David Tombs is Professor of Theology and Public Issues, as well as Director for the Centre for Theology and Public Issues at the University of Otago (Dunedin, New Zealand). He is passionate about contextual and liberation theologies and author of Latin American Liberation Theologies (Brill, 2002). Recently, David has been working on intersections of religion, violence and public theology – particularly, on Christian responses to gender-based violence, sexual abuse and torture.
Abandonment, Rape, and Second Abandonment: Hannah Baker in 13 Reasons Why and King David’s Concubines in 2 Samuel 15–20
The Netflix series 13 Reasons Why (2017) sparked headlines and prompted considerable concern and criticism from viewers. However, the controversy surrounding the series did little to dampen its appeal, and the show proved so popular that a second series was announced for 2018. Based on the young adult novel, Thirteen Reasons Why, by Jay Asher (2007),[i] it tells the fictional story of high school student Hannah Baker who takes her life after a series of events that she describes on a sequence of cassette tapes. She arranges for the tapes to be circulated among a group of students at her school whom she names on a list. Each student is asked to listen to all the tapes, learn how they (the students) have contributed to her decision to end her life, and then send them on to the next person on the list. The viewer shares the point of view of Hannah’s friend, Clay Jensen, as he listens to the tapes. The timeframe goes back and forth between Clay’s experiences as he listens and Hannah’s experience of each decisive event.
The series’ engaging and suspenseful format has proved a huge hit with teen and young adult audiences. Some viewers, however, including a number of mental health organisations, strongly criticized the way it depicts Hannah’s suicide, including the length of the scene and its graphic detail. There has been particular concern that when young audiences watch they might see it as glorifying suicide, or legitimating suicide as a solution to difficult life events. Moreover, some critics have argued that the series fails to address many of the issues commonly involved in suicide, such as depression and other forms of mental illness. In New Zealand, these concerns led to the Classification Office creating a new PR18 category rating for the show, which prohibits (or at least warns against) young people under the age of eighteen watching the series without parental guidance. The Classification Office cited the portrayal of suicide and its aftermath as a real risk for teen viewers who may be struggling with depression or suicidal thoughts.
The questions and concerns raised over the representation of suicide in 13 Reasons Why are important, especially in a country like New Zealand, where suicide rates are the highest in the developed world. In 2016–17 the figure was 606 suicides: the highest rate since figures began to be recorded in 2007–08. Yet these discussions around the series’ depiction of suicide also need to be set in context. 13 Reasons Why is not primarily about Hannah’s suicide; rather, it is her life experiences prior to her death that are central. In contrast to the public attention that has been given to her suicide, there has been relatively little discussion about the thirteen events she speaks about and the impact that these had on her. As the story develops, Hannah explains that even though some of these experiences were relatively incidental, they had a cumulative effect upon her. She states, “I recorded twelve tapes. I started with Justin and Jessica who each broke my heart. Alex, Tyler, Courtney, Marcus who each helped to destroy my reputation. On through Zach and Ryan, who broke my spirit. Through tape number twelve, Bryce Walker, who broke my soul” (Netflix 2017, Episode 13, cassette 7 side A).
The public focus on the portrayal of Hannah’s suicide, rather than on the reasons underlying it, are perhaps due to the fact that these involve her experiences of the often-taboo topic of gendered violence and rape culture, including sexual shaming, objectification, invasion of privacy, groping, harassment, and rape. Hannah dwells on each of these experiences in turn, using one side of a cassette to explain how they have affected her. Here I am focusing on one of these events in particular—namely, Hannah’s rape by fellow student Bryce Walker in a hot tub at a student party—and consider its place in her story. My approach is to “read” Hannah’s story in dialogue with a biblical story, in which I see similar themes around gender-based violence emerging, particularly in relation to the theme of abandonment. This dialogical approach, in which we allow the biblical text and Hannah’s experience to speak to and illuminate each other, can reveal how they each attest to the devastating impact of gender-based violence on victims’ lives and identities.[ii]
While in no way wishing to minimize the harm done by the violence itself, my primary intention is to broaden the focus and explore the harm that is often caused by both the actions of others in precipitating sexual violence and the reactions of others in the aftermath of sexual violence. Both these actions and reactions can be seen as forms of abandonment. Indeed, it is Hannah’s sense of abandonment after the event that is Hannah’s all important ‘thirteenth reason’ (cassette 7 suicide A, episode 13). An attentive reading of what happens to Hannah both before and after her rape suggests that the actions and responses by other people require far more scrutiny than they usually receive.[iii]
The first part of what follows identifies a three-step framework for viewing Hannah’s rape and its effects upon her. First, Hannah’s classmates physically abandon her when they leave her alone in the hot tub after the party. Secondly, Bryce rapes her. Thirdly, she feels a “second abandonment” by both her classmates and the school guidance counsellor, Mr Porter, of whom she hoped that he would offer her some much-needed help. I then use the same three-step framework (abandonment—rape—second abandonment) as a lens to read three biblical passages in 2 Samuel (15:13–16; 16:20−3; 20:3). These passages relate the tradition of the ten concubines in King David’s royal household, who are abandoned by David, raped by Absalom, and then abandoned again by David.[iv] In the second part of the chapter, I explore whether the biblical reading can offer additional insights back into Hannah’s story, particularly in terms of her double abandonment. I suggest that in addition to David failing the concubines after their rape, he may also have been more culpable in leaving them to their fate than first appears. That is, he may have knowingly left the concubines as an offering to Absalom. This interpretation also offers a new perspective on the culpability of Hannah’s classmate Courtney Crimsen in the events that led to Hannah’s rape.
Hannah Baker: Twice Abandoned
Hannah describes her rape by Bryce on Cassette 6, side B: the basis of Episode 12 in the Nextflix series, and of Chapter 12 in the book. She sees the rape as the culmination of other experiences she has already described in previous tapes. These begin with the rumours that circulate about her sexual promiscuity after Justin lies to his friends about what happened on their first date.[v] Shortly afterwards, she experiences sexual objectification when her name is added by another student to a “Who’s Hot/Who’s Not” list as “Best Ass in Freshman Class”. This in turn leads to two separate incidents where fellow students Marcus and Bryce touch her inappropriately. In the tape, Hannah says that each of these experiences builds on the previous one. After her rape, she feels she has eventually become the person that others already believed her to be. This event (or at least the version of it that will be told by Bryce) will finally validate the rumours that have already made her life so miserable.
Hannah’s initial abandonment
Hannah was not planning to attend the student party, but after having a row with her parents, she goes out for a walk and is eventually drawn to it by its sounds. In the series, the party is at Bryce’s house. Hannah sees a group of people she knows relaxing in the garden hot tub—Jessica, Justin, Zach, and Stephanie. They invite her over and encourage her to join them. When she demurs, they reassure her that she does not need a swimsuit, since they are all just wearing underwear. After a while, however, the others in the group gradually get out of the hot tub for various reasons and go back into the house, leaving Hannah in the hot tub by herself.[vi] While they might not intend to abandon her in this potentially vulnerable situation, abandonment is, nonetheless, one of the consequences of their actions. Before Hannah can follow them, Bryce appears and climbs into the hot tub next to her.
In the novel, the party is at Courtney’s house rather than Bryce’s. Courtney and Bryce are in the hot tub when Hannah arrives, and the other classmates have already left. Courtney’s subsequent decision to leave Hannah alone with Bryce (a student known for his sexually predatory behaviour) is more ethically ambiguous and raises questions about her motivations. I will return to this issue later.
When Bryce and Hannah are alone in the hot tub, they talk for a bit, but soon Bryce starts to touch her. Hannah does not want this but Bryce persists, eventually forcing himself upon her. As Hannah recalls on the cassette: “Bryce, you had to see my jaw clench. You had to see my tears. Does that kind of shit turn you on?” In the novel, there is some attention to the complexity of Hannah’s thinking and feelings about her rape, and little reference to Bryce’s use of physical force:
I did not say no or push his hand away. All I did was turn my head, clench my teeth, and fight back tears. And he saw that. He even told me to relax … And that’s all you needed, Bryce. You started kissing my shoulder, my neck, sliding your fingers in and out. And then you kept going. You didn’t stop there (Jay Asher, Thirteen Reasons Why, New York: Razorbill, 2007, p.265).
In the television series, however, Bryce uses obvious force. When he gets into the hot tub, Hannah tells him that she had “better get going” and stands up to leave, but Bryce tugs at her arm to get her to stay. When Hannah sits back down, Bryce starts to fondle her bra and again, Hannah says, “Sorry, I got to go.” She turns to climb out of the hot tub but he grabs her arm again, this time with enough force for her to lose her balance. He traps her against the side of the tub and pulls her hair while he rapes her. When she gets home and undresses, there are red marks on her arms and shoulders.
Hannah’s second abandonment
The rape leaves Hannah distraught and overwhelmed. She understands it as a progression and consequence of other ways she has been objectified, harassed and mistreated during her time at school. It leads her to write down the names of the people involved in the different events that have occurred and to figure out the connections between them. One of the positive outcomes from this is that she recognises her need for support if she is to cope with these traumatic incidents. She decides to approach the school counsellor, Mr Porter, in a final attempt to seek help. Despite her turmoil about all that has happened, she has not yet decided to take her life.
In the series, Hannah describes her meeting with Mr Porter on Cassette 7 Side A (Episode 13). She initially tells him how she is feeling, describing herself as “lost and sort of empty”. She then goes on to recount some details about what happened with Bryce. Hannah does not use the word “rape” here, but she starts to cry and it is clear that she is talking about something serious. Mr Porter is depicted as well intentioned and genuinely concerned, but he fails to ask the right questions. He initially thinks Hannah made a decision about having sex with someone that she now regrets. Hannah flatly rejects this. He then asks, “Did he force himself on you?” Hannah replies, “I think so”. Instead of taking this at face value, Mr Porter undermines what she is saying, by replying, “You think so, but you are not sure”. He then asks if she told the person to stop or said “no” to him, and Hannah says that she did not, without expanding further.[vii] Mr Porter then suggests that perhaps she consented but then changed her mind. Hannah tells him it wasn’t like that, but instead of asking her what it was like, he presses her to tell him the boy’s name. Hannah hesitates, and then asks Mr Porter to promise that the boy will go to jail and she will never have to face him again. Mr Porter acknowledges that he is unable to do this, and can only promise to do everything in his power to protect her. He asks again for the boy’s name but Hannah will not give it. Mr Porter fails here to recognize the signs of Hannah’s desperation, despite her telling him that she is tired of life.
Eventually, since Hannah continues to refuse to say who raped her, and remains adamant that she does not want her parents involved, Mr Porter suggests that “moving on” is her only option if she does not wish to report her assault. Hannah interprets this as the end of the conversation and rises to leave. Mr Porter encourages her to stay, but she says that they have figured it out and she does indeed need to “move on”. Despite his good intentions, Mr Porter leaves Hannah feeling alone and in a state of despair. She exits his office and closes the door behind her, waiting outside to see if he will come after her and offer further help or support. When he does not appear, she feels her isolation and abandonment is complete. As she puts it on Cassette 4 Side A (Episode 7), “The kind of lonely I’m talking about is when you feel you have got nothing left. Nothing and no-one. Like you’re drowning, and no-one will throw you a line.” In the novel, she initially tells Mr. Porter that she wants “everything to stop. People. Life.” When Porter seems alarmed by these words, Hannah responds by telling him “I don’t want my life to end. That’s why I’m here” (Asher 2007: 272−73). Mr Porter is her final resort, and when she feels he abandons her, she decides that there is no alternative but to take her own life. As she puts it: “I think I’ve made myself very clear, but no one’s stepping forward to stop me … A lot of you cared, just not enough” (Asher 2007: 279).
The Twice Abandoned Concubines of 2 Samuel
This threefold narrative pattern of abandonment, rape, and second abandonment recounted in 13/Thirteen Reasons Why is likewise evoked in the biblical tradition about David’s ten concubines. In 2 Samuel 15:13, we are introduced to these women, whom David left to look after his house when he fled from his son Absalom. We subsequently hear about their fate in two very brief passages (16:21-23 and 20:3). The biblical narrative is not terribly interested in the story of these women, nor does it treat them as characters in their own right. Their story—mentioned cursorily in only a few verses over six chapters—affirms that they form a fragment, or aside, in what the narrator sees as the more central story of a competition for power between men: David’s conflict with Absalom and Absalom’s attempt to usurp David from the Israelite throne. Yet if we look closely at these three passages, we can see they follow the same three-phase sequence of abandonment, rape, and second abandonment that unfolds in Hannah’s story.
The abandonment of the concubines
A messenger came to David, saying, “The hearts of the Israelites have gone after Absalom.” Then David said to all his officials who were with him at Jerusalem, “Get up! Let us flee, or there will be no escape for us from Absalom. Hurry, or he will soon overtake us, and bring disaster down upon us, and attack the city with the edge of the sword.” The king’s officials said to the king, “Your servants are ready to do whatever our lord the king decides.” So the king left, followed by all his household, except ten concubines whom he left behind to look after the house (2 Samuel 15:13-16).
The story of Absalom’s rebellion against his father David is part of a much longer sequence of family betrayals and broken alliances related by the narrator of 1 and 2 Samuel.[viii] When David hears about Absalom’s growing popularity in Israel, he decides to flee, fearing that Absalom is about to bring disaster upon him, his adherents, and the city (v.14).[ix] He leaves, we are told, with his “household” in tow, except for ten concubines, whom he leaves to “look after the house” (v.16). The total number of concubines David had in Jerusalem is not specified, so it is unclear whether these ten women constitute all of his concubines or whether there were others who accompany him and his primary wives on the household flight.[x] Since Absalom was expected to “attack the city with the edge of a sword,” it is clear that David was leaving these women in a perilous predicament. My use of the word “abandoned” here is therefore appropriate: David’s intention may not have been to leave them defenceless and exposed to danger or sexual violence, but this was nonetheless a clearly predictable consequence of his actions. Yet in this narrative, focus is placed on the urgency of David’s flight (and the question mark hanging over his fate), rather than on the vulnerability of the ten women – hence, this is where the reader’s attention is directed.
The rape of the concubines
Then Absalom said to Ahithophel, “Give us your counsel; what shall we do?” Ahithophel said to Absalom, “Go in to your father’s concubines, the ones he has left to look after the house; and all Israel will hear that you have made yourself odious to your father, and the hands of all who are with you will be strengthened.” So they pitched a tent for Absalom upon the roof; and Absalom went in to his father’s concubines in the sight of all Israel. Now in those days the counsel that Ahithophel gave was as if one consulted the oracle of God; so all the counsel of Ahithophel was esteemed, both by David and by Absalom (2 Sam. 16:20–3).
Rape of the concubines is part of the political strategy advised by Ahithophel, an admired counselor. It is performed by Absalom, the king’s popular son. It is not called rape and is depicted in passing, in terms of Absalom “[going] in to [them]”. There is no further description and no insight into the women’s perspective or experience. It is easy to read on, without dwelling on the matter, or imagining its violence and indignity.
Ahithophel’s words here can be interpreted in different ways. The degree of force and physical violence that “going into” the concubines might involve is not specified. There is insufficient detail given for the reader to discern if the rapes were enacted in full view of the public or if they took place out of sight. Ahithophel speaks of Israel “hearing” about this event, but the narrator then tells us that Absalom “went into” the concubines “in sight of all Israel”. Whether or not this last phrase should be taken literally is unclear. Nevertheless, the passage leaves open the possibility of an orchestrated spectacle of public rape to signal the power and virility of Absalom as a military conqueror.[xi] An alternative reading is that the tent would offer privacy, and what happened inside was closer to a (wedding?) ritual to establish the women as Absalom’s possession. This arguably more benign reading, however, would still involve rape, or perhaps rape marriage. Even if “rape” is not the term that might have been used at the time, to modern sensibilities this remains an act of sexual domination by Absalom and of failure to secure consent from the concubines – hence, rape.
Likewise, there might be different interpretations of how Absalom’s public rape of David’s concubines will “strengthen the hands” of Absalom’s followers. Will these followers be filled with admiration (or fear) at the supposed “manliness” of Absalom’s actions? Is this a public display that seals Absalom’s superior power and authority over his father, demonstrating David’s inability to protect “his” women? Whatever the reason, neither Absalom nor Ahithophel give any thought to the effect Absalom’s actions will have on the ten concubines: their sole concern is that the event will be “odious” to David.[xii]
Absalom would surely have been aware of the devastating impact of rape on women, given that he witnessed the “desolate” state of his sister Tamar after her sexual assault by Amnon (2 Samuel 13:20). It does not seem to cross his mind, however, that he will be inflicting the same desolation on these ten women. Such indifference is also apparent in the narrator’s response to these events, as the text reveals nothing from the women’s perspective. What was going through their minds when David left them behind after he fled from Absalom with the rest of his family? Did they anticipate what would happen to them? Were they afraid? Did they try to protect themselves, or seek help? Did they cry out in fear when Absalom approached them? Did they plead with him or try to fight him off? And how did they feel after he raped them? Were they shocked, angry, and in pain? Did they speak to each other about what happened, or try to console each other? The narrator remains silent about these matters, inviting the reader too, perhaps, to pay little heed to these women’s abandonment and assault.
The concubines’ second abandonment
David came to his house at Jerusalem; and the king took the ten concubines whom he had left to look after the house, and put them in a house under guard, and provided for them, but did not go in to them. So they were shut up until the day of their death, living as if in widowhood (2 Samuel 20:3).
After Absalom rapes the ten concubines, the action moves swiftly to his ill-fated pursuit of David and his eventual defeat, flight, and death. Absalom’s death causes David renewed grief but allows him to return to Jerusalem and reclaim his throne. On his return, we are told that he shuts the ten women up under some form of house arrest, and never sleeps with them again. Some might read this as relatively benign treatment, given that David provides for the women and offers them protection. Yet the statement that he did not “go in to them” but rather left them to live “as if in widowhood” suggests he sees them as in some sense irreparably damaged or taboo. Under the honour-shame code that permeated this ancient Near Eastern culture, the women would have been viewed as damaged goods or defiled, their sexuality having been “misused” by a man other than their husband. The shame associated with their defilement would have transferred to David—the “owner” of their sexuality.[xiii] This was likely Absalom’s intention. David was the primary target of Absalom’s public display. David seems to accept that the women’s defilement cannot be reversed or the stigma removed, so he endeavours to contain or mitigate its impact, to some extent at least, by isolating the women. The guard whom he sets over their house may have been more their jailer than their protector; this is hinted at in the last sentence, when the narrator tells us that the women were “shut up until the day of their death”. This term conveys little in the way of protection or care, but instead conjures up images of imprisonment, or even entombment.
David’s actions need to be understood against the values of the honour-shame code of the day, and against the contagious stigma associated with sexual defilement. David’s reaction could, of course, have been even harsher: he might have executed the women, for instance. Even so, this does not mean that his response should be either ignored or excused. As concubines in the royal household, the ten women would not have had the power or authority to question or confront David about their treatment. Nevertheless, a contemporary reader is entitled, indeed obliged, to consider the events in this tradition from these women’s perspective, and not just from David’s (as appears to be the narrator’s intention). Being secluded for the rest of their lives seems tantamount to a punishment, and we are left wondering if David blames these women for the violence to which they were subjected.
Moreover, to excuse David’s response as understandable in its historical context—in keeping with the social dynamics of the honour-shame code—is to miss the ethical challenge posed by 2 Samuel 20:3. Rather, David’s behaviour needs to be recognised as a misguided and damaging reaction to sexual violence, prompted by assumptions that are still prevalent within contemporary rape cultures, and which still need to be challenged. Shame should attach to the perpetrators of sexual violence not to the victims. David’s reaction, driven by his wish to protect his own honour, has disastrous consequence for the women. Just as Tamar, following the rape, becomes “a desolate woman, in her brother Absalom’s house” (2 Samuel 13:20), so the concubines become sequestered and hidden away “shut up until the day of their death, living as if in widowhood” (2 Samuel 20:3). It should be unacceptable that shame and stigma attaches to the victims of rape – not to the rapists and not to David, who let both rape victims down. Far from challenging the dynamics of gender and power linking the rape of Tamar to the rape of the royal concubines, David’s decision to seclude the concubines only reinforces these dynamics further.
Moreover, David’s attitude to the concubines in 2 Samuel 20:3 is often passed over as an irrelevant aside in the succession narrative. The narrator keeps our focus firmly on David and on his sons, thereby eclipsing the female characters. A more attentive reading, however, shows that there is more at stake. It is David’s abandonment of his concubines in the aftermath of their rape, not just Absalom’s initial act of rape, which requires ethical scrutiny.[xiv]
In a similar way, contemporary survivors of sexual violence who turn to their community for help or compassion are often subjected to blame, stigma, and social rejection rather than supportive inclusion.[xv] The initial trauma caused by sexual violence is thereby reinforced afterwards through the secondary victimization at the hands of people who might instead offer comfort and support. Perpetrators, typically, can rely on negative reactions of others to heighten the impact of their actions on individuals and communities. This should be of particular concern to Christian churches and other religious communities, whose own responses to sexual violence often reinforce stigmatization and discrimination felt by survivors of sexual violence. As Elisabet Le Roux writes:
Many, if not most, churches are promoting sexual violence through their teachings, practices and response to sexual violence survivors, for example by admonishing those who disclose violations and ordering them to keep it secret. Unfortunately, those churches that choose non-involvement actually also contribute to the continuation of sexual violence. By not condemning it they are implicitly condoning the beliefs, perceptions and activities that facilitate sexual violence.
Hence, addressing such secondary victimization is one of the most appropriate and effective contributions that churches and faith-based organisations can make to support survivors of sexual violence and to challenge the rape-supportive discourses that sustain such violence.
As a means of examining the destructive impact of rape and the ways that rape trauma can be reinforced by subsequent responses of others, a hot tub scene in a popular Netflix series seems very remote from a dynastic battle in an ancient biblical narrative. Yet despite their markedly different geographical and historical locations, we can still discern shared tropes of sexual violence and re-traumatizing social responses to it within these two texts, suggesting that they have much more in common than might first appear. As I outlined above, there are three steps to Hannah’s experience of gender violence: first, she was physically abandoned by her friends and rendered vulnerable to being raped; secondly, she experienced rape; and thirdly, she felt socially abandoned and isolated after her rape. In particular, she was failed by the school counsellor Mr Porter when she turned to him in a last-ditch attempt to seek help. Like David, though, Mr Porter (if metaphorically) closed the door on her.
Considering 13/Thirteen Reasons Why intertextually alongside the story of David’s concubines allows us to read this biblical tradition with fresh insights, and we begin to see that these women’s story parallels each of the stages in Hannah’s story. Of course, important differences as well as similarities exist between the two texts. For example, while viewers and readers of 13/Thirteen Reasons Why are granted intimate insight into Hannah’s experience of sexual violence (though some have argued that Hannah’s experience is actually filtered through Clay’s interpretation) Samuel 20:3 does not report the inner world of David’s concubines at all: their point of view is completely absent from the narrative. We are given no details about how their experiences of sexual violence and their double abandonment affected them—physically, emotionally, or psychologically. Instead, the narrator chooses to focus on male perspectives: Ahithophel’s counsel, Absalom’s execution and David’s reaction to their rape.
Re-reading Thirteen Reasons Why in the Light of 2 Samuel
Having explored how Hannah’s story might offer a lens for reading the biblical passages in a similar framework of double abandonment and secondary victimization, the following section offers an interpretive reading in the opposite direction: what light might this biblical story shed on our understanding of gender violence in 13/Thirteen Reasons Why? Here the focus will turn from the “second abandonment” and the harm done by those who fail to respond appropriately to survivors (David and Mr Porter), to the possibility that some characters may have an even more direct culpability for the violence itself. This involves a further examination of David’s role in his first abandonment of the concubines, and Courtney Crimsen’s abandonment of Hannah in the novel.
An intentional offering by David?
As mentioned above, David’s first abandonment of his ten concubines occurs when he leaves them behind to look after the palace while he flees from the city with the rest of the household. What are his motivations for doing so? Since the narrator does not offer an explanation, David’s decision begs further questions. Why does his house need to be looked after? Is he concerned about protecting his property from looters, or from Absalom and his forces, or someone else altogether? Furthermore, how exactly would the ten women protect the household? Did David assume that they had sufficient authority and influence, given their status as members of the royal court, to deter potential intruders, even Absalom himself? It seems unlikely.
It is possible that David left other household staff (soldiers or servants) with the women to provide for their physical security. But if this is so, it receives no mention in the narrative. The narrator may simply have left it out, focusing solely on the fate of the women because this has the most direct bearing on David’s honour. But the sense of their vulnerability—their aloneness—is accentuated in 2 Samuel 15:16, where David is said to leave his house, “followed by all his household, except ten concubines whom he left behind”.
Another possibility for understanding David’s abandonment of the ten women is to consider it in the light of the ideologies underpinning rape during warfare. Particularly in recent decades, the rape of civilians and military personnel by enemy combatants has rightly received increasing scrutiny and condemnation in both the media and in academic and political discussions around human rights during armed conflict.[xvi] Other forms of sexual violence associated with conflict have also come to the fore, including sexual slavery, trafficking, and forced prostitution. War is not required for women’s bodies to be commodified and traded by men in these ways, but it often contributes towards making such gendered violence more prevalent. For example, during times of conflict, military leaders can use women as payment to reward their followers or bribe those whom they need to influence.[xvii] Might David have intended to leave the ten concubines for Absalom—an intentional gift, bribe, or offering from one warlord to another? Was David willing to explore some form of pact or power-share with his son, and therefore attempted to “sweeten the deal” by gifting him “his” women? Perhaps he saw these women as an acceptable price to buy Absalom off, or to soften his anger, or even to distract him temporarily from pursuing his father.
Viewing David’s decision to leave his ten concubines behind as an intentional offering for Absalom presents his action in an even more negative light than if he had left them behind with unintentional unconcern for their safety and wellbeing. Admittedly, this reading has to be tentative and there is a degree of speculation at stake. Nonetheless, it would offer an answer to David’s otherwise ambiguous decision, and if correct, it may also be suggestive for a re-reading of Hannah’s own abandonment prior to her rape in the Thirteen Reasons Why novel.
What was Courtney thinking?!
As noted above, the Thirteen Reasons Why novel and the series locate the party Hannah attends at different people’s houses. In the series, it takes place at Bryce’s house, while in the novel, it is held at the home of fellow student Courtney Crimsen. Courtney has already featured in the story, especially on Cassette 2 Side B and Cassette 3 Side A (Episodes 5–6). On Cassette 2 Side B, Hannah and Courtney had collaborated to expose the school year book photographer, Tyler, who was stalking Hannah and taking photos of her. Hannah therefore hoped that she and Courtney could become friends. Instead, Courtney spreads false sexual rumours about Hannah, which further reinforces the damage to Hannah’s reputation.
In the novel, Courtney and Bryce are already in the hot tub when Hannah arrives. Bryce invites Hannah to join them, and Courtney encourages her and offers to give Hannah a ride home afterwards. Courtney’s subsequent decision to leave Hannah alone with Bryce raises questions about her complicity in Bryce’s sexual assault, which follows shortly after. Of course, Courtney may not have realized that leaving Hannah with Bryce places Hannah at risk of Bryce’s unwanted attentions.[xviii] Nevertheless, there are a number of other clues in the novel that imply Courtney may have been more complicit than Hannah’s own comments suggest. For example, when Hannah initially joins Bryce and Courtney, she makes clear that she distrusts both of them:[xix]
With the calming water also came terror, I should not be here. I didn’t trust Courtney. I didn’t trust Bryce. No matter what their original intentions, I knew them each well enough not to trust them for long. And I was right not to trust them (Asher 2007: 261–62).
Hannah also observes that Courtney’s “perfect” exterior masks something less pleasant. Hannah has noticed “the little smiles on [their] faces” when she first encounters Bryce and Courtney in the hot tub (Asher 2007: 261), hinting at a certain complicity between the two. Courtney’s intentions are further suggested as the scene develops. When Bryce slowly slides over next to Hannah and rests his shoulder against hers, Hannah recalls that “Courtney opened her eyes, looked at us, then shut them again” (Asher 2007: 262). Bryce says Hannah’s name in a soft voice, which Hannah interprets as “an obvious attempt at romance” (ibid.). His fingers touch her thigh, she clenches her jaw and his fingers move away. Then, when he tries again, Hannah opens her eyes and sees that “Courtney was walking away” (Asher 2007: 263). When Clay hears this on the cassette, he comments: “Do you need more reasons for everyone to hate you, Courtney?” (Asher 2007: 264).
Courtney does not leave Hannah alone with Bryce until he has begun sexually harassing Hannah.[xx] At best, Courtney might mistakenly believe that Hannah’s silence in the hot tub indicates consent. Shutting her eyes when she sees Bryce move next to Hannah and then leaving the hot tub may therefore be her way of giving them some privacy.[xxi] It is possible that Courtney is not expecting Bryce to assault Hannah sexually, but it is equally possible that Courtney is actively complicit in offering him this opportunity. Hannah describes how much Courtney wants to be popular, and Bryce is one of the most influential boys at the school. Perhaps, then, Courtney’s departure is, like David’s gift to Absalom, a tacit sexual “offering” motivated by her own self-interest. In David’s case, it is an attempt to save his own skin, whereas Courtney’s motivation is harder to guess at. It is possible that she is paying Hannah back after Hannah’s earlier rebuke when Courtney spread rumours about her. Or perhaps Courtney is simply ingratiating herself with Bryce, by giving him the opportunity to carry out an act (raping Hannah) that, deep down, she knows he wants to commit.
Courtney’s abandonment of Hannah raises the same disturbing questions as David’s (first) abandonment of the concubines. In each case, the abandonment might be more calculated and callous than first appears. To be sure, the fate of the concubines, and of Hannah, is the same –rape – whether the abandonment is intentional or not. Nevertheless, the question marks hanging over David’s and Courtney’s intentions make it even more urgent to look beyond the immediate perpetrators of the violence, Absalom and Bryce, and recognise the roles and responsibilities of others.
Throughout this post, I have argued that the 13 Reasons Why television series and the novel upon which it is based treat a number of themes that are important for understanding rape culture, including how the responses of others may both precipitate rape and also increase its impact and legacy for survivors. My reading of 13/Thirteen Reasons Why has illustrated the three-step sequence in Hannah’s rape story. First, Hannah is physically abandoned in the hot tub and left vulnerable to Bryce’s unwanted attentions. Secondly, Hannah is raped by Bryce. Thirdly, after the rape, Hannah has an overwhelming sense of isolation and despair. She experiences a “second abandonment” in which she feels isolated from her classmates and let down by the school counsellor, Mr Porter. It is this sense of second abandonment and not just the rape itself, which prompts her to take her life. This sequence is echoed in the three passages of 2 Samuel that relate the story of David’s ten concubines. First, they are physically abandoned when David and his household leave Jerusalem. Secondly, they are then raped by Absalom. Thirdly, when David returns to Jerusalem, he confines and abandons them again, leaving them to a life of social isolation, sequestered until death.
Reading these 2 Samuel passages in the light of Hannah’s story draws attention to the failure in David’s decision to leave his ten concubines in such a vulnerable situation, and, particularly, his inadequate and harmful response to the sexual assaults on these women. This does not in any way detract from Absalom’s guilt as perpetrator of multiple rapes, but it does suggest a wider context in which to understand the impact of sexual violence on these women. It is not only rapists who contribute to survivors’ trauma. Other people often compound and reinforce the damage by the responses that they make in the aftermath of rape. These responses frequently leave survivors feeling rejected, isolated, and abandoned, rather than supported along a path towards recovery and healing. Recognising this failing in both David and Mr Porter helps to focus attention on the different ways that survivors can experience social harm from the negative or insensitive reactions of others, even when this might not be their intention. The social response to rape can make its impact even worse for those affected. While Bryce and Absalom are fully responsible for the act of sexual violence, the negative or thoughtless reactions and failures of support by others also need to be highlighted and challenged.
Furthermore, when we read back in the other direction, from biblical text to television series and novel, we might notice that the biblical text leaves an unanswered question about what David really intended when he left the concubines behind. A similar question can be asked of the hot tub scene in the book. Viewers of the series who are unfamiliar with the novel are likely to be surprised that this question even arises. Nevertheless, the fact that the series alters how the scene plays out in the novel may be a telling indicator that the series producers sought to remove this disturbing aspect of the book. When Courtney walks away from the hot tub, leaving Hannah with Bryce (Asher 2007: 263), the possibility is raised that she is complicit (to some extent at least) in Hannah’s subsequent rape.
Thus, reading 2 Samuel through the lens of the television series 13 Reasons Why has highlighted the responses and reactions of others in the aftermath of rape, and the damage done to survivors by a “second abandonment”. Reading in the other direction, from 2 Samuel to the novel Thirteen Reasons Why, has raised a question mark over both David’s and Courtney’s intentions during their “first abandonment”. Again, while Absalom and Bryce must take full responsibility for their perpetration of rape, David and Courtney may likewise be held culpable for their (perhaps deliberate) complicity in its execution. These two seemingly very different stories can therefore be read alongside each other as part of a wider conversation on rape cultures, both past and present.
[i] In this chapter, I will refer to the 13 Reasons Why (2017) Netflix series as “the series” and to Asher’s novel Thirteen Reasons Why (2007) as “the novel”. When I am referring to both simultaneously, I will use 13/Thirteen Reasons Why.
[ii] For a similar approach, where I consider sexual violence, Latin American torture reports, the death of Saul (1 Samuel 31) and the violation of Muammar Gaddafi, see David Tombs, “Crucifixion, State Terror, and Sexual Abuse”, Union Seminary Quarterly Review 53 (Autumn 1999): 89−108 and “Silent No More: Sexual Violence in Conflict as a Challenge to the Worldwide Church”, Acta Theologica 34/2 (2014): 142−60.While both these works read the biblical text from a contemporary context, neither gives sustained attention to reading back from the text to the present, as I attempt here.
[iii] In recent years, faith-based organisations have become far more active in preventing and responding to sexual and other gender-based violence. Organisations like “We Will Speak Out”, a global coalition of Christian-based Non-Governmental Organisations and church groups committed to ending sexual violence across communities around the world, are at the forefront of this work. Prevention of sexual violence is of utmost importance, but churches and faith communities can also make a crucial contribution beyond this, as they are especially well placed to address also secondary victimisation and to challenge negative attitudes and responses towards survivors. At present, however, this potential goes largely unfulfilled (see Tearfund, Silent No More: The Untapped Potential of the Worldwide Church in Addressing Sexual Violence, Teddington, Middlesex: Tearfund, 2011).
[iv] The language of 2 Samuel 16 does not explicitly state that Absalom rapes the women by force, or that they do not consent. This is hardly surprising: in the Hebrew Bible sexual violence is routinely depicted in sparse and casual terms and any indications of a woman’s right and ability to give or withhold consent are rare. Many interpreters fail to refer to the sexual act in this tradition as rape. A common circumlocution is that Absalom’s intercourse with the women of the royal harem constitutes his claim to the throne (see for instance P. Kyle McCarter, Jr. The Anchor Yale Bible: II Samuel. A New Translation with Introduction, Notes and Commentary. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1974) and/or an assertion of his male prowess (see Carol A. Newsom, Sharon H. Ringe, and Jacqueline E. Lapsley, Women’s Bible Commentary. Revised ed. Louisville KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1988, p.162). I agree that political symbolism is central to the tradition, but it remains important also to name Absalom’s actions here as rape. Even if he did not use excessive physical violence, there is nothing to suggest that the ten concubines granted consent, and there is considerable disparity of power between concubines (i.e. secondary wives) and Absalom, the king’s son. The passage presents sexual decision-making and agency entirely as male concerns (Ahithophel plans, Absalom executes and David responds to the rape). Furthermore, reading these passages in the light of the rape of Absalom’s half-sister Tamar (2 Samuel 13), and of Nathan’s prophecy (2 Samuel 12), offers a clear context for reading 2 Samuel 16 as a narrative of rape as well (on this, see Ken Stone, Sex, Honor and Power in the Deuteronomistic History. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996).
[v] These rumours are compounded by Bryce sharing a photo of Hannah coming down a slide in the playground, taken by Justin on their date. Although the picture is entirely innocent, Justin misrepresents to his friends what is happening in the photo. Given Hannah’s pose (she is lying supine on the slide, her clothes dishevelled), they are quick to believe his version of events.
[vi] Justin and Jessica go back to the house to find a room where they can make out. A little later Stephanie leaves the hot tub to find a bathroom in the house, and Zach offers to show her the way because “it’s like a maze in there”.
[vii] Hannah’s slightly hesitant reply and Mr Porter’s interpretation of it as expressing doubt are strange given the way the rape is depicted in the series. The discrepancy is best understood as a plot device, which allows the meeting with Mr Porter in the series to remain reasonably close to the version in the novel, despite the two different depictions of the rape. In the novel, the rape is depicted as involving less explicit use of force, and at the meeting, Hannah tells Mr Porter: “You mean rape? No I don’t think so” (Asher 2007: 276), which makes his response easier to understand.
[viii] The story forms part of what is often referred to as “The Succession Narrative” (2 Samuel 9−1 Kings 2). This narrative focuses on David’s reign (including the events unfolding in his household and court), and ends by describing how his son Solomon came to succeed him as king. Absalom has already featured in 2 Samuel 13, where his sister Tamar is raped by their half-brother Amnon (all three are children of David). David’s role in this event is critical for understanding the unravelling of his relationship with Absalom. Amnon draws his father into an enabling role in the rape by asking David to instruct Tamar to go to Amnon’s house and cook for her “ailing” brother (v.7). It is when she is there that Amnon rapes her. When David learns what has happened, he becomes angry with Amnon but does not punish him (v.21). From this moment, Absalom hates Amnon (v.22). David’s inaction instigates Absalom to exact revenge and restore (his) honour. Two years later, Absalom entices Amnon to a feast where he has his servants kill him (vv.23-29). There are interesting similarities and echoes between the two violent incidents (namely, incestuous rape and fratricide). Absalom requests that David send “my brother,” which echoes Amnon’s earlier request that David send “my sister”. Both times David plays a crucial but unwitting role. After Amnon’s murder, Absalom flees Jerusalem for three years, until David eventually allows him to return. A further two years pass, however, before David agrees to a reunion with his recalcitrant son (14:28-33).
[ix] 2 Samuel 15 opens with Absalom endearing himself to the people of Israel, thereby building up his power base in Jerusalem (vv.1-6). After four years, he travels to Hebron in order to extend his support further. When he summons David’s respected counsellor Ahithophel to join him in Hebron, it signals that a tipping point has been reached, and a revolt against David is imminent (v.12). The opportunity to take the crown may have been Absalom’s primary concern, yet the story also suggests that he nurtures a keen hatred, caused by both Amnon’s violent actions against Tamar and his (passive and enabling) father’s inaction. Revenge to redress perceived dishonour is likely to be another major concern for Absalom.
[x] David first marries Michal, daughter of Saul; he then marries six further named wives during his time in Hebron (Ahinoam, Abigail, Maachah, Haggith, Abital and Eglah). 2 Samuel 5:13 says that in Jerusalem “David took more wives and concubines”. This includes his marriage to Bathsheba, after arranging the death of her husband Uriah.
[xi] The literature on the public rapes that took place during the war in Bosnia make for a terrible reminder that such was not just an archaic practice (e.g. Inger Skjelsbæk, The Political Psychology of War Rape: Studies from Bosnia and Herzegovina, War, Politics and Experience, Oxford: Routledge, 2012). On rape in war and the Bible, see Pamela Gordon and Harold Washington, “Rape as a Military Metaphor in the Hebrew Bible”, in A Feminist Companion to the Latter Prophets, edited by Athalya Brenner, 308−25, Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995. The fullest study on rape and the Hebrew Bible to date remains Susanne Scholz, Sacred Witness: Rape in the Hebrew Bible, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2010.
[xii] There are probable allusions here to the Bathsheba story, including to David seeing Bathsheba from his roof (2 Samuel 11:2). The prophet Nathan denounces David for taking Bathsheba and killing Uriah, and warns of God’s punishment (2 Samuel 12:11–12). This passage offers the particularly troubling suggestion that rapes are part of a divine plan to punish David. In addition, Ahithophel appears to be Bathsheba’s grandfather, and may therefore have been motivated by avenging his own family honour (2 Samuel 11:3 and 23:34).
[xiii] On adultery as a source of male dishonour, see Carolyn Pressler, The View of Women Found in the Deuteronomic Family Laws. Berlin: de Gruyter, 1993.
[xiv] Commentators regularly glide over any criticism of David’s action, and some ignore 20:3 entirely. Arnold Anderson (2 Samuel, Word Biblical Commentary, Dallas: Word Books, 1989, p.240) does not offer any comment on v.3: his discussion jumps from v.2 straight to v.4. McCarter merely acknowledges but does not question or challenge the action: “Now that these women have been illegally claimed by Abshalom (16:21–22), they must be put away” (1974: 423). Graeme Auld presents David’s action as benign, and discusses mostly whether or not there is any allusion between the ten women and the ten tribes (I and II Samuel: A Commentary, The Old Testament Library, Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011, pp.561–62).
[xv] For examinations of this situation from very different contexts, see Lee Madigan and Nancy Gamble’s work on responses to rape in the United States, The Second Rape: Society’s Continued Betrayal of the Victim, New York: Lexington Books, 1989. On rape in conflict, and the stigma associated with survivors, see Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, A Patient Heart: Stigma Acceptance and Rejection around Conflict-Related Sexual Violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Working Paper. Washington DC: World Bank, 2011; and Tearfund’s To Make our Voices Heard: Listening to survivors of sexual violence in Central African Republic, Teddington, Middlesex: Tearfund, 2015.
[xvi] For a theological perspective see also Anna T. Höglund, “Justice for Women in War? Feminist Ethics and Human Rights for Women.” Feminist Theology 11 (2003): 346–61.
[xvii] Examples include the use of “comfort women” by Japanese troops during the Second World War (see the post by Samantha Joo on this blog!), the trafficking of women in Bosnia in the 1990s, and recent stories of sexual slavery by Boko Haram and Islamic State.
[xviii] There is some support for this from Hannah herself, who says at the start of the cassette: “No, this tape is not about Courtney … though she does play a part. But Courtney has no idea what I’m about to say because she left just as things got going” (Asher 2007: 259).
[xix] Even before the previous week’s party at Jessica’s house, Hannah had seen Bryce’s true character. On Cassette 3 Side B, Bryce and a girlfriend come to the cinema where Hannah and Clay work. About halfway through the film, they see the girl run out, clearly distressed (Asher 2007: 146). After the film, Bryce stays to talk to Hannah. Clay warns Hannah against Bryce, and Hannah replies, “I know who he is Clay. I know what he is like. Believe me” (Asher 2007: 147). Even more importantly, at Jessica’s party the previous week, Hannah witnesses Bryce rape Jessica, but does not intervene. (This is another rape story that requires fuller investigation and discussion elsewhere.) In the novel, Hannah describes this on Cassette 5 Side B (Asher 2007: 220-31), which is included in Episode 9 of the series (Cassette 5 Side A). Hannah’s previous experience with Courtney also gives her good reason to be distrustful. On Cassette 3 Side A, Hannah warns that Courtney’s sweet persona is misleading: “And you … are … just … so sweet. Right? Wrong” (Asher 2007: 94). She goes on to explain how Courtney used her to get a lift to a party, only for Hannah to discover that Courtney was spreading rumours about her (Asher 2007: 113).
[xx] Courtney’s awareness of the threat of male predatory behaviour has already been confirmed earlier, when, at another party, she warns Hannah against spending time with a guy who gives Hannah a drink and then invites her to stay and talk to him (Asher 2007: 103). Moreover, Hannah is likewise familiar with Bryce’s predatory reputation among fellow students when she notes on the cassette, “Everyone knows who you are, Bryce. Everyone knows what you do” (Asher 2007: 263). Clay, too, seems familiar with Bryce’s reputation: when he hears Hannah say on the cassette that Bryce calls her name in the hot tub, he exclaims “God no. This can only end one way” (Asher 2007: 260).
[xxi] In some ways, such a charitable reading of Courtney’s character would fit with Hannah’s perspective in the book: that her (Hannah’s) problems often stem from people genuinely not understanding how their behaviour impacts her. There is, however, enough evidence in the book to suggest that Courtney’s decision to abandon Hannah with Bryce in the hot tub may have been more menacing than Hannah realises.
Thanks for this well-argued case for a humane (vs. andro-centric) reading of the OT; a good example of cross/inter-textual reading.
For the first time reading a text that tries to explicitly unravel the intricate and mysterious biblical story. When you read the bible you cannot see much convincing reasons for certain actions meaning the bible is truly a condensed volume of books that require careful and deliberate analysis. Well done 👍.