Trigger warning: This essay mentions bullying, harassment, suicide, and suicidal thoughts
At the end of March, Netflix released its original series, 13 Reasons Why, based on the YA book by Jay Asher. It was just like any other Friday night when I found myself buried under a pile of freelance work that wouldn’t let up, so I decided to take a break and unwind for a few hours (or at least try to). I clicked on the new series, and immediately fell down the wormhole of weekend binge-watching.
I made it to the thirteenth episode by that Sunday afternoon. It was really difficult not to become transfixed by all of the scenarios portrayed in each episode: the idea of post-mortem “revenge” against tormenters, the secrets.
But above all, I was stunned by the familiarity of protagonist Hannah Baker’s experiences — and how much they felt like my own high school experience.
Even when a situation in the series didn’t pertain to me specifically, it felt like something that I had heard from a friend or classmate.
The more I watched 13 Reasons Why, the more I wished I had read the book back when I was in high school. At the time, I felt awkward and lost when managing all of the obscure social “rules” we had made up. I was often hurt when a classmate “turned” on me, or poked fun at me in hopes of getting a laugh from others. It was scary to see that someone could go from friendly to mean in a matter of seconds.
Like Hannah Baker, I was bullied in high school.
I don’t think my experience was as bad as Hannah’s, and the bullying wasn’t based on photos or rumors. Still, it made me feel isolated from people around me. I didn’t go to school in a small town where my classmates were my neighbors who could continue bothering me after school hours. I attended school in Queens, New York, where I still live. And there are bullies here, too.
During the first half of freshman year, a classmate made it his mission to be horrible to me. If he was nearby and I spoke to anyone, he’d tell them to stop talking to me. He would also say that he wanted to stab me. Some more sympathetic classmates would say that they didn’t like him either — but his own friends said nothing, and did nothing to stop him.
I was reminded of their silence when Courtney — who was supposed to be Hannah’s friend — spread a rumor instead of stopping it, just to avoid facing ridicule herself.
Often times, I created an excuse to do homework in the school library so I could avoid him, especially since we shared four classes and a lunch period. I felt like I couldn’t speak out in class because he always made a snarky comment. By the end of fall semester, I actually wanted him to stab me — that way, I wouldn’t have to see him anymore.
In the tapes she made, Hannah described feeling alone, like a burden. She was afraid of getting help.
I was afraid too, and never spoke up about the boy in my class.
His bullying only stopped when he was removed from the school’s honors program, so I didn’t have classes with him anymore. After that, I only bumped into him in the hallway once. I squeezed myself through a huge crowd so I could get away from him. Being trampled was better than seeing him.
As I watched the series, I remembered how I put up with classmates being unsupportive of me or my other peers. I wanted Hannah and her good friend, Clay, to speak up for themselves. A lot of my own classmates didn’t know how to speak up when their boyfriends made objectifying comments, or fake friends made jokes at their expense. A jealous boyfriend was just “someone who cared.” A bad friend was better than no friends at all.
Once, a friend of mine wouldn’t take no for an answer when I told him via AOL Instant Messenger that I didn’t want to go out with him. Instead of respecting my answer, he cursed me out and said I took things too seriously. When I told a classmate, she commented that he must have really liked me. Hearing that reaction disturbed me. I was reminded of it when Hannah’s stalker justified invading her privacy because he liked her so much.
Sexist dynamics riddled a lot of the relationships we had in high school, and it shaped how we allowed ourselves to be treated. I cringed when I saw the same thing happening to Hannah and the girls around her. They were slut shamed, and so was I as a teenager — and so were a lot of girls at my school.
Sometimes, we shamed each other to take the attention away from ourselves — not unlike how Hannah’s ex-friend Jessica behaved after the “hottest body part” list was passed around.
I hope viewers currently in high school can recognize the toxicity of the situations around them. Watching the series, I recognized that it’s a lot easier to understand how cruel something is when we see it happening to someone else.
My cases of high school bullying and harassment weren’t as painful as what Hannah experienced — but there are young girls out there who have it just as bad. They’re dealing with traumatizing toxic relationships and sexual harassment, leading them to try to take their own lives. Access to a series like 13 Reasons Why, a show that portrays the abuse faced by many high school students, is really important. We need accurate portrayals of the unhealthy and emotionally-scarring nature of bullying and harassment. We need to look at the early ages when these behaviors really begin.
More importantly, I hope viewers take the show seriously — and do their best to make sure that none of their classmates become another Hannah.