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'13 Reasons Why' Writer Defends the Show's Graphic Suicide Scene

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Editor’s note: The following piece contains spoilers about “13 Reasons Why.”

There’s been much written both praising and criticizing the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why,” a story of a teenager who dies by suicide, leaving behind tapes for the people she believes wronged her, with suicide prevention groups leading most of the critique. One of the show’s writers took one of these criticisms head on in a Vanity Fair op-ed, “Why We Didn’t Shy Away From Hannah’s Suicide.

Nic Sheff, who’s attempted suicide himself, defends the series’ choice to show, in pretty graphic detail, Hannah Baker — the character whose suicide the plot revolves around — taking her own life.

He wrote:

As soon as I read the pilot for ’13 Reasons Why,’ I immediately knew it was a project I wanted to be involved in… I recognized the potential for the show to bravely and unflinchingly explore the realities of suicide for teens and young adults—a topic I felt very strongly about.

He said he was surprised by the negative response to the scene that shows her suicide. In fact, when arguing the series should show the suicide attempt, he told the story of his own. Sheff writes that another woman’s graphic suicide attempt story stopped him from taking his life:

But then a miracle happened. Sitting there on the edge of the bathtub, I flashed upon a memory I had up until that point completely forgotten. I saw a woman’s face, covered in bruises, both eyes swollen shut. And I remembered her… The whole story came back to me in heightened detail. It was an instant reminder that suicide is never peaceful and painless, but instead an excruciating, violent end to all hopes and dreams and possibilities for the future. The memory came to me like a shock. It staggered me. And it saved my life.

Sheff argues that in showing a suicide in detail, it dispels the myth that suicide is “the quiet drifting off” and instead shows suicide as an ugly act of violence.

But showing a suicide in such graphic detail contradicts guidelines for how to safely report on suicide. The guidelines read, “Risk of additional suicides increases when the story explicitly describes the suicide method, uses dramatic/graphic headlines or images, and repeated/extensive coverage sensationalizes or glamorizes a death.”

“It was clear from the beginning that Hannah’s death would be depicted in the show,” Dese’Rae L. Stage, founder of Live Through This and a suicide attempt survivor, told The Mighty in response to the piece, adding:

Depicting it in a way that feels true and honest to one’s own experience does not also mean that the depiction needs to traumatize the viewer. In bringing a scene like that to life, the creator walks a fine line. It could have been filmed in any number of ways and still gotten its point across. Our imaginations are powerful, powerful things. Ask Alfred Hitchcock. In the case of ’13 Reasons Why,’ what we have is a team of artists who chose to willfully ignore recommendations of suicide prevention professionals, prioritizing Good TV over the fact that their artistic decisions could have a detrimental effect on their viewers.

Taylor Henderson, an LGBTQ entertainment and news writer, told me:

When I began the show, I praised it to everyone I could find. I watched the last episode excited and nervous. As Hannah climbed in that bathtub, I whispered aloud “surely they’re not gonna show this.” I covered my eyes in horror as the scene played out, deeply disturbed just listening to the audio. When her parents came rushing in moments later, I had to run out of my own living room and rounded the corner sobbing. I finished the episode in silence, turned off the tv, and resolved to never bring up the show again. No one else would be subjected to that kind of graphic violence because of me.

I deal with depression and anxiety, but never serious suicidal thoughts. My sister isn’t so lucky. All I could think of was what she would think watching that scene, and how much I never wanted her to go through it. I have no idea if it was “the right decision” to show it. But it is an incredibly disturbing cinematic moment. I think it was irresponsible, reckless and uncaring of the real-world effect it would have on people

When I asked people what they thought about the Vanity Fair piece on Twitter, here were some of the responses I got:

What do you think after reading Sheff’s explanation? Tell us in the comments below:

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or text “START” to 741-741.

Screenshot via Netflix Youtube

Originally published: April 21, 2017
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