*contains programme spoilers
I first became aware of 13 Reasons Why in 2014. I was in the midst of motherhood year one, and attempting to locate any story-book that portrayed sibling suicide loss that I could read during nap times. I ventured into my local bookstore and asked for advice on any fiction books that dealt with the subject, and 13 Reasons Why was the first to come up. I discounted it because a) it was a ‘young adult’ text (and I did not want to know about teen experiences being not one), b) it is set in America (suicide may be a global issue but cultural contexts and references do come into play and matter), and c) it appeared from the blurb that the bereavement focus was on friends, not the relationship I wanted to read about.
Fast forward to 2017, and the television adaptation has received a lot of coverage, reportage that someone personally touched by suicide would be hard pressed to avoid. But for all the focus on programme-associated suicide prevention concerns, the ‘glamorising’ of suicide, the ‘effects’ and potential for contagion etc., although entirely pertinent and crucial issues, they do not (for me) encompass the entire point. What about the already-suicide-bereaved? Might we not also need a viewing-warning regarding potential trigger elements, given it is near impossible to not recall our own experiences when the s-word is mentioned? Given that Hannah Baker is dead from the outset of the series, I would argue the story is as much about the immense sprawling and ripple after-effects of a suicide, and the variety of impacts experienced by people affected, as it is about examining the ‘reasons why’ someone would take their life (something which is impossible to generalise upon in the first place). Given also that one of Hannah’s friends goes on to attempt to take his life towards the end of the series, I put forward that paying attention to the handling of bereavement after suicide needs consideration.
Making the decision to watch
It is difficult to describe the draw to such a programme when you have lived experience – why would you even want to expose yourself to it? I am not the show’s intended audience at all, but my experience of suicide drew me to it – moth to flame. In many respects, I did fear this programme. I speak for myself, but I’m sure I’m not the only suicide-bereaved person to have thought ‘I was a reason for what they did’. I have distinct memories of sitting in a pub with two of my brother’s closest friends, not long after his death, asking and really wanting them to tell me if he had said anything that might indicate the extent to which I had been a cause. I doubt there is a suicide-bereaved person who has not expressed ‘if I hadn’t done this’, or ‘I should have done that’ at some point. The sense of responsibility, indeed culpability, can be immense, especially when there is no note (or tapes) to provide explanation. To have a programme (regardless of its fictional status) appearing to confirm that blame exists, and that a person has an ability to accuse after death, is a scary thing.
Nevertheless, I decided to watch the series, just to see how they showed the grief experiences, though not because I was seeking identification. I had (have) no wish to see my exact feelings and thoughts replicated in any dramatic text, televisual or otherwise. I think I’ve reached the point where it’s just about recognition of individuality of experience, and respect for that individuality. It’s more about just getting a sense of a validation of bereavement as generally important in suicide narratives. (Attached to the personal though, I can’t always escape the researcher hat – having also spent three years as a post-doctoral research fellow investigating actors’ constructions and performances of real lives, a part of me is simply interested in how the real is played in fictional and docudramatic representations, so this also fuelled my interest in watching this particular show.)
I have just finished a binge-watch of the series. I didn’t want to like it, and I’m still not sure ‘like’ is the right word, but it is undoubtedly compelling – once you’re into it, you need to watch it all. It works very well on that front, and it’s certainly impactful. The reports are in my view absolutely right in their concerns/comments referencing the graphic portrayals of rape and suicide – the latter of which is seriously distressing . It is by no means an easy watch, or one easily forgotten.
In reference to the depictions pertaining to suicide bereavement, there are a few things I’d say:
- I don’t know what research the actors did (or were even required to do) regarding bereavement after a suicide (I’d really like to know…), but the physicality of the grief experience does not come across at all. The tears, sadness etc. are played, but that’s just it, played (not lived) – the sense of the physical loss, especially in Hannah’s parents, felt quite inauthentic for much of the time. They are not, in my view, ‘embedded actors’ (Sutherland, 2010) – in reference to previous research I’ve conducted, I’ve argued that “Having that ability to understand entrenched emotions enables the actors to develop a convincing physical performance” (Sutherland, 2010: 277), and this is missing in 13 Reasons Why. Perhaps this could be attributed to it being a fictional piece (not docudrama, although dealing with a ‘real life’ issue), or to it requiring screen-acting techniques (Sutherland, 2010) rather than those necessary for live, theatre environments. Whatever the reason, in general this did hinder the level to which I was convinced by the roles.
- That said, the mechanics, as it were, of the bereavement experience worked well. The depictions of Clay’s episodes of distraction/daydreaming, disorientation, and experiences of (sometimes violent) mirages, nightmares and flashbacks induced by geographical locations were, I felt, pretty strong. Similarly, this character’s portrayal of anger was impressive, and his being seen to want to listen to the tapes, then not, then wanting to listen again was well portrayed. There are certainly times when you don’t want ‘The Suicide’ to be central, that you want to ‘forget it’ and ‘be normal’; then there are times when it demands total focus. That repeated ebbing and flowing is often not appreciated or shown; emphasis is usually on grieving then moving on, which I don’t believe is the nature of suicide bereavement.
- It sounds most odd to say, but I was pleased to see the stigma of suicide loss acknowledged. Other people’s (sometimes negative) reactions to the suicide bereaved themselves can be significant to the grieving process. Hannah’s parents’ experience of this, although brief, is a very important inclusion in the series. Yet at the same time, there remains a problem in that Hannah is her death – Hannah=Suicide throughout the whole series, which is something that anyone with lived experience also has to deal with. I have come to think that part of the grieving process is very much about trying to locate the person and the relationship held with them outside of the manner of their death, and it takes a huge amount of time, effort and energy to ‘remember the good parts’. In many respects, this programme seems to suggest this can’t be achieved.
- There are potent lines in the script that really resonate with the experience as I know it: “She had a face and a name”; “Everybody wants to talk. Nobody wants to do anything”; “I’d not thought about dying until this.”And there are little exchanges that have impact, ones which perhaps would not appear significant to someone who hasn’t experienced suicide loss. For instance, in conversation with a stranger, Olivia (Hannah’s mother) talks about Hannah in the present tense after her death: “I have a daughter. She is 17”. Her husband does not correct her and she later says, “I did not lie to that woman”. This was strikingly familiar – deciding what to tell and to whom, especially when meeting new people, is a core part of living with suicide loss.
- There is often an assumption that people bereaved by suicide must instantly be counselled by professionals. On many occasions this may be true, however I do think that what matters greatly is having the opportunity to talk to people who ‘just get it’, and who also don’t judge. Never underestimate the importance of an environment in which ‘normal conversation’ and talk of suicide can coexist, indeed are both equally welcome, the latter not shutting down the former. This is why peer support (Barlow et al,. 2010) can be so helpful in the process of navigating suicide bereavement, and this is something that is clearly shown, (and shown well), in 13 Reasons Why – Tony’s understanding, concern for and support of Clay is a wonderful feature of the show and the conversations between them are some of the most moving, (arguably real). We need more Tonys.
- The word ‘choice’ is used a great deal in reference to Hannah’s actions; she ‘made her decision’. To me, this simply does not adequately deal with the complexity of the issues, particularly in reference to the nature of mental ill health. From a bereavement perspective, this word is also problematic, as it reinforces the assumption that there are absolute reasons to be found to explain ‘the choice made’. It is interesting that the show presents obvious criticism of ‘the counsellor’, what he didn’t do, really pointing to a losing of faith in ‘mental health professionals’, which some suicide-bereaved people can experience (and have reported) (Pettersen et al. 2015).
I would like to say I have a conclusion about the depictions of suicide bereavement in 13 Reasons Why. I’m still negotiating on that front. I wouldn’t label it helpful to those who have personal experience, and I think my initial thoughts on the book were correct – firstly, I found myself responding a little more to ‘the parents’ than to ‘the friends’ because of, principally, life stage. Age certainly matters, as do the priorities one has at different points in life. Secondly, the fiction-story (unreal) aspect of this production was certainly emphasised by the unfamiliar-to-me American context. Thirdly, I would have liked a bit more depth to the bereavement performances, but then again, as I say, it is a fictional show with different openly-expressed priorities, so what can you really expect? Bereavement is simply a facilitating aspect for the overall narrative, connected but not central, as per the outline provided by Netflix. But what the series does show well is the utter mess of the after-ward of a suicide for those left behind. That no-one is labelled a ‘survivor of suicide’ (the common term for those bereaved) at any point in the series worked well for me, emphasising just how big the impact of one person taking their own life can be.
If you have been affected by anything discussed here (or the television programme itself), please seek support. Suggested resources in the UK include: