I’m at the library working on my book. In walks a teenage friend of mine. On seeing me, she immediately pulls a book off the shelves and announces, “You need to read this.”
So the following week, on her recommendation, I read Thirteen Reasons Why, by Jay Asher. I haven’t read a teenage novel since I was . . . a teenager; but the premise alone on this one hooked me:
Clay Jensen returns home from school to find a strange package with his name on it lying on his porch. Inside he discovers several cassette tapes recorded by Hannah Baker – his classmate and crush – who committed suicide two weeks earlier. Hannah’s voice tells him that there are thirteen reasons why she decided to end her life. Clay is one of them. If he listens, he’ll find out why . . .
Asher masterfully weaves thirteen stories of betrayal, disillusionment, and tragic despair into a thriller-paced suspense novel of eerie proportions.
In essence it’s a love letter to a young life that crashes and burns. And a sobering wake-up call to the reality of teen suicide in youth culture today. According to The Jason Foundation: Suicide is the SECOND leading cause of death for ages 10-24.
Suicide is the THIRD leading cause of death for college-age youth and ages 12-18.
More teenagers and young adults die from suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza, and chronic lung disease, COMBINED.
Each day in our nation, an average of over 5,400 young people grades 7-12 attempt suicide. Four out of five of these teens have given clear warning signs.
The irony here, where Thirteen Reasons Why is concerned, is that Hannah Baker’s friends are cognizant of such warning signs from their Peer Communications class. But then, what’s another dull class when it can be tossed in the trash can of information overload. Right?
Hannah Baker’s tapes reveal a young life scarred by vicious rumors (and their unintended or unforeseen repercussions), seedy voyeurism, manipulative ingratiation by pseudo friends, sexual harassment, deep emotional insecurity, and an unrecognized quest to simply be known, loved, and accepted for the sensitive soul that she is.
We all recall, even if sketchily, our teenage high school years. The visceral, hormonal quest to connect. The sometimes treacherous search for spiritual, moral, and sexual identity. And the acerbic angst when our fragile world folds under the burden of repetitive rejection and mischaracterization.
In Hannah Baker’s words:
“Like driving along a bumpy road and losing control of the steering wheel, tossing you – just a tad – off the road. The wheels kick up some dirt, but you’re able to pull it back. Yet no matter how tightly you grip the wheel, no matter how hard you try to drive straight, something keeps jerking you to the side. You have so little control over anything anymore. And at some point, the struggle becomes too much – too tiring – and you consider letting go. Allowing tragedy . . . or whatever . . . to happen.”
Teenage suicide is deeply tragic and disturbing. But it is an unsettling disease across all ages, cultures, and nations. In the United States alone, we average about thirty-three thousand suicides a year. That averages out to approximately 34 suicides every hour.
On the 24th of March, 2015 the 27 year old co-pilot of a Germanwings aircraft locked the captain out of the cockpit and then proceeded to deliberately crash the plane into the French Alps, killing all 150 passengers on board. Yes, it has subsequently been revealed that he had been treated for mental concerns and suicidal tendencies some years prior to the event. But, he had passed all his annual pilot re-certification exams and no one, apparently, was concerned.
What is it about suicide that, even with our informed antennae flapping all over the place, catches us off guard? And is it, in the end, a dignified way to exit a current lifetime?
On the off guard question, I would say this: to take one’s own life (unassisted suicide) is to go against our instinctual will to live and thrive. It is not an act that one freely chooses. It is invariably precipitated by some kind of emotional/psychological overload that, in many cases, has been insidiously brewing under the surface of an otherwise normal life. Yes, biochemical imbalances (treated or untreated) may play a part. In the end, however, a person who snaps in this way is too deeply bruised to reach or touch.
On the dignity question: I don’t believe this has any relevance here – except for the surviving family and friends for whom suicide is the ultimate taboo. Then shame, second-guessing, and sadness over the loss of someone in this manner can appear to strip their death of dignity. But this is shallow and short-sighted. Tainted memories may linger, but in gentle time a loving communion with their loved one is restored.
In the final analysis, a legion of factors can precipitate the taking of one’s life. But what matters most where our young people are concerned, is that parents, youth leaders, teachers, guidance counselors, and peers take the time to peel through the layers of angst, loneliness, and isolation often lurking behind an otherwise vivacious persona.
It could make all the difference in the world.
Image Insert: Pixabay