Scenes From an Obsessive Girlhood
Whatever you are, be a good one.
Devil in the Details is the memoir of a crafty Jewish girl afflicted with a variety of mental and social issues. Jennifer Traig attempts to discuss her obsessive-compulsive disorder and anorexia as they affected her and her family through the adolescent and young adult, but the book never quite makes a clear statement. Somewhere in recounting the details, Traig lost me.
The book begins with a primer of sorts on obsessive-compulsive disorder, particularly scrupulosity, Traig’s specific affliction. Scrupulosity is, for lack of more sophisticated terms, religious obsessive compulsivity. Beginning at age three, and throughout the rest of her youth and young adulthood, Traig was plagued with bouts of scrupulosity. Every so often, as she tells it, a flare-up would occur and all hell would break loose. As an additional quirk, Traig’s scrupulosity did not occur in the context of general religiosity, but in that of Orthodox Judaism, a faith that she describes as fraught with craziness already. She explains, “with all the swaying, flailing, and outbursts, a Jewish congregation could easily be mistaken for a Tourette’s convention.” Readers are treated to exhaustive educations on Orthodox eating practices, prayer guidelines, tips on keeping kosher, and a wide variety of Hebrew catch phrases.
Traig writes in the chatty familiar tone of teen magazines—assuming her readers understand her experiences, frame of references, and so on. If you haven’t dealt firsthand with simultaneous scrupulous OCD, obsessive Judaism, anorexia, and so, on, then Traig’s assertions come up somewhat empty. Traig’s discussion of the effects of these illnesses on her life reminded me of Marya Hornbacher’s Wasted, an autobiography about the author’s struggles with anorexia. Both books are a somewhat stressful read, but there is a major difference. In Wasted, Hornbacher, although she conveys a sense of hope, treats anorexia and its effects in an appropriately somber and cautious tone. In Devil in the Details, Traig paints a strangely colorful and flippant picture of a life with a host of serious mental and physical problems.
As I read further, it seemed that the contents of the book would be more appropriate locked in a girlish teenage diary than published in a book. The anecdotes were odd and random. The admissions of personal information were better left unwritten. The entire book was bafflingly free of chronology or resolution. About one-third of the way through, Traig provided a statement that cleared my confusion as to why this subject matter seemed appropriate for a light-humored book. She said, “my family revolved around me throughout my entire adolescence.” Readers are expected to react with this same level of interest and involvement in Traig’s every word or action. The book traces her life from pre-school to college. What annoyed me as a reader was the lack of change in her life. Whether an elementary school kid carrying out an impressive routine of taps and tics, or a college student adhering to bizarre Jewish/anorexic diet plans, her family seemed to let it all go a little far. Life was centered on Traig’s diagnoses and special needs, legitimate or otherwise. Depending on the reader, what is meant to be entertaining and quirky can come across as repetitive, long-winded, and rather bizarre.
With all this distraction, I was surprised to find that I began enjoying some parts of the book. Once you grow accustomed to a setting rife with compulsions and kosher guidelines, Traig’s antics seem somewhat amusing. One area over which she has seamless command is that of the popular culture of girls in the 1980s and 1990s. Between bouts of OCD, Traig certainly kept up with styles and trends. She drops all the right names (Reebok, Hello Kitty, Esprit, etc.) to make the book a fun skip down memory lane for the 20- and 30-something female readers. Traig’s descriptions of junior high food issues, family embarrassment, and school clique politics bring her points home to readers sharing this frame of reference. She even illustrates her early conception of obsessive-compulsive disorder in terms anyone can understand: She compares it to TV witches Jeannie, Samantha, and Sabrina, whose tics and twitches “could solve any problem.” Traig assumed that if she stuck to the rituals, magic words, formulas, and lucky numbers of OCD, she would be ok too.
In the end, Traig finds that the combined effects of medications and the freedom of young adulthood bring about a sense of control over her compulsions. She conveys gratefulness for the unending support of her family and friends. “Shalom bayit,” or “peace in the home,” as Traig writes, does prevail and the book ends on a positive, if somewhat random note.