Jul 05

Devil in the Details

Posted by Soliloquy in For parents | Mental Illness

When her father found the washing machine crammed with everything from her sneakers to her barrettes, 12-year-old Jennifer Traig had a simple explanation: They’d been tainted by the pork fumes emanating from the kitchen and had to be cleansed. The same fumes compelled Jennifer to wash her hands for 30 minutes before dinner. Jennifer’s childhood mania was the result of her then undiagnosed Obsessive Compulsive Disorder joining forces with her Hebrew studies. Whi… More >>

Devil in the Details

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5 Responses

  • Ms. Traig has a real talent for taking events that are quite tragic, and must have been agonizing to experience, and making them hilarious. You feel almost guilty laughing, as a young Jenny washes her hands dozens of times while wondering if water is really clean.

    While her memoir is primarily one of a “closet OCD sufferer,” her scrupulosity and other concerns give an interesting insight into Judaism, for those of us who had no idea which holidays were fasts and that Jewish-ness is passed down through the mother. Her light, witty handling of serious matters–Judaism, OCD, family relationships–is truly spectacular.

    This book was of special interest to me because it made me aware of several symptoms of OCD that I had as a child. Discussing it with another, similarly surprised friend, we decided that no, rearranging objects in perfect right angles for fear of the Apocalypse wasn’t exactly normal behavior. So this book is especially enjoyable if you see a bit of yourself in Jenny.

  • From age seven to 17, Jennifer Traig suffered from scrupulosity. What is scrupulosity? Mix a borderline autistic with a religious zealot, and you’ll end up with an obsessive-compulsive teenager who literally looks for the devil in every painstaking detail. Did her Trapper Keeper rest for a nanosecond on the desk of the biggest slut in eighth grade? Better take it home and scrub it over and over with bleach. Was that butter contaminated with non-kosher toast crumbs? Better stick to a breakfast of Diet Coke Popsicles, again. When she starts driving it gets even worse: did she or didn’t she hit someone on the last block? Better drive back three times to make sure. It’s not surprising that driving was one of her least favorite activities.

    This resulting black comedy was Jennifer Traig’s life for ten years. The variety of obsessive-compulsive disorder she dealt with, scrupulosity, was first recognized in the 12th century in the form of super pious monks who were compelled to pray for seven hours a day. As she points out, scruple in Latin means small, sharp stone; for her life, scrupulosity meant constant self-questioning and ever nagging doubts. Raised by a Catholic mother and Jewish father, neither of whom was overly observant, Traig finds herself more drawn to the synagogue than St. Peters and this is where her life becomes riddled with the small, sharp stones of scrupulosity. She self-teaches herself Judaism, focusing in, with her OCD ways, on the church laws regarding cleanliness. She is fixated with hand washing, and conveys the depth of the disorder by dropping into the book periodic ‘interstitials,’ which include guidelines for hand washing as well as recipes for all the scrupulous anorexics out there (anorexia being a more common form of OCD).

    At age thirteen, in order to fully convert to Judaism (which is necessary since she is a half-breed, “like Cher”) she begins bi-weekly Torah lessons, and with the introduction of Kosher laws, life gets really interesting. When her teacher explains that milk and meat require separate dishes, she instantly decides that this must also apply to toilets. If her sister cooks bacon, then doesn’t this render all her worldly belongings unclean and thus subject to immediate purification in the washing machine? Isn’t the very floor of the home in which the bacon was cooked impure, and therefore shouldn’t you put paper towels underneath your feet for protection? But wait, the glue that holds a new roll of paper towels together might not be kosher so be sure to discard the first several sheets and then, just in case, wash hands.

    Tragic, yes, but luckily Traig’s treatment of this period in her life comes off more tragically funny. Her ability to look back without victimizing herself is remarkable, and since she does it with a huge helping of humor, she manages to keep her memoir apart from a genre filled with “pity poor me!” tomes. It is obvious that she gets her sense of humor from her parents, two people whose remarks and antics kept me laughing throughout the book. Her mother’s favorite method of distracting Jennifer during summer vacation was to involve her in a variety of arts and crafts, including cross-stitching such wisdoms as “If Jackasses could fly, this place would be an airport.” It isn’t any wonder that today Jennifer Traig is responsible for a long line of “Crafty Girl” books aimed at artsy adolescents.

    Interestingly enough, Traig’s memoir leaves off just as she enters college, where miraculously her OCD tendencies begin to wane. A heavy year of therapy preceded the big leap to Berkeley and a family vacation to France, assisted by sedatives, helped get her “out of her grooves.” I wonder if it doesn’t naturally coincide with that time when most teenagers begin feeling more in control of their own lives and less under the control of parents, friends and the church. Ironically, the person she wrests control of her life back from is…herself.

    DEVIL IN THE DETAILS gives a rare inside look at obsessive-compulsive disorder. It is a funny, touching tale of a not-so-normal girl and her brave battle with a not-so-normal disease.

    — Reviewed by Jamie Layton

  • I almost never post reviews but when I read the comment below (“horrifyingly funny”) I agreed so strongly it made me want to write. Having just finished the book, I thought the suggestion that future books might benefit from more emotion is right on the money, and nicely (i.e. both articulately and gently) put. Though I really appreciate that Traig was never self-pitying here – she steered well clear of the “pain club” memoir stigma – I was really wishing and hoping to see more chinks in her humor armor. I found her an intelligent narrator but never felt I really got to know her as more than a collection of behaviors–and I wanted to! (Maybe it would have helped to hear her speak more from the present, to complement the past.) After a while, I found the book exhausting–not the repetition of behaviors, which would be relevant and necessary to a portrait of OCD, but the lack of variance in tone. It basically maintained one emotional pitch throughout – sarcastic, witty, sometimes sitcomish – and (in my opinion anyway) it just felt too thin to sustain a book of this length on this topic. PW used the word “cursory”–I second that too. The one-liners are clever, articulate, punny, funny, but after a while I was craving more emotional range, some glints of acknowledgment of the seriousness and realness of what she was going through. I think it can be done subtly and without the self-pity she is trying (admirably) to avoid. Sedaris does this; his essays are laugh out loud funny but can be poignant too, without being cheesy. The scene toward the end of the book in the bathroom with her mother had a hint – just a HINT – of that quality, and I too would hope for more of it in future books, so I’m not just snickering here and there but laughing in the most satisfying way – when the humor is not just funny/clever but funny/nuanced/moving/real.

  • I happened to see Jenny Traig read in San Francisco, and picked up her book on a whim. What a treat! I can see why another reviewer found the book too harsh, but it happened to hit my funny bone just right, over and over and over again (and over. Wash your hands!). The details of her life are so sad and so terrible that all you can do is laugh hysterically at her misfortune.

    One of the book jacket reviews said that the author does not lapse “even for a moment into self-pity.” This is true. However, I would recommend that Ms. Traig try more for moments of genuine and sadness and joy in her next work. This book definitely stands on its own. But there are hints of real pain there – she writes that she never felt like she belonged to her family, compares her relationship with her sister to the Bible’s Esau and Jacob, admits she was anorexic. While it’s great to be able to squeeze humor from stuff like this, it’s even greater to be able to acknowledge the real sorrow behind it too. I think the author is up to the task. I look forward to her next book.

  • Like the author, I have OCD, and I actually have a pretty good sense of humor, too, I think. Nevertheless, I’m far more bitter about my past than Ms. Traig seems. I’m sure she’s had her fair share of anger, fighting, pain and suffering, to which she does sometimes allude in the book, but she’s retained a wicked sense of humor and written an entertaining book.

    Ms. Traig has suffered from several forms of OCD, some worse than others, including scrupulosity, washing, counting, checking and anorexia nervosa (the eating disorder is considered related to OCD). Her family has lived with her and her OCD, and most of us sufferers would agree, that isn’t easy. She shares funny and interesting parts of her life, and I learned quite a bit about Jews and Judaism that I didn’t know (I’m not Jewish). She explains how her OCD and religion intertwined and affected each other. I loved reading about her family, as well.

    I found myself often bursting out laughing, sometimes garnering odd looks from my boyfriend. She conveyed the thought processes of OCD quite well, showing how frustrating it can be for the sufferer. We can see the humor in how we think, but when we’re in the moment, it’s not funny at all. OCD can be severely emotionally painful, and it really can ruin lives when sufferers can’t get it under control. Reading about OCD’s humorous side can ease some of the pain.

    This is a great book for OCD sufferers and their families, as well as anyone who enjoys memoirs. It’s not boring at all, and might help others understand what goes on in our minds.

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