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