“I don’t like the idea of revenge tapes,” my cousin said to me at my father’s house on Christmas day. Full of eggnog, and holiday appropriate snacks, we’d just gotten to discussing Thirteen Reasons Why. I’d watched the Netflix series for the first time last summer, and she has a teenage son, who is in the age range of possible viewers. I wasn’t surprised by her response; I’d heard that sentiment before from people with children, therapists, students and friends; that the show is more toxic in nature than it is helpful.
Thought Catalog, published an article last year titled, “Here’s All the Reasons Why Hannah Baker from ‘13 Reasons Why’ is Actually a Sociopath” by Emily Madriga.
As evident from the title, the author defined Hannah Baker, the show’s protagonist who left tapes behind detailing her reasons for suicide, and how each person mentioned on the tapes contributed to her making that decision, as a sociopath.
The idea was posed that Hannah’s mission to tell her story upset those people, prevented them from moving forward and that her desire for them to be guilt-ridden was cruel. And while much of the focus on this Selena Gomez produced show has been on the graphic nature of the rape and suicide scenes, how about we examine the idea presented there that there is no room for the good guys, and that is what breaks otherwise normal teenagers, such as Hannah down? Scenes throughout the show prove that people are so uncomfortable with “the truth” that they would rather not hear it, or tell it, and that proceeding “normally” in all circumstances, is the acceptable societal norm. It is ideal, but not realistic.
When I say there is no room for the good guys, I mean that two of the main characters, Hannah, and Clay Jenson, are rarely acknowledged, or rewarded by others besides their parents for being, or trying to be, decent human beings. They are, in many ways, abused, and shunned by their peers for making attempts to be honest, and right wrongs they were, or were not responsible for. For those of you who have yet to see the show, which Katherine Langford received a Golden Globe nomination for due to her fearless portrayal of Hannah Baker, it is set in a small town called Crestmont, where Hannah’s family relocates. She meets Clay at a party thrown by her friend Kat. Kat is moving away, but would like Hannah to become acquainted with her guests, Liberty High students, with whom Hannah will be attending school. Later, Hannah’s mother, Olivia describes the daughter she lost, as someone who “would run around the house singing showtunes, and other times, she was quiet, and moody,” while she and her husband, Andy, unaware of the tapes, attempt to piece together “reasons why” as Hannah herself put it, her “life ended.”
Hannah, and Clay, both high school sophomores, are gradually drawn to each other. They are different from their peers, who are jocks and cheerleaders, a select few of whom smoke marijuana, and drink often, sometimes on school grounds. They are co-workers at the Crestmont, a local movie theater, look for small joys in life such as the lunar eclipse they watch together from a rooftop, and the slow song they dance to at the winter formal before things go awry, Lord Huron’s,” The Night We Met.”
It is easy to root for them as they banter, experience clumsy teenage moments of disappointing each other, and a romance that ends sadly, even prior to Hannah’s untimely death. And not to say either of them is perfect; they do make plenty of typical teenage errors that lead to severe consequences. But any time they attempt to be “good, and kind, and decent,” words Hannah uses on Clay’s designated tape to describe him, trouble arises. Teenagers, and many adults for that matter, are not interested in what is good. The uglier parts of the show detail how they want to do what best suits them, their reputation, and their livelihood.
For Hannah, this includes being left at the side of the road when she tries to tell her friend Sherri that they need to contact the police when Sherri knocks down a stop sign with her car after leaving from what Jessica, one of Hannah’s former friends, called, “the first fucking party of junior year.” Sherri, as a generous gesture, offered Hannah a ride home because Hannah was too intoxicated to make it there herself. Once the stop sign is down, Hannah says, “We need to call the police,” and, “When you do something wrong, you can’t just like, ignore it.” Sherri’s response is, “My dad’ll kill me.” She speeds away, giving Hannah no other option than to head to a convenience store in the dark to use the phone to call the police.
Clay is seeking justice for Hannah by wanting her story content from the tapes to be released, and for those guilty of harming her, and others, to “face the consequences, one way or another.” This results in his being verbally harassed by jocks, punched in the face until he is bleeding and, unbeknownst to him, another student, Justin, makes comments about him in his absence such as, “We have to end that little bastard, once and for all.” Although Alex, one of their peers, questions Justin’s ridiculous idea by repeating the line, and saying, “What is that about?” the group’s overall actions meant to intimidate Clay into letting Hannah’s story die, and attempts to falsely befriend him, are equally disturbing. They don’t actually want him to die, but they don’t want him to live, if it means he is getting in their way.
And why do I, a woman in her late thirties, and so far away from her teenage years, feel such empathy for these two characters? It’s because in college, I was one of “the good guys,” and wound up being penalized for it. My college was much like a high school, small with lockers on every floor. It had a pool, a gym and, a library where I liked to goof off with my friends, instead of study. There was a cafeteria, and anyone present there was visible to the entire room. Until the year the security guards banned us from doing so, before and between classes, students loitered on the school steps. I’d been fairly sheltered in high school by my parents as a joint custody kid, and the sister of an older brother who had recently entered a treatment program so he could stop using heroin. The events of home had been painful, so I loved spending time with the new people I met, who were unconnected to my childhood, and early teenage years. In many ways, I was similar to Hannah. I was trying to start over. And I too, showed up at my new school smiling, but, it didn’t last.
By sophomore year of college, I was ostracized by my peers after telling my friend’s mother that he had been drinking and driving. He had broken up with his girlfriend months earlier, and things had been going downhill for awhile, my last straw being when he accidentally drove into a parked car after another night of drinking. Hannah had her own set of mistakes, as did I, on nights Midori sours at bars got the best of me, or I was being petty with my friends about nonsensical things. When it came to a life and death situation though, where I worried my friend would kill himself or someone else, I cut school to go to his house and talk to his mother. I knew her well from the many times I’d visited him until early morning hours watching wrestling, (then WWF,) and films with him and his friends, such as October Sky, Notting Hill, and Never Been Kissed. I called, and she was surprised to hear from me. She agreed to let me come over.
Looking back, I am not really sure how I had the courage to do it, sit in their kitchen, cry, and tell her the truth about her son, who I, on some level, loved. She was thankful, as was his older brother, but that’s not the reception I received at school. I’d had the option of keeping my identity secret in all of this, since his mother simply told him “a concerned friend” had phoned her. When he called me that night, laughing at the irony of someone ratting him out, since we’d been battling over his behavior for weeks by then, saying, “It wasn’t you, was it,” I admitted that it was.
At the beginning of the school year, my friends and I had gotten a string of lockers together during registration so we could keep what we laughingly labeled, “the group” together during school hours. It never occurred to me at any point that things would go sour, that people I’d befriended, like many of the short lived friendships in Thirteen Reasons Why, would be the ones I most dreaded running into as I went to get my books every day. I was called, “a scumbag,” there were stickers of cartoon characters shaped into penises stuck on my locker daily, and in the cafeteria, I heard a girl I’d never even met saying, “Who tells someone’s parents that?”
I was also anonymously harassed online through instant messenger about the physical condition I was in due to my hyperthyroidism, which after four years, was not getting any better. Often, I appeared shaky, sweaty, and my eyes protruded slightly, despite my taking nine pills a day that had been prescribed to me by an endocrinologist to soothe those symptoms and could have damaged my liver permanently before radioactive iodine played a successful role in my treatment. That person sent me pictures mimicking my condition, and calling me “goody goody dummy dummy.” Other friends I had been close with took his side, commenting on the repercussions of my actions and accusing me of having some “ulterior motive” because he and I had grown apart, and it was assumed that I was “seeking revenge.”
I did have an ulterior motive, but no one knew me well enough to actually know what it was. He had a younger sister who adored him, like I adored my brother. Watching my brother nearly die from substance abuse had broken me so badly, in more ways than I had ever come to terms with at that time. I didn’t want this friend’s sister to lose him in some alcohol related accident that could have been prevented, if someone had spoken up.
I‘d been very angry when I’d learned that girls my brother dated who came over to visit him, and were super sweet to me, bringing me presents such as VHS tapes and girly things, knew he was using drugs and kept his secret in my family’s presence, like it was helping him somehow. There really isn’t a bigger gift than the truth, even when that truth is painful. And in my college, there wasn’t room for someone like me, anymore than there was room for Hannah at Liberty High every time she spoke up amongst friends like Sherri, Jessica, who falsely accused her of having an intimate relationship with Alex, Jessica’s then boyfriend, and occasionally, even Clay when he was feeling moody, at times she told them things they either didn’t believe, or want to hear.
So even though people want to focus on the negative aspects of Thirteen Reasons Why, I don’t. Instead, I see lessons learned the hard way. I see characters who realize that bad choices can ruin lives as much as good ones can save them. I hear lines like, “You really don’t know what’s going on in someone else’s life.” I think about how the overall message of the show rings true; that if Hannah had one friend that consistently showed up for her amid the turmoil, then maybe she would have chosen differently. I wasn’t suicidal when I lost those friends and was bullied, though I did experience feeling alone, and resentful that people who didn’t even know me, or what I was truly about, were casting judgment on my actions. It didn’t last long, in that the bullying didn’t either.
I was lucky, in that I had a friend who came through for me. He waited at the lockers every day, so I could get my books without being harassed, and took the friend whose mother I told he was drinking and driving for a walk to his car to let him know that he wouldn’t stand for me being treated badly anymore. Which leads me to the topic of Clay approaching Skye, a troubled student in the hallway, shown in a closing scene at Liberty High at the conclusion of Season One of Thirteen Reasons Why, that was somewhat mocked in articles.
Some viewers felt his asking her to hang out was meant to be redeeming, but it wasn’t enough because it didn’t exactly mean Clay was out there saving the world. Yet, at least he was still trying to be one of the good guys. More people should.
To be honest, though, I don’t know that as a teenager today, I would have had the same courage to inform my friend’s mother that he was on a troublesome road. There would have been so many mediums other than AOL instant messenger through which I could have been harassed or bullied; Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, Whatsapp, and Instagram, that I would have been overly aware of, and frightened by. I’d gone into my situation naively, and blindly, and maybe, in certain ways that hadn’t been a bad thing. I’m just sorry that Hannah, in Thirteen Reasons Why, and many teenagers in real life, fail to see how there are better days around the bend, if they can hold on a little bit longer. I hope, despite the backlash, in some way, the show reminds viewers of that.
And, like many others, I can’t wait for Season Two.
Kathryn Buckley lives in Brooklyn and teaches writing in Brooklyn and New Jersey. She holds an MFA in Fiction from The New School and her work has appeared in From the Heart of Brooklyn Volume 2, Toad Journal, The American, Ebibliotekos, 34th Parallel, XoJane, Eclectica, Press Play, The Rumpus and The Chaffey Review.