There is a lot of talk right now about 13 Reasons Why, the made-for-Netflix series based on Jay Asher’s young adult novel that was published ten years ago. The story delves into the 13 reasons why teenage Hannah Baker ultimately kills herself. (That’s not a spoiler alert; you find out she’s dead from the back of the book and the trailer of the TV show.)
The buzz surrounding the show is controversial, but I’m not about to dissect, concur with, or refute it here. The controversy aside, I feel like this story (the TV show, especially) does a great job of illustrating just how much words matter – for better and worse.
Throughout the show, you see how, even though Hannah feels like her life is going to hell, a kind word can make the pain more bearable, at least momentarily. I think about a difficult time I went through in college: I called a friend three time zones away, and he said something that made me feel as though he had saved my life. All these years later, I don’t remember exactly what he said, but I do remember the relief I felt and the hope his words gave me.
It was a reminder that you never know what someone is going through, and putting yourself out there to say something nice can make all the difference for that person.
But words can hurt, too. As someone who (thankfully) did not grow up with social media, it was harrowing (but important!) to watch how much one young life changed with the press of a “send” button. Of course, those of us who predate instant messenger and MySpace know that notes passed in class, lunchroom gossip, and slam books can cause just as much pain.
As Hannah revealed what each person said and did (or didn’t say or do) to her, my mind went back to my freshman year of high school when a friend of mine revealed during English class, “I almost committed suicide last year because of you.”
At the time I thought, “Wow, that was really messed up of her to say.” Twenty-five years later, I sat in my living room at the end of a TV series wondering what I said or did (or didn’t say or do) to her to make her consider ending her life.
Is it possible that my words had that much power?
I think about the boy in my classroom when I was a young teacher, the boy who was constantly picked on. Does he remember me as a teacher who made a bad situation better? Or does he remember me as a teacher who didn’t do enough for him? Or – a difficult thought but possible scenario – does he remember me as a teacher who unwittingly made it worse?
So no, 13 Reasons Why may not be the answer to the epidemic of teenage suicide; it may not go far enough in combating rape culture. But what it does do is make the viewer think about words and how, as one of the characters so wisely says, “Everything… affects everything.”