White Awake by Daniel Hill, Free for CAPC Members
White Awake brings us back again and again, gently but inexorably, to the truths that we’re so unwilling to face, steadily prying our hands from our eyes.
Netflix’s new series 13 Reasons Why has become a source of fascination and concern for viewers across the country. While social media users are discussing it nonstop on Twitter, experts have been just as vigilant in warning parents and caregivers about the potential dangers in the show’s message. The basic premise is fairly simple: Hannah Baker, a 17-year-old high school student, has committed suicide and leaves behind a series of cassette tapes that detail the 13 reasons why.
These reasons are actually people, and each person named is charged with listening to the tapes in their entirety, then passing them on to the next person on her list. Because the nature of the tapes is gravely accusatory, each listener becomes protective of the story on the tapes, and many of them band together to guard their reputations.
The characters of 13 Reasons Why don’t need justice. They need forgiveness. They need to stare down the truth of who they are—broken, pained, greedy, reckless creatures—and then let it go. As the tapes play, viewers follow Hannah’s friend Clay on a deep-dive into her past, examining different threads of her life and learning about who wronged her. Some of the named offenses are petty, such as Zach’s theft of Hannah’s notes in her compliment bag, and Ryan’s decision to publish Hannah’s poem without her permission. But other transgressions are far more consequential, including instances of betrayal, sexual assault, rape.
It’s an odd juxtaposition, almost an equivocation of paltry and violent crimes. The only commonality in the accusations is Hannah—these are the people who hurt her. Once the teenagers named in the tapes find one another, they begin to meet regularly, anxious to justify their behavior. The tapes plow their consciences, and they are eager for that dust to settle.
* * *
In the spring of my freshman year of high school, my mother drove me to a hospital downtown. A few hours earlier, one of my best friends, a girl I had known since kindergarten, had shot herself in the head. As we traveled through unfamiliar parts of our city, I found myself unable to consider any possibility other than her survival. My mind would not admit what seemed impossible, what it feared.
She died, of course. Gunshots to the head, as it was explained to me, are usually fatal, and self-inflicted gunshot wounds to the head are administered only by those who are serious about dying. My friend, it seems, was serious.
In the days that followed, I saw boys sob for the first time since second grade, girls let a steady stream of tears fall without wiping them away. At school, we were left unsupervised for reasons that are still unclear to me. And in those hours of unprecedented freedom, we mourned. We had lost both a friend and a world.
We sat on the floor next to one another, stared at the walls, and quietly asked ourselves what had happened. We pulled out copies of her poems and dug brightly colored notes out of our book bags, gingerly laying out our evidence like tarot cards. We recited remembered conversations to one another, pinning all our hopes and fears on vague recollections and scraps of paper. We longed to find the answer, desperate to be named innocent, terrified we were not.
* * *
The problem with being a teenager, or with being a person, is that we are impossibly, irreparably unable to sufficiently meet another’s needs. Our noblest efforts at love are marred with selfishness, ambition, desire. We forge friendships for our own gain, fall in love for our own pleasure, make enemies of those who hurt us. Even the most altruistic endeavors are afflicted by the awareness of our own existence, our inability to forget what we need and want. Every human interaction is corrupted by our humanity. Hannah, too, admits this in the end: “Some of you cared. None of you cared enough. And neither did I.”
In the weeks following Hannah Baker’s death, those named on the tapes rehash their stories. Their hands fidget. There are awkward silences, punctuated by loud and tense declarations.
In those moments, I wonder if they’re thinking what I’m thinking, that Hannah is a hypocrite, that her suicide isn’t justice but revenge. I wonder if Hannah realized that her suicide would ruin other people’s lives the same way that they ruined hers.
Even still, the enemies Hannah names continue to repeat the same absurd, loaded question: “Did I kill Hannah Baker?” But they already know. They remember the times they were careless, egocentric, apathetic. In loving themselves, they didn’t mean to hurt others.
And yet, here they are, blame on their lips, their hands.
* * *
At a mall kiosk, a man sold small lockets with names etched inside them. I gave him twelve dollars for one with her name.
Years later, I read a poem in English class about a sailor who killed an albatross and was forced to wear the bird’s corpse around his neck. My hand flew to my own neck, grasping for the necklace I’d since taken off. I’d left behind the jewelry, but not the guilt.
* * *
13. The number of people on Hannah’s list.
1. The number of people responsible for Hannah’s decision.
0. The number of good reasons she had to commit suicide.
Infinite. The number of torments in this world.
* * *
A counselor once explained to me that people who commit suicide often believe they have no other choice. Sometimes they feel like a burden, a weight on others that drags and never lifts. Sometimes they feel trapped in their own suffering, unable to escape unless they bring about the end themselves.
I think Hannah believed this, that she could just slice open her wrists and let the blood run out, slice open the universe and run out into nothing. But my friend’s death is closer to the truth. Suicide is an explosion. A surge, an outburst, a moment of violence. It leaves a wake of gashes, destruction, uncontrolled smoldering. And no matter how careful you are to name your targets, everyone gets hit.
* * *
On the day that Hannah died, she visited her school counselor to ask for help in recovering from being raped. The counselor explained that Hannah had two options. The first: she could divulge the name of the boy who attacked her, and they could begin a legal investigation so that the boy could be prosecuted. When Hannah refused to disclose her assailant’s name, her counselor offered her the second option: move on. Continue life as though no one was traumatized, nothing was wrecked. Go on as normal.
* * *
As far as I know, my friend wasn’t bullied at school. I’m not sure what her life was like outside of school, but among our classmates, she was fairly popular, well-loved, a favorite.
She didn’t leave behind tapes or a note or any kind of explanation. That didn’t stop us from looking for one. Even in the shakiness of speculation, we wondered, trying to understand. My conscience was clear of malice, but the guilt I felt came from realizing that I must not have known her at all, or at least not enough to matter.
* * *
13 Reasons Why asks the wrong questions. It explores blame and responsibility, influence and control. But all of those questions are already answered—Hannah’s peers are guilty the moment they selfishly, or maliciously, put her in harm’s way. The suicide is a footnote, an understated finale, an epilogue.
Hannah wants justice. She wants to balance the scales, to heal the cracks in her world. She examines it, marks 13 causes, and reports them. But identifying a problem doesn’t fix it. And that’s the tragic failing of Hannah’s efforts. She knows how things ought to be. She knows how things are. But instead of settling the score, she escalates it.
* * *
What do we do with our imperfect virtue, our guilt, our pathetic attempts at love?
We can ignore the truth, as Bryce does, as Hannah’s counselor advises her to do. We can try to escape it, like Hannah and Jessica and Alex. We can fight to set it right, as Clay does. But these efforts, however noble and righteous their intent, will do little to actually absolve us.
The characters of 13 Reasons Why don’t need justice. They need forgiveness. They need to stare down the truth of who they are—broken, pained, greedy, reckless creatures—and then let it go. This, of course, demands sacrifice—someone has to absorb the full shock of trauma without throwing it back out into the world. But it’s the only way to break the cycle of pain. Face the truth about the world. Accept it, with all of its struggle and agony. Extend love anyway.
The most shocking thing about our lives is not the summation of horrors wrought by our own hands. Instead, it is the possibility of joy in the midst of unspeakable darkness. It is the fact of grace, the merciless grip of forgiveness. It is the opportunity to love imperfectly, to handle vulnerability, to wreak havoc and then begin again.
* * *
13. The number of people on Hannah’s list.
1. The number of ways to heal the trauma of living.
0. The number of ways a person can love perfectly.
Infinite. The number of graces in this world.
* * *
Throughout 13 Reasons Why, Clay seeks to reconcile the wrongs done to Hannah. He suffers immensely through this journey marked by justice and revenge, and it nearly destroys him. But in the final frames of the show, Clay rides down the freeway in the car with friends, windows down, music loud. His scars are still visible on his face, but he is alive, free.
* * *
On her birthday, a few of us gathered by her tombstone. We shuffled our feet, stared at the bright grass, unsure of what to do. Someone brought candy, and we sat down and shared it. One girl cried a little. But we mostly told funny stories, and our laughter echoed through the hills of the cemetery. Other mourners walked past us, occasionally throwing judgmental looks our way, and we laughed even louder. We sat for hours together, howling joyfully into the sunset.
Years later, I stood in front of a room full of 15 year olds. We read stories of danger and heartache, war and death. Then we closed the books and waited. Someone broke the silence with a silly joke and laughter filled the room, spilled through the cracks of the door, flooded the hallways. I watched the light fill up their eyes, and I finally felt forgiven.
For as low as $5/month, you’ll get access to free offerings from creators and authors we love, exclusive access to our member’s only forum, and exclusive content and podcasts — and you’ll help ensure that CAPC keeps getting better and better.