Online Edition: Winter 2004

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Devil in the Details

Scenes from an Obsessive Girlhood

Jennifer Traig

Little, Brown & Co. ($22.95)

by Anitra Budd

Americans have many national pastimes, and high among them is hypochondria. You can call it narcissism at its creepiest, or blame it on our unparalleled access to information. Whatever the illness's source, you'll find its manifestations in every urgent care clinic in the country, where armchair physicians happily self-diagnose to anyone who'll listen. Combine this with our lust for perfection, and you'll find many people already have mild forms of OCD. Some might even secretly feel proud of their Type A tendencies. But at its strongest, Jennifer Traig's version of OCD, detailed in her compelling new memoir Devil in the Details, didn't just consist of the constant checking and hand washing Jack Nicholson aped in As Good As It Gets for laughs. Augmented by her childhood Hebrew classes, it eventually became a deep religious fervor known as sc rupulosity.

What's termed scrupulosity now might easily have been admired as religious devotion in other eras. The main difference seems to be in the trappings: Traig had no ritual basins, but a washing machine was sufficient. Kleenex stood in for head coverings and helpless pets became livestock, ripe for stewardship. And by repeatedly starving herself over years of anorexia, Traig scourged her body as effectively as any whip could've.

Born to a Jewish father and Catholic mother, who both take a fairly relaxed approach to religion, Traig dabbles in various forms of OCD from an early age. While she refuses to foist the blame for her scrupulosity on her family's hodgepodge spirituality, readers might theorize that her fierce but scattered devotion to obscure Jewish law came from a wish for religious stability. But without any regular instruction, Traig's makes up her own rules and consequences. Her version of Jewish ritual thus becomes a strange beast, at once bastardized and completely inviolate. This inconsistency makes it hard for her to receive any peace from her actions, one of the main benefits of religious involvement; each fabricated ritual only brings up fresh worries about blasphemy and a resulting need for more purification.

Devil itself follows a similar circuitous route, avoiding the typical memoir's linear path from child to adult. Instead it catalogs Traig's life through its shifting array of obsessive predilections, creating a kind of "Obsession's Greatest Hits" album. This is a necessary device, since recounting the peak years of her disorder chronologically would be nearly impossible. As Traig writes, "OCD is a closed circuit." Since every action and thought triggers a series of compulsions and paranoia, it's hard to discern a clear beginning or ending to any event.

From an outsider's perspective, and with the blessing of Traig's hindsight, it stretches the imagination to believe anyone in her community, much less her family, managed to gloss over the signs of her illness. From the work itself, it's difficult to tell how much of this is due to Traig's intense naval-gazing (another byproduct of OCD), how much to a past lack of medical knowledge, and how much to her masterful ability to hide her symptoms. Whatever the reason for her family's strange oversight, it serves to bind the reader to the author, making us complicit in her actions as both silent partner and audience.

Another of the book's assets comes from Traig's understandable eye for details. The vivid images she creates of her late '70s family and Northern California town are almost digitally perfect. But the most moving theme unearthed from her mountain of rituals and habits is the undeniable connection between OCD and faith. Traig's years of religious devotion were supported by a perfect belief that soap and prayer, in the right order, could ward off Armageddon, not to mention save her family from being murdered in their beds. Just because this faith arose from an unusual brain chemistry instead of years in seminary doesn't diminish its intensity, or make it any less fascinating. Pondering the question of how faith begets paranoia (and vice versa) offers the most satisfying pleasure in reading this work.

Memoir enthusiasts may consider Traig's determinedly flippant tone a drawback. When she recounts the horrified look on her mother's face when Traig, as an adult, tries to insist on a low-carb Thanksgiving dinner, it's hard not to wonder how many other genuine moments of concern might've passed by unaccounted for, drowned in a sea of sarcasm. Dropping the Sedaris act more often would've gone a long way toward making her family more human and less "Everybody Loves Raymond." But even the most somber of memoir and self-help fans would have to admit that for most of her life, Traig didn't suffer from any lack of seriousness. Taken in context, humor seems like the most effective shield she, or any other human, has against an overwhelming fear of damnation.

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Winter 2004 Table of Contents