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Devil in the Details: Scenes From an Obsessive Girlhood


MY FATHER AND I were in the laundry room and we were having a
crisis. It was the strangest thing, but I couldn't stop crying. And
there were a few other weird things: I was wearing a yarmulke and a
nightgown, for one, and then there were my hands, red and raw and
wrapped in plastic baggies. My lip was split. There were paper
towels under my feet. And weirdest of all, everything I owned
seemed to be in the washing machine, whites and colors, clothes and
shoes, barrettes and backpacks, all jumbled together. Huh.

"Huh," my father said, examining the Reebok Esprit Hello Kitty stew
churning through permanent press. "You want to tell me what
happened here?"

Wasn't it obvious? The fumes from the bacon my sister had
microwaved for dessert had tainted everything I owned, so now it
all had to be washed. But this sort of rational explanation hadn't
been going over well with my father lately. I scrambled to think of
another, turning lies over in my mouth: it was homework, an
experiment; it was performance art, a high-concept piece protesting
the consumerization of tweens. I glanced up at my father and down
at the machine, then dragged my baggied wrist under my nose and
exhaled. "I don't know."

We didn't know. Many years later we would learn that what happened
was a strange condition called scrupulosity, a hyperreligious 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, and sometimes I had to hide under the
bleachers and chant psalms. 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.

Scrupulosity is also known as scruples, a name I much prefer.
Scruples sounds like it could be a pesky, harmless condition: "I
ate some bad clams last night, and today I've got the scruples."
Scruples is cute and saucy. "Oh, you and your scruples," I imagined
my date saying, laughing at the coy way I examined my lunch for
spiritual contaminants. Scruples also evokes the fabulous Judith
Krantz novel that would lead me to expect a far different disorder,
one in which my mental illness compelled me to fulfill the
fantasies of Beverly Hills debauchees --- for a price.

But it's none of that. In fact, scruple is the Latin word
for a small sharp stone. Originally this denoted a measure; the
idea was that the sufferer was constantly weighing the scales of
her conscience. I imagine a pebble in a shoe, perhaps because I was
hobbled by constant nagging worries and by the undersized pointed
flats I wore to punish myself. They pinched and chafed and matched
nothing I owned, but weren't nearly as uncomfortable as the doubts
that plagued me every second of every day.

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. Will I go to hell if I watch HBO? Is it sacrilegious to
shop wholesale? What is the biblical position on organic produce?
One question leads directly to the next, like beads on a rosary,
each doubt a pearl to rub and worry. Foundation garments,
beverages, reading material: for the scrupulous, no matter is too
mundane for a dissertation-length theological interrogation. Oh, we
have fun.

But it was 1982, and we didn't know any of this then. We didn't
know what this was or where it had come from. It had come out of
nowhere. Well, there were things. There was the fact that I'd been
having obsessive-compulsive impulses since preschool. These had
been stray and occasional, and while my parents may have thought it
was strange that I couldn't stop rearranging the coasters, they
didn't think it was anything worth treating. The compulsions had
grown with me, however, and now they loomed like hulking, moody
preteens. There was also the fact that I'd been systematically
starving myself for a year and was no longer capable of making any
kind of rational decision. I sometimes wore knickers and pumps,
wore fedoras and a vinyl bomber jacket to seventh grade,
setting myself up for the kind of ridicule that takes years of
therapy and precisely calibrated medications to undo. No, I was in
no condition to make rational decisions, no condition at all.

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 one's 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.

And my gosh, it was fun. The endless chanting, the incessant
immersing of vessels --- I couldn't get enough. The obsessive
behavior quickly evolved from a casual hobby to an all-consuming
addiction, a full-time occupation. It happened so fast. 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

I don't remember what came first, but I think it was the food. At
this point I'd been having problems with food in an obsessive but
secular way for about a year. I had begun eliminating foods from my
diet, first sugar and shortening, and then cooked foods, then food
that had been touched by human hands, then processed foods, and
then unprocessed. By January we were down to little more than dried
fruit, and my nails were the texture of string cheese.

But then came these lovely laws to give shape to my dietary
idiosyncrasies. It was so sudden and unexpected, this revulsion to
pork and shellfish, to meat with dairy. I hadn't asked for it, but
here it was. 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

"Is there something wrong with the shrimp?" my father

"Seafood recall, they said on the news. You all can play food
poisoning roulette if you like, but I'm giving mine to the

The food could have kept me busy forever, but I was ambitious. One
by one, things fell away. I would wake up and know: today, no
television, it's blasphemous. Then: no more reading
Seventeen, it's immodest, it's forbidden. A partial list of
things I considered off-limits: exfoliation, hair color, mix tapes,
lip gloss. Oh, I had so much energy, and there were so many laws I
could take on, and when I ran out I would just make up my

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. I'd
retained a couple folk songs and some Hebrew swear words, but that
was about it. The only source texts I had were a King James Bible,
an encyclopedia, and the collected works of Chaim Potok and Herman
Wouk in paperback.

But this was enough. The Bible alone was chock-full of minute
instructions, obscure decrees banning the plucking of this and the
poking of that. It was these small, specific directives I favored.
I was less interested in big guidelines like commandments than in
the marginalia of Jewish practice, the fine print, the novelty laws
and weird statutes. Had my impulses been secular, I would have
observed the funny forgotten ordinances on the law books banning
the chewing of gum by false-mustache wearers or the dressing up of
one's mule.

As it was I zeroed in on the biblical laws governing agriculture
and livestock. Later, as I grew older and more disturbed, I would
focus on the laws concerning contamination by death and bodily
fluids, but for now it was plants and pets. 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. I
imagined hordes of kerchiefed, unwashed peasants descending to
gather sheaves of crabgrass at dawn. "Oh, thank you, Jennifer the
Righteous!" they would cry, their dirty faces shining with
happiness, blades of grass caught in their blackened teeth.

They never showed up, but I was undeterred. The Bible said, and I
did. As for livestock, we had only a dog and a cat, but I was
determined to care for them as my faith intended. Halachah
instructs us to feed our animals before we feed ourselves. It's a
good law, designed to teach compassion, but it wasn't specific
enough for me. Were you supposed to feed them just once, before
breakfast, or did you have to feed them every time you wanted to
eat? I decided to err on the side of zeal and fed them before every
meal, every snack, every glass of water. The dog was active enough
to burn off the extra calories, but the cat quickly ballooned to
twenty pounds. My mother flinched every time I approached the can

"Oh, I swear, you're not giving the cat any more food, are you? She
stepped on my foot this morning and I think she broke a toe."

Goodness knows I wanted to stop. The cat's stomach was brushing the
linoleum; I knew I wasn't doing her any favors. And I
dreaded feeding her. Opening and serving her meaty wet food
was a lengthy and excruciating process that involved washing my
hands and the utensils multiple times. If any cat food splattered,
the cleanup could take twice as long, and if the spray landed near
my mouth --- invariably it would, as I spastically flung the food
into the bowl --- all hell broke loose. I would be compelled to
wash my mouth in cold water, then hot, then cold again. After my
lips were split and bleeding I would give up and decide the cat
food had rendered me fleishig, as though I had actually
eaten the meat; to avoid mixing the meat with milk, I wouldn't
touch milk for the next six hours.

That was fine; I had no time for ice cream when there were so many
other laws to observe and question. There was this one: the Torah
commands a master to pay for his animals' misdeeds. Our dog had
been committing misdeeds all over the neighbors' lawns for years.
Was I now compelled to offer restitution? Exactly what form should
that take?

This probably wasn't a concern in normal Jewish homes, I realized,
even observant ones, but I couldn't help myself. I didn't know any
better. I knew nothing. I did not know, for instance, that girls
weren't required to wear yarmulkes. I agonized over the issue.
Should I wear a yarmulke all the time, even to school? I really
thought I should, but I just wasn't brave enough. A fedora, yes;
but a yarmulke was too much.

After several weeks of debate I decided I really only needed to
cover my head when I prayed. The thing was, I couldn't stop
praying. Since I rarely had a hat with me, I grabbed whatever was
near: napkins, paper towels, Kleenex. Mostly I just used my hand.
My fingers kept flying up to hover over my head while I quickly
muttered a self-composed blessing. I pretended I was waving, or
swatting, or scratching. This was not as effective a ruse as I
imagined, and I ended up looking not only crazy but infested.

My head was certainly buzzing. It was a beehive, a switchboard with
a hundred extensions lighting up at once. The only thing that
quieted my brain was prayer. I wished it were something else.
Prayer was dull and time-consuming. If only I found relief in more
entertaining activities, like watching television or styling

Instead, I had prayer. Soon my day was dominated by lengthy
devotional sessions, conducted every morning, afternoon, and
evening. I knew Jews were supposed to pray three times a day, but I
didn't know the actual prayers, so I composed my own. First was ten
minutes of chanting for a dozen missing children whose names I'd
memorized after seeing them on the news. Next was extended pleading
on behalf of all Americans held hostage abroad. After that I
apologized for everything I had done wrong or would do wrong. Then
I prayed for my family, begging forgiveness for their excessive
pork consumption, and finished up by praying I wouldn't die

On Saturday the prayers were doubled and tripled. Because there
wasn't a synagogue service within walking distance, I conducted my
own. Because I did not know what a service consisted of, I made one
up. From nine o'clock until half past noon I sat primly in my room,
reading my Bible and my Junior Jewish Encyclopedia, line by
line, not moving to a new line until I was sure I'd understood the
last one completely. When that portion of the service was
concluded, I read the "Torah Thoughts" feature in the Jewish
newspaper, followed by the wedding announcements. Then I got on my
knees and did back exercises. I was fairly certain this wasn't part
of the traditional Shabbat service, but I thought it was a nice
closer. Sound body equals sound mind and sound spirit.

Sabbath observance had come as an afterthought. I was already
observing the minutiae of jubilee year agricultural laws; I figured
I probably should be keeping Shabbat, too, whatever that entailed.
I had only the slimmest grasp of what was and wasn't permitted. The
Torah forbids spinning, threshing, and sowing, and though I had
some new hobbies, they didn't include these activities. My
questions were far more practical. Was it okay to go to the
bathroom? Was it okay to wipe? This wasn't the sort of thing
you could ask your rabbi.

To be on the safe side, I decided, I would do as little as
possible. Was reading magazines okay? Better not. Climbing stairs?
Oh, why ask for trouble? Activity after activity fell away. When
there was nothing left I decided it wasn't enough to just observe
Shabbat; I needed to observe it retroactively. I was horrified that
I hadn't kept the Sabbath day holy up until now. According to the
Torah the penalty for forgetting the Sabbath day was death. By age
twelve, I figured, I'd violated it about ten thousand times, and
now it was time to make things right. I would go through everything
I owned, determine what had been purchased or made or washed on a
Saturday, and get rid of it.

This process was made much easier thanks to an earlier compulsion.
For the previous two years I'd had a mandatory bedtime ritual --- I
had to type one line describing something I'd done that day, in all
caps, punctuated by twelve exclamation points. This document now
proved incredibly useful, because if I'd "WATCHED BEST EVER EPISODE
OF MANIMAL TONIGHT!!!!!!!!!!!!" --- Friday night --- I could figure
that the entry that came next --- "GOT AWESOME LACOSTE SHIRT AT
MARSHALL'S TODAY!!!!!!!!!!!!" --- was from Saturday and that the
shirt was now tainted, ill-gotten, and had to go.

This amounted to a mammoth pile of stuff. I couldn't keep it with
the rest of my things, as the Shabbat-violating profanity of it all
was contagious and could infect everything. It had to be
quarantined, banished. For years I'd been using the cupboard under
my bathroom sink as a graveyard for failed experiments, moldering
jars of homemade bubble bath and Frankensteinian combinations of
soap, and this seemed as good a place as any to hide it all. I
turned the cupboard into a musty Gehenna of hair ribbons, socks,
stationery supplies, and clothes.

But I quickly outgrew it. There was so much to hide. Before long
I'd established lots of little burial sites, hiding spots, dumping
grounds, where I could excrete my unwanted things and kick sand
over them.

I could not throw these things away. There was an urge to
quarantine, but there was an equally strong urge to hoard, save,
store away. Newspapers were the worst. It's a classic OCD
compulsion, so widespread and primal I often wonder what
obsessive-compulsives hoarded before the invention of the printing
press. Did they fill their homes with parchment? Were stone tablets
stacked up to their ceilings? Did their families beg them to throw
out the scrolls, at least the ones they'd already read?

We're lucky now; newspapers are fairly compact. I was even luckier,
because I didn't have to save the whole paper, just little bits of
it. I had noticed that some religious people dropped vowels when
they wrote certain words, like G --- d and L --- rd,
because these words were sacred and couldn't be thrown away. I had
to clip them out, them and all their synonyms. I was left with
hundreds of tiny scraps, hundreds of Holy Fathers and
Blessed Kings. When I couldn't figure out what to do with
them I started tucking them into books, hiding them in the pages of
the dictionary and the encyclopedia. Every time someone looked up a
word a shower of holy confetti would fall out. "Wonder how those
got there," I would murmur, hoping no one saw me as I gathered up
the scraps and kissed them to erase the insult of being on the

It was around this time that my family began to notice I was acting
funny. I'd managed to hide it for the first few months. The
haphazard kashrut and lengthy prayer sessions had passed
unremarked. But the hand gestures, paper hats, and floor kissing
had become impossible to ignore. The washing, too, had become a
problem. Given the amount of pork we kept in the house it was a
safe assumption that every surface was liberally basted with pig
fat. I felt compelled to wash my hands upwards of fifty times a
day. Getting clean enough to eat was an elaborate and
time-consuming process I had to begin a good half hour before
dinner. The meal was invariably delayed, but if I touched anything
I would have to start all over again, so I wandered around the
house with my hands held up in front of myself like a surgeon until
it was time to sit down.

"All scrubbed in for your big casserolectomy, Dr. Traig?" my mother

"Just doing some isometric hand exercises here," I lied. "Every
girl wants shapely wrists and well-toned fingers."

But the gloves, it seemed, were off. My family had politely ignored
my behavior for the first few months, but now they were relentless.
They began confronting me, and I began lying.

"Is there a reason your napkin is full of meatballs?" my mother
wanted to know.

"Can you tell me why there's an altar of pinecones in the

"Would you know anything about the bleach spots on the

I lied more than I ever had in my life. I lied, and lied and lied.
Sure, not lying was one of the Ten Commandments, and not eating
meatballs wasn't even in the top two hundred, but lying seemed

I had to lie. My new habits were secret. I was open and honest
about my other neuroses, my hypochondria and my fear that the dog
could read my thoughts, but I knew this new business was something
that had to stay hidden. This was impossibly weird. This wasn't a
kooky affectation, like, oh, vegetarianism. This was something they
locked you up for.

Unlike Jewish law, getting locked up was something I knew about. By
age twelve I'd spent more time on a psych ward than is probably
healthy for a preteen. Three years earlier, my favorite babysitter
had started acting strangely, doing odd little things like refusing
to eat and passing out and threatening to hurt herself, and now she
was hospitalized fairly regularly. The hospital was only a block
from our house, and I was permitted to visit her, on the locked
ward, whenever she was there.

This may not have been the healthiest environment for a
grade-schooler. But I liked it. As far as I was concerned it was a
magic forest of secondhand smoke and Thorazine, quiet and peaceful,
where I could pass a happy hour watching soap operas in the lounge
with the other patients. The meds made them glazed and sluggish,
but they were all very nice.

"You want a cigarette, sweetheart?" they offered. "You want some of
this hard candy? Listen to me, I'm going to tell you something very
important, because you're a nice little girl. Jesus is coming, and
when he does, the aliens are going to start eating people, but
don't worry, I'll tell them to just leave you alone."

I'd spent so much time there, had shared their snacks and
magazines. Maybe I'd caught something. Maybe I was just like them.
Or maybe, and this was even scarier, maybe I was perfectly sane.
Maybe the troubling thoughts weren't coming from my own
malfunctioning brain but from heaven. Maybe I was a prophet, sent
to teach the people of earth to wash their hands properly. Maybe
that was what was coming next. Maybe tomorrow I would wake up and
feel compelled to wear a sandwich board and hand out leaflets, to
yell crazy exhortations through a bullhorn.

"Sons of Adam, use the hand soap, the liquid kind! The bar stuff
just makes you dirtier!"

"Daughters of Eve, use a paper towel to turn off the faucet!
Otherwise you'll just pick up the dirty germs you were trying to
wash off in the first place!"

It was too horrible to contemplate. In the meantime I would just
keep wearing paper towels and lying. I figured I'd go on living the
rest of my life this way, maybe find a job sterilizing headsets and
eventually settle down with someone who found my affectations

But my family kept asking questions, and finally, after months of
washing, it was time to come clean. There followed a series of many
teary scenes in which I confessed to everything. The stash of first
fruits, the disposable yarmulkes, the urge to lick the parquet
flooring --- I accounted for it all. But the explanations I
offered, now true, were no less crazy than the lies I'd been
telling the past few months. My family was bewildered.

"Let me get this straight," my father puzzled. "You're telling me
you're acting this way because the Torah commands you to?
That's the reason? Are you sure you're not sniffing paint? You sure
you're not just drunk?" My parents knew how to deal with grain
alcohol. But what were they to do with grain offerings?

Still, they tried. They read some articles, asked some questions.
They tried to learn the lingo my new lifestyle would require, words
like parve, milchig, and treyf. My mother mastered
these in no time but continued to insist on calling Shabbat the
Sabbath, which I didn't like at all. It sounded so Puritan, so
seventeenth-century, and I worried that next she'd be calling me
Goody Traig.

As it was, she liked to pretend I was Howard Hughes. "Those
toenails are coming in nicely, How," she trilled. "Soon they'll be
long enough to clack against the linoleum and we'll be able to hear
you coming. Now stay right there, I'm going to go clean the canned
fruit with Handi Wipes and fix you a snack."

I didn't care for the flip tone, but if that was the trade-off,
that was fine. If the price of getting to act crazy was having my
family think I actually was crazy, that was okay, so long as I
didn't have to stop washing furniture and binding sheaves. It was
so liberating, not having to hide and lie and pretend any longer.
My family continued to badger and restrict me, but now I could
argue with them openly. It was almost fun, almost funny.

"Why won't you wear the new dress we bought for you?" my father
wanted to know.

"Because it is written: Thou shalt not garb thyself in robes of
hybrid fibers."

"I think mayhap thou hast misunderstood," my father returned. "Now
rise up, return to thy quarters, and garb thyself as thine elders
commandest thee, or thou will lose thy Bible-reading

Still, they let a lot of things go. It wasn't so much that they
approved, or even accepted it, but they were amused. I was wearing
paper hats and talking to the bookcases. It was sad and annoying,
but it was also fairly entertaining, and we didn't have cable. I
had become the Jenny Show, a kooky sitcom, wacky high jinks
twenty-four hours a day. Sure, I mostly aired repeats, but I was
the only thing on.

But it was always the same rerun, and things quickly got out of
hand. It's a short journey from giving up bacon to deciding you
shouldn't bite your nails because the protein that composes them
might have come from pork. The washing became incessant, the
prayers never-ending. Things seemed okay for a month or two. Then
suddenly we were in the laundry room and all my belongings were
floating in detergent. Suddenly we were having a crisis.

I imagine there were conferences, hushed discussions between my
parents, consultations with psychologist friends, calls to
relatives. What were they to do with me? There was no precedent.
They couldn't discipline me by taking away the things I loved; I'd
already taken them away myself. Grounding me was pointless. And I
actually liked being sent to my room.

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. I was permitted to wash my hands after bathroom
visits and at no other time. I could pray up to an hour a day, but
not if I was going to do the weird head-patting thing. I could keep
Shabbat, but I would not be allowed to ruin the day for everyone
else. I could not proselytize. I could not supervise my mother's
cooking. I could not rewash clean dishes, clothes, or body parts.
Furthermore, to reverse the damage I'd done with overzealous
scouring, I was now required to use emollients. I may have been the
only twelve-year-old girl in the world who was contractually
obligated to moisturize and deep condition and wear Lip

If I failed to do any of these things, the contract stipulated that
all my friends would be informed of my idiosyncrasies. The
mouth-scrubbing, the altar-building, the praise-dancing --- they
would learn about it all and would be encouraged to share it with
whomever they liked. My sister requested that an amendment be added
providing that she be the one to inform them all, and my parents
granted it as a reward for being so patient with me all these

I don't know why this worked. The only thing my parents were
threatening was embarrassment, and I'd been embarrassing myself
daily for close to a year. Maybe I'd just had enough, or maybe I
knew that as much as I could torture myself, my classmates were
capable of much worse. Would they ridicule me with a Carrie-style
dousing in 409? I didn't want to find out.

And so I stopped. I'm sure there must have been months and months
of tapering and adjustment, but I don't recall any of it. I don't
remember getting better or struggling with impulses. There was no
counseling and no drugs. This time, this first time, I just
stopped. I still prayed, still avoided pork and stayed in on
Saturdays, but the allure of scrutinizing ingredients and purifying
vessels was gone. Over the next six years, the scrupulosity would
beckon again and again, shiny and exciting, and I would submit to
the inevitable relapses. But this time I just stopped.

In Judaism someone who becomes religious is called a baal
--- a master of repentance, or, literally, a master of
returning, of circling back. I liked the name because it seemed so
apt. I circled. I was a master of circling, a pacer, a ruminator,
caught in my neural loops. For the next few years, I would circle
back to scrupulosity, then back to sanity, then back and forth
again. Eventually I ended up sane but religious, baal tshuva in the
ordinary sense.

The continuation of my religious practice was a huge disappointment
to my family, who'd greeted my initial interest in Judaism with a
withering caveat: "You can pray all you want, but we're not going
to stop eating pork." They are the family that bacon built ---
friends sometimes call us the Traifs --- and they could never
comprehend my rejection of their staple food and lifestyle. They
had raised me to express my Jewishness by renting Woody Allen
movies, not by keeping kosher and observing Shabbat.

When I was at my sickest, they painted a dark picture of what my
future as an observant Jew would entail: "You will marry a man who
wears knickers and a fur hat, and when you are out in public
passersby will laugh at you. He will make you shave your head and
wear a wig so unattractive that people will think it was assembled
from squirrel hides. The only restaurants you'll patronize will be
cheerless establishments where you will be insulted by rude Israeli
waiters and forced to pay exorbitant prices for gray, leathery
brisket. Because all your time will be spent in synagogue, you will
never, ever have a tan. You will wear frumpy skirts, socks with
sandals, and you'll never enjoy corn dogs, shellfish, or drinkable
wine." How crushed they were when I got better only to keep up this
ridiculous religious practice. They had hoped I would come to my
senses and join the rest of them at the clambake.

I never did, but things turned out okay anyway. They were wrong
about the fur hats and the bad food. The tan, however --- they
nailed that one on the head.

that your hands are loaded with bacteria and other contaminants?
They're filthy! They spread disease! Oh, it's just awful. And it's
not scientifically possible to sterilize your hands. You can,
however, get them really, really clean. Here's how!

1. First, you need to get some water going. We want it hot, hot,
hot! The hot-water tap is contaminated, but that's okay, because
you're about to wash. Touch it again, just to show how brave you
are. Touch it one more time. Three taps wards off bad things. Now
we're ready to wash!

2. Next, choose your poison. What kind of soap is for you? Bar soap
is out; other people have probably used it (a possibility too
horrible to contemplate), and even if it's unopened it's made from
animal fats, which is revolting. The whole thing just seems so
dirty. Liquid soap it is! Choose an antibacterial formula if you're
worried about contamination from germs. If you're worried about
contamination from death, choose dishwashing liquid. It's so
death-free it's safe to use on plates and flatware! But only if
it's BRAND-NEW. Even then, you never know. Okay, let's skip the
soap altogether. Plain water will be fine.

3. Rub your hands together vigorously and scrub, scrub, scrub. The
Centers for Disease Control recommend you wash your hands for ten
seconds, but what do they know? If they're such geniuses why do
people still get hepatitis? A full minute, minimum. How about this:
you keep your hands under that tap until you answer the
philosophical question "Is water clean?"

4. I don't know if water is clean. What if water isn't clean? What
if water just makes you dirtier?

5. You'll wash and wash and wash but you'll never be safe.

6. Okay, try not to think about it. Let's just say water is clean
and move on.

7. But what if it's not clean?

8. We're moving on. This next part is tricky. Your hands are clean
--- but they're wet. How to get them dry without getting them dirty
again? The air-dry technique is best. Sure, it's slow, but it's
safe. Simply hold your hands in the air until they're completely
dry. Be sure not to touch anything! If you touch something, or if
for some reason you think you maybe touched something, go back to
Step 1. Yes, let's go back to Step 1 just to be safe.

9. Now we're in a hurry. You're going to have to dry your hands
with paper napkins. That's fine. Just make sure it's a new package.
Did you touch the part of the package that was sealed with glue? Is
that glue? Glue is dirty. Wash again, just to be safe, then dry
your hands on a napkin that absolutely for sure didn't touch the

10. Use a napkin to turn off the tap and another napkin to open the
door on the way out. Some people won't even touch the door with a
napkin; they'll just wait until somebody comes to open the door for
them. But they're crazy!

Excerpted from DEVIL IN THE DETAILS © Copyright 2004 by
Jennifer Traig. Reprinted with permission by Little, Brown and
Company, an imprint of Time Warner Bookmark. All rights

Devil in the Details: Scenes From an Obsessive Girlhood
by by Jennifer Traig

  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
  • hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
  • ISBN-10: 0316158771
  • ISBN-13: 9780316158770