Content Warning: This post will talk extensively about suicide. It is the author’s belief and, indeed, thesis, that talking about suicide, honestly and in detail, is the best form of suicide prevention. But if you feel differently, this post may not be for you for a variety of reasons.
Spoiler Alert: This post will talk extensively about season one of the Netflix television series 13 Reasons Why and the entirety of the This American Life/Serial podcast S-Town. It is highly recommended that you only engage with this content if you have seen and heard both of these pieces in their entirety. (Separately, it is highly recommended that you see and hear both of these pieces anyway.) Short of that, it is at least recommended that you do not proceed unless you’ve ruled out engaging with any content you haven’t engaged with, unless you don’t mind said content being spoiled.
The real John B. McLemore (left) and the fictional Hannah Baker (right).
“The way people talk about suicide in this country infuriates me. Because most of it is very much a way of not talking about it. People treat suicide like it’s ultra-contagious ebola, that it is unspeakable, unthinkable, and that even discussing it without a biohazard suit on will somehow create a wave of copycat suicides and an epidemic and therefore we should just zip our lips and praise the person who just ‘died’ (not, never ever, ‘killed themselves’, even though that’s what actually happened) and ignore the gargantuan elephant busting down the walls of the room that the person in question just chose to publicly end their own lives as a statement.”
–Let’s Talk About Suicide, 13 August 2014, a post which can be read as a kind of premise to this one
As someone who wrote the above, admittedly angrily, less than three years ago, it’s been heartening to witness the sudden success and virality of both 13 Reasons Why and S-Town. They were each released in late March, just three days apart, in their respective entireties, per the new expectations of the media bingeing culture. While the former is based on a novel that’s been out for a decade now, there is poetry in this nearly simultaneous release, and the resultant arc of fame and discussion has sparked, perhaps, the beginning of a sea-change in how we address suicide in American society.
Of course, with fame and success and audience come the inevitable backlash, which has poured out in spades for both shows. In the case of the TV series, outcry has focused on raw portrayals of sexual assault and suicide in material that is clearly aimed at a younger audience. In the instance of the podcast, descriptions of suicide are deemed more tolerable, while critiques focus on invading the privacy of the suicide after his death, converting his call for an investigation into a biography of him, unearthing a number of intimate details about the man. The common thread in these critiques is the idea that we are shown too much. That there are limits and boundaries to what we should see, what we should hear, what art should attempt to portray about its subjects.
Which shows, of course, that the critics of each of these works could not possibly have done more to miss the point of their material. For what both works do, profoundly and with abandon, is demonstrate that the desire for privacy, the urge to stay quiet or, worse, miscommunicate about our feelings and intentions, is literally killing us. That suicide is not some spectral ebola: unseen, unheard, misunderstood, and treatable only with pills. Rather, suicide is the product of our society, it is rooted in a profound loneliness manufactured by our ignorance of other people’s realities and our unwillingness to share the truth of our own. Suicide is not, as the clueless adults prattle throughout 13 Reasons Why, solely the responsibility of the individual who made the decision to end their life. Instead, suicide prevention is our collective responsibility, not just with hotline referrals, but by actually opening up our lives and our hearts to those who are suffering.
And not, as so wittily and honestly depicted in 13 Reasons Why, only after a suicide. The job of preventing a potential suicide, of reaching out and listening, helping, and trying to cause less harm, starts today, whether you know someone affected or not. Because you can watch the fictional Hannah Baker, you can hear the real John B. McLemore, and you don’t have to wait for someone closer to home to kill themselves. This is the purpose of art – to serve as a proxy for horrible things so that maybe we don’t have to learn every lesson firsthand. Maybe we can learn from the experience of others, the portrayal of realistic characters, and prevent similar calamities in our own futures before it’s too late.
Suicide is a growing problem in this country. The suicide rate has increased more than 25% since I graduated high school, now killing more Americans than car accidents, which is saying something. It’s at a 30-year high in the most recently available data-year (2015), a figure that has probably increased in the subsequent year by preliminary reports. 44,193 people took their own lives in the US that year, making it the second leading cause of death for the 15-34 age group. And for all you “guns-don’t-kill” people out there, fully half of all suicides were committed via a firearm.
(Further, for all you people out there worried about terrorism, 94 Americans have been killed by terrorists since 2001, compared to the 515,654 who killed themselves from 2002-2015. That’s a ratio of 5,486:1. But it’s worse, because 49 of those 94 died in Orlando in 2016, a year for which we don’t yet have suicide data, so the ratio is actually 11,459:1. Think I’m cherry-picking by avoiding 9/11? Including 2001 brings the suicide total to 546,276 and the terrorism total to 3,028, a ratio of 180:1. Suicide is killing one-hundred and eighty times the number of Americans as terrorism since 2000, including 9/11. Can you imagine what doing 180 times as much to combat it would look like?)
Neither of the suicides in these March 2017 art works are via firearm. The fictional Hannah Baker kills herself in a very visceral wrist-slitting scene that actually made me weep while watching it. The real John B. McLemore drinks potassium cyanide while on the phone with a county clerk, as described briefly but painfully by S-Town host Brian Reed. As critical journalists have been quick to shout from the rooftops, traditional guidelines discourage detailed descriptions or depictions of suicide methodology in fear of “contagion” and “copycatting”. But this guideline misses the fine line between sensationalizing or glorifying an act and depicting its true horror. Nothing about either depiction could be confused for glorification. Rather, the message of each detailed and even gory depiction is clear: suicide is painful and difficult. This messaging achieves two fundamental things that the critics tend to miss: it illustrates both that suicide is not an easy way out, thus deterring suicide and it illustrates quite viscerally just how much pain the suicidal person is in when they undertake the act. Indeed, Hannah is surprised at how much the razors hurt when they enter her arms, having not been a cutter beforehand. And John is overwhelmed by how much the cyanide burns on its way down his throat. The fact that they follow-through demonstrates the level of suffering each of these lonely, tormented souls is enduring, emphasizing how critical it is for those who can to try to help.
But each artwork takes an additional step to further cement the messaging, veering yet further from any possible glorification and fully into the realm of deterrence. They then keep the camera or microphone on the scene to show the aftermath. Not just the long-term aftermath: for Christ’s sake, the entirety of 13 Reasons Why is about aftermath, as is about half of S-Town. But also the short-term, immediate aftermath… Hannah’s parents coming into the bathroom, unable to grapple with what’s happened, clutching their daughter and begging her to wake up. The county clerk saying, matter-of-factly, “Every night it’s a replay. I’m still just — there’s not a night that I don’t think about him, that I don’t wake up and dreaming about it, or thinking about him. Not a night.”
One of the fundamental truths of suicide is that those who undertake it feel like the walls are closing in, the options are foreclosing, and that everyone either hates them or will be better off without them. Contrary to the “revenge fantasy” notion that the media so often mistakenly finds in suicidal behavior (and is misrepresented as Hannah’s intent and story), most suicides actually believe they are removing a burden from the ones they love in the moment they commit the act. Not only is this reality well depicted in both shows, but the objective untruth of the suicides’ self-perception is also exposed, in extensive detail. 13 Reasons Why is relentless in showing how utterly bereft Hannah’s parents are, how impossibly lonely Clay is, how much she is missed by the community that made her feel unloved. Here the message may sound like an after-school teen drama: you are loved, even though it’s not cool for us to show it or even admit it. But at the same time, the exact same message shines through S-Town, as applied to a closeted eccentric in the rural South who is upwards of 50 years old. You complain that your town is anti-intellectual and desperate, but you are recognized by intellectuals the world over as a foremost artisan in an ancient skill. You feel you have no one in your life, but there are people who are willing to do extraordinary things, make themselves uncomfortable, in the hope that you will find joy or peace. It is hard for me to imagine a more hopeful message for the would-be suicide to hear, to witness, than that they are loved beyond their wildest reckoning and would do deep damage to the ones they love.
There are differences between the shows, of course, and these differences, beyond the basic questions of truth and fiction, men and women, age and youth, make the two a fitting pair in ushering in a new, more bold and open era of talking about suicide. Perhaps the most obvious is that John B. McLemore talks almost incessantly about suicide before he does it, casually throwing around plans and notions and the inevitability like he’s talking about next Tuesday’s ballgame. On the other hand, Hannah Baker dares not speak the name of suicide, of ending things at all, until the day she does it, even then retracting her statement and being coy with the school counselor mere minutes before she walks out of school and toward her bathtub. These mirrored depictions themselves are helpful reminders that what we have often been taught to watch out for by well-intentioned experts on the subject is wrong: there is rarely a clear moment of warning or an easily detectable warning sign to look out for. There is rarely a clear shift before something actually happens, which is why so many people are blindsinded, as the world most recently was by Chris Cornell a week ago, by suicides.
By telling us to worry about and care for those for whom suicide is either so stigmatized that they cannot bear to discuss the possibility, or for whom wrestling with suicide has become so commonplace that no one really hears the warnings or takes them seriously, these twin offerings remind us of the messy reality of suicide. It doesn’t come with a clear yellow flag, then a clear red, with just enough time to react. Only the most advanced and open of the suicidal are able to give that, have a network of people to whom they reach out when the triggers and risk factors mount. Far more often, the onus has to be on those around them to reach out. Not in a reactive way, not in a biohazard suit, not in a scary way to jump the gun and say “oh my gosh, are you going to kill yourself?!” But in the calm, steady, loving way of expressing appreciation, telling someone how much they mean to their world, how glad they are to have them in their world. Yes, suicide is complicated, but it is not random. Nor is it inescapable. Had either Hannah or John had people regularly, sincerely reminding them how much they meant to them in their world, easing up on the criticisms and caustic jokes, replacing some of them with risky, heartfelt appreciations, it’s hard to imagine either of them getting to the brink.
But high school and the rural South are not places where heartfelt appreciations are easily given. Guess what? Neither is anywhere else in this country, maybe outside of a few counseling centers and non-profits that take emotional affirmation and work seriously (Glide comes to mind). S-Town does a laudable job of universalizing a region of the country we so often judge and lampoon, especially on outlets like NPR, disproving the tropey assumptions that most people bring to the first episode and recognizing John as a “citizen of the world”, a place he worries about very much. And 13 Reasons Why, to its credit, makes high school a very adult place. The subject may be, partially, about not knowing how cruel high schoolers can be to each other, but it’s also about the fact that high schoolers take their world as seriously as adults do, with fully adult consequences. Over and over, adults’ inability to understand the stakes of ages 14-18 costs them the opportunity to connect with and even save their children.
Which is why I find the most frequent criticism of 13 Reasons so powerfully laughable: the idea that it’s inappropriate for young viewers. The response that any of the actual students at Liberty High would make is as follows: “So we’re young enough to live it, but not to watch a depiction of someone else living it?” Given that the most crippling and yes, suicide-inducing feeling, especially for teens, is isolation and loneliness, the idea that no one understands or cares, how can we bash a work of art that bridges that divide for bullied, assaulted, harassed, or suicidal teens?! That shows them that They are Not Alone and, maybe more importantly, that Their Problems are Real. Enforcing the reality of their problems does not make someone suicidal go over the edge; it’s the feeling that one is crazy for caring about these problems that entrenches an unconquerable loneliness and self-hatred that pushes people past the brink. Remember that the first step is admitting you have a problem? If everyone else thinks the problem is poppycock or silly, then you’re just pathetic for not being able to cope with it. If there’s acknowledgment, you can start to tackle it like a problem that’s as hard as it feels.
Which is why, as a subplot, the unvarnished and horrifying depictions of sexual assault are also part of the fundamental deterrence of bad behavior and affirmation of feelings found in the show. Like suicide itself, these kinds of scenes tend to be anesthetized on screens or, worse, sort of glorified and glamorized as in Game of Thrones. Talk about reaffirming your rape culture! By stark contrast, 13 Reasons takes every pain to show both the heartlessness of rapists and, more importantly, the immense deadening suffering experienced by their victims. By doing so, by creating a scene that itself may actually be traumatizing (another oft-lobbed critique), 13 Reasons sends a powerful antidote to any guys who may brush off their actions as un-serious, no big deal, or any of the other hundreds of excuses that rape culture makes for its atrocities. By sending this message not only to 14-18 year olds, but perhaps to the tweens as well, it serves as great counterspeech to the messaging of pornography, toxic masculinity, Game of Thrones, and society as a whole. No one can watch those scenes and not loathe the rapist, not have their heart break for their victims, not reel at the permanence of the damage that was wrought. There is nothing sensational or attractive about these illustrations, but they are real and honest and do good, hard work to deter rape without victim-blaming.
The sexual scenes in S-Town are perhaps more ambiguous in their nobility. Indeed, explorations of John’s romantic history and latent penchant for consensual mutilation have been cited as voyeuristic and, while humanizing, possibly a bridge too far for a posthumous podcast. I find this critique more understandable than those levied at 13 Reasons, but still insufficient. Through his endless talks, his extensive writing, and even the initial invitation to Brian Reed to come down to Woodstock, Alabama and start recording, it was clear that John’s search was to be understood. Or, short of that, to be heard. It is hard for me to imagine John being upset with his fate as a kind of tragic anti-hero, someone brilliant and misunderstood, loved by more than he thought, possibly felled by his own ancient practices with mercury and self-inflicted isolation. Do we need to know about his disappointing encounters with men or needles to get the full picture? I think we do. It is only by understanding the depth of his loneliness, how hard he tried, and also how unbearable his ongoing mental agony, that we can start to understand why he was in the position he is, why he did what he did.
And that’s what this is all about. Why. It’s right there in the title of one of them. The other, S-Town, is short, of course, for Shittown, the moniker the borderline anhedonic John gives his environment. Shittown is his reason why, after all. As Brian evaluates in the second episode, before we’ve learned of his suicide, “The shitty misfortunes John fixates on, they’re not a bunch of disparate things. They’re all the same thing. His Shittown is part of Bibb County, which is part of Alabama, which is part of the United States, which is part of Earth, which is experiencing climate change, which no one is doing anything about. It maddens John. The whole world is giving a collective shrug of its shoulders and saying fuck it.”
Brian goes on, even more meaningfully: “What I admire about John is that in his own misanthropic way, he’s crusading against one of the most powerful, insidious forces we face — resignation, the numb acceptance that we can’t change things. He’s trying to shake people out of their stupor, trying to convince them that it is possible to make their world a better place.”
That’s what both of these shows are doing, too. They’re campaigning against resignation, numbness, acceptance. Against the resignation that suicide will always just be there, a problem plaguing us. Against numbness to the feelings that lead some people down that path, against numbness to the idea of feelings at all: that they matter, that we are here to connect, that we should take risks with each other to create meaning instead of just following the same pattern of being cool kids who make cutting, sarcastic jokes. Against acceptance of what happens to us: cruelty, isolation, loneliness, rape, suicide. These things don’t get better by putting up posters, by labeling people, by pointing the long narrow finger to go talk to some other person who can handle you and your problems. They get better by us seeing care for others as our collective responsibility, reaching out, taking risks.
Most critical pieces on 13 Reasons Why, especially in statements posted by anti-suicide organizations, have cited a notable uptick in calls and even hospitalizations stemming from the release of the show. How or why this could possibly be a critique of the show rather than a compliment baffles me. With well over 40,000 suicides completed each year, plenty of people are failing to either seek or receive the help they need to stay alive. If more people are seeking that help in the wake of a show that speaks honestly about these issues, isn’t that an improvement? When more people sign up for health insurance, health-care advocates see that as a victory. Why not the same when more people call the suicide hotline? Isn’t that the whole point of posting suicide hotline numbers everywhere? To get people to actually call and talk?
Your mileage with suicidalism and with these pieces may vary. It’s worth noting that, despite the binge-ability of these works, I just finished each of them within the last 24 hours, having taken weeks to absorb both. Part of this is because I’ve been doing a lot of writing in the last two months, as well as some debate travel, so I haven’t been in a position to just sit down and listen for seven hours or watch for thirteen. It’s quite possible that the emotional overwhelm of that experience is less manageable than manually stretching it out. That Hannah’s descent into cascading calamity feels more like madness at that pace, that John’s depression is contagious at that speed.
But I still fundamentally deny the premise that suffering like that is so contagious, or that it redoubles the pain for those already hurting. We are all trapped in our own skins, all living with ourselves constantly and hoping to make fleeting contact with other souls on this isolated rock. Hearing about and, more importantly, really understanding the pain and reasoning of a relatable human being is so often soothing. Yes, if all the inputs are for hopeless despair, that can get overwhelming. But in showing that Hannah and John were loved more than they knew, were understandable, in treating their lives and deaths with respect and compassion, we get tragedy without hopelessness. We get a model for what not to do next time, in our own lives, how not to turn away and isolate ourselves and others.
Both shows are meditations on time. John with his old clocks brought back to life, his painstaking evaluation of the value of a life. Hannah with her examination of causation, of the precise point of no return, of minutes on a tape until it clicks. All we have is the time we are given. And in seeing honest examples of those who choose to cut that short, we might better appreciate the use of it when we awaken tomorrow.
If we shun these depictions, if we shame them as showing too much too riskily, we build taboos around suicide as strong as any stigma that we’ve carried from our cultural history. As shown in these shows, suicide is hard enough to talk about sincerely and seriously without slamming the few major media pieces that can actually manage to do so. If we want people to ask for help, we have to be ready to give it. And that requires being willing to see, hear, and think about suicide in all its messy horror. Hopefully 13 Reasons Why and S-Town are just early heralds in this new open, honest, and authentic approach to an issue we are all, in some way, affected by.
This is the part of the article where I’m supposed to provide the number for a suicide hotline. A suicide hotline may help you connect with someone to talk about why you’re feeling suicidal and how things can get better. Call 1-800-273-8255 if you’re in crisis or need to talk to someone. Yes, it can be awkward and weird. But as I’ve always said about suicide, if you’re willing to entertain ending everything, shouldn’t you try everything else first, just in case?
But I’m also going to invite you to reach out to me if you want. I’m assuming pretty much everyone here reading this blog knows or has known me in some way or at some point, so hopefully you feel comfortable reaching out. If you don’t know me, the proverbial door is still open. E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Make no mistake, the call to the hotline above will be faster and put you in touch with someone more officially trained in ways of dealing with suicidal ideation. But I am a 27-year survivor of suicidalism and may have some ideas or insights or tips that are not part of mainline conventional wisdom in suicide prevention. A list of some of these tips is available toward the end of this post.
So if you think I could be helpful, reach out. It’s only by people connecting with other people that we’re going to start to beat this thing.
Joyce Hayes died yesterday morning. Not by suicide, but at the end of a long illness. She was 72. By any rights, this post tonight should have been about her, but I am still processing her death and what it means to me and the countless lives she touched and saved. I have been thinking about this post for a long time, it’s been building, and I had to get it out of my system before addressing the power of Joyce’s love and its impact on the Glide community and beyond. Hopefully that will be up in a day or two.