- Devil In The Details
- Little, Brown & Company, 246 pp.
Devil In Disguise
All parents of adolescents despair of them, particularly those with teenage daughters. Endless hours on the telephone, picky eating habits, emotional outbursts. It’s a wonder sometimes how both the teenagers and the parents survive. But, invariably they do – with the former pubescents from Hell moving on to productive adult lives.
Yet in her debut memoir, Devil in the Details, Jennifer Traig makes a conscious decision to return to her California adolescence of the late 70s and early 80s – an adolescence that is at turns harrowing and humorous. For Traig was no “ordinary” teenager.
From the ages of 12 to 18, Traig suffered from a slew of Obsessive Compulsive Disorders (OCD): the most common being the obsessive hand washing and several stints with anorexia. However, she also suffered from a rare form of OCD which wasn’t diagnosed until she was much older. Called Scrupulosity, it is, Traig explains in her book, “a hyperreligious form of obsessive compulsive disorder.”
Amongst her multitude of quirks were an overwhelming need at times to “drop to my knees and pray in the middle of student council meetings, and sometimes I had to hide under the bleachers and chant psalms.”
That Traig was raised by a Catholic mother and Jewish father, where pork and shrimp eating were de rigueur, probably only exacerbated her condition – especially once Traig decided, at the onset of her bat mitzvah and subsequent “official” conversion to Judaism, to become an observant Jew.
That she knew little, if anything, about Jewish practices did not faze her. Her studies for her bat mitzvah introduced her to the kosher dietary laws and the Jewish Sabbath. But in classic OCD form, Traig takes them to extreme. Thus, separating milk and meat requires the use of separate toilets. Climbing stairs and reading magazines on Shabbat are forbidden. If pork and bacon are cooked in the kitchen, then it goes without saying everything in the house is contaminated – hence the need for Traig to throw all her worldly possessions; books, shoes, backpack, barrettes, into the washing machine.
Contamination and germs play a huge role in Traig’s adolescence. When not spending hours and hours in her room praying, she could be found wandering around the house placing paper towels or Kleenex on everything to keep them free from germs.
For Traig, the anorexia was child’s play compared to the onset of her Scrupulosity. “Scrupulosity was anorexia applied to every day life. Anorexics only worry about food. I worried about shampoo, shoe polish, water, air. Dust.”
As if that wasn’t enough Traig added hypochondria (her father’s a doctor and she was constantly coming up with check list of possible illnesses she may have contracted) and a paranoid fear of driving to her list of quirks. Traig explains in one chapter “Obsessive compulsives vary in their habits, some of us praying, and others pulling hair, but we all do the exact same thing when we get in a car: we circle endlessly, convinced that we ran someone over without noticing and then heading back to check.”
Unlike so many harrowing childhood memoirs, there is not a trace of self-pity in Traig’s book. Says Traig in one chapter, “Every mental illness has its pros and cons, but for all around appeal, you can’t beat OCD. Obsessive compulsives make great party guests… and we’re sure to help clean up afterward. In fact, we’ll probably start washing the glassware halfway through the first round and may return three hours after the party has ended to bleach down the floors.”
Part of her humorous approach to her illness surely must have come from her parents who bore Traig’s adolescent years with supremely good grace. “Ready for your casserolectomy, Dr. Traig?” her mother would ask after her daughter spent half an hour scrubbing her hands before dinner, or her father telling her, “Unless you plan to eat the stick of deodorant it’s probably okay to use it.”
Traig’s conquering of her OCD appears to coincide with her first year at Brandeis University. She spent the previous year undergoing a great deal of therapy and also took a nightmare trip to Paris with her parents (she needed to be heavily medicated on the plane).
However, Traig attributes the trip to Paris in helping her get better, by taking her out of the constant loop of rituals that OCD sufferers find themselves caught in.
Today, Traig lives in San Francisco and is busy working on her second book “about medicine”. She is still an observant Jew, keeping Shabbat and a kosher home, and admits to lingering OCD tendencies. She doesn’t drive that much if she can help it, and still considers herself a hypochondriac.
Nevertheless, her transition from nightmare adolescent to functioning adult is a remarkable story. And her teenage years are recalled with genuine affection and humor; perhaps too much humor at times.
Clearly, there must have been a great deal of pain and anguish during this period of Traig’s life, but she’s playing those cards close to her chest. And while it’s wonderful to read a memoir that doesn’t try and tug at the readers’ heartstrings, this book could have had more of an impact if the author had stopped cracking jokes, even occasionally, to allow us to see the cracks in her veneer.