an engaged parent. I know I am. I talk to my kids every day. I ask them about their peers, their classes and their feelings. I check their cell phones and their social media pages. I keep tabs on them. But I don't know them … not the them that walks through the high school, not the them who is alone with their thoughts and feelings, not the them who wrestles with their identity in reflection of their peers. In 13 Reasons Why several of the kids had 'good' parents who thought they were raising 'good' kids - because they are. I am raising good kids but I recognize that my assumption about who they are is keeping me from really knowing who they are.
3. Making a big deal over a small deal will cause us to miss the point entirely. In one scene, a boy is kind of flipping out because of the weight of responsibility he feels over Hannah's death. He is swearing and yelling in the school library. He is literally crying for help but the adults in the room miss it. They are more focused on the language he is using and the volume he is at than the words he is saying. They miss the forest because of the tree … and often, so do I.
4. Our kids don't have as many people as we think. Understanding that I am an outsider to our kids' most intimate selves has lead me to see that my kids don't have as many people as I thought they did. I've tried to be intentional about connecting my kids to caring adults, to people they can trust and talk to. I've tried to encourage them to know and be known by safe people in their world and while I can see that there are dozens of people in their lives who love them and would be there for them their perspective is probably different. And if my kids did disclose abuse, bullying or assault to one of these adults, would they know what to do? Would they know what to say? Would I?
5. My kid is one of those kids. Newsflash - my kids aren't perfect. They say and do the wrong thing. They go along with the crowd when I wish they wouldn't. They say the mean thing instead of the kind thing. They cause damage where healing is needed. They mouth off, screw up and create drama. They do. They all do.
6. My lame rules matter. Clay is one of the main characters. He's a nice kid with nice parents. His mom has rules which seem kind of lame and so do I. These rules kept Clay accountable and connected to his parents, as do mine. My kids are used to my rules but when other teens and parents hear them they think I'm nuts but sitting at the table for at least one meal a day together, no phones or other devices in bedrooms and texting/calling curfews keep our kids connected with us. I have all of their pass codes and do spot check on their texts and social media. I see them every single day, not just look at them but see them. That matters.
7. My daughter lives in a different reality than my sons. My sons live in a world of physical safety. My sons are taken at their word. My sons are never accused of creating drama or being attention seekers. My sons are not referred to as bitches by their peers. My sons are patted on the back for any attention they receive from girls. My sons are looked at as strong, independent and in charge of themselves. My sons are praised for leaderships skills and self confidence. My sons are not pawed at, grabbed or demeaned as they walk from class to class. My sons are not told their shoulders, knees or backs are distractions to fellow students ability to learn. This is not my daughter's reality.
8. My sons need to do better. In light of number 7, my sons need to rise up. They need to understand that the girls in their world face struggles and biases that they know nothing about. My sons need to be advocates and empowerers (I recognize that I just made up a word, just stick with me!). My sons need to know that they can be who they are. They can be good and kind and sensitive. They can stand up for the underdog, they can call out their peers for shaming girls, they can stop a conversation with just one word. My sons need to know that they have to use their privilege to protect others. They need to recognize their strength. My sons need to be given the vocabulary and the permission to stand and be a man of integrity.
9. An avalanche occurs because of an accumulation of flakes. An avalanche doesn't occur because of one major lump of snow falling to the earth. An avalanche occurs when one flake after another falls, piles up, settles down and suddenly shifts. And so does suicide. Rarely does one major life event trigger a suicide. Usually its a slow build of seemingly minor and unrelated events that pile up and become more than one can bear in the moment. Usually there are a million reasons why and those reasons shift and change and build up over time.
10. Not every person who attempts suicide has a history of mentally illness. There is a stigma that there must be something wrong with a person who attempts suicide, that why must have a history of depression or self harm. But sometimes theres nothing 'wrong'. There's no history. There's no diagnosis. There are no obvious signs. Sometimes, its a slow build up of quiet despair that sets in on a 'regular' person. A regular person who has carried too much for too long.
11. Talking about suicide won't make our kids attempt it. There is this weird belief that if we talk about self harm and suicide it will somehow inspire kids to suddenly attempt these things. As if without the conversation these thoughts would never occur to them. That's simply not true. The more we can talk about things like suicide, self harm, rape, abuse, bullying and assault the less shame there will be attached to them. Shame is the enemy of our freedom. Shame is what keeps our kids isolated and alone.
12. Talking doesn't mean talking … it means listening. If we are going to talk to our kids we have to be willing to listen. As a parent, too often we enter a conversation with an agenda. We have a point to make. But if we are going to demystify our kids, if we are going to begin to understand their world then we need to listen. We need to hear what isn't being said. We need to be okay with not having any answers. We also have to get over ourselves and leave our shock and dismay at the door. We just need to show up and shut up.
13. We're not in this alone. There are a ton of resources out there for adults and teens. We can learn how to talk, how to listen and where to go for more help. There are people in our communities who want to see our kids thrive and they will help. We don't have to reinvent the wheel here, we just need to ask for help. Be brave enough to ask for help. The 13 reasons why info site has links to resources as does The Kids Help Phone.
There is so much more I could say here. So much I want to say about the culture our kids live in, about how we raise our daughters to be fearless and unapologetic, how we raise our sons to value people as more than just sexual objects. There's more to be said about how we treat each other, about how we speak to each other, about how we see each other. There's more - so much more - to be said about mental health, suicide and the stigmas we attach to both. There is more to be said about our expectations of survivors and bystanders, on how people 'should' respond in unimaginable situations, on how we instantaneously judge based on our bias. There is so much more to be said … so much more to be heard.
Let's start a conversation. Let's talk about the difficult, terrible things in life. Let's talk about rising up and showing up. Let's talk about caring for each other, about doing better for each other. Let's talk about how precious we are, how necessary we each are.
If you are a parent, a teacher or an adult who has a teen in your world please watch this series. Its graphic and difficult and heart breaking … and its necessary. Watch this series and talk to the kids in your world. Have those difficult conversations. And listen. Listen deep. It would also help if you watched this piece, too. Its called Beyond the Reasons and its full of great information that puts this series in context.
In case you're wondering, my kids have not seen this series. At this point I don't think I will show them the whole thing. Knowing my kids and how they process information, now is not the right time. I am, however, going to sit with them to watch episode 3. This is an important piece to Hannah's full story. It highlights how one small act can tip the scales, can create an avalanche, if you will. It also highlights the difference between how boys and girls experience the delicate social balance that is high school. This is where our conversation needs to start.
“No one knows for certain how much impact they have on the lives of other people. Oftentimes, we have no clue. Yet we push it just the same.”
― Jay Asher,