We are the products of our life experiences.
Even the most empathetic among us is subconsciously influenced by personal worldviews which inform how we interpret everything that anyone says or does to or around us, complicating how we respond to another’s life circumstances that divert greatly from our own.
Quite how true this is becomes apparent well into John Green’s beautifully insightful new novel, Turtles all the Way Down, when the protagonist Aza, an Indianapolis teenager with an almost debilitating case of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is sitting with David Pickett, a rich childhood friend whose father, accused of substantial fraud, has just gone missing.
Having grown so close that they are effectively boyfriend and girlfriend – though any confirmation of that status is almost always stymied by Aza’s crippling fear of the germs she will ingest when she kisses the sweetly adorable Davis – and having witnessed Aza’s struggle to not be subsumed by her spiraling, ever-tightening thoughts, you would think that Davis, as understanding as they come, would have come to grips with how his proto-sweetheart sees the world.
“I hadn’t visited the Pickett estate in many years, and it had grown even more majestic. The sand traps of the golf course were newly raked. The cart path we drove on had no cracks or bumps. Newly planted maple trees lined the path. But mostly I just saw endless grass, weedless, freshly mown into a diamond pattern. The Pickett estate was silent, sterile, and endless–like a newly built housing subdivision before actual people move into it. I loved it.” (P. 29)
But it becomes obvious as Aza finds spills on her inability to often rein in her runaway thoughts, that taunt her with horrific possibilities of infection and death, a smorgasboard of nasty “what ifs”, should she fail to comply with their irrational demands, that Davis doesn’t fully comprehend what she’s going through.
It doesn’t make Davis a bad or unsympathetic person of course since none of us can fully put ourselves in someone else’s shoes; what it does illustrate, and in the quietly powerful way that infuses much of Green’s first book since 2012’s The Fault in our Stars, is how difficult it can be to fully understand someone else’s life experience.
Especially when it comes to mental illness, which despite increasing awareness out in the community and the slow dissolution of many taboos, is still poorly understood by many people.
That’s why Turtles All the Way Down, which comes imbued with Green’s own experience of OCD which adds a profoundly richness and authenticity to the story, is such an important novel, quite apart from being an absolutely immersively enjoyable read.
It takes us into the heart and mind of someone with OCD, granting us as much of a familiarity as we can have with the way the condition plays havoc with someone’s life.
As Green tells it, and he tells it against the backdrop of Aza’s growing relationship with Davis, her best friendship with the the talkative, mostly patient Daisy, her loving mum, who’s over protective only because she feels powerless much of the time to meet Aza where she really is, and the travails of high school life, there is a constant battle going on between truth and falsehoods, the rational and the irrational, all powered by the insistent drumbeat of the “what ifs” that, if ignored, will lead to rack and ruin on a possibly life-ending scale.
If you’ve ever wondered why someone with OCD simply doesn’t snap out of it – as someone who has struggled with anxiety issues since childhood, I’m realise how facile a response that is to very real, very dark at times, mental health issues – Turtles All the Way Down, opens the curtain with grace, understanding and the kind of emotional thoughtfulness for which Green has justifiably become renowned.
“‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘Yeah, totally. Just want to …’ I was trying to think of what a normal person would say, like maybe if I could just say and do whatever normal people say and do, then he would believe me to be one, or maybe that I could even become one.” (P. 180)
His characters, though young in age, speak with customary Green-esque zeal and intelligence, their ruminations on life, love and all the messy, uncontrollable parts inbetween far above those of mere mortals.
But such is Green’s truthfulness and way of capturing the intensity of teenagerhood, amplified in AZA’s case by her OCD and increasingly desperate desire to be “normal”, that you completely buy into the authenticity of their situation.
Throw in the author’s gift from stories that move along at a brisk rate but never feel rushed – although you could argue it does become a little slowed down and repetitive at some points, though never fatally so – and you have in Turtles All the Way Down, compelling evidence of life’s complicated nature but that there is a way to emerge on the other side.
What is so reassuring to anyone who has ever dealt with mental illness, and those who love them looking on, is that any recovery is never smooth, endlessly upward or Hollywood perfect.
Rather it’s bound to be messy, full of backward steps, mired in self-doubt and a thousand miles so neatly realised but it is possible to solve mysteries – part of the narrative concerns Aza and Daisy’s amateur sleuthing to find Davis’s dad – succeed at school and be a good friend and daughter even when you are battling invasive thoughts that seem to brook no interference.
Green writes so beautifully and with such understanding of what it’s like to be a teenager and deal with mental illness, and what progress really looks and feels like, that you emerge charmed by Aza’s charming honesty, sobered by the enemy she constantly fights within, but ultimately hopeful that there is a way out, even if it’s not the unflawed happily ever after that many of us long for.