When Clay receives a strange package full of cassette tapes in the mail, he is intrigued. As soon as he starts listening to them, however, his curiosity melts into horror and grief. The tapes are from his classmate Hannah Baker who recently committed suicide. On the tapes, she has recorded her reasons for taking her life–and all of those reasons are people. Now, the people Hannah blames for the downward spiral of her life must listen to her story and pass it on to the next person on the list, or else the tapes will be released to the public. Clay listens in agony to Hannah’s stories of being harassed and marginalized by her peers, all the while wondering how he will fit into this story, how he could have prevented Hannah from taking her life, and how he can possibly go on in the wake of this tragedy.
This well-written, poignant novel has been a bit controversial since many adults have questioned whether it is “appropriate” for teenagers. Some of the common concerns are that the incredibly dark subject matter may be traumatizing–particularly for teens who have lost someone to suicide or have contemplated suicide themselves. Like many novels with heavy subject matter, this book is not for all readers. But many readers have found it healing and/or inspiring in positive ways. If you are trying to determine whether this book is right for you or for a teenager in your life, here are some of my thoughts. If you keep reading this post, beware of some mild spoilers.
1. “I hate what you did, Hannah. . . . You didn’t have to do it and I hate the fact that you did.”
Asher makes it clear that Clay is a kind, good person. Clay’s feelings are typical of what a normal person who has suffered this kind of loss might feel–and might feel guilty for feeling, such as anger at the person who is gone. Clay also feels guilty for missing opportunities to reach out to Hannah that are obvious in retrospect. Although he berates himself for missing the signs, a reader should know that they would have been difficult for him recognize at the time. A reader may come to see the parallels in their own life and begin to process the anger, guilt, and regret which are so common in the wake of suicide.
But for other readers who have lost a loved one to suicide, the book may be too difficult and painful to read. It may be too soon, or a reader may not be able to invest in this story and these characters because their personal emotions are too overwhelming. If you start the book and find yourself overwhelmed or going to a darker place, just stop reading. Maybe try again in a year or so if you feel it might be productive at that point, or it may just not be the book for you. That’s okay, too. People may say “Everyone should be required to read this book!” but the reality is that not every book is right for every reader.
2. “‘Nothing. It’s ridiculous,’ he says. ‘I don’t belong on those tapes. Hannah just wanted an excuse to kill herself.'”
Toward the beginning of the novel, Hannah feels that others are to blame for her losing control of her life; the tapes are portrayed as a kind of punishment for the people left behind. But readers should notice that the characters who are most “in the wrong” seem largely unaffected by her blame and pass it off on others. The character who seems to be the most despicable, in fact, does not even receive a copy of the tapes because Hannah knows he wouldn’t pass it on. It is the characters who truly cared for Hannah–and who she cared for most–who are hurt. And by the end of her own tapes, Hannah has moved away from the idea that others are to blame for her suicide and seems to know that these tapes won’t be the kind of “revenge” (for lack of a more accurate word) that she had initially been thinking she needed.
I believe this point is very clear. But in response to the concerns some adults have raised that a depressed person may see Hannah’s tapes as a “good idea” and become a copycat, I will readily admit that depression can be like wearing blinders. Often you see only part of the picture–only what you expect to see or only what your depressed worldview tells you is possible. Could a depressed person miss the point of this novel? Yes, absolutely. But could a depressed person who was thinking of suicide as punishment see the way that Hannah’s community reacts and realize it is an ineffective idea? Yes, absolutely. It will depend on the person, and like so many of the issues surrounding helping a loved one through depression, it is very difficult to predict what is helpful and what is not. Often seeing a mental health professional can be valuable for the loved ones of a depressed person to seek support and guidance.
3. “And that more than anything else is what this all comes down to. Me . . . giving up . . . on me. No matter what I’ve said so far, no matter who I’ve spoken of, it all comes back to–it all ends with–me.”
It is difficult to miss the point that no matter how each character contributed to Hannah’s misery in life, Hannah’s choice of suicide was not truly their fault. Hannah admits this directly in her narration toward the end of the novel, and throughout the narrative, Clay (a narrator whose judgment the reader trusts) notices flaws in her logic and calls her out on them. She says that she was crying for help, but she never actually asked for help in a way that Clay and others understood. In her deep depression, she began making choices that were purposefully self-destructive and interpreting well-meaning actions and advice as reasons to end her life.
These patterns are not uncommon. From within depression, a bleak, false reality seems rooted in fact. But perhaps from reading Hannah’s story–looking at someone else’s life–a depressed person may see the missed opportunities that Hannah had and the number of people who did truly, deeply care. They may see hope. Or they may–like Hannah did at the advice of her guidance counselor–gloss over the point, hear only what they expect to hear, and continue on a destructive path. But because many readers have responded to Asher’s book by sharing how it gave them the encouragement they needed to fight their depression and even saved their lives, there is evidence enough to hope for the former.
If you are a suicide survivor or overcoming severe depression and you find this book reintroducing dark thoughts, by all means stop reading and do what you need to do to take care of yourself. For some suicide survivors, it can be valuable to look back and recognize where you were and see it exposed as destructive–to strengthen your resolve to never, ever go back there again. But for some, getting and staying away from those poisonous thoughts is a constant and vitally important battle. So if you discover that you are in that category, this will not be the book for you. Do not hesitate and do not feel at all bad for putting it down.
4. “Skye’s walking down the same stretch of hall where I watched Hannah slip away two weeks ago. . . . A flood of emotions washes into me. Pain and anger. Sadness and pity. But most surprising of all, hope.”
For the friends of the depressed, Asher’s book points out the warning signs–the signs that Clay and his friends didn’t see and would never have expected, but will never overlook again. The book also exposes some common and subtle types of bullying and sexual harassment that readers can now recognize and attempt to work against in their own school communities. Even for those who do not know a severely depressed person, this book will empower people to create a more positive and supportive environment in their communities, where hopefully depressed people will see the opportunities for help and healing.
Those are my thoughts! I hope they help you determine whether this book is right for you.