Why I'm Thankful That '13 Reasons Why' Reminded Me Of My Own Trauma

by Allie Gemmill
Beth Dubber/Netflix

I almost vomited while watching Hannah's rape on Netflix's 13 Reasons Why. I hadn't felt that way in a long time, since I was raped a few years ago. I thought I had gotten over the resultant feelings but, as 13 Reasons Why made clear, it turns out I hadn't. As a rape survivor, the scene scared me. It evoked such a visceral response that I suddenly felt just as helpless as when it happened to me.

Trigger warning: Discussion of rape and sexual assault will follow. The sheer truth of that scene — the suddenness of the act, the immediate resignation on Hannah's face, the intense violence of the rape — left me with a sense of dread I long thought had left my psyche.

The thing is, I wasn't technically unprepared for the scene. I knew Hannah's rape was coming when I began watching (thanks for a particularly revealing review of the series ahead of time). I braced myself as the trigger warning flashed on the screen at the start of the episode in which it happened. Watching Hannah's rape was harrowing and re-processing those emotions was an unexpected battle. It was not how I wanted to spend my Sunday afternoon marathon.

My immediate identification with Hannah as a rape victim, both in her response during the act and afterwards, is what got to me. I was scared because I saw my own response to being raped and my own emotional and psychological processing of that rape being shown through Hannah. Yes, I'm not a high-schooler like she is, and yes, I know Hannah's a fictional character, but a strongly-drawn character connects with viewers and that's what happened between Hannah and me.

Beth Dubber/Netflix

Unlike Hannah, I was raped in my own bed in a dorm room while I was a graduate student. Unlike Hannah, I met my rapist on Tinder and that same night, he came over to my dorm to hang out. My rapist hadn't bullied me, objectified me, or be part of a group dedicated to spreading rumors about me, as was the case with Hannah. What Hannah and I shared was having a rapist who didn't understand the word "no."

These men thought that struggling and trying to wrench away from their tight grip was just a bit of foreplay. Our respective rapists were solid, muscular men who were so charming that we couldn't understand why they would do this to us. We were sexually assaulted with our rapists pressed against our backs, kissing our necks, telling us how sexy we were. You can see Hannah go dead in her eyes as Bryce rapes her; I remember this being the only defense I had while I was being raped.

It's not as if I haven't been able to watch rape depicted in film and television in the years following my own. I certainly have, but none of those other depictions elicited this particular response. But Hannah's rape on 13 Reasons Why felt so instantly relatable. I wanted to hug her as she left Bryce's house because nobody hugged me. I wanted so badly to save her from doing a thing I only narrowly avoided myself if only so I could sit her down and tell her it was going to be OK.

Hannah's rape is the pivotal event in 13 Reasons Why and I understand why it remained in the story when it was adapted for Netflix. However, knowing that it was such a hot topic of conversation on Twitter and on various corners of the Internet instilled in me a sense of dread. It's a feeling of dread I get when I know a piece of film or television has rape or sexual assault, but this dread exploded into pure fear, which I was not prepared for. One small, good thing to come from this viewing experience is that I was forced to acknowledge that I have not fully healed.

For that, I am actually thankful for 13 Reasons Why.

I know that I am not the only woman who has been raped, nor am I the last. I know I am not the only woman who has felt this fear grip her when she has identified with another person's very similar trauma. What I hope is that my fear, my feeling of being shaken from this scene in 13 Reasons Why helps in my always-occurring healing process and that I can turn my pain into productive activism.

Fear is a powerful thing. Confronting your demons is a powerful thing and so is being forced to acknowledge your trauma when you were least expecting it. Unlike Hannah, I am still alive and there is still time for me to heal from my rape. 13 Reasons Why left me scared and angry when I was confronted with Hannah's rape, but now I know healing is possible. And that's a victory, however small.