An Orthodox Perspective on “13 Reasons Why”

Have your kids watched 13 Reasons Why? “Of course not.”

Are you sure?

My 18 year old son passed by my office where I was watching 13 Reasons Why and said, “You’re watching that? What do you think of it? All my friends have seen it. Can I watch it with you?”

I explained that I was watching it as part of my job. I didn’t think I could sit through watching it with him because of the language and “stuff”. I’ve had to fast forward sometimes because I don’t want to expose my own soul to it, so I don’t want him to watch this, even with me.

However, it wasn’t lost on me that he recognized the show from a mere glimpse.

13 Reasons Why is a Netflix original series based on a popular teen book by Jay Asher. It’s about a sensitive, sweet, intelligent girl named Hannah who has killed herself. Before dying, Hannah recorded 13 cassette tapes explaining why she wanted to die. The 13 tapes are being passed along to all 13 people who each did something which ultimately drove her to want to die. If they don’t listen, the tapes will be made public, so they listen. Hannah narrates her story while her friend Clay, an awkward but kind boy, listens to the tapes and visits locations in their hometown where Hannah experienced hurts and bullying. The tapes are a creepy concept, but effective as a story frame. Clay’s experiences in the present day overlap with Hannah’s story and these images are often poignant. The content of the episodes become increasingly disturbing. Foul language and negative behaviors escalate as Hannah’s pain spirals into hopelessness while Clay becomes more and more distressed in the present day as he sees ways he and others could have helped her. The central undercurrent of ‘blaming the survivors’ for Hannah’s suicide is cruel and unhealthy- but then again, a girl was recently convicted of bullying a boy to commit suicide with cruel texts, urging him on to his death. Maybe we as a society need to pay more attention to what’s going on with our teens.

This show is highly popular with teens. It’s scary to adults, so scary that an entire country- New Zealand- has banned it out of fear that it glamorizes and might inspire suicide. In the news, parents are blaming this show for triggering teen suicides. I didn’t think it glamorized suicide because it shows intense grief and regret for those left behind, but I wouldn’t want my child to watch it.

13 Reasons Why graphically addresses highly charged issues. It gives a window into the daily drip of misery experienced too often in many high schools by our kids. Much of what I’ve seen on 13 Reasons Why is pretty much how I remember the misery of high school- amplified by social media and the inherent drama of a teen show.

Some people tell you that high school is the best part of your life.

As a teen, that was upsetting to me. I wasn’t especially picked on or disliked in high school, but I remember hating pretty much every day. I begged my parents to let me go to the Catholic girl’s high school in our home town and I wasn’t Catholic. Anything, just don’t make me go back there tomorrow.

The people behind 13 Reasons Why seem to understand this.

Standing next to a “safe spaces” rainbow poster and inspirational bulletin boards, kids say cruel, hateful, despairing things. Safe space posters do not create a safe environment and trite expressions fall flat when teens are dealing with heightened emotions, questions, and tensions which are a natural part of being a teen. The messaging that we adults fall back on so often is like a Band-Aid on a serious wound- it might cover it up but it doesn’t heal anything. We need to be authentic with our kids and help them find truth grounded in God’s mercy and love.

Embarrassing, revealing, and even naked photos are shared to humiliate others. Do you know that this happens among the kids in your child’s school? It happened at my son’s private Christian school and these photos spread through Snapchat to most of the students in just seconds. I found out about it while driving carpool. The school’s email on that topic was not nearly as shocking or human as what the kids told me in the car. The school has a reputation to uphold, the kids were more gossipy.

Bullying has been discussed, taught about and lectured against, but it seems to be on the rise. It’s so easy to try to raise your own social status by destroying someone else’s using social media. What does your child say about others? What is being said by others about your child? How can we protect our kids from their own immaturity and the cruelty of others?

Sexual freedoms in our society have taken away societal norms that protected girls in the past. A diminished value for modesty and corresponding high value for sexiness can lead to situational dangers for girls, sometimes sketchy situations the girls choose. In 13 Reasons Why, Hannah was a virgin, but is victimized in various ways. Modern girls have wonderful freedoms that are mixed with societal expectations that reflect rapidly changing morals. Is saying no a moral choice or an insult? Why should a girl say no if she has no religious or societal expectations to stop her? Why should a young man feel protective of a girl’s honor if there are no differences between genders? How do drunken teens navigate situations they didn’t expect to encounter and feel pressured by? How do teens deal with issues like a “friend” raping a friend at a party when they don’t want adults to know about the whole host of deceptions that came before the rape? Everyone will get in trouble so no one wants to tell. It’s easier to pretend it didn’t really happen that way.

These are some of the issues that 13 Reasons Why explores in graphic and rightfully disturbing ways, but many can inspire conversations we need to have but don’t often want to have.

Maybe parents should watch an episode of 13 Reasons Why and then take an honest look at what is happening among our own youth. What do our kids experience each day in high school? Do we want to know or is it easier to cope with our own feelings of helplessness by pretending it’s “the best time of your life”?

Have you ever walked through your child’s public high school cafeteria during a crowded lunch time? I did, and I wouldn’t have wanted to have lunch there myself. The f-bomb was flying around as almost as much as in an episode of 13 Reasons Why. Some kids were loud, rude, and dressed in appalling ways; others looked like they didn’t want to be seen at all.

There is a powerful scene in the show where Hannah’s grieving mother goes into the girl’s restroom in Hannah’s high school. Hannah’s mom notices cruel things scrawled on the walls of the bathroom. What is written on the walls in the bathroom at your child’s school? What do our kids say to each other? Do they understand how demeaning such language is to others and to themselves?

The characters in 13 Reasons Why used drugs and alcohol to deal with their pain, but it only increased the pain and made everything worse. When I was in high school, the bathrooms were usually smoky with marijuana and sometimes the stairways were too. Is it better now after so much money and time spent on anti-drug education? It seems worse. There is an epidemic of accidental overdoses among teens. Fentanyl and heroin abuse are on the rise. What is going on that kids even want to use such drugs? How hopeless do they feel and what can we do about it?

Many people are concerned that 13 Reasons Why will inspire copy- cat suicides. One of the flaws with 13 Reasons Why is that Hannah is endearing, strong, and likeable. She doesn’t come across as unstable or frail. She shows a lot of healthy normal reactions and is sometimes willing to stand up for what’s right in front of her peers. Some of her 13 reasons are traumatic, but others are things that would be solved by growing up, changing friends, and focusing on something besides herself.

She bears emotional scars of things she’s not equipped to handle and she doesn’t believe things will get better. She wants the pain to stop. Hannah is not portrayed as a girl with mental illness – she’s portrayed as a girl who has been hurt more than she can bear and has no hope that it will get better. Maybe that is mental illness, but it can also be simply how a teen girl feels on a given day.

Hannah is a fictional character, but how many of our girls will see this show and feel that if this lovely girl can’t find as reason to live, how can they?

How do we help our teens know that they are deeply loved and have eternal value that nothing in this life can diminish? How do we help them feel that even when we fail them, that God’s love is there for them? How do we help them to trust that even when God Himself seems silent, that His love is supporting them without using that poem about the footsteps?

Prayer, love, open communication, spending time together, sacrifice, high expectations, and more prayer seem to be things that help. Being authentic in our own life- letting our kids see that we live our faith and that it’s real to us- those are qualities that resonate with youth. Teens need grownups they can trust and feel open with. Having a mentor, going to confession with a priest who loves them, being part of a community with mixed ages like a church home, taking the time to help others who need them, and having faith in God will strengthen kids to see beyond the social demands and hurts of their school and peers.

Removing our kids from dangerous situations, such as taking them out of public school, might help. Sometimes removing our kids removes the ‘Salt and Light’ from schools, making social pressures harder for those that remain and weakening our kids by overprotecting them. Then again, last year I started home schooling my teen sons and 13 Reasons Why is the best advertisement for homeschooling ever. There isn’t a one size fits all solution for every family, but this show is full of real issues that we need to address and try to fix.

In 13 Reasons Why, occasionally an adult will have a concerned face and ask, “Are you alright?” Pretty much every time, the teen will mumble back something like, “Yea, I’m Ok” and the adult will give a quizzical glance, but accept it and walk away, feeling unsure but that they did their duty by asking. The adults seem to ignore an inner voice whispering to them, “No, my kid is not alright, his friend is dead and he’s struggling. I should go back and ask again, but I can’t deal with it myself so I won’t.” We’ve all done that – I’m asking but I don’t really want an answer- or on the other side experienced that feeling of “I wish they’d ask me for real”. Sometimes teens think adults are so blind and easy to fool. We can be stunningly easy to fool, or foolishly suspicious when there’s nothing wrong.

Knowing when and where to get professional help for a child is challenging, but it starts with really knowing what’s going on with your child. At our house, we often do the Jewish mother style of parenting. “Are you OK, like really OK? let me feel your forehead, what have you been eating, what’s that on your phone, what movie do you want to watch with me, can you explain why you did that thing you did, what did you just hear me saying, how can you fix this, what should you do to help yourself not get into this kind of trouble next time, I still think you feel hot…have cup of tea and tell me about it.”

That’s typical for our family: a lot of talking, a lot of time together, eating meals together, praying before bed as a family, and following up the prayer with hugs and dog teasing.

We’re not perfect; those of you who know us know we’ve had lots of struggles and tragedy-we’re just trying to do what we can. In your family, the simple good times will look different, but love, centrality of authentic faith, and spending time together seem to be common themes that help us and our teens.

After slogging through hours of binge watching 13 Reasons Why, I turned it off. The ending left me empty. There was some measure of resolution in that some of the kids tried to own up to what they’d done and fix what they could still fix. Confession was clearly healing to a point- but confession without God’s mercy still leaves us with such heavy baggage and a sense of hopelessness. There was no God in the world of 13 Reasons Why and so the kids were alone and lost on a deep level.

That evening, I played a game of Parcheesi with my teen son, his friend, and my husband. As we light heartedly joked through the game I thought of how much fun this time of life can be. Teens have so much enthusiasm, energy, and intelligence.

Teen years may not be the best time of life, but it can be a great time of joy as they become independent, smart adults. Teens can be deeply compassionate and idealistic especially when they get involved with helping others.

Having a real world that includes God’s mercy, love, and grace can transform the tough teen years, just as it transforms struggles in other stages of life.

I hope my kids are not watching 13 Reasons Why, and we have systems in place to prevent that, but even more importantly I pray they aren’t experiencing things like 13 Reasons because God’s mercy, love, His plan for them, and His delight in them is real.

There are eternities of reasons to have joy in this life. Life is a gift that God has given us to experience His mercy, love and grace while becoming more like Him. No matter what challenges we face, we are always cradled in His love. A repentant, grateful, and loving heart is a good step towards healing and finding joy.

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