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  • Max Stearns

Why Watch 13 Reasons? (spoiler alert)

I recently watched the Netflix series, 13 Reasons Why. See here. I previously posted on the toll that academic stress can take on a student’s emotional health, leading to anxiety or depression, even suicide, a tragedy from which no college or university is immune. See here. This is also true of high school. The focus of this series is not academic stress, although that is a small piece of it.

This series focuses on the complex interpersonal dynamics of high school students, the relationships and interactions, especially for girls, the rumor mill, the demand for appearances genuine or not, slut shaming based on innuendo from a poorly timed photograph, moving in and out of “in” groups, being accepted as coolly odd or ostracized as unacceptably peculiar, being misunderstood or loved or both, being unable to express feelings, and worst of all, being sexually assaulted, even raped. It is about stupid teenage decisions with tragic adult consequences, life and death, and about obsession and where it can lead. It is about the endless complex combination of it all, and its weight on developing, not fully formed, minds during the sophomore and junior high school years.

I’m not going to wade into the finer plot points, displayed over thirteen episodes, each corresponding to one side of a cassette tape recorded by Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford), the girl who tells her story after taking her own life.

An aside: This past year, when visiting the university that my middle daughter will attend, a parent asked about suicide on campus. The campus had tragically suffered several over the past few years. The large auditorium fell silent. I was pleased by the panelists’ frankness, with no attempt to avoid the hardest question any parent could ask. Among other things, I learned that the now preferred phrasing is that a person dies of suicide, signaling a tragedy resulting from mental illness that takes the student’s life. I wish others, including our military leaders, would embrace this. Those unable to cope with PTSD, and who see no way out, leave their families not only with the devastating loss, but with a fraught legacy and a deeply painful, even shameful, stigma, including a possible loss of status and corresponding financial benefits. For an interesting related project, see here.

This series isn’t about college or the military; it is about high school. Although the contexts differ, they are mutually reinforcing. In most large colleges or universities, students have a possibility of regrouping, finding new courses of study, new activities, and new friends. They can also transfer. High school is harder. Most students are locked by their parents’ choices and financial means into what is, in effect, a fishbowl. People’s noses are constantly in the business of others. And when it all goes terribly wrong, the developing child’s mind is apt to view high school not so much purgatory as hell, a final destination from which there is no escape.

The drama powerfully explores these dark themes, through Hannah, who, following a series of slights, misperceptions, and growing ostracization, is set up for a final horrific event—a rape—that leads her to experience her own PTSD, and a corresponding sense that there is no way out. To be sure, saying that a person dies of, rather than commits, suicide must not imply that any ultimate culminating event, even a brutal rape, will necessarily lead others who experience it to the same place. The series explores this theme as well with two girls, two brutal rapes, yet two very different fates.

High school is a particularly hard time for many young adults. And it is all too easy for adults, even loving parents, to trivialize the slights, the cliques, the need to conform but not too much, and the pressures, academic, physical appearance, and the many dynamics related to sex, gender, and sexuality. During my first day as a law school student, in the fall of 1984, a brilliant professor, John Jeffries, told my entering class that as we become lawyers, we will never understand how it was not to think like one. I’ve thought about that a lot over the years, especially since becoming a law professor myself. Professor Jeffries was right, and, indeed, his point is both more general and more profound. We falsely imagine that as we mature, we acquire new perspectives while retaining those from the past. But that isn’t true. Memories are constructed over time, and so too are our perceptions. New insights let us gain perspective, and yet, they make it nearly impossible to conceive how we once perceived the world in the past, that is, minus the insights that maturity brings. Having endured high school does not mean that we adults understand what high school is like.

The characters in this series are complex and varied. They include artists, popular and unpopular girls, gay boys who are cool and who are not, a gay girl with gay dads who wishes she was not, a vouyer, the son of an addict victimized by her dependence on the undependable, and a wealthy talented jock whose sense of entitlement includes sexual gratification with whomever he pleases, whether stoned cold or insistently refusing. The demographics of Liberty High School would make any glossy brochure glow: blacks, whites, Asians, Hispanics, and myriad “others.” It is a testament to modernity even as it exposes its frightening underbelly.

I asked my daughters, closer to the relevant age, what they thought of the series, and their reactions were mixed. They thought the characters a bit caricature like, painted with too broad a brush, lacking subtlety. I don’t disagree, but I’m more forgiving. I’m also more distant. This isn’t fine literature. It’s a window, albeit a shattered one, into the experience of children becoming adults. It offers a glimse from their vantage point, exposing the pressures, stresses, and the social interactions that can lift up, pull down, and sometimes devastate. The series delivers.

It is painful to watch. The second of two rape scenes is virtually like witnessing a young girl die, close in on her face, as she detach from her own body, delving into a dark deep place from which she will never recover. In the post-series commentary, the director explains that the script instructed staying on Hannah’s face past the point of discomfort. The scene succeeds. The suicide scene is brutal. There’s no other way to describe it. I struggled as I forced myself through it, an apt metaphor for the series as a whole.

A particularly poignant scene involves Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette), the conscience of the series, and Jessica David (Alisha Boe), Hannah’s one time close friend. Clay, a young man capable of great wisdom and insight, yet also capable of utter cluelessness, speaks with Jessica, the other rape victim, encouraging her to report and prosecute the classmate most obviously responsible for leading Hannah to suicide. Jessica tells Clay that she let Hannah, once her closest friend, down. Clay responds that Hannah had let Jessica down too. He’s right. There are no angels in this series.

The most disappointing adult in the film is the school counselor, Kevin Porter (Derek Luke), who misses the one clear opportunity, so significant that I wanted to grab his collar through the screen and tell him, “you can’t let her go!” Others, including Clay, blame themselves, and the series’ conceit is that Hannah offers thirteen reasons, really thirteen people, who are to blame. But life is more complicated than that. Unravelling what lawyers might call but for cause, one of several events that were necessary but possibly alone insufficient, versus proximate cause, a causal trigger rising to moral or legal significance, also lies at the series’ core. One character, Justin Foley (Brandon Flynn), the addict’s son, snaps the cell phone image that sets in motion Hannah’s ongoing victimization. Although serious, that isn’t close to his worst offense, and those affected are justified in not forgiving him. Still, Justin develops as a character, realizing the enormity of what he has done. He suffers, and deservedly so, but he isn’t a sociopath. At least two other characters, characters who otherwise seem miles apart, share that in common. And one of them appears to be set up as the protagonist for the otherwise peculiar “series” renewal for a second season.

Don’t watch the series for high art, for realism (several scenes strain credulity), or for outstanding performances. On that last point, there are some, including most notably Clay’s shower scene, Hannah’s rape scene, and the entirety of the suicide scene, including by Olivia Baker (Kate Walsh), Hannah’s mom. Instead, watch it to learn anew what high school is like and to remind yourself why we must never slight the experiences of those whose pain we struggle to understand.

As always, I welcome your comments.

Postscript: When writing this, I pulled out my own high school yearbook. This inspired a companion post, see here.

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