Most of us think we are the captains of our souls. But in fact, as neural Darwinists tell us, we are the product of, as we develop, selective reinforcement of different neural pathways. If certain behaviors are rewarded in some way, the patterns of neuronal arrangements leading to those behaviors become stronger, and dominant over other patterns of behavior. Consider, for example, the elevation of dopamine levels in the brain when we experience pleasure. If we get exposed to opiates, alcohol, cannabinoids, nicotine, and other drugs, including sugar, they increase the release of dopamine to a much greater degree than other substances, driving our behavior to seek out more. Thus studies show that rats given infusions of cocaine into the brain following the pressing of a bar will press the bar repeatedly even to the point of not consuming food or water and thereby starving to death.
Similarly, if an animal finds that a certain stance or stalking behavior gains it more prey, it will do that again in the future. If your “lucky socks” work in one instance, you are apt to wear them repeatedly when you want to “ensure” success. Watch the tennis player Rafael Nadal before each serve – he makes the same pattern of movements each and every time. Even losing doesn’t change this, because studies among both animals and humans have shown that intermittent reinforcement is actually more powerful. This is why gambling is such a lucrative business.
The point is, we grow up to be “wired” in a certain way, depending in part on patterns of reinforcement when we are younger. So how we react is not really so much a matter of “choice.” We all have inbuilt tendencies towards particular behaviors. But some of us have more freedom to alter those patterns than others, depending on a combination of genetic and environmental factors.
There are also people who don’t even have the benefit of a modicum of control; their neural maps – that may be damaged and dysfunctional – are too strong. They can never feel “they” are in control. Rather, obsessive thoughts are in control of them, taking over until it seems they become the only thoughts one can have.
In Turtles All The Way Down, Aza Holmes, 16, is one of those people who feels defined by a constant bombardment of intrusive thoughts. They fill her with anxiety and cause her to take actions in response that seem crazy, even to her. As Aza describes this obsessive thinking, it pulls you down into its vortex until you are “stuck inside a prison cell that is exactly the size of you, until eventually you realize that you’re not actually in a prison cell. You are the prison cell.” Thoughts become not a choice, as Aza says, but your destiny.
Medication can help, because neural interactions are, after all, chemical reactions. And Aza does see a therapist and does get medication. But she doesn’t always want to take her pills. If she does, she reasons, she won’t be “her” – she will be who the pills make her into. But not taking the medication lets her dysfunctions get the better of her.
John Green is a brave author who doesn’t try to construct his characters in a way that will appeal to readers no matter what. In The Fault In Our Stars, the characters were ipso facto sympathetic because they had cancer – a disease you could see, not to mention one that elicits compassion in just about everyone. In this book, readers will struggle with feeling sympathetic toward a character who looks normal but acts anything but. You want to shake Aza and say “Stop it!” But in fact she is as hobbled by disease as someone with an ailment you can see. She would love to have intrusive thoughts leave her alone. But wishing can’t make it so.
Technically, the term for what Aza has is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). It manifests itself in her by an obsession with germs, and the fear that they will take over her body and kill her. Clearly this makes having a relationship difficult, because that would involve touching and even kissing – a huge opportunity for the exchange of bacteria.
It also means that Aza is pretty much totally self-absorbed. She is generally too busy worrying about what obsesses her to pay close attention to her friends, and in particular to her best friend, Daisy Ramirez. Daisy is remarkably tolerant of Aza, although she does take out her resentment in her Star Wars fan fiction, giving the unlikable character of Ayala many of Aza’s characteristics. Aza doesn’t even know this – she is too overwhelmed by her own obsessions to read her BFF’s fan fiction.
As the story begins, Daisy convinces Aza to join her in trying to find out more about the disappearance of a billionaire businessman, Russell Pickett. There is a large reward for information leading to his whereabouts, and Aza knew his son, Davis. She and Davis had gone to “Sad Camp” together – a camp for kids who lost their parents. Daisy proposes they go visit Davis and look for clues.
Thereafter, Aza and Davis do become friends again (becoming more than friends is a bit of a problem for her); Aza gets worse; she and Daisy have it out over what friendship means; and the mystery gets solved. The ending is realistic; John Green does not coddle his audience.
But what Green does do is include a lot of science information, clever dialogue, and pithy aphorisms that you want to put up on your wall. He also takes you inside Davis’s world of problems which are quite different than Aza’s. Davis, with all his family’s wealth, is scared that people will only like him for his money and all the cool stuff he has. Furthermore, while his father may be a jerk, he and his brother still need a father, and he struggles with both love and resentment toward the only parent he has left.
As for Davis’s wealth, Aza and Daisy indeed only sought him out in the first place because of that money. Daisy, who comes from a low-income household, resents that even Aza with her mom’s middle-class salary doesn’t fully appreciate the difference her own advantages give her vis-a-vis Daisy. Aza’s mom does understand, and warns Aza not to fall into the trap of worshiping money, since what we worship can control us as much as obsessive thoughts. Here, as in many places in this book, you can hear John Green’s own voice coming through.
And throughout, he supplies plenty of astute and humorous observations for us to enjoy and to think about.
I loved this description by Daisy of boys (which I read to my husband as sort of a hint):
“The whole problem with boys is that ninety-nine percent of them are, like, okay. If you could dress and hygiene them properly, and make them stand up straight and listen to you and not be dumbasses, they’d be totally acceptable.”
And yet Daisy also gives a wonderful paean to love, when she is justifying to Aza her fan fiction relationship between Chewbacca, a non-human, and Rey:
“Like what even makes you a person? He had a body and a soul and feelings, and he spoke a language, and he was an adult, and if he and Rey were in hot, hairy, communicative love, then let’s just thank God that two consenting, sentient adults found each other in a dark and broken galaxy.”
That last clause is one you want to shout out to all the homophobes in the universe.
And then Green gives us Aza’s musings on why, in part, she avoids romantic relationships:
“The part where they say, ‘What are you thinking about?’ And they want you to be, like, ‘I’m thinking about you, darling,’ but you’re actually thinking about how cows literally could not survive if it weren’t for the bacteria in their guts, and how that sort of means that cows do not exist as independent life-forms, but that’s not really something you can say out loud, so you’re ultimately forced to choose between lying and seeming weird.”
[These thoughts also pertain to Aza’s fears about herself and bacteria. Who decides who she is, she asks her therapist? The bacteria inside her? The obsessive thoughts? The pills? Her therapist says, “You’re right that self isn’t simple, Aza. Maybe it’s not even singular. Self is a plurality, but pluralities can also be integrated, right? Think of a rainbow. It’s one arc of light, but also seven differently colored arcs of light.”]
When Aza and Daisy are arguing about their relationship, Aza says to Daisy:
“I’m sorry it’s not fun hanging out with me because I’m stuck in my head so much, but imagine being actually stuck inside my head with no way out, with no way to ever take a break from it, because that’s my life. . . .Imagine . . . . You don’t get to decide who you like or where you live or when you eat or what you fear. You’re just stuck in there, usually alone, in this darkness.”
But this disease, the author tells us through Aza, is nobody’s fault: “…nothing in the world is deserved except love…”
Discussion: The author has spoken on his videos about his own struggles with OCD. He said about this book that he was trying to find a way to express in words what it was like to suffer from mental illness. It is exhausting, he has said, to be not able to control or choose your own thoughts. As Aza says at one desperate moment: “Please let me go. I’ll do anything.” Some of the dialogue even comes from his own experiences, as when a friend told him he was like mustard: “great in small quantities, but a lot of you is a lot.” And Green, like Aza, doesn’t ever expect to recover completely.
This story reminded me of the book All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven about teens with mental illness – they are even both set in Indiana. That too was not a light book. Nor did that author provide easy answers to the problems of (a different kind of) mental anguish so well limned in the story.
Evaluation: I love John Green – I subscribe to his videos, and I cherish his intelligence, his honesty, his humor, and his compassion. It all comes through in this book, as in his previous ones. This book did not have quite the impact on me of The Fault in Our Stars, but it is definitely worth reading. I hope others will appreciate, as I did, his letting us into his world, and sharing so adeptly what it is like to suffer from OCD.
Published by Dutton Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House, 2017