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…

Live In The Question…

“You can’t write a script in your mind and then force yourself to follow it. You have to let yourself be.” – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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I’ve never been the kind of person to have a life plan. At least, not since life threw enough curve balls for me to give up on the idea of a plan. Plans are different from dreams and goals and bucket lists. Plans involve specific expectations and inevitable disappointment should the plan not come to fruition. They don’t allow for questions. They pretend to have all the answers and expect your heart to already know what to do next.

I often get asked by friends and family what my ‘plan’ is. To quote a friend: “How long are you going to be away? You can’t do what you’re doing forever. You need to make a plan.”

The problem is, I can’t identify one person in my life who has followed their plan. I don’t know anyone who’s life has worked out exactly how they wanted. And, when it doesn’t work out, they panic and swiftly re-evaluate and create another alternative, adjusted plan, desperately finding temporary answers to the questions in their lives.

img_0104I’ve learned a lot about letting things be. I’ve learned that letting things be allows for spontaneous moments that I could never predict and people I could never have planned on.

I’m also learning to live in the questions. I’m not meant to have all the answers and sometimes the ‘not knowing’ leads to better places and people and experiences.  I never expected or planned to be in Tanzania. I do not know how long I will be here or where I will find myself next.

“Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.”
Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

 I’d rather live in the question and live out my curiosity than plan out what my life will be.

“The heart is capable of sacrifice…

The month of February is a wonderful month in my world. This is my 8th year of being involved in the international VDay movement. My involvement over those years has gone from online activism and raising awareness to last year being part of the organisation of Arusha’s first VDay event. This year, I was production manager for our production of The Vagina Monologues and I could not be more proud of what this movement stands for.

The Vagina Monologues is an incredible play that tackles some of the most difficult and controversial topics. It’s funny, heartbreaking, confrontational, educational and empowering. As a cast, we laughed together, we cried together and we fell head over heels in love with each other through this movement.

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One of my favourite parts of this process is the bonds that are made and solidified throughout it. I love the conversations that happen as a result of this movement, the friends that stand beside you and support you, and the incredible new people you meet along the way.

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I’m always amazed by the generosity of people – and not just financial generosity. People are generous with their time – my entire cast and crew were volunteers who gave up nights and weekends to make this event happen. People are generous with their ideas and their expertise – all I had to do was ask and help was swiftly on the way. People are generous with their conversation – discussing the issues raised and understanding the reasons for my involvement and how much I care.

And people are generous with their hearts. The love I felt from my friends here and the support and love that came my way from the people I know care about me, my community, was incredible.

It is incredible.

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I could write for days about this movement but for now I will stay thankful for this continually amazing experience and my beautiful community.

“The heart is capable of sacrifice. So is the vagina. The heart is able to forgive and repair. It can change it’s shape to let us in. It can expand to let us out. So can the vagina. It can ache for us and stretch for us, die for us and bleed and bleed us into this difficult, wondrous world. So can the vagina…”

Eve Ensler, The Vagina Monologues