On ’13 Reasons Why’…

**trigger warning for sexual assault and suicide in relation to 13 Reasons Why book and series**

It took me a while to summon up the courage to watch 13 Reasons Why. The subject matter alone is tough to watch but, having read many reviews, I was acutely aware of the fact that it did not shy away from any of the brutal reality of what the characters experience…..and I wanted to feel ready to watch that within my own space and time.

13 Reasons Why has received a huge amount of backlash. Suicide prevention organisations have called what they depicted ‘gratuitous and triggering’. Sexual assault survivor support groups have asked for more warnings to be put on the show…

I knew before I pressed play that this was going to be tough viewing.

Years ago I read the book 13 Reasons Why and it broke my heart. I found it a tough read and I felt so much heartache for what everyone in the book experienced. Now, aged 33, watching 13 Reasons Why and seeing these characters depicted on screen is still as tough and brutal and heartbreaking.

However, I applaud the producers of this show for depicting this honestly and unapologetically. These experiences are so often shied away from in mainstream media – glossed over or not even acknowledged. It is important to tell these stories. It is important for people to see the brutal reality of what happens and the aftermath.

It’s important for people to talk about this.

I want to talk about four characters stories in particular: Bryce, Clay, Jessica and, of course, Hannah.

In case you haven’t read the book or seen the show – there are spoilers from now on…

Let me start with Bryce. Bryce is a predator and at no point in his life has he been told that what he is doing is wrong. He believes that he has the right or the monopoly on girls bodies. At one point, in his confession to Clay that he raped Jessica and Hannah he says, “They were pretty much begging me to fuck them. If that’s rape, then every girl in this school wants to be raped.” Rape culture is real and it’s dangerous. From Brock Turner to Dr Luke, victim blaming and rape culture clearly exists within our society. Young men are taught to ‘man up’ and ‘get some’ but at no point are they taught about consent and about respect. Bryce is a product of that environment. First he rapes Jessica while she is passed out drunk at a party. If you have ever watched ‘The Hunting Ground’ or ‘Audrie & Daisy’, you will be aware of the sheer prevalence of this crime for young women today. Having no one call him out on what he did, in spite of Jessica’s boyfriend knowing that his long time best friend had raped his girlfriend, Bryce goes on to rape Hannah. He shows no remorse, no recognition that what he did was wrong. Even when he is confronted, he defends his actions, saying that the girls were ‘asking for it’. Bryce has never been told he is wrong and, unless stopped, will most likely continue to offend – believing that it makes him ‘a man’ when he is anything but.

“You don’t know what goes on in anyone’s life but your own. And when you mess with one part of a person’s life, you’re not messing with just that part. Unfortunately, you can’t be that precise and selective. When you mess with one part of a person’s life, you’re messing with their entire life. Everything. . . affects everything.”
Jay Asher, Thirteen Reasons Why

And then there is Clay – the recipient of Hannah’s tapes when we meet him in the series. Clay feels every second of Hannah’s story as he listens to each of the tapes, painstakingly following her footsteps through the recordings and continuously wondering what he could have done to change the events that occurred. In short, Clay is the antithesis of Bryce. Clay’s empathy for Hannah, after hearing her story, is overwhelming for him – to the point where he beats himself up, becomes ill, depressed and self-destructive. He is, in effect, collateral damage from Hannah’s experiences and decision.  He is forever changed by all he hears and his eyes are opened so brutally to the reality of the people he is surrounded by. Thankfully we leave Clay on a hopeful note as he reaches out to someone who is struggling in her own way – understanding that change begins within.

Jessica’s story resonated with me in a big way. Her denial and confusion over that night at the party, her desire to act out without knowing why, hiding in alcohol and partying, trying to dull the pain and face the reality of what happened. Jessica’s silence within the lawyers interview, her fear of speaking out about what Bryce had done, her feelings of shame and blaming herself – every sexual assault survivor has gone through these emotions. Her reactions were symptomatic of a society of victim-blaming – where a college athlete who rapes an unconscious woman is given a 3 month sentence and revered in reports as ‘just making a mistake – he should not have his life ruined because of it’. The psychological effects of sexual assault are irreparable. As a survivor, you are forever changed. Jessica is forever changed. Her final scenes where she speaks to her father about what happened to her were, for me, amongst the most emotional in the series. You feel like she will finally get the help that she so desperately needs and the slow healing process can begin.

tenorHannah. Hannah’s story could have gone in a different direction at any moment yet, it did not. Surrounded by misogyny and slut-shaming, she starts to feel more and more alone and victimised. People are cruel and heartless towards her and she is both the victim of and witness to sexual assaults from multiple people. She begins to feel worthless and becomes self-destructive. Even when someone as kind and caring as Clay comes along, she is unable to let go of what has happened to her so far – she is already changed and suffering from the psychological effects of the relentless cruelty of her peers. When Bryce rapes her, she says on her tape that he ‘broke her soul’. Hannah’s final decision is heartbreaking and horrifying. The honest portrayal of what happens and the aftermath of such a choice was confronting and ugly and crushing – the sheer bravery of a series to not shy away from the subject is admirable. Within her tapes, however, you see glimpses of a life that could be, a future she could have, and what more there is out there for her. It is heartbreaking to see and to know that Hannah’s decision means she never gets to see that future, and her family and friends never get to see that future.

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I feel like 13 Reason Why’s controversy stems a huge amount from fear of talking about these subjects – and yet, staying silent is the worst thing you can do. Hannah’s story could have gone another way if someone….anyone…had asked, cared enough, been ready to listen and to stand up for her. Jessica’s story could have been different if the ‘bro-code’ had meant calling out your friends when what they are doing is wrong. Clay’s story could have been different if he had persevered and waited ready to listen to Hannah. Bryce’s story could have been different if he had been taught the importance of consent and respect.

In the end, talking about these subjects is the first step towards real change…

On tragedy and a city in mourning…

The city I live in here in Tanzania is in mourning.

Last weekend, 33 children, two teachers and a driver were killed in an horrific bus accident. The final year primary school pupils were on their way to sit their exams. All of those killed were from the same small village on the outskirts of Arusha, and there is not a person in Arusha who has not been affected in some way by this meaningless loss of precious young lives.

Two days after the accident, the city held a public memorial service for the victims at the stadium. The stadium was packed to capacity with people, with many lining the streets outside the stadium, unable to get in but wanting to pay their respects to the victims and their families. It seemed like the entire city had come to a standstill as it collectively mourned the young people who were so cruelly taken away.

Death never pierces the heart so much as when it takes someone we love; cleaving the heart they held with their passing.

—Brandon M. Herbert

636080429114440123-1212882946_635898753504476015-1619945331_grief-angelGrief manifests itself in many ways. Every culture mourns and memorialises in different ways. In some cultures grief is expressed emphatically and publicly. In others it is expressed in private and quietly. In the chaos and confusion that accompanies death, it can be difficult and challenging to even begin to process and work your way through the grief.

And yet, it is said that grief only lives where love lived first.

In the English language there are words for a child who loses their parents, and for a husband or wife who loses a spouse. Yet, in this world of orphans and widows, there is no word for a parent who loses a child. Perhaps it is because there are no words for that kind of loss. No words for the pain.

No parent is prepared for a child’s death. Parents are simply not supposed to outlive their children. No matter how long your child lived,  the loss of a child is profound at every age. Parents grieve for the hopes and dreams they had for their child, the potential that will never be realized, and the experiences that will never be shared. The pain of these losses will always be a part of them. Yet with time, most parents find a way forward and begin to experience happiness and meaning in life once again.

“Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak knits up the o-er wrought heart and bids it break.”
― William Shakespeare, Macbeth

A parent will never really “get over” the death of a child. But they learn to live with the loss, making it a part of who they are. It may seem impossible, but happiness and purpose in life can be found again.

The children who died in this accident will not be forgotten and their legacy remains. The community who are grieving may choose to honour the children through fundraising, tree planting, or even campaigning for better road safety standards for school transport.

For parents, each of your children changes your life. They show you new ways to love, new things to find joy in, and new ways to look at the world. A part of each child’s legacy is that the changes he or she brings to your family continue after death. The memories of joyful moments you spent with your child and the love you shared will live on and always be part of you.

In loving memory of the children, teachers and staff of Lucky Vincent Nursery and Primary School, Arusha, who passed away on 6th May 2017.

On subjunctive history…

“It’s subjunctive history. You know, the subjunctive? The mood used when something may or may not have happened. When it is imagined.” ― Alan Bennett, The History Boys

In language, the subjunctive mood is typically used to express various states of unreality such as wish, emotion, possibility, judgment, opinion, obligation, or action that has not yet occurred. It is referred to in ‘The History Boys’ when looking at turning points in history and the ‘what ifs’ that lie therein. What if Hitler had got into art school? What if George Washington had died on the battlefield? What if Bernie had ran instead of Hillary?

This week saw the inauguration of Donald Trump as President of the United States of America and I, like many, am truly concerned about how the next four years will pan out. He is in this position as a result of a long running democratic process yet there are many ‘what ifs’ that remain. I find myself struggling to connect the man I see babbling his narcissistic, sexist, misogynistic, racist, prejudiced and, often, ill-informed views at podiums with one of the most powerful political positions in the world. I feel there will be many ‘what ifs’ over the coming years.

Subjunctive history springs to my mind a lot when I look at the current state of affairs within our world. That being said, it also comes to mind when I look at my own personal history and how I ended up where and how I am today.

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What if I hadn’t decided to travel? What if I had worked towards going to med school as I originally planned? Where would I be now if I had married my first love? What if we had never met? The potential to fall down a subjunctive history spiral is very clear.

Too often we use ‘what if’ as a negative – a daydream about what might have been if only we had made a different choice.  But the ‘what if’ doesn’t have to be negative and it doesn’t have to be about the past. ‘What if’ can be about potential. It can be about wishes and dreams and things that have yet to be. What if I try? What if I just go for it? What if I risk it? Perhaps our ‘what ifs’ should be turned into ‘let’s go’…