Monday, March 16, 2009

Thirteen Reasons Why - Jay Asher

This Young Adult novel (or "YA" novel as my mom and I so cleverly like to call them) is creepy. As the book opens we know that a teenage Hannah has committed suicide. Clay, a young boy with an innocuous crush on the dead girl finds himself the recipient of a set of 13 cassette tapes. Hannah recorded the tapes before she died - an auditory suicide note - that explains her reasons for ending her life, and implicates the people who caused her so much pain. As Clay forces himself to listen to each tape, he is shocked by the secrets that Hannah kept, and how seemingly small interactions could have created such huge consequences. Along the lines, this book reminded me of The Five People You Meet in Heaven, which also provides the same message - that every interaction you have is important, and creates that butterfly effect in your life from which each subsequent action and reaction stems. Some of Hannah's reasons are ones that happen to everyone and seem quite mundane - the betrayal of a girlfriend, teasing by classmates - and others, while common, are much more serious - exaggerated gossip concerning her sexual reputation, general feelings of isolation and loneliness. But, I suppose that is kind of the point - that all of these factors taken cumulatively led this individual to take her life, and that each and every teenager without the support of family, friends, and their community, is at risk of finding their lives in a downward spiral. In some ways, the book felt hopeless to me. Hannah seemed too flip at times, too determined to give up despite the availability of help. In many ways she seemed spoiled, as if she believed the world should revolve around her, and that when she found out it didn't, she decided to commit suicide to teach everyone a lesson. As Clay listens to the tapes, he seems to have this same reaction - of knowing that he would have helped if only he knew Hannah needed it, but too insecure in his own ways to ever assume that she would even listen. The tapes seem unfair in their casting of blame at times (though some of the actions of her classmates are quite egregious). But, in the end, as with any suicide, I suppose the answer is that while no one is to blame, we are all to blame, and that all of us in all our interactions with people could always do more. Asher's narrative was clever, and a new twist on a very old problem. He managed to approach the subject to address young adults, but not in a way that was preachy or condescending, and hopefully not in a way that glamorized suicide as a revenge tactic. At one point, Hannah writes an anonymous note to one of her teachers hinting at her suicide and the desire to discuss the topic in her class. When the teacher raises it, instead of having a meaningful discussion, the issue is met with hostility and accusation. While schools seem slowly to be moving in the direction of providing grief counseling in the event of accidents or murders, and gathering the resources to talk about teen sex, abortions, and other previously taboo topics - I hope that depression and suicide prevention will also become a more talked about issue. Parents and teachers need to acknowledge that it is a real problem and that talking about it doesn't encourage people to act, it lets people know that there is help whenever and wherever they need it. I think Asher's novel would be a good starting point for any discussion on this difficult issue.

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