When you ask somebody, "How are you?", how often do you actually listen to the answer? Nine times out of ten, they probably just reply with a simple "Fine," and the conversation moves on. The truth is, neither of you are really interested in the question; it's like a handshake. Quickly forgotten. But, what if you asked somebody that question, and they looked at you with quiet desperation when they replied? Would you notice? If you noticed, would you do something about it? Would you care?
I read Jay Asher's YA novel "Thirteen Reasons Why" this weekend, and, needless to say, it had a profound effect on me. As someone who has been suicidal, at times it hit a little too close to home.
I'll never forget the feeling of isolation, the desperate longing and complete inability to connect with anyone around me. I spent a long time pretending to be normal, all the while hoping that someone would notice that I wasn't. Hoping someone would care that I wasn't "fine" before it was too late to do anything about it. Luckily, someone did notice, but it was because I realized I really didn't want to leave, and I finally had the courage to ask for help. Not everyone in that situation can free their voice enough to do that; sometimes death seems easier.
For Hannah Baker in Asher's novel, death is the answer to an equation that started years ago, and is made up primarily of the actions of twelve people in her life. She decides to tell these people what they did to bring her to the edge: "You must listen to these tapes," she tells the people on them, "or they'll be released, and everyone will find out what you did." She sets the rules, even giving these twelve people a map to follow to each of the locations where a bit more of her soul died, so that each can experience it for themselves. The damning incidents vary widely from simple pettiness to real evil, and the total sum is devastating. For each of the listeners featured on the tapes, hearing what happened to a girl they thought they knew, done to her by people they see everyday, changes their lives forever. Some laugh it off: "I don't belong on those tapes," one says, with a shrug. Others lash out at those featured, never able to look at their friends the same way again. One boy has his window broken over and over again as the tapes make their rounds, because of his actions.
For Hannah, she felt her life was out of her control, made unbearable by a reputation unearned, by the heinous acts of others, by the simple inability to communicate her pain to anyone around her. Finally, she finds the ultimate control in the way she ends it; her meticulous recording and distribution of these tapes.
Asher never makes a real judgement call on Hannah's act, though his narrator goes through the gamut of emotions, being angry at her, feeling she's selfish, blaming himself for not helping her when he could have, blaming her for not confiding in him. Though the tapes promise they will help him understand why she chose to end her life, in the end he is confused and sad anyway. That is suicide: it is selfish and maddening and sad and frustrating, and it changes those let behind forever. It is finality without closure.
I know I will never be able to read this book again. It will sit on my shelves, and unlike other novels I have, I will not pick it up in a year or two and decide to give it another go-around. But, this book will stay with me, and I will recommend it to every parent of a teenager that I know. The signs were there in Hannah, but no one saw them. She tried to reach out, but no one heard. I was one of the lucky ones, and I'm still here, but for every one of me, there are a dozen Hannah Baker's out there that no one sees, who end their lives in despair and leave no casettes behind to tell the world why they did it.
Next time you ask someone how they are, look in their eyes. And, if you know they're lying when they answer, ask them why. I promise you, they want you to ask. They just don't know how to say it.