I have always wanted to write about *whispers* …suicide, but I have refrained from writing on this topic because of the “suicide paradox.” However, in the past 10 days, there have been 4 teen suicides in our state of Colorado. Colorado ranks 3rd in the nation for teen suicides. I cannot be silent.
It is like how people are afraid to say the words: “cancer” or “mass shooting,” as if uttering those words will curse you with the affliction. Some Harry Potter-esque curse that summons He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.
There is some evidence, however, of a legitimate reason for navigating the topic of suicide carefully because of the “Suicide Paradox.” Freakonomics explored how when a celebrity commits suicide, there is a response of copycat suicides or how when the media discusses a prevalence in suicide, it results in even more. It is called the Werther Effect. The name comes from Goethe’s 18-century novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther, a semi-autobiographical tale that explores a young man’s determination of suicide as the only option through epistles. Countries started banning Goethe’s famous work because men were found dead with a pistol and the book opened to that final scene.
Now, there is a new Werther in town: Thirteen Reasons Why.
I read the book in 2012 and posted a review; I said:
This book rails against complacency and challenges us to take responsibility for the people around us and most importantly, ourselves: how we can impact people with the “smallest” of actions.
-Alexa Brooks, BooksofBrooks Review, Spring 2012
As I reread my book review after the sensational Netflix series, I find it still contains truth. I appreciate how both the book and the TV show force viewers to be accountable for their actions and how it critiques the bystander complacency that plagues high school hallways. I also appreciate that 13 Reasons Why forces a conversation that is important; it forces us to say “suicide” aloud.
However, as I watched the TV series, I was seized with worries about The Werther Effect. As much as the show tries to show the gruesome nature of suicide (and apathy), it also creates a sick revenge fantasy that emerges from desperation.
I recognized it immediately because I remember feeling like Hannah Baker in middle school. I remember being shoved and made fun of for what I wore. For the poems I wrote. For the teachers I pleased. I remember coming home to Myspace messages featuring my epitaph, of how everyone would celebrate if I was gone. That they wouldn’t have to see my ugly outfits and my disgusting “teacher’s pet” attitude in class. I remember receiving death threats of how they were going to kill me for being such a stuck-up snob, but they simultaneously called me a “slut” because I was such a prude. I remember them ganging up on me and shoving me against my locker while they attacked me with their malicious remarks and snide laughter. I also remember writing a long letter. It was well-written, but it was angry: each kid had a paragraph explaining how their malice led to my suicide. It ended with a plea for compassion. I was going to be a martyr for the terrors of bullying.
But I never did it. I thought about it. I dreamed about it. But I couldn’t do that to my mom. So you know what I decided? I took the blade and shredded that vengeful letter and decided I was going to teach middle school, so I could stop the atrocities from happening to others. That’s why I wanted to be a teacher.
The central fault with 13 Reasons Why and American perception of suicide is that people forget it is a choice. I completely understand that so many injustices and mental health issues cultivate an attitude of contemplation, but ultimately: the action is a choice. Hannah Baker is at fault for her suicide, despite the horrible atrocities that she had to endure, she chose to kill herself. If I would have committed suicide in 8th grade, it would have been my fault, not the bullies. As much I wanted to blame everyone else, it would have been my own autonomous choice.
So let’s remember that central fact in our discussions of suicide: it is a choice. By that same token, our choices are influenced by others. So please, as 13 Reasons Why illustrates so beautifully, choose to live with kindness. Choose to be a person who makes others feel valued and important. Choose to be an active defender and not a silent bystander of injustice.
And ultimately, choose to persevere in your circumstances. No matter how crippling and awful they might be. In desperation, suicide seems like the only option, but by definition, it is an option. Shakespeare shows it with Hamlet:
Why is the “To Be or Not to Be” cliche so famous? Because it explores the central choice of our existence: to live or to die. But as Ophelia, Hannah Baker, and all of these teens illustrate, death does not destroy the pain. As Newton describes that no energy can be created or destroyed, so is it with pain. Suicide only redistributes the pain to ones you love.