It’s happening, people. John Green is back and I, for one, feel lucky to be alive at a time when he is writing new books. Is that a touch dramatic?
Anyway, I pre-ordered Turtles All the Way Down back when pre-orders first became available. I really wanted a signed physical copy, but being poor and in the middle of a cross-country move with no real address to ship to would’ve made that difficult. So at midnight last Tuesday, I downloaded my eBook and promptly devoured it. Now that I’ve finished, I am HYPED to talk about Turtles! I’ll do my best not to give any spoilers here, but I also don’t really know what people consider to be spoilers, so proceed with caution.
Turtles follows the story of Aza, a 16 year-old girl who deals with OCD and anxiety. She has thoughts that her therapist describes as “intrusive,” though Aza prefers “invasive,” and these thoughts go in spirals that feel to her like they are ever-tightening. She feels a lack of control over her life, her thoughts, or anything really, and believes that life is “a story told about you, not one that you tell” (page 1). One way her mental illness manifests itself is through a hyperawareness of bacteria and the potential of getting sick. She worries especially about an infection called Clostridium difficile, or C diff, and is constantly concerned that she has contracted it. She has a habit of obsessively opening a cut on her finger that she believes could be infected, letting it bleed and/or putting hand sanitizer on it, and changing the bandaid. Over and over, spiraling.
At the same time, Aza’s best friend Daisy involves her in their own secret investigation of a missing billionaire, who happens to be the father of Aza’s estranged childhood friend, Davis. What starts as Daisy’s quest to get the reward money for information leading to Davis’s father becomes much more, revealing tension in their friendship, a blooming romance in Aza’s reconnection with Davis, and a continuing, worsening spiral in Aza’s mental state.
While the mystery of the missing billionaire and the burgeoning love story are engaging, enjoyable parts of Turtles, the real story ultimately occurs within Aza’s own mind. Following her triumphs and struggles with mental illness is fascinating, emotional, and for someone with her own mental illness, very real. This makes sense, as Turtles was inspired by Green’s personal experiences with anxiety and OCD. Green has stated very publicly that the 6-year gap between The Fault in Our Stars and this book had a lot to do with his own battle with mental illness. As Green discusses in the Hilarious World of Depression podcast (found here or in Apple podcasts), he tried a multitude of medications to treat his conditions that had become rather crippling, and even tried going off his meds to boost his creativity for his writing. That’s when his own “thought spiraling” became its worst, and it took a strong support network of family and mental health professionals, along with finding and sticking with the correct medication, to feel like himself once more and to be able to produce his latest novel.
The ways in which Green (via Aza) depicts mental illness are moving and relatable. While I do not have OCD or Aza’s intense fear of contamination, I do have anxiety and depression and can relate heavily to the way she worries uncontrollably about things that she knows she shouldn’t. Some of my very favorite quotes on the matter of mental illness (**could be considered spoilers if you don’t want to know any of the text ahead of reading the book yourself 😉 **) are the following:
- “True terror isn’t being scared; it’s not having a choice in the matter.” (page 22)
- “‘I don’t mind worriers,’ I said. ‘Worrying is the correct worldview. Life is worrisome.'” (page 52)
- “I wanted to tell her that I was getting better, because that was supposed to be the narrative of illness: It was a hurdle you jumped over, or a battle you won. Illness is a story told in the past tense.” (page 85)
- “…we’re such language-based creatures that to some extent we cannot know what we cannot name. And so we assume it isn’t real. We refer to it with catch-all terms, like crazy or chronic pain, terms that both ostracize and minimize. The term chronic pain captures nothing of the grinding, constant, ceaseless, inescapable hurt. And the term crazy arrives at us with none of the terror and worry you live with. Nor do either of those terms connote the courage people in such pains exemplify…” (page 89)
- “…my thoughts came not in lines but in knotted loops curling in upon themselves, in sinking quicksand, in light-swallowing wormholes.” (page 113)
- “…cohabitating with a demon that forced me to think thoughts I hated thinking…” (page 128)
- “I couldn’t make myself happy, but I could make people around me miserable.” (page 157)
- “In job interviews they’d ask me, What’s your greatest weakness? and I’d explain that I’ll probably spend a good portion of the workday terrorized by thoughts I’m forced to think, possessed by a nameless and formless demon, so if that’s going to be an issue, you might not want to hire me.” (page 227)
Literally all of the above, I read and thought, “ME. IT’S ME.” I think the frequency with which quotes like those came up – quotes that deeply resonated with me, someone who often feels totally alone in her mental illness journey – shows how important Aza’s story is, and the justice it does to the experience of anxiety. It is a feeling of constant fear, and in my case, often a fear I can’t even put my finger on. Words aren’t adequate to describe the way it feels when your mind is reeling. You can see yourself being irrational, but can’t stop. The same goes for being able to see its negative effects on those around you. It is a weird, terrifying, isolating experience, so seeing it reflected in a similar vein in another (albeit fictional) person means so much. I can see teens and adults across the country who are mentally ill having the same kind of moments I had, moments like, “Oh. Wow. Someone else feels how I feel.”
Another thing that I really appreciated about this story is that in no way does it glorify or glamorize mental illness. It is not a story of “girl has messed up brain, girl has adventures with friends, girl falls in love, girl realizes she doesn’t want to be anxious, girl just becomes happy instead, girl lives happily – and not anxiously – ever after.” It’s much more gritty and real than that, and I can imagine my teenage self (my self who didn’t yet have anxiety, or at least didn’t realize it) getting to the end and being like, “wait, that’s it?” I could also possibly see Turtles not appealing to every John Green reader, in particular the ones who expect a tear-jerker, epic love story for the ages. But for those with an open mind, and perhaps especially those with their own demons that control their minds in some form, I think its rawness, its anti-fairy-tale-ness, will be immensely appreciated.
So thank you, John Green, for fighting your demons and gifting the world with this brilliant little piece of young adult literature. It is now one of my all-time favorite books. I am as touched by your prose as ever and even more so after following your career and personal struggles over the past few years. I titled this “John Green 2020” because I wish there were more world leaders with the intellect and compassion that you have, but as a fellow anxious person, I wouldn’t really wish that job upon you. Plus, I’d like it better if you kept writing books.
To all my fellow readers out there, go pick up your copy of Turtles All the Way Down and let me know what you think!