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Interview: September 24, 2004

September 24, 2004 contributing writer Jamie Layton interviews Jennifer Traig, whose memoir DEVIL IN THE DETAILS focuses on her battle with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Traig talks about her good-natured parents and the tough-love approach they took when dealing with her behaviors. She also describes her relationship with her sister, how her compulsions affected her dating experiences in high school, and the obsessive-compulsive tendencies she still exhibits today. What prompted you to write this book?

Jennifer Traig: I had started to write this really awful novel. It was intentionally awful, but I'm still embarrassed at how successfully awful it was. It was really bad! Three chapters in, I got stuck. The story of my own adolescence had been on my mind and it kept getting in the way. I realized I was going to have to write that before I could write anything else. So I started working on the memoir instead. You'd think I'd be much more prolific now that the memoir is done and I'm free to write about anything, but with all the fall TV shows premiering this month it seems unlikely I'll get much done.

BRC: When your book ends, on the first day of your freshman year at UC Berkeley, your OCD simply wanes. Understanding that a year of heavy therapy preceded this occasion, isn't it still unusual for obsessive-compulsive behavior to just "go away?" Have any of your OCD/scrupulosity tendencies (other than the hypochondria) hung on? If so, how is it that you can now successfully resist them?

JT: It is unusual, though apparently it does sometimes happen, especially with pediatric OCD. It just goes away and never comes back. With me that wasn't quite the case. I still have a few little OC quirks, habits that I didn't realize were compulsions until I started doing the research for the book. And I don't resist them successfully at all. There's this one: while walking with a friend, I have to be on the left side. If I'm on the right everything feels weird and off. I have no idea why. And when I'm particularly stressed I can get a little check-y, usually when I'm preparing to the leave the house. My friends are amazed that I can spend twenty minutes checking the locks and electrical outlets, patting my pockets for my keys and wallet, examining my hair and teeth, and then still manage to go out with my fly down.

BRC: Your parents were awfully cool, calm and collected, considering what they were dealing with. Today, how do they describe those ten plus years you focus on in the book?

JT: Mostly, they just don't. We've already mined that period for all the unresolved conflicts and good jokes, so we rarely talk about it. They've moved on to making fun of all the stupid things I did in my 20s instead.

BRC: Your mother in particular displays a deep, pretty skewed sense of humor. Do you think this helped her deal with such a scrupulous daughter?

JT: Oh, sure. At the time I resented it --- "my plastic gloves are not funny! NOT FUNNY!" --- but ultimately being able to see the humor in it helped us all. Even when my parents were tearing their hair out over my compulsions and threatening me with all sorts of consequences, I knew I could get out of trouble if I could make them laugh. My sister did, too. Man, if I have a funny kid, I'm in for it. There will be no discipline whatsoever.

BRC: You went through some intense religious phases in the book. How would you describe your observance of Judaism today?

JT: I'm pretty observant: I belong to an Orthodox synagogue, keep Shabbat, and keep a kosher home. I'd say I'm Orthoflex if the term didn't sound like comfort footwear.

BRC: I found your stories about your mother's summer arts and craft sessions hysterical but can't help think that those experiences contributed to your "Crafty Girl" career. How did you end up writing that series? And does your dad still have the embroidered "Born to Boogie" scrubs?

JT: Oh, yes, absolutely. We recently got out all our worst crafts so I can take them to readings with me. At some events I'll be doing a show-and-tell of items including the boogie scrubs, the Unabomber quilt, the flasher doll, and the profane ceramics. I haven't quite figured out how to make this PG --- maybe a strategically placed thumb.

"Crafty Girl" came about when a friend, who's an editor at Chronicle Books, took pity on my underemployed self and gave me the assignment, finally making all those summers pay off. Lots of projects are straight from my mother. She's especially good with headwear. Mom loves a theatrical headband.

BRC: Do you find it ironic that at age 17, an age when most teenagers are wresting control of their lives away from adult authority figures, you were trying to wrest control away from your OCD self? What was the most important thing you learned that ultimately helped you gain this control?

JT: I was more interested in wresting control from my parents, actually, and I really used the scrupulosity to that end. I suspect I would have gotten better much faster if it hadn't been such an effective mode of rebellion. At the very least, I would have picked a different obsession. My parents couldn't care one way or another about doorknobs. But religious fanaticism just did them in. They hated it, and of course that only egged me on.

The hardest part about that time was trying to get my parents to understand that I couldn't help myself --- I HAD to perform my compulsions. They kept insisting I could help it, and that I'd better. Now I'm sort of grateful for their tough-love approach. They were right. I couldn't help having OCD, but I could master a certain level of control over my compulsions, and once I figured that out I knew how I would get better. The whole thing would have been a lot easier with Prozac, but what are you going to do?

BRC: You and your sister, Victoria, seem pretty diametrically opposite. Despite the fact that together you wrote a funny, little book called JUDAIKITSCH, are you still such polar opposites? Would you have traded your adolescent scrupulosity issues for her normal, teenage rebellion ones? Would you rather have been orange or in juvy?

JT: Oh, orange all the way. At the time I found her teenage rebellions tacky and clichéd --- I mean, how can you not roll your eyes at wine coolers? I thought my crazy-pants antibacterial rebellion was much more inventive. It was a lot less fun, of course. In my 20s I acted out in the more traditional way, with lots of umbrella drinks and friends who were maybe not the best role models, and my sister took great satisfaction in being the good daughter for once.

We're actually very close now, and not all that dissimilar, though I think she'll always be the carefree sister and I'll always be the uptight one. For a while we were dyeing our hair the same color and actually looked a little alike. Then she started streaking it and I just couldn't follow suit. Streaks in curls --- bad, bad.

BRC: Your high school dating experiences appear to be next to nothing. Did you have any actual boyfriend/girlfriend relationships or did the OCD consume the teenage energies that otherwise would have been spent in that arena? If you did have any relationships, were they ultimately done in by your compulsions? It seems it would have been hard for you to hold hands on a date if you were constantly worried about whether he was clean or unclean.

JT: I dated a little bit, awkward dinners I kept interrupting with excuses to go to the bathroom, but mostly it was something I just couldn't handle at all. I was pretty terrified by the whole concept. My idea of teen dating was based entirely on that episode of "Family" in which Leif Garrett is trying to impress the urgency of "his needs" on Kristy McNichol. I was just horrified. It was so beyond me.

BRC: You mention that today the scrupulosity and anorexia have disappeared, but your hypochondria and war with your body continue. Are you still shopping plastic surgery and have you made any decisions? Will there be an upcoming Crafty Girl Nip N' Tuck: Your Most Successful Slumber Party Ever?

JT: Oh, I would LOVE that. I'm just obsessed with all these new plastic surgery reality shows. My current hobby is amateur medicine. I've been treating myself and a few reckless friends. Lately I've been touting ear wax as a cure-all --- I read something on the Web --- but so far I haven't had many takers.

Yeah, the hypochondria. I self-diagnose a dozen diseases a day. I can't believe my father still takes my calls. Last week I got him to lance something I was sure was an infected cyst. It turned out to be a pimple.

BRC: Are you planning another memoir covering your college and young adult years? If not, will you be writing in any other genres (besides Crafty Girl) in the near future? When can we expect more from Jennifer Traig?

JT: Oh, there are LOTS more things wrong with me. Right now I'm working on a book of essays about those --- the hypochondria, the eczema, etc. I think we can all agree I know what readers are interested in: my rashes. Just you wait!

Other than that, my cousin Peter and I will continue solving our shut-in mysteries for McSweeney's, or plan to, once November sweeps are over. My sister's book, an appallingly trashy but unbelievably funny cookbook she wrote with her boyfriend, comes out this spring. I'm hoping we can do some book events together, like a Traig Sisters' Craft Fair and Bake Sale. We'll keep you posted.