I normally don’t like to delve too far into the personal realm here. The web is so…voyeuristic, and the less I contribute to the stalker vibe, the better I feel. But this, this cannot be avoided.
Bullying has been in the news for the last few years, ever since a string of suicides prompted long overdue conversations amongst teens and adults about acceptance and tolerance. What I’m not sure of is how many people understand that gossip-talking about someone behind their back, spreading rumors, and the like-is tantamount to bullying.
We’ve all done it. Hell, I’ve done it. You can’t walk through the halls of a high school without someone talking about the latest rumor about so-and-so.
And it’s been done to me.
Now, before you inhale sharply in shock, it wasn’t a big deal. Even then I didn’t think it was a big deal. Mostly it was because I went to a large school and I wasn’t terribly popular, didn’t stand out, and while people probably knew who I was, they pretty much ignored me. Considering I spent much of my high school career yearning for the day I’d get to leave, I was quite all right with this.
I’d gone on a school sponsored trip over spring break. I was lucky; a number of my friends were on this trip. And yeah, I had a crush on one of them. Not that he cared. He was older, and supposedly wiser, although I can see now he most definitely wasn’t. Anyway, when I returned home, imagine my surprise when my best friend told me she’d overheard a rumor about me and Crush Boy. It wasn’t anything nasty or freaky. In light of a lot of things I heard back then about my classmates, it was tame. Rated G, practically. And I found it hilarious, as did my friends, who knew me well enough to know there was no way it could have happened.
Nevertheless, I asked Crush Boy about it. And it turns out he was the one who started it. How’d I know this? He couldn’t look me in the eye. Oh, Crush Boy, how utterly stupid you were. The rumor didn’t live very long or get very far-our student body was made up of very insular little groups, and while he and I ran in the same circles, the population at large only knew who we were in passing. Crush Boy went on to get his heart broken by another girl, which had the benefit of causing him to grow up, and he’s now married with a kid. And yes, I still consider him a friend.
Why did I tell you this potentially embarrassing anecdote from my past? To prove the point of Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why. Rumors make your reputation. For some, that reputation can never be lived down.
I couldn’t put it down. It’s not a happy book. It’s not lighthearted, or funny, or fluffy. It’s stark, emotionally raw, and yes, I wanted to cry several times while reading it, which would have been difficult to explain on the bus ride home from work.
Hannah Baker’s been dead for a few weeks when a box of cassette tapes shows up on Clay Jensen’s doorstep. He pops in the first one, begins to listen, and immediately wishes he hasn’t. But he’s unable to stop until he hears the full story, the 13 reasons why Hannah decided killing herself was her only option.
See, Hannah had acquired herself quite the reputation, built entirely on lies and rumors, to the point where Clay, a good kid, one who’d really like to ask her out, is afraid to do so because of what’s been said about her. By the time he learns the truth, it’s too late, and Clay’s left kicking himself, wondering what he could have done differently. Could have done better.
Another personal tidbit: there was another incident, one that didn’t affect me at the time but that I can’t stop thinking about now. My senior year of high school, one of my classmates committed suicide. I didn’t know him at all-we entered middle school at the same time, all four hundred of us, and went on up through the grades together. I heard his sister was in the house as he passed by the living room on his way to the shed (see, there’s that rumor spreading again. Vicious, vile stuff, it is.)
What I remember hearing most was how poorly his best friend was taking it. He drank himself stupid on the weekends, blaming himself for not noticing things weren’t okay with his friend. Eventually, he pulled himself together and went on to college, graduated, and now has a successful local band.
While I feel like Asher painted some extremes in Reasons, I don’t feel like it’s too far from someone’s truth. It doesn’t detract a whit from the open, oozing wound of the story. Suicide is more about the people left behind. It’s an inherently selfish act, but what may surprise you is it’s just as hard for the person trying to kill himself as it is for the people around him, trying to understand why.
If this book impacts you like it did me, this book will force you to look back at what you’ve done, how you’ve spoken, things you meant or didn’t mean but did anyway, and it will pick at you. It’s not going to send me to the nearest therapist’s couch, but it does make me far more conscious of what I repeat. What I choose to hear. It’s what may make me get up and leave the room if my friends aren’t willing to change the subject.
…when you hold people up for ridicule, you have to take responsibility when other people act on it.
I don’t expect everyone to take this book, and its story, to heart as much as I have. But I’ve always had a problem with intolerance, and what is bullying other than a nastier, rougher form of intolerance? Bullying isn’t just about name calling or pushing people around on the playground anymore.
I’d expect some readers to look at Hannah’s reasons, or at least a few of them, as a little on the ridiculous side. Hannah herself says Clay doesn’t belong on the list, and yet he’s there. Why? Because when someone’s so far gone as to be seriously contemplating suicide, anything, any minute, tiny little gesture or word is in and of itself a reason to keep going. Or a reason to give up. Hannah refers to a snowball, how one thing piled on top of another was what led her to her decision. When you look at it that way, you can completely understand why one more snide comment is that single piece of straw that broke the camel’s back.
What I’d love is for people to drop their indifference acts. You know, where you pretend you don’t see the person being yelled at for no reason? It’s just short of a pipe dream, though, because it takes a fair amount of courage and a willingness on the party of the other part to at least listen to you. That happens a few times in Reasons, where Hannah is left wondering why, when she needed it most, did people glance away guiltily when she clearly needed help or encouragement.
No, I like to think the point of this book is if one person, just one, even takes a moment to think about why they feel the need to repeat what they heard about so-and-so doing such-and-such, and then not repeating it, the book is a success.