“Hey, it’s Hannah. Hannah Baker”…
By now, those of you who have primary school going kids must have heard about the much talk about, controversial young adult TV drama which was recently released by Netflix.
When I first watched the trailer of Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why, I assumed it was ‘just another who-murdered-her’ / crime TV drama. After all, this genre of TV shows proved to be popular, and the hauntingly sounding narrative in the trailer sounded suspenseful.
“I’m about to tell you the story of my life or more specifically, why my life ended. And if you’re listening to this tape, you’re one of the reasons why.”
Specific, and to the point, these 2 lines always drew my attention every single time the trailer played. Yet as thought-provoking as it sounded, it wasn’t enough to trade my curiosity for bigger, darker eye bags. I had a list 101 things to do before the weekend, and making time for a new drama was definitely not one of them.
It wasn’t till I started noticing negative statements towards the show’s messaging, viewers were thrashing it instead of creating more constructive discussions around it appear on my Facebook newsfeed and WhatsApp chat groups some weeks later, that I decided to pay attention.
“Don’t let your kids watch!”, “It glamorizes suicide”, “Schools should discourage it”, were some of the common sentiments echoed. Hmm, a young adult TV drama that could evoke such criticisms, I was intrigued.
Was it really as they say? I had to press play – Episode 1, Tape 1, Side A – at 11.30pm on a workday night to find out. Over the course of 4 days including the 2-day weekend, I binge watch all 13 episodes with little breaks in between.
The first episode starts with the introduction of the male lead, Clay Jensen, who seems affected by the death of his friend – Hannah Baker – who is also the female protaganist, and gets sent a box of audio cassette tapes. He plays the first tape and is startled to hear the voice of his deceased friend, Hannah, on the tape detailing the reason why he has received this box of tapes, and how he needs to follow her clear instructions. At this point, it does spook me slightly as I get reminded of the chain letters that used to get passed around in classes, except that this is an audio version. By the end of the first episode, there’s a high school crush involved which leads to a seemingly friendly first date which ends with Hannah’s first kiss. Ahh, while I can’t seem to recall my first kiss, Hannah’s memorable first kiss somehow evolves into a rumour, all in the name of ego, bragging rights and fun. As a parent and adult watching this scene, it was easy to brush this incident off especially when we ought to know better than to allow one gossip or rumour affect us, although by the end of the series, it did make me more aware of how a rumour made in jest can actually cause a ripple effect or as the show mentions, “the butterfly effect”.
There are some parts which may seem draggy or a little slow-pacing for some viewers, but if you do decide to watch the show with the intent of gaining insight into a mind of a teen – young adult, and how they cope with peer pressure, I urge you to watch at least every event and reason which unfolds alongside each episode, as it does provide context to the snowball effect finale episode.
So how does 13 Reasons Why glamorizes teen suicide? It doesn’t. Just like how a teen/young adult drama is released every few years be it 90210, Popular, The O.C., Gossip Girl, Glee, The Vampire Diaries to address prevalent and trending issues currently faced by adolescents, 13 Reasons Why is no different. Was Gossip Girl glamorizing groundless remarks and the act of gossiping in order to be popular, or confronting the consequences of rumours? Was Glee glamorizing LGBT youths or was it addressing the struggles that are currently being faced? Likewise, I reckon 13 Reasons Why is another attempt to address prevalent and honest issues with familiar topics of acceptance, self-love, peer pressure, sex, except that it decided to give a lot more air time to tougher topics such as depression, teen suicide and bullying (be it cyber, mental or physical) probably because it has recognize a need to. (Extra reading material, this just happened today: http://www.mamamia.com.au/gabriel-taye-suicide/)
Maybe as parents, you’d think that your child contemplating suicide is something that won’t happen to you and it only happens to “extreme cases”. Well, I never thought I’d entertain the thought or use it to threaten anyone I love because I was often told and aware of how much I was loved by my family and God, yet I did. Perhaps it was from watching too much local dramas (you know how they often have someone using this tactic as the easiest way to get another person’s attention by standing near the edge of a high rise building and crying: “I might as well die. Come any nearer and I will jump…”), or hearing friends talk about it, or accidentally seeing dried up wounds on peers who’ve used a penknife on their skin, but when those moment of self-loathe got to me one day, I uttered those words unabashedly. Whether it was unintended or on impulse on the 2 occasions I mentioned about it, both times, it hurt my mom deeply.
The first time I ever mentioned about it was when I was in the wrong for not behaving, and demanded that my parents bought me whatever it was I wanted at a shopping mall (I wanted to seek validation from my classmates that I was the first to own that much coveted item). My mom decided it was finally time for me to learn my lesson the hard way by whipping out the feather duster and that’s when I ran into my room, locked the door and screamed that if they ever opened the door, I’d jump down from the window. It bought me some minutes of silence right after I uttered those words irresponsibly but my mom eventually managed to open my room door anyway, yelling back that the metal window grilles were locked and if I could squeeze through ’em tiny squares just to jump to prove a point, then maybe I was indeed too mad for her to handle.
I was pissed that she was right on the grilles, and that I didn’t get my way (no caning in the end though), but in her spite, she went on about how if I intended to jump, I had better hope that it won’t turn out to be a situation that I survived and was maimed instead of being dead, because by then, my life would be a lot more compromise and I would be forced to lead a life of inconvenience while still needing to burden others financially, mentally, physically as a result of my selfish thinking. I absolutely hated her guts at that moment, but that line got me thinking since.
The second and last time I ever threaten to end my life was over a (silly) relationship breakup which ended at 4am, and I said it to my mom in the worse way possible, over a public pay phone. I know, it does sound silly now and you must be shaking your head wondering what was I thinking, but back then, the hurt of feeling lovelorn, rejected, and ignored by the one person who have been showering me with the attention and love for the last few months was too much to bear. “Go ahead and disappear if you want, I don’t care”, were his last words before hanging up on me. Perhaps it was my first experience of a heartbreak, and I didn’t know how to deal with it, but I wanted time away from everything – school, family, friends. That’s when I called my mom telling her I needed time off to skip school to get over my heartbreak, because if I couldn’t, I might as well stop living. Oh goodness me, as a mom to 2 kids, typing this paragraph out now is making nauseous about the kind of shit I used to put my mom through when the Internet was only as advanced as Geocities communities and mIRC in the social space. What was I thinking? Geez.
While I’ve not uttered anything relating to suicide to my mom since the 2nd incident (bless her generous heart for just hugging and letting me cry it all out instead of scolding me after she found me), more recently as a mom of two, I have sunk into postpartum depression. This was shortly after the birth of Ollie, and I was exceptionally overwhelmed by the major changes in my life especially the feelings of my firstborn whom made me cry each time he told the husband that he didn’t want me because he felt like I didn’t want him as much as before. It broke me a lot more than my first postpartum depression which stemmed from having too much expectations as a first-time mom, but thanks to a few good people who were quick to identify signs of depression through my self-blame and mom-guilt-laden Facebook status posts, help came to my aid through visits, prayers, pep talks, hugs, offers to take Liam out while I was still in confinement, sharing of their own experiences through intimate chats. It took me weeks to heals and putting aside my ego to acknowledge that my emotions were as crazy as my hormones. But I’m grateful that thanks to those few good friends, I didn’t sink any deeper.
Depression is real and because not many people acknowledge and talk about it, it can go unnoticed. In 13 Reasons Why,there have been talk about the rape and suicide scene being a bit much – especially if your child’s watching it with or without parental guidance – although I do believe it was filmed that way for the reason that youths get their knowledge and rely on presumptions from seemingly more experienced and knowledgeable peers, which can be a dangerous thing, because they feel that they don’t have anyone they can go to talk about it.
In an economy where attention is the currency, and cyberbullying happens faster than one can record an Instagram story, it has made me more aware to pay attention to my kids’ mental well being and more patient to listen whatever they would like to share. Right after watching the last episode of 13 Reasons Why, I went to revisit a topic which Liam has been wanting to get my attention on, about not liking to eat a particular dish which has been recently introduced into the school’s menu, and not wanting to go to school on that particular day as a result because of being forced. I made a conscious reminder to tell myself that if he had to come to me 2 nights in a row to talk about it, surely it was affecting him. We ended up allaying those fears in the end, and I felt at peace knowing that his definition of “force” was not what I had in mind.
The assumption that most of us have is that while we know that adults think differently from teenagers, tweens and kids simply because we have “been there”, grown up, mature, experienced many more years of life, we are not fully conscious of it. Just like how I didn’t think Liam not liking a particular dish and feeling adverse about it was a big deal – simply because as an adult I’m not faced with having to finish that much dreaded food like he is, it is easy to get into that mode of not making the effort to understand the pain points of our kids especially when the matter can seem utterly trivial, that we risk having them not wanting necessary conversations with us which could affect their mental well-being…before it’s too late.
I aspire to parent our kids with as little unconscious bias as possible, and hope that through that, they will be more open and willing to come have those difficult conversations with me when they want to.
[Disclaimer: I chose to watch 13 Reasons Why on my own accord out of curiosity and also as part of my endeavor to be a more hands-on parent, and also to gain more awareness on identifying signs of depression or troubled youths. The sexual and violence scenes are not easy to watch, however it does portray the ugly, painful side of hurt and suicide and that intervention can happen. All opinions on this post are my own, and have no relation to whether one should watch 13 Reasons Why – that is purely at the reader’s discretion.]