In 2007 author Jay Asher published his first book – a young adult/teen novel about a girl who commits suicide, and leaves a set of cassette tapes to explain why she killed herself. The book soared to the top of the New York bestsellers list, won a number of awards, and was published in 35 countries around the world. In March 2017, Netflix released a series based on the story, which has renewed public interest in the book again.
I picked up a copy of the book at my local library. It was an engrossing read, a chance to see the world through the eyes of 17-year-old Hannah Baker. Her monologue on the tapes shows how each one of thirteen people influenced her decision to kill herself. What starts off as a sweet first kiss and nothing more, is twisted into lies and rumors about Hannah being promiscuous. The rumors remain unchallenged, and her reputation is trashed.
As sorry as I felt for the character of Hannah, I was equally disturbed by the hopelessness that permeated the novel. She was consistently portrayed as a victim that was powerless to do anything about the situation. Her parents are nowhere to be found in the story, aside from Hannah saying they don’t care. The teacher that confiscates the “who’s hot” list doesn’t do anything about it. Clay Jensen, the guy who is listening to the tapes throughout the book, has loved Hannah from a distance, but has been too timid to do anything to help her. And not one of the other girls encourages her or tries to correct the rumor.
There were times when I saw glimmers of hope and thought: this is your chance Hannah, say something, tell someone! Like when Clay is trying to help her at the party and she just tells him to go away. Or the guy who sees her crying in the cafe after another guy tries to fondle her, and says he’s sorry for whatever just happened and tries to be kind. Again, she refuses to speak. And the scene when she talks to the school counselor and tells him some vague things, then walks out of the room. (She did say enough enough that the counselor really should have talked to her parents.) Hannah just doesn’t speak up to defend herself, not until she’s recording her suicide tapes.
The other thing that really bothered me was how premeditated some of Hannah’s actions were. 1 – The cassette tapes are not recorded on a whim, but over a series of days. 2 – Hannah stages a lesbian make-out scene in her bedroom with another girl when she knows the yearbook photographer is peeking in the window. 3 – Hannah window-peeks on the photographer, and seems gleeful about it. 4 – Hannah willingly gets into a hot-tub with a guy that she knew had raped another girl, and says she knew what was going to happen next. So instead of the suicide being something done in the midst of a depressed moment, it seems to be a calculated event done for effect. Consider this excerpt from Hannah’s monologue:
“…one: You listen. Number two: You pass it on. Hopefully, neither one will be easy for you. When you’re done listening to all thirteen sides – because there are thirteen sides to every story – rewind the tapes, put them back in the box, and pass them on to whoever follows your little tale. And you, lucky number thirteen, you can take the tapes straight to hell. Depending on your religion, maybe I’ll see you there. In case you’re tempted to break the rules, understand that I did make a copy of these tapes. Those copies will be released in a very public manner if this package doesn’t make it through all of you. This was not a spur-of-the-moment decision. Do not take me for granted again. You are being watched.”