Alphabet Soup

OCD teen love

15 MAY 2018 | KAREN KAO

Turtles All the Way Down is a love story just like John Green’s last novel, The Fault in Our Stars. Actually, it’s two love stories in one. There’s the romance between Davis and Aza and the challenges of making out when you have a fear of germs. But for me, the heart of the story is the friendship between Aza and Daisy, BFF for life.


I met my best female friend in high school. We happened to sit next to each other in English class and it was love at first sight. 40+ years later and we’re still best friends. She’s probably reading this book review right now.

Daisy Ramirez is that kind of a friend to Aza Holmes.  Aza calls Daisy her Best and Most Fearless Friend. Daisy’s life motto is Break Hearts, Not Promises. She works at Chuck E. Cheese to save money for college. She writes Star Wars fan fiction, specifically about the inter-species love life of Chewbacca and Rey. And that produces a special kind of fan base for her.

“Have you ever gotten a dick pic?” [Daisy] asked in lieu of saying hello.
“Um, I’ve seen one,” I said, scooting into the bench across from her.
“Well, of course you’ve seen one, Holmesy. Christ, I’m not asking if you’re a seventeenth century nun. I mean have you ever received an unsolicited, no-context dick pic. Like, a dick pic as a form of introduction.”
“Not really,” I said. […]
“I mean, how am I supposed to react to a semi-erect penis as fan mail? Am I supposed to feel intrigued?”


Like any BFF, Daisy knows all about Aza’s quirks. Except, in Aza’s case, they’re a lot more than idiosyncrasies. Aza has full-blown obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Ever since I was little, I’ve pressed my right thumbnail into the finger pad of my middle finger, and so now there’s this weird callus over my fingerprint. After so many years of doing this, I can open up a crack in the skin really easily, so I cover it up with a Band-Aid to try to prevent infection. But sometimes I get worried that there already is an infection, and so I need to drain it, and the only way to do that is to reopen the wound and press out any blood that will come.

Howard Hughes had a similar germ phobia. His OCD led to a variety of compulsive behavior that affected him and those around him. OCD is defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder, fifth edition (DSM-5) as recurrent, persistent thoughts, urges or impulses that cause anxiety but cannot be ignored or suppressed (the obsession) other than by a neutralizing thought or action (the compulsion). The compulsion is repetitive and rigidly applied though there is no realistic connection between the obsession and the repetitive act.

My son used to count the corners of doorways, buildings or paintings until he reached a multiple of three. If that number did not alleviate the anxiety, he would go on to the next multiple and the next and the next. John Green doesn’t say what his particular obsession is nor how it manifests itself. All we know for sure is that OCD is an ongoing part of his life.


Technically speaking, young adult fiction is aimed at readers between the ages of 12 and 20. But with the advent of Harry Potter, it has become clear to publishers that there are at least as many adults who read YA fiction as teenagers do.

Green is good at capturing the teenage voice. He can do it in dialogue, internal monologue and even in text. His particular forte is the snarky parent-child encounter. In this scene, Aza is about to leave the house but her mother, ever alert, sees she’s wearing eyeliner.

“Is this for a date?”
“It’s dinner,” I said.
“Are you dating Davis Pickett?”
“We are both eating dinner at the same restaurant at the same time. It’s not marriage.”

The teenagers that populate Turtles All the Way Down are sassy and smarter than most of the adults would credit. They fall in and out of love, as teenagers do. They are acutely aware of teetering on the cusp.

I was so good at being a kid, and so terrible at being whatever I was now.

the end

I could be cynical (and a plot spoiler at the same time) by saying that Green doesn’t want to write happy endings. Another tearjerker like The Fault in Our Stars would sell so much better. But in the case of Turtles All the Way Down, I think Green is after something much more profound.

OCD doesn’t just go away. Mental illness can take years to battle, maybe even a lifetime. Green gives us a glimpse of the future that lies ahead for Aza.

that girl would go on … she would grow up, have children and love them, that despite loving them she would get too sick to care for them, be hospitalized, get better, and then get sick again.

This is life the way it really is. Aza and Daisy and Davis are big enough to take it. So should we.