While questions of identity are par for the course in coming of age novels and young adult novels alike, Turtles All the Way Down goes a step further in exploring the subject of identity. Rather than simply questioning who she is, Aza is consumed by more fundamental and heady questions about whether she exists at all and how much control, if any, she has over her own thoughts, actions, or circumstances.
Aza's questions of identity and control are complicated by the fact that she struggles with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), a mental illness that makes her feel as though she's not in control of her own thoughts. Aza conceptualizes her OCD as a demon or evil alter-ego that rises up at intervals to remind her about the teeming bacteria inside and around her, the wound on her finger, or the dangers of kissing (and sharing bacteria with another person). The demon is only one instance in which the reader sees that Aza think of herself as a being who isn't singular: rather, she sees herself as possessing many separate and different identities. These multiple identities are represented by the different names Aza responds to, as well as the voice of the demon itself. To Mom and to Davis, Aza goes by her first name, while to her best friend Daisy, she's Holmesy, and to other students at school, she's Ms. Holmes' daughter. In Daisy's fanfiction stories, Aza's personality shows up in a character named Ayala—and although Aza hates Ayala, she begins to consider Ayala a part of herself. These different names crystallize Aza's belief that she's not in control of herself as a single, autonomous being. The voice of her demon takes this one step further, as the demon truly exists only in Aza's head—it's actually a part of her own mind, not just a different name that people call her. Particularly when she's in the hospital after a car accident, the text of the novel becomes a block of dialogue between Aza and her demon as they argue about drinking hand sanitizer, underscoring the way in which Aza's very sense of self is split into distinct personae.
Although Aza's questions about identity are complicated by her demon, she's entirely unable to think of herself as a single autonomous person even when her demon is quiet. She tells the reader early on that the human body is about 50% bacteria, or organisms that are decidedly not human. Although this is objectively true, this fact is only terrifying to her because of her struggles with mental illness. It's significant that Aza thinks of herself as being made up not only of different identities, but literally of different beings. She's obsessed with the relationship between her bacteria and her self, and becomes particularly agitated when she learns that the brain and the bacteria in one's stomach communicate with each other. For Aza, this is proof that she's not in control of her own thoughts: her bacteria are running the show. They have actual power to influence what and how she thinks, and there's no way for her to know which thoughts are truly hers and which thoughts belong to the bacteria. Aza suffers another bacteria-related identity crisis when she kisses Davis. After a frantic internet search, Aza learns that Davis' bacteria will not just be inside her forever, but will actually permanently alter her microbiome. This is terrifying for Aza. It was one thing for her to know that she herself is made up of multitudes, but it's another thing entirely for her to learn that other people have the ability to actually add to and alter her identity.
Aza's therapist, Dr. Singh, humors Aza's musings about singularity and her paranoia about who's actually running her mind during their therapy sessions. However, Dr. Singh encourages Aza to see herself as an "integrated plurality" and uses the metaphor of a rainbow that is made up of many colors. Although it takes Aza the entirety of the novel to see the wisdom of Dr. Singh's suggestion, that's eventually what happens: Aza begins to integrate her different identities by taking her medication, something she was previously afraid of doing. Dr. Singh also tells Aza regularly that Aza's questions about identity "aren't uncommon," which alludes to the overarching idea that although Aza's struggle with mental illness is unique and makes her journey towards identity particularly difficult, the struggle to integrate seemingly opposite identities into one singular being is a struggle that all young people face. At the end of the novel, adult Aza suggests that she did indeed manage to integrate her many identities into a cohesive whole—and indeed, the novel itself, written by Aza, is a testament to that.
Identity, Selfhood, and Mental Illness ThemeTracker
Identity, Selfhood, and Mental Illness Quotes in Turtles All the Way Down
... and meanwhile I was thinking that if half the cells inside of you are not you, doesn't that challenge the whole notion of me as a singular pronoun, let alone the author of my fate?
I've got a theory about uniforms. I think they design them so that you become, like, a nonperson, so that you're not Daisy Ramirez, a Human Being, but instead a thing that brings people pizza and exchanges their tickets for plastic dinosaurs. It's like the uniform is designed to hide me.
I have these thoughts that Dr. Karen Singh calls "intrusives," but the first time she said it, I heard "invasives," which I like better, because, like invasive weeds, these thoughts seem to arrive at my biosphere from some faraway land, and then they spread out of control.
And he was obviously a person. 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.
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.
... now I was talking about parasite-infected bird feces, which was more or less the opposite of romance, but I couldn't stop myself, because I wanted him to understand that I felt like the fish, like my whole story was written by someone else.
I'd probably killed myself with sepsis because of some stupid childhood ritual that didn't even prove what I wanted it to prove, because what I wanted to know was unknowable, because there was no way to be sure about anything.
"I know you think you're poor or whatever, but you know nothing about being actually poor."
"Okay, I'll shut up about it," I said.
"You're so stuck in your own head," she continued. "It's like you genuinely can't think about anyone else." I felt like I was getting smaller.
When my thoughts spiraled, I was in the spiral, and of it. And I wanted to tell him that the idea of being in a feeling gave language to something I couldn't describe before, created a form for it, but I couldn't figure out how to say any of that out loud.
His bacteria would be in me forever, eighty million of them, breeding and growing and joining my bacteria and producing God knows what.
When I was little, I knew monsters weren't, like, real. But I also knew I could be hurt by things that weren't real. I knew that made-up things mattered, and could kill you.
It was saying that my bacteria were affecting my thinking--maybe not directly, but through the information they told my gut to send to my brain. Maybe you're not even thinking this thought. Maybe your thinking's infected.
... the stupidity of Ayala, Aza, and Holmesy and all my irreconcilable selves, my self-absorption, the filth in my gut, think about anything other than yourself you disgusting narcissist.
I would always be like this, always have this within me. There was no beating it. I would never slay the dragon, because the dragon was also me. My self and the disease were knotted together for life.
I know that girl would go on, that 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. I know a shrink would say, Write it down, how you got here.
So you would, and in writing it down you realize, love is not a tragedy or a failure, but a gift.