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A Synopsis and Summary of Turtles All the Way Down
Aza Holmes is a teenage girl living with one hell of an anxiety disorder. Aza is obsessed with and terrified by the human microbiota — the host of trillions of microorganisms that make up at least half, if not more, of the human body’s mass.
The human microbiota is discomfiting, for sure, but most human beings are able to live and operate without worrying about it all the time. But Aza cannot stop thinking about it. Her fears are all wrapped up in a dread for illness and death, which is compounded by the traumatic loss of her father at a young age.
For Aza, the physical “locus” of her anxiety is the pad of her middle finger. For years, Aza has pressed her nail into the pad, so often that a callous has formed there. When she’s feeling very anxious, Aza opens up a crack in the callous, causing it to bleed. She keeps fresh band-aids on the spot all the time, and ritualistically disinfects the crack with sanitizer.
Aza’s mind is not just “quirky.” It’s deeply unwell.
The Plot Begins
The story begins with Indianapolis being rocked with some news — one of its citizens has gone missing, a billionaire by the name of Russell Pickett, conveniently right before police arrived to arrest him for all sorts of business crimes. There is a $100,000 reward being offered for information of his whereabouts.
Years before, Aza had attended “Sad Camp” with Russell Pickett’s son, Davis, and they had been friendly. Because of this connection, Aza’s bestie, an effervescent, fan-fiction author named Daisy, is convinced that she and Aza might have a shot at winning the reward.
Recalling that Davis had once set up a game camera on the outskirts of the Pickett property, Aza takes Daisy trespassing to download pictures from the camera. They find a picture of Russell Pickett leaving his property on the night of his disappearance, but the girls are apprehended by the Pickett’s security. Daisy resourcefully lies, claiming they were going to visit Davis.
When Aza and Daisy are presented to Davis, he instantly recognizes Aza. He confides that quite of few of his old friends have been cropping up since the announcement of the big reward. Daisy quickly tells Davis that Aza used to have a crush on him, and that his name in the news had been stirring up her fond memories — that is why they are visiting. Aza is embarrassed, but because Daisy’s story is partly true, she doesn’t correct her friend.
Davis, who remembers Aza’s favorite drink, offers them Dr. Peppers by the pool outside. On a little island at the center of the pool, a biome habitat has been built for Russell Pickett’s pet tuatara — a rare reptile that is the only surviving member of the order, Rhynchocephalia, which once flourished 200 million years ago. The girls learn that Pickett had been obsessed with the tuatara, and even meet the zoologist that the billionaire kept to research and care for the reptile.
Before the girls leave, Aza puts her number in Davis’s phone.
The Plot Thickens
At Applebee’s, where Aza and Daisy routinely go to study, the girls begin their investigation into Russell Pickett’s disappearance. Daisy is able to con an inexperienced reporter, through email, into sending them a copy of the police report. From it, they learn how Davis, and his younger brother, Noah, had no idea that their father was preparing to run. The girls also learn that Pickett had willed all of his considerable wealth to a foundation dedicated to the care of his tuatara. He had left nothing to his sons.
At school, the girls’ friend, the artistic Mychal, asks Daisy out. Daisy is not 100% enthusiastic, and only sort-of accepts Mychal’s offer, by arranging for her, Mychal, Aza, and Davis to have a double date at Applebee’s. The teens have a good time at the “mid-quality restaurant chain,” all except Aza, who is overcome by intrusive thoughts concerning microorganisms, parasitic life, illness, and death.
After their dinner, the teens go to Davis’s house. Mychal is ecstatic to see all the famous artwork on display there. Aza, herself, becomes absorbed by a painting by Raymond Pettibon, depicting a spiral. It draws her in, because it is the exact representation of her mental illness.
Mychal and Daisy disappear together, leaving Davis and Aza alone. They wind up outside and talk about the stars and the cosmos — Davis’s interests. Aza talks him into reciting some of his poetry compositions, which charm Aza so thoroughly that she kisses Davis.
As they are kissing, though, Aza becomes overwhelmed with panic and eventually pulls away. Davis encourages her to confide in him, and Aza begins to ramble about the human microbiota. The fact that Aza is anxious isn’t a new revelation to Davis. He is familiar with her disorder from their time spent together as kids. He even knows about Aza’s middle finger.
Having shared this moment with Aza, Davis suddenly becomes upset. He takes her to an outbuilding and pours out the contents of a box of cereal, revealing a stack of bills. Davis explains that it’s $100,000, and that his dad obsessively squirreled away cash in hiding places around the estate. He gives Aza the money, the exact amount of the reward, insisting that it’s for his peace of mind. Now, he says, he can talk with Aza and not worry that she’s trying to exploit him.
The Protagonist Finds a New Motivation
The next day, Aza gives Daisy half of the money — $50,000. Daisy is overcome. Her family struggles financially, and it’s been an acute source of stress. In the following days, Daisy buys a car and a laptop, and quits her much-loathed job at Chuck E. Cheese.
Unlike Daisy, Aza does not lose interest in Russell Pickett’s whereabouts. An earlier night, at the Pickett house, Aza spoke to Noah. Noah is struggling with his father’s disappearance, acting out at school and withdrawing into video games. Because his mother is long dead, Noah has no parent to guide him, just caretakers who are paid to look after him, and an older brother who is also in limbo. Noah gives Aza the files of his father’s cryptic phone notes, which are probable clues to his location. Noah asks Aza to try to find his dad.
Aza figures out most of the notes. They all refer to living on the run, faking one’s own death, and avoiding extradition. There’s one phrase she can’t figure out, though — “in the jogger’s mouth.” She becomes convinced that it refers to Pickett’s location.
Aza grows closer to Davis, although they agree to not try at a relationship, due to Aza’s ever-worsening anxieties. However, Daisy and Aza’s friendship flies off the rails when Aza finally reads Daisy’s Star Wars fan-fiction. Unbeknownst to Aza, Daisy had created a detestable character called Ayala, whose mental failings are clear imitations of Aza’s own. When Aza confronts her, Daisy erupts, criticizing Aza’s self-absorption and privilege, causing a distraught Aza to crash her car.
In the hospital for a lacerated liver, Aza suffers a mental breakdown and is caught swallowing hand sanitizer. Daisy’s psychiatrist comes to visit and promises that Daisy will survive her mental illness.
Everything Comes Together
Aza and Daisy make up and become even stronger friends. Aza tries to describe her mental illness to Daisy, who has never really understood it. Aza explains how she is constantly trying to find the “Real Me,” at her core, but how she can never find the real center of herself, because, like nesting dolls, the illness surrounding her is infinite.
Aza’s analogy reminds Daisy of a story. A scientist is explaining the cosmos to an auditorium and after his lecture he takes questions. An old woman raises her hand and explains that the scientist is incorrect. The world rests upon the back of a giant turtle. The scientist, aggrieved, asks what’s beneath the turtle. “Another turtle,” replies the woman. “It’s turtles all the way down.” Daisy explains to Aza that she’s looking at her existential crisis the wrong way. It’s not nesting dolls, infinitely. It’s turtles, infinitely.
Although Daisy and Aza have come back together, Aza’s relationship with Davis crumbles, largely due to Aza’s illness. “You can’t do it the other way… and I can’t do it this way,” Davis writes to her. “It makes me feel like you only like me at a distance. I need to be liked close up.” Aza is upset with his decision, but doesn’t contest it.
Later, Daisy and Aza are supporting Mychal at his first pop-up gallery showing, in an abandoned tunnel called “Pogue’s Run.” At the art show, Daisy and Aza wonder off down the tunnel until they reach the mouth of the White River. Piecing together clues and intuition, Aza realizes that they have found the “jogger’s mouth.” With a sinking feeling, she realizes that there is a very bad smell in the air.
She confides her suspicion to Davis, and a few days later, he and Noah call in an anonymous tip to the police. Afterward, Russell Pickett’s body is found in Pogue’s Run.
In the aftermath, Davis drives by Aza’s house one night to drop off a large package. He tries to leave without saying anything, but Aza stops him. She opens the package and finds the famous painting of the spiral that had captured her at the Pickett’s house. Davis tells her that he stole it “from the lizard.” It’s a goodbye gift, because he’s leaving. Noah was accepted into a boarding school for troubled kids in Colorado. Davis will be moving close by. He finally understands what he needs to do now — be a big brother.
Davis bids her farewell and leaves, but Aza feels heartened by something he once said — “no one ever says goodbye unless they want to see you again.”
What Does the Title Mean
Like everyone, when I first heard the title Turtles All the Way Down, I was puzzled. When I finally got my hands on a copy, I went into it ready to find out the meaning behind such an unusual title.
Green alludes to the “…All the Way Down” part early in the novel. In the very first chapter, Aza likens her mental illness to a spiral, saying, “the thing about a spiral is, if you follow it inward, it never actually ends. It just keeps tightening, infinitely” (7). Spirals curl inward, but they also move downward. This, combined with the book’s meaningful cover art, is our first hint that the title refers to Aza’s mental illness.
But where do turtles fit in?
Those reptiles first appear when Aza describes the White River of Indianapolis. The river is depicted as a shallow, little waterway that is “lousy with turtles” (23). This mention made me jump to attention, but, alas, there was nothing substantial about this inaugural appearance of the word. At that point, the “turtles” are merely a descriptor for the setting, and also a sort of teaser.
The Turtles Are Part of a Parable
John Green uses exact phrase, “turtles all the way down” near the very end of the book, when Aza is trying to explain her illness to Daisy, and Daisy is struggling to understand (244-5 ).
“You just, like, hate yourself? You hate being yourself?”
“There’s no self to hate. It’s like, when I look into myself, there’s no actual me—just a bunch of thoughts and behaviors and circumstances. And a lot of them just don’t feel like they’re mine… And when I look for the, like, Real Me, I never find it. It’s like those nesting dolls, you know? The ones that are hollow, and then when you open them up, there’s a smaller doll inside, and you keep opening hollow dolls until eventually you get to the smallest one, and it’s solid all the way through. But with me, I don’t think there is one that’s solid. They just keep getting smaller.”
Basically, Aza is saying that all the things that make up her identity — her thoughts, her actions, etc. — all those things seem tainted by her mental illness. She’s upset because she can never tell where her illness ends and the real Aza begins. She thinks that maybe… maybe she doesn’t even exist at all.
We’ve seen her struggle with this idea from the very first pages of the book, when she wonders if she’s the author of her own life, or if she’s just what’s written by forces greater than herself. At her lowest point, after her car accident, Aza even comes to the conclusion that her entire self is permeated by her illness, and she actually has no identity at all: “I knew how disgusting I was. I knew. I knew now for sure. I wasn’t possessed by a demon. I was the demon” (229.)
This is a terrible way to think about oneself. It is a mindset that has relinquished the struggle for control. I think that point, when you give up, is rock bottom.
But Daisy, being an insightful friend, is able to adjust Aza’s thinking by using a method that Aza can understand and embrace — metaphor.
“So [a scientist] gives this whole presentation about the history of earth and life on it, and then at the end, he asks if there are any questions. An old woman in the back raises her hand, and says, ‘…The truth is, the earth is a flat plane resting on the back of a giant turtle.’
“The scientist…responds, ‘Well, but if that’s so, what is the giant turtle standing upon?’
“And the woman says, ‘It is standing upon the shell of another giant turtle.’
“And now… he says, ‘Well, then what is that turtle standing upon?’
“And the old woman says, ‘Sir, you don’t understand. It’s turtles all the way down.’” (245.)
Upon hearing Daisy’s story, Aza experiences “something akin to a spiritual revelation.” “It’s turtles all the way down,” she laughs. “It’s turtles all the way fucking down,” Daisy agrees.
John Green doesn’t explain Aza’s epiphany at that moment, although Aza and Daisy seem to get it. But later, Aza considers the “turtles all the way down” parable:
I started thinking… maybe the old lady and the scientist were both right. Like, the world is billions of years old, and life is a product of nucleotide mutation and everything. But the world is also the stories we tell about it (257).
Aza’s big mistake is that she’s been believing the stories she tells about herself are true. She’s been believing that microorganisms are in control of her fate, and that she’s nothing but illness through and through, when really it could just be… turtles all the way down. She finally understands that the actual truth matters just as much as how we choose to understand it. And we can understand the truth in lots of different ways, some more productive than others.
So, we finally understand the title. “Turtles All the Way Down” refers to the way we can interpret our reality however we want. Instead of telling ourselves stories that overwhelm us, we can choose to tell stories that make us strong.
This Actually Relates to Something Called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
The concept behind “Turtles All the Way Down,” has strong ties to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), a therapeutic strategy that is actually mentioned in the book.
You should unwrap that Band-Aid and check to see if there is an infection.
You don’t actually want to do this; it’s just an invasive. Everyone has them. But you can’t shut yours up. Since you’ve had a reasonable amount of cognitive behavioral therapy, you tell yourself, I am not my thoughts, even though deep down you’re not sure what exactly that makes you. Then you tell yourself to click a little x in the top corner of the thought to make it go away. And maybe it does for a moment; you’re back in your house, on the couch, next to your mom, and then your brain says, Well, but wait. What if your finger is infected? Why not just check? (45-6).
This quotation here is an example of someone (Aza) who knows how CBT works, but can’t quite use it effectively. I understand Aza’s predicament completely, because I have undergone CBT as well. Some days it works like a charm. On other days, with other situations, it can’t get traction…
Take for instance, an example from my own life. When I’m very stressed, I have “invasive thoughts” that bear a strong resemblance to pop-up ads. They take the shape of really bad memories. My mind presents these memories to me, insistently, seemingly out of nowhere.
For a long time, I tried to get rid of these thoughts using a CBT strategy — I realize that these memories are unproductive. Go away, memories. Go!
But that didn’t work. The flood of bad memory pop-ups overcame my CBT methods. However, when I told my therapist about these intrusive memories and my failure to stop them, she offered an alternate CBT strategy — to make new, more positive narratives for each memory, one by one.
Unpacking these horrible memories in order to re-tell them in pleasant or humorous ways was NOT fun, nor was it easy. However, it did tend to work. When a horrible memory stopped being totally bad, my brain no longer threw it at me when I was stressed.
In essence, my CBT success with my intrusive memories was similar to the “Turtles All the Way Down” method. With each bad memory, I was telling myself a certain story. When I re-wrote the story, the memory lost its power over me.
Turtles All the Way Down is Ultimately a Therapy Positive Book
In the acknowledgements of Turtles All the Way Down, John Green thanks his own mental health practitioners. I thought that was extremely moving, even though it maybe wasn’t written to have that effect. For every person who has been transformed positively by therapy, his gratitude speaks to us.
I’ve been with my current therapist for a decade now. Maybe to some people, that seems sad, that I have had to go to therapy for so long. I couldn’t disagree more. Mental illness, for many people, is a lifelong struggle. During the course, there are highs and lows. It’s difficult to pull yourself out of the lows, so that makes it important to learn good strategies during those highs, when you’re feeling strong. That’s why consistent therapy is important for those who have mental illness.
There have been a few books out there lately that feature protagonists with mental illness, and therapy is either not a factor in the books, or it is depicted as unhelpful. Certainly, many people with mental illness have the experience of not being able to access therapy. And some people get less-than-stellar therapists or they don’t react well to the therapy process. Those are real situations.
But do they deserve to be widely depicted in YA lit?
I say no. We need to have more books that depict therapy and show the overwhelmingly positive impact it can have. That’s why I’m so happy that John Green has used his talent and his stature to pass on a therapy-positive message.
The Worth of Turtles All the Way Down
Turtles All the Way Down is a great book and a worthwhile book. It was an absorbing read and it made me think very deeply.
If I taught literature to young people, I wouldn’t hesitate to assign Turtles All the Way Down. For people with mental illness, like Aza, this story would help them understand themselves better. For people with healthier minds, it would be a window into an another human experience.
And for everyone, this book will explain the importance of stories, and why we are compelled to tell them.
Green, John. Turtles All the Way Down. Dutton Books, 2017.