I remember the first time I learned of someone committing suicide. She was a young high school student, much like the protagonist of Jay Asher’s novel Thirteen Reasons Why. Unlike the fictional Hannah Baker, this girl did not leave a collection of cassette tapes behind. I did not know her well; she went to another high school. Long before social media existed, I heard rumors as to why she killed herself. Something about a breakup and a possible pregnancy. The truth is that I didn’t need to know the reasons – a young girl had taken her own life. What purpose would a “why” serve to me?
Thirteen Reasons Why is a well-paced narrative with an usual premise. I heard about this novel when the television series came out. Teen suicide is an issue that needs to be discussed and addressed. However, as good as story it is, for me the novel strikes several different chords in my own life. One of the most compelling issues is how much our daily actions affect the lives of others. Over time, I have come to learn this as a husband, parent, son and friend. Literature is replete with stories about families and lovers who confront what we have done to one another and the devastation that often occurs because of our actions and the actions of others.
As I read this novel, which includes several instances of bullying, I cringed. While there may exist many new and more pervasive forms of bullying today, the pain from being bullied has not changed over time. Hannah Baker’s story took me back to my years at McCarter Elementary, a new school I attended after moving across town. Though I seemed like a nice enough kid, I was a bully. Like many bullies, I too experienced bullying in my daily life. For me, bullying was a learned behavior. However, this in no way excuses what I did to some of my fellow classmates at McCarter. My behavior was inexcusable and indefensible.
Though many of my classmates were potential targets, I can recall two girls who I teased and verbally abused for those three years of school. I taunted them with insults regarding their physical appearance. The whole time I did this, never once did it cross my mind to think of the damage to these classmates of mine. I gave no thought to how this made them feel, not only during the bullying, but afterwards. I cringe to think how this behavior could have potentially caused them to want to “get on with it,” as Hannah Baker tells her guidance counselor after she decides to commit suicide.
I have known a handful of people who committed suicide. I cannot imagine the pain these people felt as they reached the decision to take their own lives. I cannot fathom the pain such a death leaves for those left behind. I do know how depression and isolation make you think this might be the right thing to do. During my senior year of high school, I considered suicide. If you had polled my classmates and teachers about my emotional well-being, I don’t know that most could have guessed at this. I did a good job of keeping up appearances. My grades did not suffer, I didn’t miss school or work, and I still had a girlfriend and a social life. Yet for most of that year, I was miserable.
In 2017, a girl like Hannah Baker would use social media instead of cassettes to spread her message. I hope readers of the story will not assume every suicide can be so neatly explained as Hannah’s. Instead, I hope we do our very best to realize the power of our words and our actions.
If we can follow the Golden Rule, perhaps there will be fewer Hannah Bakers to mourn in the future.
Nicolas Shump is a columnist for The Topeka Capital-Journal.