Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Devil in the Details

Devil in the Details: Scenes from an Obsessive Girlhood by Jennifer Traig was originally published in 2004. My hardcover copy is 246 pages. Traig describes how in the 70's, from the age of twelve until she started college, she suffered from OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) and Scrupulosity (a hyper-religious form of OCD). This was during a time before OCD was a specific diagnosis. She tackles this look back at her childhood and teen years with humor and honesty. She never sinks into self pity and in spots it was truly "laugh out loud" funny. The chapters are interspersed with short "Interstitial" sections that, in general, give the reader a glimpse into how her OCD controlled her thinking.Highly recommended; rating: 4.5

Synopsis from publisher, Little, Brown & Company:

...Jennifer Traig tells an unforgettable story of youthful obsession.

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 meticulously wash her hands for 30 minutes before dinner: All scrubbed in for your big casserolectomy, Dr. Traig? her mother asked. It wasn't long before her family's exasperation made Jennifer realize that her behavior had gone beyond fastidious - in her own eyes, shed gone from quirky girl to raving lunatic.

Jennifer's childhood mania was the result of her undiagnosed Obsessive Compulsive Disorder joining forces with her Hebrew studies. While preparing for her bat mitzvah, she was introduced to an entire set of arcane laws and quickly made it her mission to follow them perfectly. Her parents nipped her religious obsession in the bud early on, but as her teen years went by, her natural tendency toward the extreme led her down different paths of adolescent agony and mortification.

Years later, Jennifer remembers these scenes with candor and humor. What emerges is a portrait of a well-meaning girl and her good-natured parents, and a very funny, very sharp look back at growing up.

My Father and I were in the laundry room and we were having a crisis. opening sentence

Many years later we would learn that what happened was a strange condition called scrupulosity, a hyper-religious form of obsessive-compulsive disorder. It hit me when I was twelve and plagued me, off and on, throughout my teens, making every day a surprising and mortifying adventure. The disease manifested itself in different ways, but they were always, always embarrassing. Sometimes I had to drop to my knees and pray in the middle of student council meetings.... Sometimes I couldn't touch anything and sometimes I had to pat something repeatedly. Sometimes I had to wash my hands and sometimes I had to wash someone else's. Sometimes I had to purify my binders. Sometimes I had to put all my things in the washing machine. pg. 4

Scrupulosity is sometimes called the doubting disease, because it forces you to question everything. Anything you do or say or wear or hear or eat or think, you examine in excruciatingly minute detail. pg. 5

And into this mire had come halachah, Jewish law. I had begun studying for my bat mitzvah, twelve years old and a little bit scattered and crazy, and suddenly here were all these wonderful rules. They were fantastic, prescribing ones every movement, giving structure to the erratic compulsions that had begun to beat a baffling but irresistible tattoo on my nervous system. Halachah and latent OCD make a wonderful cocktail, and I was intoxicated. Suddenly I wasn't just washing; I was purifying myself of sin. I wasn't just patting things; I was laying on hands. Now my rituals were exactly that: rituals. pg. 6

Suddenly I was keeping kosher. I was sort of keeping kosher. I was afraid to tell my parents, so I was hiding it, spitting ham into napkins, carefully dissecting cheese from burger, pepperoni from pizza.
"Is there a reason you're hiding that pork chop under your plate?" my mother wanted to know.
"Oh, I'm just tenderizing it," I lied, thwacking it with the Fiestaware.
"Is there something wrong with the shrimp?" my father inquired.
"Seafood recall, they said on the news. You all can play food poisoning roulette if you like, but I'm giving mine to the cat." pg. 7

The fact that I had no idea what I was doing held me back not at all. Despite six years of Hebrew school and a bat mitzvah crash course, I knew next to nothing about daily Jewish practice. pg. 7

As it was I zeroed in on the biblical laws governing agriculture and livestock.... We did not have any crops, but we had a lawn, and that was close enough. I contrived to leave the corners unmown so the poor could come and glean. pg. 8

"In the end my parents came up with a plan as pragmatic and no-nonsense as they are: they drew up a contract. The terms were clear and simple." pg. 18

"Every mental illness has its pros and cons, but for all-around appeal, you can't beat OCD. It's not as colorful as multiple personality disorder or as exhilarating as bipolarity, but for consistent amusement, it's your best bet." pg. 23

"We are a secret tribe. We're like Freemasons, except that our secret handshake id followed by a vigorous washing session." pg. 24

"OCD sufferers are like hamsters on treadmills, all industrious activity with nothing to show for it." pg. 25

"In a rational society, thirteen-year-olds would be sequestered until they were properly socialized and good-looking enough to circulate among the general public." pg. 101

"I took to shuffling behind her on her errands, stuffing my pocketbook with anything that was free: samples of Sweet'n Low packets, Kleenex, and aluminum ashtrays. 'It's like shopping with Great-Aunty MeeMaw,' my mother muttered." pg. 157

"As soon as I was old enough....I was moving to a country where my unconventional looks, difficult charms, and erratic hygiene would be appreciated.
That country was France." pg. 188

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