Okay, okay, old topic I know. I’m late to the party. But allow me to take a side on the raging debate. Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why does not do an effective job at discussing suicide or mental health in a positive manner. And I could sit here and reiterate all of the reasons why this is, but honestly, a million and one people have already done that. Just do a google search, really. So today, I won’t be talking about 13 Reasons Why… or at least, I won’t be talking about it specifically. (This is partly because I haven’t watched the series, and partly because I’ve only read a bit of the book.)
I don’t feel exactly qualified to speak about 13 Reasons Why, but I can speak on another YA book I read that deals with a lot of the same themes. A book which, I think, is an excellent example of why so many YA books fail so spectacularly so often at discussing mental health and suicide for teenagers.
This book is called All the Bright Places and it’s by Jennifer Niven. A few years ago, it was marketed pretty heavily in our local Barnes and Noble as the “new John Green!” (This, by the way, is a really common way bookstores market books by local authors around here since John Green lives in Indy. Basically any book about teenagers by a local author also set in Indy gets touted as the “new John Green!” and it’s only sometimes true.)
Still, I picked it up because I thought the cover was cute and the concept seemed neat, and honestly I really like supporting local authors. And I read it.
And it was bad.
No, no, not just bad.
Which, in a lot of ways, is even worse than bad.
Because if it were a bad book only, I could have put it down and returned it to the store before getting too invested. But because it was a disappointing book, I was engrossed from page one, legitimately enjoying the characters and the story line, right up until I was completely betrayed at the end.
The following post will contain major spoilers for the plot of All the Bright Places. If you plan on reading it, for gods’ sake, don’t. Just read the spoilers. Read this post instead. I promise it’s not worth your time.
So, because you definitely won’t be reading this book, let me tell you about it. All the Bright Places is about two teenagers, Violet and Finch, both of whom struggle with mental illness. Finch has been battling his illness for basically his entire life. His family situation is rather unhealthy, and suicidal thoughts have been something he has had to face for years and years. In order to get past this, Finch makes it a point to find some reason, one reason everyday to stay alive. This is immediately established as one of the most important aspects of his character – this constant mentality of finding that one reason to keep going.
It was this part of Finch’s character that really, really endeared me to him right off the bat. I’ve never seen a character with mental illness so central to his character simultaneously be so positive. Normally, characters with mental illness in YA are either constantly gloomy or negative. Finch is not that at all. He’s a surprisingly realistic teenager who just so happens to also deal with suicidal thoughts.
Violet, on the other hand, is rather new to her illness. After the sudden and tragic death of her older sister, Violet’s once happy life is completely destroyed, and her suicidal thoughts appear as a result.
The beginning of the book sees Finch at the top of his school’s bell tower, a place he often goes to calm down and think through things. While he’s up there, though, he runs into Violet, clearly contemplating jumping off the tower to her death. Finch talks her down, and brings her safely to the ground. From there, the two form a shaky acquaintanceship until a school project brings them together. Their project sends them across the state of Indiana, reporting on various famous landmarks.
As YA standards would dictate, Finch and Violet become close friends and eventually fall in love. Their shared experiences in mental illness becomes a way they connect to one another and they help each other through the tough times and come out stronger for it.
And then, with no build-up whatsoever… Finch dies by suicide.
Okay, yes, there is a little build up to it but… the way the book presents the timeline of events, Finch’s suicide comes out of really nowhere. The book would like you to believe that the reasons for his death come from two separate incidents. One, an argument with Violet over… something or other (I can’t actually remember right now, if that speaks to how insignificant it was.) And two, his visiting of a mental health support group and their subsequent suggestion that he consider taking medication for his mental illness.
Putting aside the problematic notion that medication somehow changes or harms people with mental illness, Finch’s death makes absolutely no sense. And not in a “suicide is a senseless tragedy”-kind of way, although it is, but I mean as an ending to his character arc.
As I established up above, Finch’s defining trait from the beginning of the novel is that he looks for a new reason to stay alive every single day, no matter how difficult it might be. Despite the struggles he deals with, he remains positive. He fights through his illness. And yet, his death comes with no struggle. We don’t even see it happen. We’re just told it happens. I honestly didn’t even believe it when I first read it – I expected it to be some sort of mistake.
And with his disappearance also goes all the potential of his character.
And I know what you’re thinking. “But Gillian, what if that’s the point? What if it’s a message on how suicide makes it so people can’t come to a meaningful conclusion of their life? What if it’s symbolic?”
To that I say… I wish. Instead, Finch’s death is only symbolic in the ways that make it more tragically beautiful. He drowns himself in Blue Hole lake, one of the landmarks he and Violet visit. And the way his body is described floating upon that beautiful depth of water… it made me sick. Really sick. Actually sick.
Because if Niven truly wished Finch’s suicide to be a statement on how suicide makes it so people are never able to reach their full potential, she wouldn’t have made his death so endlessly “meaningful.”
And this is the problem with how YA depicts suicide. It strips the realism out of a very real, very terrible problem and makes it into some sort of martyr’s sacrifice.
See, death in fiction is a really dramatic choice for an author to make. It takes a major player in the storyline out of the story completely. If done wrong, it can make a character seem pointless, and can make an audience feel like they cared about a character for no reason.
So, most authors give their main characters meaningful deaths. Those characters who die, do so for a purpose. They die to save others, or to motivate others, or in service of some sort of theme the author hopes to convey. Sometimes, their death fulfills their character arc. For example, perhaps a character whose main flaw is that he is selfish dies saving someone else, thus proving that that character grew up enough to overcome his prior selfishness.
And this is all fine and dandy when the deaths we’re talking about aren’t self-inflicted. It’s okay to glorify deaths that come from courageous acts, or emphasize the beautiful tragedy of a terrible accident. There’s no danger of inspiring real people to go out and die that way too since, mostly, they don’t have any control over that.
However, when we’re talking about suicide, the glorification becomes a real problem. A character dying by suicide is a character death just like any other character death, and so authors feel the need to justify them – make them meaningful and beautiful, make them fulfill some narrative purpose.
Here’s the issue though – in real life, suicide doesn’t do any of that. It’s not meaningful. It’s not beautiful. It’s terrible and awful and sad and it never fixes anything.
When characters die by suicide in books, authors peddle the lie that suicide is a death that can solve problems. A death that can teach lessons to other people. For Finch, Niven peddles the idea that suicide is a beautiful end to a beautiful boy’s life, because to depict it as anything else wouldn’t fit the story she was trying to tell. For Hannah in 13 Reasons Why, Asher peddles the idea that suicide can somehow teach her bullies a valuable life lesson.
Here’s the reality. Suicide can’t do that. Suicide is a meaningless loss of life. It is not beautiful, and to depict it as anything else other than ugly and meaningless is incredibly dangerous.
Because unlike a glorious death on the battlefield, or a tragically beautiful accidental death via disease, for example, suicide is something that a real person could make the choice to inflict upon themselves. And when they see these suicides in books and other media depicted as beautiful and meaningful, they might think of it as a viable option for themselves.
They might look at Finch, optimistic Finch who just wanted to keep living, and see that there’s no chance for them. That even if they work hard to stay alive, they will ultimately fail. They will see that the best option for them is to die in a beautiful way, so everyone can remember them as the beautiful person they were in life.
They might look at Hannah, who was bullied and mistreated, and see that the best way to teach the bullies a lesson is to kill themselves – to stick it to ’em, teach them a lesson. Show them that their actions have consequences.
And you can stick as many suicide hotline numbers at the end of these narratives as you want. At the end of the day, the message society overwhelmingly clings to is clear. If you struggle with mental illness, or bullying, or anything, and the possibility of suicide rears its ugly head, might as well just go with it. Hey, it’ll be tragic, but it’ll be beautiful and meaningful.
If Niven wanted to actually help real teenagers who struggle with suicidal thoughts, Finch wouldn’t have died. He would have remained alive, as a real and honest example that people with mental illness can fight their battle and win. His choice to remain alive would not only have been more meaningful for his character arc, it would have also been more meaningful for the real people reading the book who were maybe just looking for a sign. Looking for a character like them, who made the brave choice to stay alive, despite everything.
But the problem is, YA (and most media) too often focuses on the story instead of the real people. It desperately tries to carve meaning out of everything. And that’s why they so often fail these real people. They sell them lies. Beautiful, meaningful lies, but lies all the same.
“Okay Gillian, fair,” you say, “But how, then, do we discuss topics like mental health or suicide without the danger of inspiring real people to commit suicide?”
Easy. Let characters like Finch and Hannah live. Don’t shy away from depicting their struggle, of course, but also let them live. Let them be the example that life is always more beautiful and meaningful than death. Always. Let their character arcs end in triumph over the darkness. Let their readers see that there is a hope. Let them see the reality of the situation, not the sensational tragic fantasy.
Because for this issue, we don’t need cautionary tales. We need heroes. We need examples. That’s the only way we can discuss this terrible problem in a healthy and positive way.
And that’s the truth.
(A/N: After writing this all out, I went on Google Images looking for a header image of All the Bright Places and learned that a movie adaptation will be released later this year. I didn’t really intend this post to coincide with that and… I don’t think it needs to be said, but don’t see this movie. Don’t do it. Don’t buy into this.)