A Different Perspective on a Show that Went Viral: “13 Reasons Why” Gave Me Good Reason to Talk to My Daughter
Trigger Warning: This post includes mature subject matter, involving themes of suicide, sexuality, and violence.
By Melanie Brooks
I am already feeling like a mom failure the week I start watching “13 Reasons Why.” Since launching my first book in early February, my scheduled book tour dates have forced me to miss a fair number of my kids’ sporting events and school activities. This particular week in April, an hour into my drive to a seven-day visiting writer’s residency at a university in western Massachusetts, I get a call from Lily, my fourteen-year-old daughter, telling me she’s gotten her period for the first time. Lily is among the last of her friends to arrive at this rite of passage, so she is relatively nonchalant and completely prepared (we’ve had the necessary supplies at home and an emergency kit ready in her backpack since she was in fifth grade). I don’t doubt my husband’s ability to offer any support she might need, but I can’t escape a pressing guilt that I’m not there. So when she also casually mentions mid-way through this same week that she binge-watched the Netflix series based on Jay Asher’s bestselling young adult book that we’d both read, I feel an urgency to watch, too – my effort to reinsert myself into her world and put us back on the same page.
The story recounts the chain reaction of factors that culminate in a high school student’s death by suicide. Her “suicide note” takes the form of thirteen tape recordings she makes before her death. We learn she endures escalating bullying and sexual exploitation by the students around her, and that a classmate rapes her at a party. Her tentative efforts to seek help from a few friends and a school guidance counselor go unanswered before she takes her own life.
Since its release, the show has garnered its fair share of attention and controversy because it contains explicit and triggering scenes of underage drinking and drug use, sexual assault, rape, and a graphic depiction of the girl’s suicide. Mental health professionals and school administrators have recently expressed concerns that a potentially “romanticized” or “sensationalized” vision of suicide could put young people with emotional struggles at further risk. After finishing the series myself, the mom guilt snakes its way back into my psyche. At this point, I haven’t read any of the press about the show, but I wish I’d previewed it before Lily watched, or at least been home to watch it with her – not because I have any particular fears about Lily’s mental health, but simply because the series’ content and themes are highly mature and were likely difficult and maybe even frightening for her still pliable mind to fully process alone.
“Lil, I think we need to have a chat about ’13 Reasons Why,’” I say from my seat on the closed toilet lid in her bathroom the night after my return. She’s just gotten home from soccer practice and is about to take a shower. I offered to keep her company so we could catch up on the week.
She stops untangling her long braid and glances quickly in my direction. Her cheeks redden. “Why?” she asks, her tone guarded and defensive. She immediately adds, “All of my friends have watched it.”
“I’m not mad that you watched it,” I reassure her. “It’s just that after seeing it, I wish we could have watched it together.”
“That would have been awkward. I would be totally embarrassed,” she says, pulling her t-shirt over her head. I reflect on her statement as she finishes undressing, unfazed that I’m there, and steps into the shower. Lily’s not one to be bashful about much. She has an innate confidence in her abilities – one that I’ve never had. This confidence translates to her academic and athletic ventures. Despite the physical changes happening to her body, she carries herself with an overall ease and seems comfortable in her own skin.
In moments like this one, though, I’m reminded just how vulnerable Lily still feels as she navigates this blurry territory between child and adult. Territory in which she’s determining and asserting her personal identity, dealing with fluctuating hormones, and trying to interpret the onslaught of cultural messages and social pressures about popularity and beauty ideals and sex.
It’s the sex part, I imagine, that’s at the root of the awkwardness she feels now. “Gross” is how Lily reflexively responds when I ask her what she thinks about the scenes depicting consensual sex and the scenes of sexual assault in “13 Reasons Why.” “Gross” is usually how Lily responds whenever topics of sex or sexuality come up in conversation. Despite the pairing off of some friends in her social circle, she’s yet to latch on romantically to one particular person, and while I’m not naïve enough to believe that sex is never on her mind or plays no part in her social world, I know she’s still viewing it all through a lens of relative inexperience. So, the scenes in “13 Reasons Why” that present sex as often ugly and degrading to the female, and at times, extremely violent, could very well be the most explicit visuals of sex she’s ever seen. Visuals that call for some debriefing.
So, I push past her discomfort, and we talk about them. While Lily stands beneath the stream of water rinsing the shampoo suds from her thick, blonde hair, we talk about how sex, in the right context, is anything but ugly. We talk about victim-blaming and how, despite the fact that one of the girls who was raped was passed out from drinking too much, and the main character had undressed down to her bra and underwear to get into a hot tub before her rape, nothing they’d done encouraged or entitled the boy to assault them, even though he (and those who helped to protect him) claimed otherwise. We talk about making wise decisions and using common sense. We talk about bullying and gossip and the ways social media has made it possible for people to behave in ways they wouldn’t necessarily behave in person. We talk about the importance of kindness.
And, after Lily’s donned her polka-dot pajama pants and one of her many basketball t-shirts, we sit in her room and talk about suicide. “Hannah (the show’s main character) believed nobody cared whether she was alive or not,” I say. “She felt so scared and alone when she decided to die.”
“That part was really terrible,” Lily says, her face contorting with the memory of the painfully graphic scene. My own memory processes it, too, but I fixate on what comes after: the moment when Hannah’s mother finds her. My imagination takes me to that place of trauma, and my stomach lurches at even the momentary thought of facing the reality of losing one of my children to suicide. A reality that isn’t just a television show. I think of the girl in my son, Will’s, junior class who took her life in October, and I try to fathom how, in the months since, her parents have managed to keep breathing.
“You can talk to me and Dad about anything, Lily,” I say and tuck her down comforter around her chin before leaning in to kiss her cheek. “We are always here to help if you need us. You don’t have to try to handle things by yourself if they feel too hard.”
“I know,” she replies and rolls onto her side.
Does she really? I wonder, staring for a minute at the back of her head before reaching to turn off her bedside lamp. It’s easy to assume my kids feel settled and secure, but who knows what their reactions might be if something unexpected poses a threat. Whether I want them to be or not, the hard subjects portrayed in “13 Reasons Why” are all-too-relevant in Lily’s world, and whatever the problems surrounding the show’s delivery, I’m grateful for the entry it gave me for this dialogue with her. A dialogue that is hopefully paving the way for future important and necessary conversations.
“I love you,” I say, willing the words to take root in her mind and drown out any contradictory messages before she falls asleep.
Author Bio: Melanie Brooks is a college professor, freelance writer, and the author of Writing Hard Stories: Celebrated Memoirists Who Shaped Art from Trauma (Beacon Press, 2017). Her memoir-in-progress explores the lasting impact of living with the ten-year secret of her father’s HIV disease before his death in 1995. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Modern Loss, LitHub, Bustle, Creative Nonfiction, Hippocampus, The Huffington Post, and other noted publications. Melanie lives in New Hampshire with her husband, two children, and yellow Lab. Read more of her work at melaniebrooks.com or connect with her on Twitter @MelanieJMBrooks.