Real world OCD in John Green’s ‘Turtles All the Way Down’

Leah Hardgrove | Contributing Writer

John Green, No. 1 international best-selling author of “The Fault in Our Stars,” released his newest novel “Turtles All the Way Down” Oct. 10. The book has excellent writing, funny, nerdy banter and love stories. Aza Holmes and her best friend Daisy hunt to find fugitive billionaire Richard Pickett and collect his $100,000 bounty. Their search leads them to Davis, Pickett’s son and Aza’s childhood friend. The book follows the teenagers as they balance high school, love, investigations and fanfiction writing.

However, what makes this book so remarkable is the protagonist. Unlike Green’s most famous past protagonist—Hazel Grace Lancaster in “The Fault in Our Stars,” Aza doesn’t suffer from a physical disease like cancer. Instead, she battles obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).

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It’s common today to throw around OCD as a joke, or say someone is OCD because they like their room clean or have a certain routine. In his writing, John Green sets out to show just how wrong this colloquial use is. The book is written from Aza’s point of view, so the novel follows her bumpy train of thought, which she calls “thought spirals.” Aza describes the situation around her, like a double date or a lunch conversation, but the reader doesn’t get to see the whole scene. Aza’s descriptions will be cut off by her ever-present obsessive concern about contracting an infection involving Clostridium difficile, or C. diff; she is physically unable to participate in the world around her because of her thoughts.

While the story continues forward, the reader is trapped in Aza’s head, missing Davis’ and Daisy’s conversations to have Aza recite the same article about C. diff multiple times. Her germophobia even interrupts Aza’s first kiss. Green, previously celebrated for his realistic romantic scenes, destroys this sentimental moment for both his character and his readers, showing how OCD isn’t a funny or quirky thing. In Aza’s case, OCD affects some of life’s most important moments. Aza’s OCD goes so far as to even destroy all rational thought. After kissing her crush, she’s so terrified of contracting C. diff that her mind forces her to drink a bottle of hand sanitizer. Rationally, she knows how dangerous this is, but she can’t help herself. She is a prisoner to her own compulsions. This book focuses on creating an experience for readers to truly understand what it’s like living with OCD.

“Turtles All the Way Down” also honestly depicts how Aza’s relationships are affected by her mental illness. Her friends get annoyed with her, describing her as mustard—good in small doses, but horrible when there’s too much. Her mother is afraid of Aza’s mental illness, constantly asking her how she’s doing and checking to make sure Aza is functioning. Her maybe-boyfriend struggles to accept her issues. Even her therapist doesn’t fully understand what she’s going through. John Green doesn’t try and make the perfect support group for Aza. That’s not real life, and this book is dedicated to being as realistic as possible.

Readers who suffer from OCD have praised the book for its accurate portrayal of living with this disorder, celebrating Green for not belittling their illness. Green himself struggles with OCD, saying how he often loses himself in obsessive thought spirals and struggles just like Aza. He used his writing to transform his experiences into something tangible, something relatable to others. Additionally, people who don’t suffer from OCD have the chance to be in the head of someone who does through this book. It can be hard to fathom why someone with OCD acts the way they do; why can’t they just think about something else? Green and Aza reassure those with OCD that they aren’t alone and show mentally healthy people what it’s like to suffer from a mental illness.

In 286 pages, “Turtles All the Way Down” simulates what it’s like to participate in society while struggling with a mental disorder. In a society where mental illness is stigmatized, John Green gives a voice to those fighting with their minds. For anyone who has ever been trapped in their own thoughts and anxieties, and equally for those who have not, this book is a must-read.