Title: Thirteen Reasons Why
Author: Jay Asher
Release Date: 2007
Category: Young Adult
Source: From Asamum!
Summary from Amazon:
Clay Jensen returns home from school one day to find a mysterious box, with his name on it, lying on the porch. Inside he discovers 13 cassette tapes recorded by Hannah Baker - his classmate - who committed suicide two weeks earlier. On tape, Hannah explains that there are thirteen reasons why she did what she did - and Clay is one of them. If he listens, he'll find out how he made the list - and it'll change Clay's life forever.
I am reviewing this book for Asamum's Anti-Bullying Week organised from 15th to 19th November in light of the recent wave of teen suicides in the USA and because, frankly, one doesn't need a reason to fight bullying, life is already too hard as it is, no need for it to be complicated by morons with superiority complexes.
I have been meaning to read Thirteen Reasons Why for a very very long time ever since I read an article in the Wall Street Journal talking about the popularity of doomy gloomy themes like death in Young Adult literature (here).
Thirteen Reasons Why is an utterly beautiful story in a very grim way. The subject, and how it is treated, offers a very original point of view on suicide but most importantly on bullying. In this book, Hannah Baker moves to a new school and unfortunately for her, in the first months of her arrival at school, she is the victim of nasty gossip which will build her a reputation of easy girl that she will never be able to get out of and which will trigger numerous subsequent events.
Hannah decides to commit suicide and before she ends her life, she records 13 tapes which she sends to the 13 persons she deems responsible (directly or indirectly) of the state which led her to commit suicide. The narrator is Clay Jensen who knew, without exactly knowing, Hannah and who had hidden feelings for her. The book has two narratives, Clay Jensen in the present while he listens to Hannah telling her story from her first moments in the new city.
I have read a lot of negative comments about this book, how it presents suicide in a positive way, how vindictive and sometimes spiteful Hannah can be, how all the reasons listed in the tapes aren't "enough" for someone to commit suicide and many more.
Though I understand, to some extent, why some people formulate those criticisms, I can tell you that I truly enjoyed reading this book, in a way, like Clay, I couldn't stop listening/reading Hannah's story. And as unbelievable as some people might find it, I thought it reflected what I have experienced in high school and what I can witness on a daily basis in the media.
We don't really get to know Hannah, at least not before she entered that self-destructive path, but we do regret it. I entirely empathized with what she was going through and the fact that she had no one to turn to, no one to help her deflate the importance of what was happening to her, and no one to tell her that things were going to be okay. I found Clay to be a very likeable character and it was interesting reading the stories of the 12 other persons who have failed Hannah.
The most important theme in this book, which is underlying to bullying, is utter and total sexism/misogyny/whatever-you-name-it. As any girl or woman knows, equality between man and woman is very far from making its way from its paper version to the real world. We all know this. But worse than the inferiority to men is the constant sexual pressure put on girls - [sarcam\] because, let's face it, a girl is only hot curves and big boobs, right? [sarcasm]
Schools are sometimes worse than any other place to be for a young girl entering womanhood. Hannah is victim of a boy wanting to brag about hooking up with her (which didn't happen), one putting her in a list of "Best Butt", some touching her as if they owned her and then some. This is what happens in schools on a daily basis, they are not considered serious enough to be worth of notice. High school in particular is the worst place for a girl's dignity to be left unscathed. And I won't even go as far as talking about rape (though frankly we don't talk about it enough).
I don't know about you, but I have always been glad not to be part of the "pretty popular" bunch in my high school because if there is one thing I hate more than reality TV and high heels, it is to be considered as a piece of meat. And oh boy do I master one hell of a murderous glare when that happens. The peer pressure at this age and in this environment is so powerful that Hannah lived a total nightmare: she was treated as an "easy girl" by the male population of the school, she lost all her female friends, she was used by her friends in all possible ways and her privacy and even thoughts have been violated. But she is far from being the only girl facing some problems. Even Clay acknowledges that the gossip making Hannah a very hot and easy girl changed the way she looked to him. It changed all guys' perception of her.
I cried my heart out for her because, sadly, if people around had payed a tiny bit more attention, they would have seen the signs, or at least known when to stop pushing her to the edge. It is not exactly a question of who did what (though some are truly guilty of a very sick behaviour) but rather who didn't. And that's all of them. It is easier to be mean and cruel than to acknowledge your behaviour and know where to stop.
I also liked the fact that the book shows that Hannah had someone she could talk to, but she had been so scarred that she couldn't even bear to trust someone else again. The book is not a happy book, and it doesn't try to moralise teens or guilt them. It shows the story of one girl, which could have been any girl. And it shows how much small misconceptions and jokes can turn nasty snowballing in disastrous effects. There is a powerful message - one of responsibility. Learning to take responsibility for one's actions is the whole process of growing up, and I really hope that this book will be read by many teenagers and will help stop some of the bullying.
I found this book very original and it pierced straight to my heart. The characters were so realistic that I had a hard time getting out of the story. Hannah's story is definitely worth reading, sharing and talking about it and Jay Asher is an author to look out for.
Discussion About Suicide and Bullying
I am hijacking my review a little bit to talk a bit about bullying. Several personalities in the US have made "It Gets Better" videos following the wave of (gay or not) teen suicides which have been broadly talked about during the past months.
After a bit of googling I found out that one of the lead causes of death among teenagers is suicide. In the USA, where the story of Hannah Baker is set, it is the third cause of death among teenagers between 15 and 24... And most shockingly, it is the fourth cause of death for teens between 10 and 14.
There are many many reasons why anyone would choose to end their life, but bullying, especially at such a young age is one of them. As Hannah Baker and many other people, I have never been badly bullied: I wasn't beaten up by anyone, and most of the jibes or actions were not in themselves life-threatening. But they did hurt, they were small things upon small things which hurt and which made each day painful to go through and made me wonder about giving up. To tell you the truth, I have started to be myself, truly myself, just a couple of years ago.
Like many teens, I went through school without ever feeling either comfortable or myself. I was halfway between what people expected and what I expected of myself. And I have been made fun of: because I didn't want to smoke, then because I wouldn't drink alcohol or do drugs. I remember that when I was 13, my best friends stopped talking to me for refusing to smoke, and asked all the others in my class to make fun of me because I was a "sissy" and "not cool". I was entirely alone during the majority of the year.
Things got better in high school and I was starting to discover myself, starting to understand why I felt so different inside, and knowing this made me feel less like a freak, but it didn't change people's opinion of me. No matter how much you change inside, people still see you as they saw you when you were 12.
I thought I would finally be myself at University. I chose a university far from my home on purpose, but I met another type of bullying, where you are bullied for your social and cultural origin, your sexual orientation and for some aspects of your personality.
The worse thing is that bullying sometimes doesn't come from school, it can come from people in the street... and usually from your family. They might compare you constantly with other people or criticize your appearance or other. Or through general remarks not exactly meant to hurt you but to make you change (sometimes for good and sometimes not). They don't necessarily mean to be hurtful, but sometimes they are.
People's expectations of you are the worse things to overcome. It is a constant fight and a constant struggle to assert yourself as yourself and to prove to the world that you are a human being worth respecting. But it is a fight worth taking.
Things do get better when you are an independent adult and can really choose who you hang out with and how you choose to live your life. I can safely say that I am the happiest now that I have ever been in my entire life. Being yourself in a world who wants you to be someone else, better suited to their interest, is the hardest thing to do, and if I can give you one piece of advice, do not give up. There will always be people too jealous or too stupid who will want to somehow bring you down, but they are by no means "better" than you. You are not alone and you are not the only one going through this. There are people who will listen to you, not in your family, not among your friends and probably not in your school, but there are other people who have gone through these things and who will listen to you and understand you.
The worst part is when things get too much and you are sending SOS to people around you (a sad face on your Facebook profile or the quoting of a sad song on Twitter) and they don't realise/care enough. The safest thing to do is to talk to someone from an association on the phone or by email who will help you out. Because talking about it will help you. It will make you stop focusing on yourself and you will gain hindsight and see things in a different light.
(Sorry I'm babbling too much)
Were you ever bullied at school or elsewhere? How did you cope with it?
And for the girls, how did you cope with constant sexual pressure from boys?
And for the girls, how did you cope with constant sexual pressure from boys?
Don't hesitate to check out Asamum's blog (here) for more info about the week and about bullying.