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

By Sara | Books | November 17, 2009 |

By Sara | Books | November 17, 2009 |

Obsessive girlhood? Judaism? Weird food rules? “The fumes from the bacon my sister had microwaved for dessert had tainted everything I owned, so now it all had to be washed.” Oh, I may have laughed out loud, but at the same time, I thought, that doesn’t seem SO unreasonable. Consider me sold.

For a long time, I couldn’t eat unless there were even amounts of food on both sides of my mouth. If I ate something with pieces — say, cocoa puffs — an even number had to be on the spoon. Gum? Split it in half. There were other rules too. By age 10, after years of not understanding what was so great about pork chops, I decided to ban pork from my diet. (Except pepperoni. Everyone knows that comes from the pepperoni tree.) To avoid hassle and slabs of bacon waved in my face, I started telling baffled strangers that I was Jewish. Now it wasn’t weird — it was faith. Eventually, the rule extended to anything I’d consider a pet, and shellfish? Forget it, that’s like eating sea bugs.

Throw in a side of lactose intolerance, and suddenly a whole system of separating meat from dairy seems just perfect, thank you. Also, could you arrange the food just so in the cabinets? And the dishes too? Jesus, just let me do it already. Ah, there, that’s better.

(Faux-Judaism does not prevent one from using handy phrases like, “Good Lord!” “Oh my God,” and “Jesus Christ on pony, what the hell are you doing?”)

However, I know I’m not an extreme case by any means when it comes to OCD. As a prime example of the condition, Jennifer Traig offers up her childhood for inspection. Aside from rigorous cleaning, arranging, and inescapable thoughts like, “What if I stab my mother?” she suffered from scrupulosity — a highly religious form of OCD.

Growing up in a mixed-religion household with a Jewish father and Catholic mother (“We supported her religious practice only when it involved tasty snacks for the rest of us”), Traig found tremendous fascination with the endless minutiae of Jewish law. So many rules! Such structure!

Before long, she’s praying three times a day, using a Kleenex as a makeshift yarmulke, and giving guests food poisoning via an undercooked kosher dinner. Everything is an ethical dilemma, even finding somewhere to sit in her own home — “Food gets dropped on the upholstery all the time. To sit on these chairs is to sit on ham.”

The severity of her symptoms would fluctuate throughout her childhood. After therapy, the incessant questioning of rabbis to differentiate between Orthodox and Crazy, keeping her hands busy with tacky crafts, and the dry humor of her parents, she leaves for college feeling mostly OK. Life can be managed (possibly) without meltdown.

Reading the process is endlessly entertaining, as Traig writes in a great self-deprecating, yet sincere way. Devil in the Details is the sort of book where you end up reading whole pages aloud to anyone sitting near you, usually preceded by the phrase, “Oh, this is funny…” though the whole thing is. If you’ve ever been abnormally particular about anything, or felt impossibly different, you’ll relate. And if not, come see how it feels.

This review is part of the Cannonball Read series. For more of Sara’s reviews, check out her blog, Glorified Love Letters.

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.

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