Image of children sitting on the floor in a classroom, raising their arms.

Review: Thirteen Reasons Why

Peter Shea

Thirteen Reasons Why

Review of Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher (New York: Penguin, 2007).  Originally published in Thinking: The Journal of Philosophy for Children 20(3/4): 1.

Gareth Matthews, the previous columnist for Thinking in Stories, introduced me to several resources for provoking children’s thinking. He pointed out that simple children’s books provoke the multi-directional inquiry that Matthew Lipman tried to initiate with his novels. In particular, Gary made me aware of Arnold Lobel’s work, which I used in college and community demonstrations of P4C teaching strategies. These simple stories raise questions cleanly and then get out of the reader’s way. As I remember discussions using Lobel’s “Dragons and Giants” (from Frog and Toad Are Friends), I am reminded of Yeats’ phrase: “the ceremonies of innocence;” surely, this is a great story for people starting out: about friendship, taking risks, measuring oneself against the standards of the adult world.

I will close out this column with a disturbing book, one that would surely have made Gary uneasy: Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher. I am not sure whether I can recommend this book, though I use it in my college classes whenever possible. In this book’s world, Yeats’ prophecy in The Second Coming is fulfilled, “the ceremonies of innocence are drowned.” Friends betray friends. Adults are irrelevant to the lives of children. Schools harbor violence and cruelty. The mind of the heroine darkens, page by page, until she kills herself.

Thirteen Reasons Why is a story told by Clay, a high school over-achiever. Shortly after his friend Hannah kills herself, he receives audio tapes from her in the mail. Hannah has prepared these to explain her decision to end her life to the thirteen people who somehow contributed to that decision – by small acts of betrayal, by acts of violence, by inattention and distractedness. As Clay listens to the tapes, reconstructing the last years of Hannah’s life, he is given a tour of the ways that human beings hold each other’s lives in their hands, day by day, though they mostly never notice. We matter to each other, and we can never tell how much we matter at any given moment. Asher has done a breathtaking survey of the dimensions of moral responsibility, without ever going beyond daily life in a public high school.

Many people are involved in Hannah’s descent into despair: a friend tells lies about her sexual exploits, the class clown nominates her for “best ass in the freshman class,” a snoopy reporter invades her privacy, a social climber offers her friendship and then abandons her, a teacher responds apathetically to her pleas for help, and a sexual predator feels her up. None of this is unprecedented or fatal. But the things that happen to Hannah cumulate in her mind.
Asher’s story shows how injuries add up, gradually weakening Hannah’s mind and heart. Each contributor to Hannah’s decline might have acted differently, had he or she known Hannah’s mind – but, alas, they only find out about that mind after her life ends. Their principal fault: they showed little curiosity about her state of mind, while she was with them.

Clay, the boy through whom we experience this story, is the most problematic contributor to Hannah’s demise: a boy who loved her, who was fearful about expressing his love, who wished her well throughout her life. His part in the story is complex: he accepted just a little too much the rumors about her loose way of life, responded just a little too slowly to her attempts to reach out to him, and gave up just a little too easily when confronting her muddled feelings about relationship. So Clay is by no means a villain, but he misses being a hero by just a few small failures.

When I first read this book, I thought, “I must change my life. I must be more careful with people, especially people at the margins of my daily activities. I am more responsible than I generally notice.” That seemed to me to be the essential ethical awakening, the core of what ethical thinking requires, and this book seemed to me then, quite simply, the best introduction to ethics I had ever read. When I used it in classes, several of my students reported just the same shock of recognition.

Since then, I have had second thoughts. One cannot get around the fact that Asher portrays plausibly, with plausible examples, the descent of a fragile person into disappointment, disillusionment, and apathy.