In the common icebreaker game Two Truths and a Lie, players take turns coming up with two truths and a lie about themselves. Everyone else has to guess which statement is a lie. To win the game, you have to be able to distinguish which is most likely a lie, while the person offering the statements tries hard to make them indistinguishable.
The new, exceedingly stylish and popular Netflix series 13 Reasons Why reminds me of a round of Two Truths and a Lie. The 13-episode first season revolves around high school sophomore Hannah Baker, who we know up front has committed suicide. She has left behind a set of cassette tapes on which she has recorded her reasons for ending her life; each reason is a different person.
Along the way, we are presented with a nightmarish vision of high school. It’s a nightmare that rings true to a lot of teen viewers, given the popularity of the show, and that’s something we should all be paying attention to. Girls are treated as objects by boys, including two sexual assaults; athletes’ faults are overlooked because of what they can do for the team; cyber bullying takes the old rumor mill to a new level. All of these are important and difficult subjects.
So how is this like Two Truths and a Lie? Well, truth runs through this show. But so does a lie. It is left to the viewer to discern which is which.
So first, a truth: suicide is only the beginning of the suffering for those left behind. If you’ve ever known anyone who has lost a loved one to suicide, you know that it brings nothing but anguish to everyone involved. Hannah’s parents are in agony as they try to understand how this could happen. The main character, the sweet, awkward Clay, suffers trauma at every turn as he slowly makes his way through Hannah’s tapes.
A second truth: What we do affects those around us. A little gossip, a quick joke, a thoughtless prank, any of these things can hurt someone deeply. The book of James goes into this truth in depth, pointing out the damage that one person’s tongue can do. We all have a responsibility to be cautious in what we say and to look out for those who are hurting.
But then there’s the lie. And it’s a whopper. Through the tapes, and because of the shock of her suicide, everyone is suddenly taking seriously their part in her suffering. Those who never really meant much harm are shown the errors of their ways. Those who acted against her intentionally are brought to their knees. And poor Clay only knows more how much he loves her and how he lost his chance with her.
Wondering what the lie is? The show is telling us that through suicide Hannah is truly heard. People change or are sorry for their sins because of her parting message. They finally see the real Hannah. But in reality, suicide is the great silencer. Because your voice is extinguished with you, and the opportunity to really work things out is lost. Hannah is a beautiful, romantic, tragic figure, and she gets the final say.
To someone feeling hurt, lost, or struggling with depression or other mental illness, this is the sort of fantasy that seems like an answer to suffering, not the cause of more.
Several years ago I read the book by the same name the show is based on. I remember thinking that the book really got at the fact that we need to care for each other, but that I’d be careful who I gave the book to. The Netflix version gives more me concern. In the book readers know that Hannah killed herself by taking pills, but it doesn’t go into detail about her death. In the show, viewers watch her cut her wrists with razor blades. The graphic images of the show—the rape, the drugs, the drinking, the sexual encounters—up the ante. There are other lies—adults (particularly the school counselor in this case) are not worthy of trust, casual teen sex is safe as long as it’s consensual, and parents are clueless. A couple of the students named on the tapes consider dark actions of their own. One attempts suicide himself, and the result of his attempt is unknown at the end of the series.
I’ve talked about the big lie of the show, but there is another one. This show is very short on hope. Nothing and no one helped Hannah, and the counselor basically tells Clay there’s nothing he could’ve done—if Hannah was going to kill herself, she would do it no matter what. There is little hope for change or real redemption.
13 Reasons Why is a hard story, a sad novel, and a brutal show. It’s rated TV-MA for language, drug use, sexual content, violence—you name it, it’s in there. None of it is glamorous. But a book that was written for young adults (high school and up) has been made into a show that is theoretically rated for adults. Yet it is packaged for, and marketed to, teens of all ages. It is a big topic of conversation at middle schools near me.
I would strongly argue against putting these images in the minds of middle schoolers. But if they are already watching or have already seen it, watch it yourself. Take this opportunity to open a conversation about the multitude of tough subjects presented. These are subjects we absolutely should be talking about with our tweens and teens, who are not always in a position to distinguish the lie from the truth. This “game” is too important to lose.