(No spoilers, except that it’s about teenage suicide!)
It started to happen recently.
I’m not sure exactly when they started but I’ve been aware of these feelings for a while now.
It’s a noticeable shift from the man I was 5 years ago.
It’s the realisation that I find myself identifying more with the Parent characters on TV than I do with the children.
10 years ago Seth and Ryan, the young screw-ups from The OC, were entirely on my wavelength. Now I sit and empathise with Phil, the quirky father, from Modern Family! What has happened to me?
As my wife and I settled down to watch “13 Reasons Why” on Netflix, I was prepared to feel vastly superior to the show. A glossy group of 17-year-old teenagers living out their high-school dramas in constant sunshine and supported by a cutting edge indie soundtrack? It didn’t seem like the kind of thing the 33-year-old, father of two in me was going to relate to.
I was wrong. The OC or Dawson’s Creek, this is not.
In fact, I’d struggle to even call it a Teen Drama. It is dark, unsettling, smart and intensely gripping.
A very quick synopsis at this stage so that you can understand some context.
The show focuses on a young woman, Hannah, who has killed herself. The story takes place a few weeks after the event as everyone is still coming to terms with the aftermath (school counselling, lawsuit etc.). The lead character, Clay Jenson, receives some anonymous cassette tapes. They contain recordings Hannah made before she died explaining the 13 reasons why she has decided to commit suicide and the 13 people who should feel responsible.
Our usual 10pm bedtime was thrown to the wayside as we binged on three episodes the first night.
By the end of episode 7 we were huffing on different sides of the bed having had a full-blown argument over the different characters varying culpability.
What I found most enticing about the show was, despite the glossy high school veneer, its realism. For the most part there is nothing too sensational or unbelievable that happens and hardly any of the characters are completely irreprehensible. Almost all of the “reasons” are events that you can imagine happening at high schools all around the country. Of course, the show builds to a climax as she becomes more and more detached from her feelings of self-worth, but for the first few episodes it showed how small events can, unknowingly, lay the ground work for much larger disasters later on.
It seems as if each of the “reasons” on their own are survivable but the problem comes when they are layered on top of each other.
Each of the characters, teenagers and adults, is well developed and you really get to dive into the different motivations and issues of each one. Swiftly you are reminded that you never really know what is going on in someone’s life. Incidentally, a lesson it took me years to realise.
I also feel the show did a good job of depicting how technology has changed things at school now. Camera phones, school-wide group messages, these have changed the landscape within which bullying is possible.
The Suicide scene
By the final episode, we have worked our way through Hannah’s back story. We’ve seen the misunderstandings, seemingly trivial fights, and significantly nasty events that have led her to a point where she feels it is worth killing herself.
At the beginning, I wondered how the filmmakers would, over the span of 13 episodes, make me empathise with Hannah enough to think that her decision was the right one.
In fact, I felt that they didn’t try to do this. Like a lot of the discussion points (sexual assault, consent, victim blaming) they simply shone a light on the topic without offering a clear, one sided opinion on it. The same was true for her suicide. As I watched her dig the razorblades into her wrists and then sit back trying to control her breathing, I still didn’t feel I’d have followed suit. I felt very sad that this young woman was dying, but I still didn’t fully empathise. Very unlike me, given I’m normally a blubbering mess, my eyes were dry.
Well, my eyes were dry until the bathroom room opened and her mum came in to find her in the bath.
Then it all hit me.
Bullying. Does this boy or girl like me? Being socially ostracized. Jealousy. These are all issues that the teenage characters faced that I don’t face anymore. I am my own man in a world which I have carved out for myself. I have cast aside the bad influences and surrounded myself with the positive people. It’s a very big leap for me to feel as alone and helpless as Hannah did.
Her mother and father however? Coming in the door to hold their lifeless daughter in their arms while saying:
“Its ok, she’s ok, just call an ambulance”
THAT, was terrifying. That was an emotion that I’m scared to even let take root in my head.
I look at my happy joyful children and it crushes me to imagine the world taking that joy from them. Yet what can I do to ensure it doesn’t? What can I do beyond HOPE?
The parents in this show are attentive, they are kind, they are trying to be good parents and yet it still wasn’t enough.
Parents of teenagers, Parents of toddlers
I’m not the parent of a teenager, my kids are only 4 and 1.
I struggle to see the leap from the 4-year-old and 1-year-old that I eat dinner with every night to the normal, but troubled, teenagers depicted here. And yet I know these kids were all 4 and 1 once upon a time.
This show provided me a few insights into the difference between parenting toddlers and parenting teenagers.
I became acutely aware of how much we lose that physical connection as kids grow up. Right now, if my kids are upset, I can pick them up, set them on my knee, wrap my arms around them as I console them. We can cuddle in bed together, hold hands.
All little gestures that make us feel connected.
In the show, there is a definite awkwardness as child and parent stand in front of each other, trying to say caring, understanding things, yearning to hug one another, but unable to muster anything more physically intimate than a slap on the shoulder.
What is happening in their world
With two kids in nursery at the moment, I know pretty much everything about their lives. I have daily updates from their key workers, I can observe them playing in the room before they notice me. It helps that the kids can’t really lie yet, so they tell me anything that pops in their heads.
Clearly shocked by a suicide at the school, the kids’ parents, are constantly asking their kids:
“Are you ok? Do you want to talk about anything? We are here if you need us”.
They are parents doing good parenting things, and yet their kids STILL shut them out. They continue to be the “typical” teenagers and close the doors to their parents’ attempts to understand them.
The helplessness of the parents struck me. How much they don’t know about what is going on in their kids’ lives.
My kid is the good kid
The show also asked an interesting question:
“Are we as parents blinded to the sins of our children?”
As each character’s “reason” is revealed we are also privy to scenes of them at home with siblings and parents. “You’d never do something as nasty as bullying, you are a good boy”, “You’d never be involved in teasing someone, you are too nice for that”.
Yet the truth is everyone, especially when young, is capable of a nasty word or not standing up for someone in their time of need. Do we parents always believe our kids are too good to be the bad guy when, in reality, every bad guy is someone’s son or daughter?
It’s got to get better
In the epilogue of the show Clay states:
“It’s got to get better”
It temporarily made me think of the anti-suicide charity a few years ago ItGetsBetter. All sorts of people, myself included, made YouTube videos explaining how life after high school got better for them. The message was to just knuckle down and get through it, it gets better.
But Clay wasn’t done.
“It’s got to get better, the way we treat each other, it’s got to change”
I took that as a much more powerful message than knuckle down and survive, a maxim for the victim. I took it as a call to everyone, the victim, the perpetrator, you, me and everyone in-between, to look at their own behaviour, not just in high schools but in work places, in nightclubs, in politics. Look at the times when you act like a dick, because the truth is, we are all dicks at times. Try to avoid the gossiping or back stabbing, try to avoid the teasing to help yourself fit in, try to realise the detrimental effect that your “looking out for number one” approach can have on others.
I teach my kids to be kind. I don’t really care if they eat all their dinner or want to watch more cartoons. In their little worlds at the moment they know the most disappointed Daddy can be is if they do something that’s not nice.
I hope they continue to grow up to be kind and I hope that their kindness finds kindred kind spirits as they go through school, university and life. I hope that they never find themselves so alone that they can picture only one escape route and I hope they know that, regardless of their situation, they will always be able to hug and talk with their father.
I warned you it was an unsettling show! But credit to Netflix for not shying away the many different and difficult themes involved.
Its interesting that Common Sense Media, a review site for parents and educators, suggest this is for ages 16+, the parents reviewing it suggest 15+ and the teenagers reviewing it suggest 14+. I dare say they know more about the topic than we do.
Perhaps 13 Reasons Why’s greatest triumph is to give you and your teenager some common ground to discuss these topics. Watch it together and talk about it afterwards. Argue, discuss, agree, disagree, it doesn’t matter, just engage with each other. I shan’t be watching it with my 4 year old but, in ten years time, I’ll absolutely share a sofa, a box of tissues and a bingeful weekend with him. (Of course that’s if he’ll tolerate watching TV with his old man!)
If anything about this show, or what I have said above, has particularly struck you and you’d like to talk to someone here are a few links you might find helpful:
www.samaritians.org Call 116 123 for free, 24/7, someone to chat to.
www.ditchthelabel.org Leading international anti-bullying charity
www.rapecrisis.org.uk A network of independent centres around the country.
www.stonewall.org.uk A LGBT-rights campaign group