Translating Lived Experience into a Compelling Novel

DEC. 13, 2017

By Luna Greenstein


“True terror isn’t being scared; it’s having no choice in the matter.” This quote from John Green’s new book, Turtles All the Way Down, is a simple but powerful insight into the book’s major theme: Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).

In this book, Green takes readers down the spiral of OCD-based fear with his main character, Aza Holmes. Aza lives her life in constant terror that she will contract a bacterial disease. She is aware that her thoughts are irrational and wages a constant interior battle with herself, trying to quiet what she refers to as “intrusives” (intrusive thoughts).

Green is able to depict fear, anxiety and OCD in an accurate way because he, too, experiences OCD: “I couldn’t have written this story if I hadn’t lived with this since I was a little kid,” he stated during his book tour.

It’s his own lived experience that makes the book so palpable and real. As Green brings readers deep into Aza’s mind, the book can be uncomfortable to read. But that’s almost a good thing—because the powerful writing can teach young adults what living with OCD is really like.

OCD is Not a Gift

Turtles All the Way Down is a detective story that shows how true “obsession” can impede detective work. “There’s so many detective stories about obsessive people who are brilliant detectives because of their obsessiveness and my experience with obsessiveness has been more or less the complete opposite,” Green explains in an interview with Time. “I wanted to write a detective story where the plot keeps getting interrupted by this person’s inability to live in the world in the way that she wants to.”

While Aza tries to uncover the mystery of a missing fugitive billionaire, her symptoms keep her inside herself and make her less observant. The book also shows how Aza’s uncontrollable thoughts impact her daily life—from being accused of being selfish by her best friend to not being able to have a “normal” relationship. While many young adult book heroines experience butterflies in their stomachs during a first kiss, Aza experiences panic at the thought of receiving someone else’s bacteria.

Every time she gets too close to her love interest, her intrusives take control: “Billions of people kiss and don’t die just make sure his microbes aren’t going to permanently colonize you come on please stop this he could have campylobacter he could be a non-symptomatic E. coli carrier.”

OCD is Not a Phase

Green also masterfully showcases the power Aza’s obsessive thoughts have over her actions. Towards the end of the book, Aza’s intrusives convince her to eat hand sanitizer. “It’s the only way that’s stupid if it worked alcoholics would be the healthiest people in the world you’re just going to sanitize your hands and your mouth please think about something else stand up.” Moments like this highlight the seriousness of OCD—how it’s not something a person can simply stop or control.

Aza struggles throughout the book and in the end, she isn’t cured—a boy doesn’t save her, a magical quest doesn’t heal her, getting what she wants doesn’t make her symptoms dissolve. That’s not how mental illness works and the point of a book about mental illness shouldn’t be about a person’s ability to rid themselves of it, but their journey to learn how to live with it. And Green captured that reality for Aza.

“We really like stories that involve conquering obstacles and involve victory over adversity. And I love those stories too. It’s just that hasn’t been my story with mental illness, and I didn’t really want it to be Aza’s,” Green explains to Time. “For me, it’s not something I expect to defeat in my life. It’s not like a battle I expect to win. It’s something I expect to live with and still have a fulfilling life.”

Turtles All the Way Down isn’t a light-hearted, fun, young adult novel. It’s a reflection of an author’s life lived with mental illness. Aza clearly doesn’t have it all figured out yet, but like John Green, she will learn to live with her condition. And this book has the potential to inspire others to do the same.


Laura Greenstein is communications coordinator at NAMI.


SEP, 08, 2018 11:12:17 PM
This sounds like a great idea, but how about some suggestions, tips, links, or resources on the art of telling this type of story?

DEC, 30, 2017 12:16:18 PM
Paul Fogleman
Thanks for sharing this Laura. I heard a great interview with John on Fresh Air. Also want to share that I am a member of the NAMI chapter in southern Indiana and at an event we held in November 2017, we screened a 23 minute documentary called 'Unstuck' about children living with OCD: It's very well done and we all came away with a better understanding. One of the producers, Chris Baier, took time to talk to us about the project via Skype before the showing. He mentioned he would be present at NAMI national.


DEC, 16, 2017 11:24:43 PM
Diana Lyons
My daughter, 53, was born with epilepsy. She has been in a group home in Southern California for
6 or 7 years. The seizures stopped about 6 years ago but left her with paranoid schizophrenia. Not being aware of the situation, the lady who cared for her thought she was fine. In a matter of moments she heard noises outside and when she went out found my daughter had either fallen or jumped off the roof of the house. She had never done anything like that or even talked about doing any of that, but broke many bones in her body. She is now in a care facility still in braces for a broken pelvis. She was taken to Loma Linda Hospital in CA and they believe that she fell and didn't jump. Our family needs to have her near us here in Spokane Washington. Can you offer places to go see if she can fit in. If you can help would you send an email to me so that I can communicate with you. Thank you for any information. Diana

DEC, 13, 2017 09:05:10 PM
Diane Krisanda
I am planning and organizing a NAMI South Mountains, NC conference. I serve as Board of Director President for NAMI South Mountains , NC . We are all volunteers and dedicated, compassionate, and take the time to listen. We provide advocacy, support and education. I welcome you to present, bring your books.

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