I mentioned briefly last week that I was going to talk about the book 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher. But just to reiterate, I have not seen the wildly popular Netflix show and this will have pretty much nothing to do with the show. I read the book in high school, loved it, and reread it last week on my day off in preparation for writing about it. I did read a list someone made about the differences between the book and show but beyond that, I know little about the show so I can’t comment on it or compare it to the book.
In the interest of full disclosure, I am not particularly close to the topic of suicide. I know a few people who have told me much later that they had considered suicide at one point in their life but beyond that, I have not been closely, personally, directly affected by a loved on committing suicide or by any thoughts myself. I’ve experienced the tragedy through friends of friends and others. It is absolutely heartbreaking. Regardless that I haven’t experienced it directly, I am still horrified and saddened when I hear about it.
THERE MAY BE BOOK SPOILERS IN THIS ANALYSIS BUT NOTHING TOO BOOK-SHATTERING IN MY OPINION SO READ AT YOUR OWN RISK. There may be show spoilers too but we have thoroughly established that I wouldn’t know about those.
So the main story in the book is that there is a high-schooler named Clay Jensen who has received a box of cassette tapes. Those tapes have a message recorded on them by Hannah Baker, a high school student who recently committed suicide. She tells her story by linking her decision to commit suicide to thirteen people, thus we have thirteen “reasons”. Since Clay got the tapes, he has to be on them somewhere.
Obviously, the book deals with suicide. More specifically, it deals with the aftermath of suicide. Hannah dies before the book begins then Clay learns of the many reasons/people who Hannah ‘blames’ for her reaching the end of her life. However, she doesn’t fully play it off as other’s responsibilities that she chose to end her own life, “it all comes back to–it all ends with–me” (page 253).
She acknowledges that, in the end, she is making this choice. During her conversation with the school counselor she says toward the end, “I got what I came for” (278). She wasn’t going in looking to change her mind. She went only for her self-fulfilling prophecy. Arguably, the counselor could have done better in the conversation but at the same time, she wasn’t looking for help anymore so equally arguably he did all in his power.
There’s a recurring theme throughout the novel that can essentially be summed up as collective responsibility. On a personal level, Clay feels responsible for Hannah’s death because he got the tapes and because he liked Hannah but never worked up the courage to really make anything of a relationship with her. He repeats in different ways, “I would’ve answered any question, Hannah. But you never asked” (78). While Clay didn’t reach out too much to Hannah, Hannah also never really reached out to Clay.
The feelings of betrayal go both ways. Although Hannah doesn’t blame Clay, she obviously feels somehow betrayed by him since he is still on the tapes so he did play some role. Yet Clay also feels betrayed by Hannah because she never came to him but had unspoken feelings for him. So they both failed the other. Asher doesn’t play that as blame specifically. It’s a subtle way to show a responsibility we have for each other.
At one point, Clay talks about seeing one specific boy act inappropriately with some of the girls from his school. The girls are obviously uncomfortable and it’s a recurring problem that Clay has seen many times and he’s had opportunity to intervene, “But instead, every time, I pretend not to notice. What could I do anyway?” (50). Clay is now seeing a possible result of ignoring this kind of behavior since Hannah was also subjected to the actions of this boy. He’s not responsible for the actions of an individual but he’s responsible as part of the collective. It wasn’t just him ignoring the behavior, it was everyone else around them ignoring it too. While Clay fails to intervene, the collective fails too. Clay even says, “We’re all guilty of something” (108).
But Asher shows that not everyone feels guilty. When Clay comes across Marcus on the street, Marcus says, “I don’t belong on those tapes. Hannah just wanted an excuse to kill herself” (110). So at least one person is taking zero personal responsibility for Hannah’s death. That doesn’t change the way Clay feels at all though and by the end, he grows as a person. He chooses to reach out to a girl he’s noticed before. The book ends as he literally says her name in the hall to get her attention.
Clay has become sensitive to collective responsibility. He clearly acknowledges that Hannah made the decision to end her life, thus it is not his personal responsibility but hers. Yet he feels the collective guilt that comes from tragedy.
What have we done that a person feels this is the only way out?
How can humanity be like this?
Why didn’t anyone see the signs?
These are the questions people ask when a tragedy occurs and these questions put the responsibility on the collective rather than the individual. Yet no one has to take personal responsibility for the tragedy except the one individual who directly caused it.
Talking about collective responsibility can be difficult because in the end, we are each responsible for our individual choices no matter how bad or good those choices are and regardless of circumstances. Yet, at the same time, we make choices every day that directly affect other people in sometimes very intimate ways. So where do I become responsible for your actions?
That’s less of a direct question and more of a let’s-start-a-discussion-on-that kind of question because it’s a grey area in my opinion.
13 Reasons Why can be seen as that question in book form. Asher shows both sides of the conundrum: Hannah’s personal responsibility for her own life while and also the collective responsibility of the 13 people on the tapes. It’s very nuanced and I don’t see Asher drawing a hard line where one person stops being responsible and the other starts. Instead, he creates a compelling narrative that weaves between the lines of one person’s troubled relationships with individuals who are part of a larger collective.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255