The paradox of ‘13 Reasons Why’: Listen to what isn’t said


13 Reasons Why 800

Photo of Katherine Langford.


Editor’s Note: This essay discusses important plot points that take place in the last three episodes of Netflix’s ‘13 Reasons Why,’ created by Brian Yorkey (‘Next to Normal’). 

The clarion call to everyone in the audience is to listen vigilantly for what is often not said out loud

13 Reasons Why is one of the most talked-about new series on television for what it says about teenage suicide. But its clarion call to everyone in its audience is to listen vigilantly for what is often not said out loud.

I should know.

The groundbreaking Netflix screen adaptation of Jay Asher’s 2007 novel is rightly being praised for putting the issue on America’s 80-inch HD screens wrapped in exquisite writing and often riveting storytelling.

It’s about an ordinary 16-year-old girl named Hannah who, within arm’s reach of an ideal boyfriend, achingly involved parents and supportive peers, is also bullied and assaulted right under every loving but oblivious eye in her life. But before she kills herself, she commits her reasons for committing suicide to 13 damning audiotapes. Essentially to both torture her peers – and educate the Netflix audience on what signs to look for.

America, and especially America’s educators, are lasering in on the controversial climactic scene in which Hannah (Katherine Langford) finally goes to her school counselor (Derek Luke) for help. To give life one last try, she says. It is a heartbreaking exercise in best intentions and missed signals. And 13 Reasons Why just brought that all home for me.

I was once an idealistic high-school theatre teacher. Not as a vocation, or even as a side job. As a favor. I was working nights in the sports department at The Denver Post right out of college, which meant my days were free. So I was asked to teach two classes this high school needed to offer in order to maintain its accreditation. It didn’t matter that I was untrained and inadequate. Or that the school counselor was untrained and inadequate. As long as all the holes were filled.

It didn’t matter that I loved my time at that school so much that I never cashed a single paycheck, even though I was 24 and could barely afford a pizza. It didn’t matter that I was determined to shake these kids from their prevailing malaise and absorb their heart’s injuries and restore a modicum of their innate teenage optimism and adolescent joy.

It didn’t matter how well-intentioned I was, because on the one day it really did matter that I actually knew what I was doing, I was tested. And like the school counselor in 13 Reasons Why, I failed.

Brian Yorkey’s words of comfort after actor’s suicide

There was a knock on my car window. It was a Friday afternoon, and I was taking a rare weekend off to go camping with friends. I was in my car and just a few feet away from leaving my slowly thawing young tribe of theatre geeks in the rear-view window for a few days. But from the second I turned to see the source of the knock, my pop quiz had begun.

Her name was Lilly. No it wasn’t, but that’s not important here. Lilly was, by her own admission, insistently unlikable. She was a rich, entitled and friendless 18-year-old. She was attractive by any standard of burgeoning beauty, and no one knew that better than Lilly. I was determined to eventually open her hardened heart, but she was the one kid who did not buy my act. Not at all. Still, I persisted. Told her to audition for the school play because it was going to shake the foundation of this troubled school and all of its institutional hypocrisy. That got her attention.

I was stunned when Lilly actually did show up to audition. But just before she began, she told me, “You should know that if I don’t get a big part, then I don’t want any part at all.” Every director’s dream. I kind of did a “say what?” and she emphatically clarified: “It would be a waste of my time to play a part that I don’t want.” That didn’t stop me from offering her a small role – and that didn’t stop her from turning it down.

The play did kind of shake the foundation of the school, and Lilly later regretted her self-sabotage. It was about a well-intentioned pre-Columbine teacher who takes his high-school class hostage until they actually learn something. Lilly came to a performance of the play and later admitted that she blew it. And I told her there’s always another play.

I am sure I was short with Lilly when I rolled down the window that Friday afternoon. I had no time to lose. But she only wanted to hand me a letter. “Read it when you have a minute,” she said. I took it, tossed it on the passenger seat and hit the highway.

Lilly wasn’t in class on Monday. Tuesday, too. I asked the class. No one had seen her at any of the parties that weekend. Then it hit me: The letter. I hadn’t given it a second thought. I ran out to my car, grabbed it off the seat and ripped it open. It was written with fine pencil in exquisitely crafted cursive penmanship. And my worst fears were realized. I can quote it, because I still have it as a cautionary reminder:

Dear John,

I may seem to you a very strong person, but inside me I am crumbling to pieces. I’m going crazy. I sometimes wonder why I’m still alive. John, I don’t know if I can handle life anymore. There’s so much pain and anger and frustration and loneliness. The pain is so dominant. Sooner or later it will win. And I will die.”

I read no further. I sprinted to the principal’s office with every heartbeat stabbing into my guilt-ridden hippocampus. Lilly often boasted how her parents essentially lived in Chicago, leaving her alone for weeks in their gigantic east Denver home. The school secretary gave me the number. I dialed, already starting to assume full responsibility for the death of this troubled, spoiled and unsaved child. I expected no answer and yet somehow … got one.

“Hi John,” Lilly said casually.

“Lilly?” I blurted. “What the hell?”

She teased: “I was wondering how long it would take you to call.”

Yes, Lilly was the kind of girl who missed two days of school because she was testing me. How long before I read and reacted? Five days, it turns out. Test failed. And, no, I didn’t do a lot of teaching after that. But at least she wasn’t dead in a bathtub.

But then came 13 Reasons Why, which has shaken real (certified!) teachers to the core and, in some cases, left them defensive and angry. For weeks, embattled, overworked and underfunded educators have assailed the series for romanticizing suicide; for normalizing it as a viable option for impressionable viewers in similar crises. You know what I say? More than 5,240 teenagers attempt suicide every day. So let’s talk about it.

13 Reasons Why 800 2To fully understand the context of this important scene between Hannah and the counselor, Mr. Porter, you first have to go back two episodes to when Hannah shuts down her good-guy budding boyfriend, Clay (Dylan Minnette). Something about homework and making a fresh start, she tells him. But as the wounded pup leaves, awkwardly trying to salvage his pride, we hear Hannah’s internal monologue: “Part of me was saying, ‘Ask me again.’ ” Not, “Part of me wanted to say, ‘Ask me again.” Those words are critical: Part of me WAS SAYING. To her, she said it. Clay just didn’t hear it.

Fast-forward to the scene where Hannah finally does what we all are silently willing her to do: She goes to the school counselor and asks for help. But she just can’t say the critical words: “I’ve been raped by the star of the basketball team.” Mr. Porter is not unconcerned – he just never quite fully hears Hannah. So they engage in a frustrating word dance where he is asking the right questions – “What’s on your heart right now?” “Did you have an encounter at the party?” – but she can’t quite give him full answers.

When she tells him: “I need it to stop. Everything. People. Life.” He gets it. “That’s a serious thing to say,” he says, and for a moment, you think she might be saved. But it’s not that easy. She doesn’t say, ‘Yeah. It is serious.’ She apologizes and says instead, “I didn’t mean … that. I guess.”

And so it goes. When Hannah ultimately tells Mr. Porter she can’t confront the boy who assaulted her without the assurance of a conviction, her only real choice, he tells her, is to move on.

Later, when Clay later confronts Mr. Porter over his culpability in Hannah’s suicide, those most haunting words come back: “She hoped you would come after her,” he tells the counselor. “But you didn’t.” No one did.

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“Some of you care,” Hannah says on the tape. “None of you cared enough.” And with that, Hannah enters that common state of finality when a suicidal person has essentially made peace with their impending demise.

In both cases, the central dialogue is not what Hannah says out loud. It’s what we hear her saying inside her own head. And that’s where 13 Reasons Why becomes a teachable moment. So often teens in crisis are asking for help. And it’s not that we aren’t listening. We’re just not hearing. You can’t wait for a suicidal person to say: “I am going to walk out this door and kill myself.” You have to listen for a suicidal person to tell you: “I want you to come after me.” Even when they can’t say the words.

The author is telling us all to be vigilant. Listen. Pick up on the clues. Even if those clues are cloudy, gray and wrapped in riddles.

It’s when people go silent that you really have to listen.

John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.

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