Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Thirteen Reasons Why Not

Last night the Portsmouth Public library hosted a panel discussing the recent controversy and hype surrounding the Netflix series Thirteen Reasons Why, based on the 2007 YA novel by Jay Asher.

I know I've been writing a lot about this story, but ever since the series was released in March, it's been like a runaway train, that's hauling explosives in the freight cars.

I was very glad that the Youth Services department organized the event, because even though it has garnered so much attention, most of the people speaking out for it or against it are doing so in very passive ways, like via Facebook posts. It was good to discuss the story's content in a more formal setting, where people were actually listening to each other instead of just 'liking' or responding to comments.

So I went to the panel because I'm passionate about children's and YA literature, and because I've always been interested in psychology and because I have very strong feelings about censorship and gatekeeping. I guess I'm kind of a nerd. And I took two pages of notes on my laptop during the discussion, so I guess I'm a huge nerd.

I admit that it annoyed me when people would chime in by prefacing their comments with "Well, I haven't read the book or watched the show, but.  .  ."

It's like


There were some really interesting points and valid ideas that I hadn't thought of before. The first thing which I wrote down is a quote from one of the speakers, who is the Executive Director for the state's chapter of NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness). He said "there's no us or them" when it comes to suicide. It's not about adults vs. teens, or people who support the show vs. those who criticize it. Anyone can be affected by suicide. So, let's just accept that we're all in this together and stop drawing lines between ourselves.

The historical and literary point that I found really interesting is the origin of the suicide contagion theory. Johann Wolfgang  von Goethe wrote The Sorrows of Young Werther, which was first published in 1774. Napoleon considered it one of the greatest works of literature to that date. The plot centers on a love triangle involving a young, sensitive artist. When he realizes that he will never be able to have the woman he loves, he decides that dying is the only way to resolve the conflict and end his pain, and he ultimately does take his own life with a pistol. Sorry for the spoiler.

The popularity of the novel led to 'Werther Fever' which consisted of a flurry of merchandise such as prints and perfumes, but there were also a number of young men who referenced the work in their own suicides. They would dress in the character's clothing style, and would sometimes even have the book at their side when they were found.

When I hear school administrators or guidance counselors talk about "the contagion", I roll my eyes because they make it seem like it's a stomach virus that's sweeping schools across the nation. It is a valid concern, but it's important to note that the people at risk for the contagion are already at risk. The book or the TV show isn't introducing a new idea to them- that seed has already been planted. That's pretty much what I already thought.

I was glad to see so many parents with their teens in the audience. I especially appreciated the comment made by one father in attendance, who summed up how quickly information, and misinformation, spreads now thanks to texting and social media. He said he heard about the TV show from a Facebook post (the post was telling parents not to allow their children to watch the show), and that night he asked his daughter if she knew what TV show it was. She responded "yeah, I've seen a couple episodes.  .  ." When he checked the Netflix account, he realized that she had already watched nearly the entire series. So the idea that parents/teachers are going to find out about something in time to keep the kids from knowing about it is kind of absurd.

Although we are getting better at recognizing the diversity and scope of mental health issues, there is still a stigma. The same speaker I referenced above said this is apparent because we often discuss physical health freely: "Oh, I got that stomach bug that's been going around" or "My allergies are killing me" are frequently shared, but we hesitate to share something like "I've been very depressed lately, and I think I might need to talk to my Dr. about it". Even with that, many general practitioners do not screen for issues such as anxiety or depression, or if they do, it's often in the way of a generic question. In fact, he said that the number of people who complete suicide within 30 days of seeing a primary care physician are astounding.

The last point that piqued my interest regards the process of watching the series. More than a couple people commented that they hadn't finished it yet, or they had to stop watching because it was so upsetting or intense. That wasn't my experience at all. I watched the episodes one right after another. Maybe it was different for me because unlike most of the others, I had read the book, so I already knew what was going to happen. I'm not sure.

I'm not usually a fan of audiobooks because I'm such a visual person that I prefer to see the words, but one of the Youth Services librarians who was involved in organizing the event said that he listened to the book, and it was very powerful because there are two narrators: Clay and Hannah. As you listen to the Hannah's voice, it's like she's speaking to you, and it draws you into the story.

If you watched the show or read the book, (or listened to the audio version), how did it impact you?

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