The Fourteenth Reason Why
Yes, I watched it.
As someone who works in mental health and sometimes with young people who are suicidal, I had heard about the 13 Reasons Why phenomenon. It’s been a “water cooler moment” for everyone in youth mental health. In order to decide for myself what all the fuss was about, I spent a weekend hunkered down on my couch with my cat and several pots of English breakfast tea. This well-produced Netflix series entranced me, moved me, engrossed me and — at times, outraged me.
Having had time to digest it, the thing that struck me is that nearly all of the adults in the series, as well-meaning as they may appear to be, fail to open up a safe space for the young people in their care to talk about how they are feeling. Parents, counsellors and teachers all appear too busy, too distracted and, at times, too uncaring to listen and allow Hannah and her peers to say what is in their hearts.
There is so much miscommunication, so many elisions in their relationships; gaps and chasms into which all of the feelings and unmet needs fall — a space from which repair seems unreachable. Each person strives to hide their vulnerability and run away from any shared responsibility for friendship. The High School community is depicted as one which is insular and enmeshed, indifferent to the struggles of those who are at risk, and, at times, downright cruel. Hannah is excluded and “defriended” in a cold and judgemental way. She is singled out for ridicule and humiliated by a group of boys who have too much power and too little investment in caring for those who need help. Everyone at Liberty High seems far too wrapped up in their own concerns to notice that a student is in serious trouble.
We, the audience, are given privileged access to Hannah’s thoughts and feelings through her tapes — what she could not say to anyone prior to her death, she elaborates via a rehabilitated Walkman. It is a strange conceit to kill oneself and suddenly try to create a new, real and more communicative self through and after death. “OK, you let me down and I am angry. I was asking for help all along, but you didn’t listen. Now, when it is too late, I will let you know how I feel.” The people who are implicated are given no recourse to mend their relationships with the heroine.
Hannah seems to want all relationships and people to be perfect. Yet, as her counsellor points out — no one can be perfect, or relate to you in a perfect way. We are all flawed human beings with our own unmet needs. We will always let one another down, perhaps only in small ways, but sometimes in large ones — and then, if we are lucky and if we mean enough to one another, we will try to repair. Early on, in her relationship with Courtney, she does try to do the work of repairing, she seeks Courtney out and makes several attempts to have a conversation, but is rejected due to the other girl’s fear of being “outed” and having her “flawed” lesbian self revealed to the public. That is where Hannah isn’t mature or strong enough to ask for what she wants — when she is hurt, she gives up. A sign, perhaps, of an early environment where she may have been neglected emotionally and where her dependency needs may have stayed unmet.
At times, Hannah appears both passive and reckless, choosing to put herself into situations where she knows she will be vulnerable. She interprets relatively benign encounters in ways which do the most harm to her relationships. She won’t or can’t explain why she is behaving the way she is and she doesn’t trust anyone enough to risk revealing her innermost thoughts and feelings. At the party, when she asks Clay to stop, she doesn’t explain and she rejects him in a way that is likely to make any but the most evolved teenage male run and hide. Listening to the tapes, we learn the real reason — aside from her mistreatment at the hands of the young men who seek to exploit her — she doesn’t feel like she deserves a boy like Clay. She feels that she would ruin the relationship, because she is inherently bad — it seems. Those feelings are the 14th reason why. They tell us about what really underlies her depression and eventual suicide. The trauma of her sexual assault becomes the final factor that tips her over the edge and away from those who might have been able to help.
Amanda Robins Psychotherapist
Originally published at www.amandarobinspsychotherapy.com.au.