The 2007 novel Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher revolves around Clay Jensen as he processes the recent suicide of his fellow classmate Hannah Baker. He receives a box of audio tapes which Hannah recorded before she died, explaining the thirteen reasons that led up to her taking her life.
I first read this novel when I was in high school and I quickly became immersed in it, reading and rereading it over and over again, always finding new observations each time. This book is one of the reasons I decided to pursue psychology as a profession, and it raised the awareness of mental health issues that plague teenagers and the way they manifest.
On March 31st, 2017, Netflix released a TV series adaptation of the book, with 13 episodes, each being devoted to one side of the tape. I felt that to mark the release of the series, it would be a good idea to delve into some of the reasons this novel was so memorable and compelling. If you’ve watched the Netflix series and haven’t yet read the novel, I highly recommend that you give it a read! Also, careful for spoilers if you haven't yet read the book or seen the Netflix series.
1) It raises awareness about bullying, sexual assault, suicide and other mental health issues.
- While there is of course a line between being a teenager and committing acts that are both criminal and have lasting damage, it is sometimes difficult to discern that line, for both teenagers and adults. The adults may often fall back to their own high school days and compare the things that happened to them, concluding that this is normal teenage behavior and that this all passes. The problem is that even if it is normal, that doesn’t make it right. It is up to us to change the narrative, and through Hannah's eyes we are able to see the dangers of normalizing and dismissing such behavior.
2) It shows that everyone has a story.
- People like Zach, Marcus, and other characters who toyed with Hannah’s emotions didn’t understand what was going on in her life, how low she had gotten. Her tapes are her story, one which no one imagined she was carrying with her.
3) It wasn’t all tunnel vision.
- Yes, Hannah had a very dramatic and powerful way of delivering her narrative. But perspectives differ on all spectrums, and there were things that Hannah could have done as well. What I mean by this is that Clay’s inserted observations as she narrates the tapes counteract the bias that all narrators have. Let me be clear: In no way was this Hannah’s fault. It never is. But Clay’s remarks throughout the tapes show us that yes, Hannah’s feelings were valid and her emotions mattered, but that also she was spiraling downward. And she needed to reach out...there were decisions for which she knew the consequences, like the incident with Bryce, and it was testament to the fact that she had hit rock bottom. But still, Clay knew that this was her waving the white flag. She was giving up. What I mean by all of this is that having different perspectives helps keep the reader grounded and objective. I don’t think I would’ve realized that until I read this book, because if this book had only had Hannah’s narration with little to no commentary on Clay’s part, I most likely wouldn’t have given it a second thought. But because it was written this way, I realized the significance of having that balance.
4) It forces us to confront realities that we may not have been aware of.
- The truth is that suicide is real, and that often times the incidents leading up to it can be similar to a domino effect. We are forced to confront the reality that some things can be foreseen, and prevented. But that requires an inner intuition and strength on our part, and a change in the way we treat people. We must also face up to the fact that our actions do matter and that we have to power to change the narrative. In reading this book, I was able to understand that I really don't know what is going on in other people's lives, and for this reason I should always be conscious of what I say and do.
5) Keeping quiet does not make the problem go away.
- This was proven time and time again, the biggest example being that Hannah ran away from her problems and it led to her suicide. But other examples included Sherry, who ran away after she knocked down a stop sign because she was driving drunk, ultimately leading to the accident and death of a classmate. Justin also kept quiet about what happened to Jessica, and while the novel doesn’t explicitly state the aftermath of Jessica’s assault in terms of how she comes to terms with it, survivors of such trauma deal with it in their own ways, some of which are more effective than others. Hannah’s response to her own assault also shows that keeping quiet will only benefit the perpetrator. In her defense, she did try to open up about it to Mr. Porter, but because of his lack of insight into her pain, he was not able to be as effective as he needed to be. We do see, however, that keeping quiet about our problems is likely to do us more harm than good.
6) The characters are imperfect.
- All the characters had their own issues, not just the individuals on Hannah’s list. Clay was not as assertive as he could have been when reaching out to Hannah; he was too skittish in some ways. Hannah herself was flawed as well. She had opportunities to reach out, to Clay, to Mr. Porter (who admittedly was not as effective as he needed to be), to her peers. But she herself was almost like a porcupine, bristling away when others did reach out, like Clay tried to do. This isn’t entirely her fault, of course. This became a learned response for her because of all of the betrayals and backlashes she endured. It is hard to open up and modify your response when there’s never been a positive outcome to it. I even have a difficult time reconciling her encounter with Mr. Porter because from an objective standpoint, he did ask the right questions. He did call her out on her statement about ending her life. His only mistake was telling her to put her sexual assault behind her, and for letting her walk out the door and not being as aggressive in pursuing her as he should have been. However, I truly believe that at that point, Hannah was so low that she’d already made up her mind, and there was little Mr. Porter could have said to change her decision. She was almost looking for a negative response from him, even from her classmates when she put that note about suicide in her peer relations class. Her perception was already biased against everyone. Again, this not her fault, but it must be pointed out. Even Clay called Hannah out when she went to party where Bryce was. He said she knew what she was getting into. This does not make the rape Hannah’s fault, but it does show that she did put herself in a vulnerable situation. These imperfections in the characters make them much easier to relate to, and they show us how to empathize with one another.
7) Hannah uses a very unique method of conveying her emotions and getting the attention of her peers.
- Audio tapes allowed Hannah’s narrative to sound much more real and compelling, much more than a note or even a video. You hear her pain, and her hopelessness. We are given a rare insight into the course of events that led her to make this decision. We see things from her perspective, as opposed to looking through the glass on the outside.
8) The emotional turmoil of Hannah and Clay are relatable.
- Clay feels conflicted, he doesn’t know how to deal with Hannah’s death and he feels as if there must have been something he could have done. As he goes through the tapes, he continuously wonders what he must have done to end up on them, and even though ultimately we learn that he wasn’t there for something he did, as readers we understand that it may also have been because of something he didn’t do, or because he kept to himself too much. He keeps wondering “what if?” and as readers and as people who have been there we have often had to ask ourselves the same questions. Hannah’s feelings of betrayal bring about familiar sentiments within ourselves too. Jay Asher has really captured the essence of the anguish that all of us, at some point or another, have had to endure.
9) It sends a clear message that suicide, and the consequences of it, are permanent.
- Suicide affects not just you, but the people around you. Hannah has proven that time and time again, especially with the tapes. Clay’s guilt and pain are testament to that. Yes, Hannah’s suicide did help make him more vigilant, and cause him to reach out to Skye, but ultimately we see that the way suicide alters people’s lives is incredibly damaging. Nothing is black and white, and the repercussions of suicide last a lifetime.
10) It teaches that every action, and inaction, has consequences.
- It is very easy to say that actions have consequences in abstract, but Jay Asher has done an excellent job in helping us visualize it. We tend to write off certain things we do, not realizing how much they affect others, but this novel clearly shows us results of seemingly inconsequential events really have the power to change someone’s outlook on life and their thought process. Whether it is something we say or do, all of it matters. Inaction is just as powerful. Sometimes we are presented with a chance to change things for the better, but we either are too slow to realize it, or we don’t have the courage to do it. Hannah and Justin both proved how detrimental their inaction was, allowing Jessica to be sexually assaulted. Hannah’s inaction had a role in the death of a classmate after Sherri knocked down the stop sign as they left a party. And as I said earlier, Clay wasn’t on the tapes because of something he did. But we as readers should understand that perhaps it was because of something he didn’t do. He reached out to Hannah, but not enough. He cared about her, but he wasn’t proactive about it. Hannah proved time and time again that people’s actions eventually have a snowball effect. How could Courtney know that snubbing Hannah, forgetting to say goodbye, and treating her like a footstool would cause Hannah to continue to spiral downward? How would Zach know that those compliments were a source of comfort she was desperately in need of? How could any of the characters know that their actions would have a hand in ending Hannah’s life? They couldn’t. That’s the point. And that is why we must be conscious of how we act, because these things really do matter in the long run. This idea that Asher has portrayed proved that ultimately, everyone killed Hannah Baker.
11) Hannah’s reasons.
- Hannah’s reasons in the beginning seemed trivial. A rumor about her first kiss, a list that objectified her body, a supposedly nice girl who used her. But the reasons got bigger...her personal privacy was invaded, a classmate was killed because she didn’t speak up, another was raped in front of her, and she herself was sexually assaulted. Eventually, there is a line that gets crossed, and for Hannah it was crossed in multiple ways at multiple times. Her reasons really did have importance, and they did have a detrimental effect on her well-being. Her reasons also showed that everything is connected through one another. Hannah didn’t just show us the reasons that she did what she did, she made the people on the tapes care about them as well. She showed them why they mattered.
12) It showed us that at a ground level, each individual has the power to make a difference.
- Even Hannah had the power to make a difference, and she did with her tapes and her suicide. She made a difference in raising awareness about suicide, in giving Clay the courage to reach out to Skye, in making her classmates understand the repercussions of their actions. Every single person on that list and people in Hannah’s life did have the power to change the outcome, but no one used it. Many people did make a difference in Hannah’s life, but not in a positive way. So yes, we all have the power to change things, and we must learn how to use it effectively and positively.
13) It proves that the little things matter.
- Every little thing that we say and do makes an impact on someone. Even the most insignificant actions can change someone’s perspective, can cause them to shut down, or come out of their shell. As I said earlier, it is often very easy for us to say such statements and not think about their depth. But we see in this novel how true it is. Hannah's classmates' dismissive attitude towards her anonymous note about suicide in her peer communications class, the various people who couldn't even be bothered with taking time out to reach out to her, all of it adds up. It made me more aware of the things I do every day, the way I talk to people, and how I follow up with them. All it takes is a little effort and awareness.
This book had a profound impact on a significant number of people, bringing up and addressing important issues that need to be addressed. These were some of the reasons this book was so powerful for me, and I hope that everyone takes the time to read and understand its significance.
These were my favorite aspects of the book, but do let me know yours in the comments below!