So, I recently finished Turtles All the Way Down by John Green.
I picked this book up having not read any of his other work, but with the understanding that John Green also suffers from anxiety and that this book is a reflection of that struggle. The reviews and feedback have been overwhelmingly positive and many people claim it has helped them understand the experience of OCD sufferers in a way they couldn’t before. Well, sign me up. It’s a book about me!
Here are my thoughts on it.
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I’m not going to describe the plot or the characters, because if you want a book report or synopsis Amazon and Google will be happy to help. (Click the image above; it’ll take you right there.) My main concern as a reader and an OCD sufferer was this: did this book reflect my actual experiences? Did it paint an accurate picture of life with this disorder?
I have to say that it does.
I had mixed feelings about the book itself. Although Green is said to write from the perspective of teenagers as if he were truly capturing them, I find he has the benefit of the wisdom he has had half a lifetime to develop. I thought deep thoughts as a teenager, but I didn’t think from quite the same perspective as I would now. That’s probably the biggest criticism of an adult trying to remember what it was like to be a teenager and write from a youthful perspective. We can remember what it was like, but only from the vantage point we have now. And that adult perspective shows in the writing at times.
I don’t read a lot of fiction (this is unfortunate, I know) and have little patience for predictable narrative arcs and overused, gimmicky tropes. This book manages to dodge them due to the fact that mental illness is not a Happily Ever After kind of story. One of my favorite quotes sums it up:
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. (p. 85. Penguin Young Readers Group.)
Stories are supposed to be the same. You have your beginning, your exciting middle, and your neat ending where everything gets wrapped up and tidied. Except, with illness, it is ups and downs, small victories and set backs. This story attempts to capture that experience as much as it can. I’m not going to lie, there were times when I wanted a tidy ending because when I went back to my untidy, real life, it would be one less thing to weigh on my mind. But in the pursuit of authenticity, we don’t get a Happily Ever After. We get a Reality Ever After.
I found Aza frustrating as a narrator, and I think she was supposed to be. What frustrated me was the desire to have her explore my problems and to allow those around her to reach her and help, rather than turning away and withdrawing further. She’s uncommunicative and unreachable much of the time. The people around her don’t know how to help. The story really starts to take a turn from Aza’s frustrating thought loops and obsessions when she comes face to face with the effect it has on the people around her. Like any sufferer, she doesn’t want to hurt anyone. She just does and doesn’t realize it.
There’s a painful moment when, perhaps, you are meant to empathize with Aza during an argument with her friend Daisy. I found myself on Daisy’s side, which hurt because I realized how many of my high school interactions were filled with moments like this. Aza’s too much and the people around her struggle to take her in full doses. It hurts, and it’s true.
There came a time in high school when my friends would plan events and “forget” to invite me, and as much as it’s easy to paint myself as the victim of that scenario, the truth was (and is) that I wasn’t always fun to be around. I’m high strung, worried, preoccupied. Always deeply analyzing everything. That can be fun in small amounts for most people but I’m that way all the time. In high school my hypochondria outweighed my OCD and I was in a near constant state of agitation and panic over the Big Diseases I was sure I had. Now, looking back, I can see what the fear really was. It was a fear of having no control over my future, my body, my life.
That’s what makes Aza so frustrating. You can see what the problem is in ways that she can’t, and I wanted her to figure it out so that I could understand my own problems better. But she doesn’t, not really. In her own words, she only finds things that “sort of work.” I guess that’s reality.
Anyway. Would reading this book help you understand OCD and anxiety better? Definitely. It’s frustrating, it’s recursive, it’s monotonous, and it’s not glamorized or a caricature of mental illness in any way. It’s one more point of entry for a conversation about mental illness that needs to happen. OCD is usually portrayed as quirky, useful, funny, absurd. But seeing it portrayed as it really is, debilitating, is another matter. I’m also thankful for the chance to see the author’s sense of struggle too, because it reminds me so much of my own. It was a book I was happy to read for that reason.
Check it out if you haven’t already: Turtles All the Way Down.