I sincerely believe there is a place in the world for stories where the protagonist loses someone to suicide and has to work through their grief. That is a valid and very painful human experience. Books like I Was Here ruin those stories for everyone.
It’s about Cody, an eighteen-year-old girl whose best friend, Meg, has just killed herself. Cody is in mourning and is arguably going through some tough general depression. She lives in a small, poor town that she fears she’ll never escape, she can’t afford college, she has an absent father, and her mother is far from supportive.
The plot gets moving when Cody is asked to go to Meg’s apartment to pack up her things. Once there, Cody finds Meg’s laptop and starts to do some digging into why her friend would kill herself. The investigation is interesting with lots of twists and turns. Was Meg pushed to it by a callous ex-boyfriend? Was she manipulated by a mysterious man online? Was she actually murdered?
Reread that last sentence and you’ll start to get an idea of where this story goes wrong. This isn’t a story about depression or suicide, not really. It’s a murder mystery with the flavoring of a coming-of-age novel. While in the end we learn that Meg wasn’t actually murdered, Meg is still as much of a prop to the story as Mr. Body is to Clue.
First of all, Meg has little to no character. There are a handful of anecdotes about her, but she’s never a real presence in the story. I got no sense of her personality or why her friendship with Cody was so important. Without those elements I never got the impact of the tragedy of her death. Instead, she falls into the Women in Refrigerators trope that originated in comic books. Her entire reason for existing is so she can die and inspire her friend’s transformative journey.
So, it’s best if right now we stop pretending that this story is at all about Meg. This is entirely Cody’s novel, so what does she do with it? Well, Cody quickly becomes obsessed with finding the reason, the “smoking gun,” behind Meg’s death. She goes through Meg’s old e-mails, confronts her ex-boyfriend, and carefully examines her web history.
This is where we come to the most triggering and problematic part of the book: Meg was a member of a pro-suicide support group.
As a person with depression, this part of the story was awful to read. The novel shows numerous messages from the forum’s members describing how they want to kill themselves and “supportive” messages from others encouraging them. Suicide is described as a brave decision and even as an act of rebellious non-conformity. Cody discovers a conversation between Meg and another member in which he convinces her that she wouldn’t really be hurting anyone she left behind. One is almost left with the impression that Meg killed herself because she thought it would be a cool thing to do.
Now I want to be clear here, I Was Here does not encourage suicide. Cody is as troubled and sickened by these messages as most readers would be. However, their presence is still very triggering. They tell me, more than any other part of the story, that this book was not written with people who have depression in mind. It isn’t helpful, it isn’t empowering, it isn’t even empathetic to the experience of having depression. The presence of these forums is entirely for the sensationalism of it.
Sure, such websites probably exist in real life, but only a tiny percentage of people with depression would ever go to them. This is like including a character with schizophrenia in your novel only because you think that will make them a more interesting serial killer. It’s just completely inauthentic and cruel to those who actually have that mental illness.
So, okay, the girl with suicidal depression is a prop and the story’s central premise is flawed and hurtful, but how does the rest of the book hold up? Unfortunately, once again, not very well. I admit that Cody is an engaging character, but her motivations are too poorly handled for me to take her seriously.
Early on she thinks Meg’s ex led her to suicide, but by the end of the book he’s not only Cody’s own love interest, but also her first sexual experience. Cody is endlessly driven to meet the man who “killed” her friend, but takes a detour to meet her long-lost father on the way to confront the man. She hates her life and feels vague temptations to kill herself, but by the end of the story she’s over it all and ready to move on.
All of these components might have worked well in another story. Here, they just feel disrespectful. Everything she does that should be about better understanding Meg is only used to make Cody grow. Meg’s jerky ex becomes Cody’s fulfilling relationship. A search to find Meg’s enabler becomes Cody’s means of making peace with her father. And the way Cody gets over being suicidal is just insulting. It’s basically saying you only feel suicidal if life gets rough and that looking at things a new way is the cure for everything. At one point Cody’s mom even says that she knows Cody wouldn’t kill herself because she isn’t “stupid” like Meg.
One thing I will say for I Was Here is that I never knew where it was going. It scared me a dozen times over because I thought Meg’s ultimate motivations and the circumstances around her death would be mishandled. I was both frustrated and relieved by the ending.
The final twist is no twist. Cody finally goes to Meg’s parents with everything she’s learned. She has her triumphant moment of “This is why Meg died!” Then the parents quietly shut her down. There was no “smoking gun,” not really. Meg killed herself because she had depression. She had it for years and just hid it well. It was a family illness.
I Was Here bears the message that there is no real reason for suicide. It’s a consequence of an illness. Suicide is something we must grieve over and then accept when it happens to those we love. The sentiment is powerful and one I can respect.
That final message is also what makes me furious with this book. I Was Here is full of wasted potential, but this part is the worst. After a whole novel of mystery-solving, international computer hacking, lies, sex, and low-level espionage (this book is complicated, okay) this moral is horribly tacked on. It’s like an old gangster movie where Scarface lives large for the whole film then dies suddenly so the makers can say crime doesn’t pay.
No. This story was not about the mysteries of depression. It was about Cody. Cody had an adventure. Cody found herself. Cody got a boyfriend. Meg could have been anyone and anything could have happened to her. Cody just needed a bit of tragedy in her life to get things going.
How do I know this conclusion is drivel? Because, even at the big ending, we never get to know what depression actually is, let alone why it would cause suicide. The biggest symptom we know Meg experienced is sleeping a lot. One can easily walk away from I Was Here believing that depression is just being sad a lot and that people who kill themselves are simply “weak” or “stupid.”
Ultimately, I think that I Was Here is a book with a lot of potential that falls flat in the worst ways. It’s obvious that Gayle Forman has a lot of talent, but if she wants to write about depression, she should treat it with more respect. I can’t trust an author that uses my mental illness as a prop for someone else’s personal journey.