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Cleaning up the past

Taking a fresh look at Obsessive Compulsive Disorder



When Jennifer Traig was a young'un, she was very focused. A little too focused, in fact. As she puts it, "One day I was riding bikes to McDonald's like a normal kid; the next, I was painting the lintels with marinade to ward off the Angel of Death."

Traig suffers from scrupulosity, a hyper-religious form of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). In her latest book, Devil In the Details: Scenes from an Obsessive Girlhood, she describes how, from age 12 to her freshman year in college, the disorder ruled her life with an extremely hygienic iron fist.

Raised by a nonobservant Jewish father and a Catholic mother, Traig couldn't decide on which religion she should focus her relentless tendencies. The strict Old Testament Judaic laws soothed her cravings, but observing the Sabbath and going to temple wasn't enough for her: her OCD demanded that she follow the Torah to the letter. Because of her lack of formal religious education, she didn't understand the obscure ways, but made up her own rules. Her school years were often spent dropping to her knees in prayer during student government meetings and purifying her binder in the middle of the night.

Traig's writing is very matter-of-fact, sometimes cringe-worthy, but manages to be laugh-out-loud funny. Think David Sedaris as an obsessive Jewish woman. Her family takes the tics in stride, finding their preteen daughter's focus on the minutiae of Jewish rites and traditions unsettling but sort of humorous.

But scrupulosity, like other forms of OCD, can lead to unhealthy habits. Traig's wish to be kosher leads to anorexia. On Passover, when even "normal" people take pains to observe Old Testament bylaws, Traig would have a scruples field day. "No amount of foil or cleaning will suffice. For the scrupulous, it's Passoverandoverandover again."

Traig fell into several of the typical OCD categories -- tapping, checking and counting each casting its spell over her. "What I wanted, simply, was magic ... These jerky urges, I was sure, gave me powers ... Tapping the bookcase meant everything would be okay. Washing the plate three times meant my family wouldn't die."

Her humor is nothing if not satirical, often striking an "Oh, I shouldn't be laughing" chord in the reader. Little asides pepper the memoir -- the "Beauty Tips for Fastidious Girls" is a particularly horrifying but funny bit: "Feeling a little chapped but worried your whole family will die if you use a commercial moisturizer? ... Just reach for a nice, hygienic, hermetically sealed bottle of salad oil. It's the moisturizer the Biblical matriarchs used! ... Now doesn't that feel better?"

In one of the book's few poignant moments, Traig's mother finds her in the bathroom, beginning to soak her nightgown to rid it of any hidden unclean stains.

Her mother watches her daughter: "'Don't,' she said softly.

"I thought for a minute, letting the water flow over the hem and all over the sinktop. I knew she was right ... But it had simply never occurred to me that I could do anything else."

For Traig, it was a "light bulb moment" that would forever change her life. Of course, she didn't get instantly better, but she had set a toe on the road to recovery.

What Traig lacks in emotional maturity, she makes up for in entertainment and education. Her family taught her well: laugh and keep going.


Devil in the Details: Scenes from an Obsessive Girlhood by Jennifer Traig (Little, Brown: New York) $22.95/hardcover

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