Anne Frank in the Time of 13 Reasons Why

Social Commentary

Anne Frank in the Time of 13 Reasons Why

Illustration: Akshita Monga

I

first came upon the story of Anne Frank’s diary in a moth-laden Reader’s Digest that belonged to my grandmother. It was an interesting coincidence. I was 12 and mulling over the practicalities of keeping a diary that would brim with my secrets and all my unspoken angst.

No matter how time sweetens memory, I remember the first four years of being a teenager as an excruciating exercise in misery. In the self-aggrandizing mind of a pre-teen girl, the world was my concentration camp, and when I read about Anne Frank’s diary and how it came about, I felt a sense of kinship with this girl and the chronicles of her suffering. But it took me about two minutes into the preface, to feel thoroughly ashamed of my problems. It was the most humbling synopsis of the human experience, told by someone who was somewhere between the scale of naiveté and disillusionment, immersed in the harshest phase of our history and on the worst side of its consequences.

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And yet her priorities were the same as mine.

She didn’t have any friends, she thought, who were truly close to her, she was figuring out the nuances of love, while courting and being courted. She was unhappy with her mother and awed by her sister. The only difference between us was that she never made it to the other side, to be able to look at this part of her life with humour and a sense of amazement at the young girl with her silly problems.

Through history, literature, and life, the fabled diary has always been at the centre of a teenage girl’s narrative. Whether it’s kept by a princess or a prisoner, everybody wants to read it. I grew up in an all-girls school, and our diaries were our best-kept secrets. After 13 years in a small town sequestered in its own worldview, every young and confused girl, who needed to untangle her thoughts and vent into a silent confidant, wrote religiously in her diary. Some girls that I knew kept detailed notes on their romantic lives, others coped with teething troubles of adjusting to their new post-puberty bodies, some others wrote about their hopes and dreams that were too big to be brought into the confines of a classroom discussion. But whatever be their motivation, teenagers love to record their own lives, and in some cases, their own deaths.

Anne Frank looked at everything – from the lack of close friends to her differences with her mother – with a certain amount of precocious distance.

13 Reasons Why is the second diary of a teenager that has affected me as profoundly as Anne Frank’s. Prima facie, their arcs are similar, even though one is fiction. A young and vulnerable girl records the life she leads, and it is filled with clumsy pitfalls of youth, until a horrific turn of events later, she is gone before her time. But the minute you look at the finer points of either, the chasm of difference in their outlook becomes self-evident, despite the overlap in the subject matter.

Anne Frank looked at everything – from the lack of close friends to her differences with her mother – with a certain amount of precocious distance. Whether it was a product of being enmeshed in the most horrific wars of all time, or simply the standard perspective on life shared by her ecosystem – she wasn’t emotionally affected by the ups and downs of her life, but rather regarded them with the curiosity of a tacit viewer.

Hannah, when confronted with the same problems, reacted on a much grander scale emotionally, and was affected by these events a lot more vitally than her World War II counterpart. Anne Frank moved from a house with a piano to an attic at the back of a factory and continued to report to Kitty about the “chatterbox” she thought she was, while Hannah was put on an unflattering list that made her feel unsafe and objectified. Removing the embellishments of fiction from the equation, it is still hard to reconcile the magnitude of their problems to the proportion of their reactions. Both these girls are emblematic of the emotional make up of girls everywhere in the world, at a certain point in time.

13 Reasons Why comes at a time when teenagers record the ins and outs of their time and disseminate these records in dog filters and DMs. But the visual diary, that is social media, has replaced the privacy of your notebook with narcissistic self-publicity that encourages and expects its users to perform a version of their life in posts and pictures. It is this back and forth of constant scrutiny that makes teenagers relate to stories like 13 Reasons Why. Because in a world where your self-image is exaggerated, so is your vulnerability and sense of nakedness. And of course that creates an abyss of anxiety – the more people gaze into it, the more it gazes into them, and the inherent darkness of teenage life reveals itself in the process. The ugly mutations of teenagers’ diaries now include narratives where they commit suicide live on Facebook, Snapchat themselves discovering cheating partners, are subject to or perpetrators of body-shaming, cyber-bullying, and revenge porn. The internet has created a universe where teenagers have access to each other in a setting that is inaccessible to adults, and in a true Lord of the Flies-esque turn of events, their primal cruelty presents itself on these platforms.

While Anne Frank’s worst thoughts about herself were ensconced in conjecture, a teenager now will be made acutely aware of the veracity of her insecurities and made to feel small about it. Unlike Anne Frank, it is hard for a teenager today to keep the bigger picture in mind when the smaller, everyday frames of their lives are riddled with these micro-aggressions. No wonder the fictional Hannah Baker is emotionally unstable. The world is wiring a generation of Hannahs to be that way.

Anne Frank

Anne Frank did not spend her days in nihilistic dismissal of whatever little life had to offer her, but lived every day of her suffering trying to make sense of her day-to-day life.

ullstein bild / Getty Images

So in these bleak times of feeling exposed at your worst and having every flaw of yours magnified beyond recognition, what can be learnt from Anne Frank’s diary? Is it that feelings of rejection and worthlessness are age-old maladies of youth that everybody faces? Or is it that all our emotions are valid, even if our priorities seem misplaced in the context of our lives? Perhaps, but the biggest takeaway from The Diary of A Young Girl, any girl, is self-preservation.

Anne Frank did not want to die; she did not spend her days in nihilistic dismissal of whatever little life had to offer her, but lived every day of her suffering trying to make sense of her day-to-day life. Unlike the stories of Conrad Roy, who was encouraged to kill himself by his girlfriend Michelle Carter, or Arjun Bhardwaj who live-streamed his suicide on Facebook, she did not look at death as an escape but an eventuality. Maybe she was mentally healthier than them, maybe she realised that she had no agency over her own life, but she did not rescind the life she had to her fate. She died believing in the inherent goodness of people.

Maybe that is what a teenage diary is lacking in 2017. A faith in the kindness of strangers, and some hope in the benevolence of the universe.

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