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Mental Disorders

by Jennifer Traig
Little, Brown, 2004
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Mar 30th 2005

Devil in the Details

As a child and teenager, Jennifer Traig suffered from religious obsessions: she explains that this is called scrupulosity.  While her mother was Roman Catholic and her father was Jewish, and neither was particularly devout, Traig became ruled by her version of Orthodox Judaism.  She became especially obsessed with worries about contamination and the need to keep herself clean.  She had many peculiar beliefs about food and had problems with both eating too much and eating too little.  She behaved in many other odd ways and caused her family a great deal of concern.  She spent a great deal of time talking to mental health professionals and even spent some time in psychiatric wards.  Doctors considered many diagnoses, including schizophrenia, and tried a number of different treatments.   Finally in her twenties Traig gained control over her behavior, which she now sees as a form of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).  She emphasizes that in the late 1970s and mid 1980s, OCD was not understood as a brain disorder, and was often seen as a sign of a family problem.  She was encouraged to spend much time in therapy placing the blame for her problems on her family.  It is apparent that her life was full of tumult and suffering.  What is rather unusual is that she decided to write a humorous book about her experience.

Traig cracks wise about her bizarre beliefs and obsessions, as well as her status as one of the few Jews in rural Northern California.  She exploits her former strange behavior for comic effect, and the silly fears and passions she had.  She worries that she brought up the topic of anal sex with her aunt in a recent conversation, and for her bat mitzvah she planned to give a speech on the need to kill all the infidels.  She could not come into contact with anything that she thought had been contaminated by death, and so when she someone placed a human skull on a school notebook, she not only had to throw out the notebook when she was finished with it, but she could never again sleep in the bed in the guest bedroom where she had placed the book. Strangely enough, her eccentricity did not prevent her schoolwork, and she did very well, eventually going on to earn a PhD in literature. 

Devil in the Details is a quirky book and humor is often subjective.  I have to confess that I failed to warm to Traig's account of her youth, although it is hard to say exactly why.  It didn't make me laugh once, and I did not feel particularly educated about scrupulosity or OCD.  It is not that OCD is not ripe material for comedy -- it is.  For example, the movie As Good As It Gets, with Jack Nicholson playing an isolated man with many strange compulsions, manages to make audiences laugh while showing great compassion for the suffering that goes along with OCD.  Yet Traig's description of her problems seemed to minimize them, and her embracing of the more arcane elements of Judaic laws (or rather, her warped interpretations of them) makes it hard to identify with her. 

I had hoped that the unabridged audiobook performance of the book by Melinda Wade would help draw the reader into Traig's story and make her a more sympathetic character, but if anything it seemed to highlight the sense of her conforming to an exaggerated stereotype of a neurotic Jewish woman. 

It might well be that other readers will respond more positively to Traig's memoir, and this book is notable for being one of the very few that attempts to say what it is like to suffer from religious scrupulosity.  I wish I could say I enjoyed it more. 

 

 

Link: Highbridge Audio

 

 

© 2005 Christian Perring. All rights reserved. 

 

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Review.  His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.