Tuesday, January 3, 2012


I’ve just finished reading Jay Asher’s debut young adult novel, Thirteen Reasons Why (Penguin, 2007). Not exactly a happy holiday read. I chose to read it because of this blog and the continuing media focus on bullying. The book is about a high school girl who commits suicide and leaves behind a series of cassette tapes with messages for the thirteen people she claims contributed to her life-ending decision. The story neither glorifies suicide nor does it condemn the act. It is simply one character’s decision. Books should not be preachy, but given the topic, I hoped this one would provide a clear message against suicide.

I do not think teen suicides are on the rise, but they are garnering more publicity. The internet and social media also make the circumstances of suicides more widely reported. As I read Thirteen Reasons, I got the sense that any positive impact stemming from the book would come from class and peer discussions about the thirteen characters’ actions. Perhaps someone will rethink his or her ways of navigating through high school. Perhaps someone will show more compassion toward a peer. Perhaps he or she will overlook or even quash a rumor...if that is indeed possible. Maybe a teenager will actually recognize an action leading up to suicide and get the requisite intervention to support the individual. For these reasons, the book may resonate with the contributors or the bystanders. Change may happen.

Still, I wonder about the “victims” of bullying and the teenagers who feel so utterly alone and desperate that they cannot see a way to carry on. Does this book offer someone contemplating suicide a vengeful idea of how to inflict pain in others after one’s own life? While it may not be the author’s duty to deliver a message against suicide, I cannot in good conscience move on without posting my own thoughts. Here is my message for teens and twentysomethings who think suicide may be an option, particularly when they are faced with homophobia and cannot see a way to accept their own sexual identity.

Thirteen Reasons Why Not

1) This is not your time. In the now, you may feel that this is not your time to thrive, but it is also not your time to end life. I am older, but I thought of suicide many times when day after day I looked over my shoulder, bracing for a putdown and I looked ahead of me with a mindset that things would never improve. I often thought, So what? I don’t matter. My life doesn’t matter. Before my teens, however, I saw a twelve-year-old classmate succumb to cancer. During my years of greatest angst, I learned that the most vibrant girl I ever knew died in a car accident. I attended the memorial for my best friend’s roommate who failed to navigate a curve in the road after he celebrated the end of final exams by going on a drug binge. I saw the place in the school office where an eighteen-year-old student with Down’s Syndrome threw up and died before the ambulance arrived. In the last month, I’ve heard of two work colleagues who died suddenly, years before reaching the age of retirement.

Was it their time?

None of these people had a choice. You do. Life is precious. It may suck now. It may have sucked for as long as you can remember. But somewhere down the line, it can change.

2) The people you think will regret their actions won’t. A few may feel guilty for a brief period. A day, a week. They will move on. You, of course, won’t. Most won’t feel any guilt at all. If they tormented you, they did so because they enjoyed the power. They perceived that you were weak. Your suicide will only affirm their assessment. It was your action, not theirs. They are masters at deflecting. You will not change that.

3) You do not get the satisfaction of attending your funeral. Funerals are for those left behind, not for the supposed guest of honor. Back when I regularly thought about killing myself, I imagined who would attend my funeral and how they would react. Maybe those visions helped me cope with the people who disrespected me or failed to appreciate me. Whether I were cremated or lying in a casket, I would not be able to look down upon those in attendance. The ideas about the funeral proceedings are fantasy and will never be reality. When you are gone, you have no say in how things play out.

4) Suicide is not an act of control. People talk of the person committing suicide making the decision to end his or her life. I can see that when a person is seventy- or eighty-something and facing the daily pain of a terminal illness, but it doesn’t fit with regard to a person in the prime of life. A younger person attempts to take his life when he feels he cannot control the circumstances that perplex and burden him each day. Life seems out of his control. Suicide comes as a reaction to the emotional chaos. A resolution does not seem possible, at least not in the near future. To give up now means those who have tormented you and brought you to this low exert the ultimate control. Game over? They win.

5) Pets miss out. Not everyone will relate to this reason. I am a vegetarian because I believe animals think and feel far more than most of us give them credit. We had a family dog while I was in high school. Sure, he was closer to my sister, but still he wagged his tail, jumped up and down and barked a greeting whenever I returned home. If I ended my life, he would have had one-fifth fewer moments of excitement during his day, one-fifth fewer tummy rubs and other indulgences. Would he have sensed my permanent disappearance? Maybe, maybe not. But his own life experiences would have been less. Even after he died when I was in university, there were other people’s pets with whom I interacted sporadically. Some seemed to recognize me, others didn’t. Regardless, I gave them extra moments of attention. And they returned the attention, even if primarily for a treat. Even when you feel you cannot contribute in a positive way to the lives of other people, you can make a difference with animals. These moments, whether infrequent or regular, matter.

6) Younger people do not understand. You may have younger children in your neighborhood and in your family. If you take your life, people will only whisper about you when they are present. The younger ones will eventually find out the truth. But they will wonder why more than most adults. They will have no frame of reference to understand what you have done. Some of the young are not even born yet. They are the future children of siblings and relatives with whom you may have fractious relationships. But when these children are five years old, they will love you unconditionally. You are Uncle Bob or Aunt Sally, the cool person who bought them an ice cream cone or gave them a teddy bear. If you go now, they will never know you. They will always wonder about their uncle or aunt. And, during their own years of teen angst, they will look to your precedent. Is this something that runs in the family? Is this how they are like you? Your actions impact a future generation.

7) Somebody loves you. I have watched my share of soap operas on television. One key component of the drawn out story lines is that the characters fail to communicate how they really feel. Misunderstandings occur. During the teens and the twenties, many people fear revealing their true feelings. To be rejected is to hurt...achingly so! Right now you mean more to someone than he or she can tell you. That person may not even fully realize it. If you check out for good, he or she may finally figure it out, but there will only be an aching emptiness since you will never be able to fill that void. This is not one of the people whom you may want to feel pain and regret after your death. This is someone who never hurt you. Your decision will hurt people you did not intend to harm.

8) Somebody still needs to meet you. Maybe it is a future love. Maybe it is another person who feels alone and needs the validation that his or her thoughts and feelings matter. You will matter. I know this. You may not even know your personal strengths right now when a cloud of darkness hinders your vision. Clouds do pass. In a clearing, months or years from now, you will connect with someone. There is an interconnectivity among humans. That someone will need you. You cannot be replaced.

9) The future offers possibility. Yep. Everything seems impossible in the darkest moments. You may feel certain about how tomorrow will go. Next week, next month, next year may be more of the same. However, change happens. You change, others change. Tiny shifts can have a great impact. It is possible for next year or the next year to be different. Suicide is the only response to today’s misery that makes the future possibilities impossible.

10) Working through this will help you offer support to others who feel this low. There is that cliché statement: What doesn’t kill(hurt) me only makes me stronger. Clichés arise because so many people see truth in the statement. When you are overcome with despair, it may seem like no one else has gone through what you’re experiencing. But someone has. Not the exact same thing, but someone knows that low. And someone worked through it. If you stick around and slog through this time, you can be there for someone else. Your personal testimonial, your online statements, your creative product arising from that time will offer comfort to someone else who will use your experience to offer hope and an ounce of strength to survive the lowest low. A counsellor, a teacher, a parent’s words may feel hollow if that person has had a relatively pampered life. They don’t understand! By contrast, your words will mean more because you lived it. Your experience may make the difference.

11) You deserve to laugh again. There is nothing better than laughter. I used to laugh hysterically on a regular basis. I am talking about falling-out-of-my-seat-and-snorting-uncontrollably laughter. The kind that goes on until my sides cramp up and I am gasping for air. My laugh has changed in the past year. It is muted. I have a hard time getting it out. I recognize funny things but often only an odd wheeze comes out. And yet I had the good fortune of riding The Tower of Terror at Disneyland this past week. I had an idea of how the ride would go, but when it actually started, I was so startled that I either had to laugh or cry. The laughter took over. It was a guttural laugh that grew with each shift on the ride. When the ride ended and I finally regained my composure, I felt restored, even if only temporarily. Forty-eight hours later, I can still feel the effect of that laugh as I inhale deeply. I do not know when I will have my next good laugh—it doesn’t have to be nearly as wild—but I do know that I want another such moment. Another laugh will come. Best medicine? Yes, indeed.

12) In time, you will be able to get away from the people and the demons that torment you now. Let’s say for the sake of argument that the people who bring you misery do not change. You can, however, change. You do not have to stay in their presence. For now, there may be no other options. In time, you will be able to leave. Start saving small amounts. Think about new places to live. There is a reason why my family lives in a different country than I do. There is also a reason why our visits are limited to three days or less. We all recognize what is best. You will be able to set limits and to create healthier distances from the prickliest of relationships. I finished high school twenty-six years ago. I have not seen any of the people who taunted me. In fact, I only have sporadic contact with one person from high school. While I can still remember, those experiences are far behind me. Keep planning. Keep dreaming.

13) You have the right to hope for better. Nobody beats me up better than I do. I am my biggest critic. I can dwell on gloom and doom. Sometimes I cannot stop it. I just have to hold on and ride through the cycle of negativity. But then something calms and I feel hope. The gloom may quickly return, but by then I have been reminded of something hopeful, something positive. Hope is not a naive emotion. It is not a mere coping mechanism. It is a basic part of human nature. Do not fight it. Everything around you may feel hopeless, but wait things out and a hopeful glimmer will surface, however fleetingly. I cannot guarantee that it will get better. (If you are feeling you’ve hit an all-time low, it stands to reason that things have to get better at some point.) But there IS a chance. Let hope in. With positive thoughts, positive results may happen. I’m not a pie-in-the-sky guy who believes change will be quick, but being hopeful is almost as satisfying as laughter. Almost.

So hang in there. You have been given this life. There is still time to get things right and to get away from what isn’t. These are my own thirteen reasons why NOT. I’ll bet you can pick apart many of them. I am sure, however, in a moment of peace, you can add to the list. Still, one reason why NOT is reason enough. Keep going! And don’t let a young adult work of fiction give you the wrong idea.

Follow-up: Shortly after I posted this, @KeoWhittaker thoughtfully tweeted that I should add the following: "the Trevor Project is available 24/7 for those needing support - 1.866.488.7386." Thanks, Keola!


Anonymous said...

that was an excellent post about bullying

Espana said...

This book is pretty depressing. I read a lot, but most of the stuff I read is pretty light. This book was a really serious note for me. 13 reasons why didn't really hit home for me like I would expect it to for some who have been there before in their life. This book really did move me though. I picked it up and couldn't stop reading. I wasn't on the edge of my seat, but I needed to read the end. Understanding why someone would do something like that to themselves is really hard for me to understand. This book did give you a pretty forward answer for Hannah's reasons.

Rick Modien said...

RG, when I read this a week or so ago, I was struck by how heartfelt it was, by how much love you put into your words. My only regret? I wish I'd written it myself. You have given something wonderful to the world in this post. I hope you know that.

I love the personal touches--how you talk about the bullying you were subjected to; how your dog would have missed out if you'd taken your life; how you laughed wholeheartedly when you went on the Tower of Terror (which I still can't make myself go on). All of these examples add texture to your written work, not to mention heart and authenticity.

I find it hard to believe Asher's book didn't take the position that suicide is wrong. Perhaps, to appeal to today's younger crowd, he used a little reverse psychology.

No one likes to be preached to, especially young adults. I suspect, by not coming right out and saying it, but by going through the aftermath of what happens following a suicide, he made his point, the only point that can be made under the circumstances. I don't know. I didn't read the book. You know better than I do.

I hope you are very proud of this post. Obviously, it meant something to you, and you put a lot of work into it. You have every right to be proud of what you've done here. Great job!