Devil in the Details: Scenes From an Obsessive Girlhood

by Jennifer Traig

age seven to 17, Jennifer Traig suffered from scrupulosity. What is
scrupulosity? Mix a borderline autistic with a religious zealot,
and you'll end up with an obsessive-compulsive teenager who
literally looks for the devil in every painstaking detail. Did her
Trapper Keeper rest for a nanosecond on the desk of the biggest
slut in eighth grade? Better take it home and scrub it over and
over with bleach. Was that butter contaminated with non-kosher
toast crumbs? Better stick to a breakfast of Diet Coke Popsicles,
again. When she starts driving it gets even worse: did she or
didn't she hit someone on the last block? Better drive back three
times to make sure. It's not surprising that driving was one of her
least favorite activities.

This resulting black comedy was Jennifer Traig's life for ten
years. The variety of obsessive-compulsive disorder she dealt with,
scrupulosity, was first recognized in the 12th century in the form
of super pious monks who were compelled to pray for seven hours a
day. As she points out, scruple in Latin means small, sharp stone;
for her life, scrupulosity meant constant self-questioning and ever
nagging doubts. Raised by a Catholic mother and Jewish father,
neither of whom was overly observant, Traig finds herself more
drawn to the synagogue than St. Peters and this is where her life
becomes riddled with the small, sharp stones of scrupulosity. She
self-teaches herself Judaism, focusing in, with her OCD ways, on
the church laws regarding cleanliness. She is fixated with hand
washing, and conveys the depth of the disorder by dropping into the
book periodic 'interstitials,' which include guidelines for hand
washing as well as recipes for all the scrupulous anorexics out
there (anorexia being a more common form of OCD).

At age thirteen, in order to fully convert to Judaism (which is
necessary since she is a half-breed, "like Cher") she begins
bi-weekly Torah lessons, and with the introduction of Kosher laws,
life gets really interesting. When her teacher explains that milk
and meat require separate dishes, she instantly decides that this
must also apply to toilets. If her sister cooks bacon, then doesn't
this render all her worldly belongings unclean and thus subject to
immediate purification in the washing machine? Isn't the very floor
of the home in which the bacon was cooked impure, and therefore
shouldn't you put paper towels underneath your feet for protection?
But wait, the glue that holds a new roll of paper towels together
might not be kosher so be sure to discard the first several sheets
and then, just in case, wash hands.

Tragic, yes, but luckily Traig's treatment of this period in her
life comes off more tragically funny. Her ability to look back
without victimizing herself is remarkable, and since she does it
with a huge helping of humor, she manages to keep her memoir apart
from a genre filled with "pity poor me!" tomes. It is obvious that
she gets her sense of humor from her parents, two people whose
remarks and antics kept me laughing throughout the book. Her
mother's favorite method of distracting Jennifer during summer
vacation was to involve her in a variety of arts and crafts,
including cross-stitching such wisdoms as "If Jackasses could fly,
this place would be an airport." It isn't any wonder that today
Jennifer Traig is responsible for a long line of "Crafty Girl"
books aimed at artsy adolescents.

Interestingly enough, Traig's memoir leaves off just as she enters
college, where miraculously her OCD tendencies begin to wane. A
heavy year of therapy preceded the big leap to Berkeley and a
family vacation to France, assisted by sedatives, helped get her
"out of her grooves." I wonder if it doesn't naturally coincide
with that time when most teenagers begin feeling more in control of
their own lives and less under the control of parents, friends and
the church. Ironically, the person she wrests control of her life
back from is…herself.

DEVIL IN THE DETAILS gives a rare inside look at
obsessive-compulsive disorder. It is a funny, touching tale of a
not-so-normal girl and her brave battle with a not-so-normal

Reviewed by Jamie Layton on January 7, 2011

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

  • Publication Date: September 14, 2004
  • Genres: Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
  • ISBN-10: 0316158771
  • ISBN-13: 9780316158770