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Devil in the Details: Scenes from an Obsessive Girlhood Hardcover – September 14, 2004
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From Publishers Weekly
In this 1970s memoir, Traig describes how, from the age of 12 until her freshman year at Brandeis, she suffered from various forms of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), including anorexia and a rarer, "hyper-religious form" of OCD called scrupulosity, in which sanctified rituals such as hand washing and daily prayer are repeated in endless loops. The daughter of a Jewish father and a Catholic mother, Traig becomes obsessed with Jewish ritual, inventing her own prayers since her Jewish education is limited. Initially, Traig's family is amused; eventually, they try to help. Still, this memoir is less about suffering than it is about punch lines. When Traig swathes herself in head-to-toe flannel on hot summer days, her mother points to a scantily clad teenager on a talk show entitled My Teen Dresses Too Sexy and suggests Traig cool off like the adolescent "in the red vinyl number with the cut-outs over the chest and fanny." Traig spoofs Jewish rituals, cracking up at elaborate bar mitzvahs produced like Las Vegas floor shows and the meticulous analysis that goes into deeming a food item kosher. The author's behavior makes her seem like a character on Seinfeld or Curb Your Enthusiasm, and her book is a funny though sometimes cursory look at mental illness.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
By turns hilarious and harrowing, this spiritual-psychological autobiography poses a classification conundrum: it fits as comfortably alongside titles by David Sedaris (especially Naked, with its similarly themed essay "A Plague of Tics") as it does next to those by Oliver Sacks. When she was an adolescent, Traig's loose collection of neuroses coalesced into a hyperreligious form of obsessive-compulsive disorder known as scrupulosity. The condition finds the once spiritually indifferent teenager purifying her school binders, using separate bathrooms for milk and meat, and perplexing and vexing her mixed-faith family. Traig guides readers through her baffling, lonely world with frequent stops to deliver ba-da-boom zingers ("Today the condition is common enough that there's a Scrupulous Anonymous. I've never joined, so I can't tell you if they subscribe to all twelve steps or just repeat one over and over"). Though uproariously funny, this is perhaps best for intermittent sampling. Considering the deliberate--one might even say obsessive--manner in which Traig wrings humor out of her tribulations, one can't escape the sense that she has unwittingly reproduced her childhood affliction in book form. Jennifer Mattson
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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There is little actually humorous about Traig as an adolescent. She drives her parents to distraction with her constant regimen of hand-washing, a quasi-kosher diet that reduces her to stick-figure proportions and a series of arcane, tragic-comic religious observances. Her sarcastic and edgy sister, Vicki, provides a welcome contrast to the withdrawn and weird Jennifer. However, Traig turns dust into diamonds; her quirky, disoriented life has a ruthless order to it. What appears out-of-control to a dispassionate observer makes sense to the ritual-bound author.
Traig reminds us that the early 1970s provided no psychological answer to OCD, a syndrome that didn't even have a name at the time. There were no meds to mellow out those with the disorder, and Traig humbly and simply determines to cure herself. She is at her best when she describes herself in a self-deprecatory manner, and since wit exists in practically every paragraph, the memoir glistens with understated insight and induces real laughter. When the author finally comprehends that others have had enough of her antics, she resolves to stop the behaviors. For the better part of her high school career, she careens between self-induced sickness and health.
Traig's postulated need for self-help may not sit well with a current generation increasingly dependent on chemical solutions to emotional problems. The author wisely notes that her parents' endless patience and acceptance enabled Traig to find her own path to health. The entire family seems to understand that life is an erratic roller coaster ride and having perfect children is far too overrated a goal in the first place. Consequently, Traig only indirectly chooses her own path to recovery; her parents' unwavering (if unspoken) belief in their daughters exists as a crucial positive variable.
"Devil in the Details" exudes a joy in living. Whether it be the author's descriptions of learning to drive, her dissection of the mixed-blessings of a Jewish/Christian household at holiday time, or the universal discontent felt by the alienated during high school, the memoir has both grit and grace. Jennifer Traig clearly loves language, and her writing is rich in memorable metaphors and captivating alliteration. As unique a teenager as she was, Traig's story resonates with universal appeal.
Her descriptions of the situations she found herself in are truely clever and one of a kind, and will have you literally laughing out loud from chapter to chapter.
One of the book jacket reviews said that the author does not lapse "even for a moment into self-pity." This is true. However, I would recommend that Ms. Traig try more for moments of genuine and sadness and joy in her next work. This book definitely stands on its own. But there are hints of real pain there - she writes that she never felt like she belonged to her family, compares her relationship with her sister to the Bible's Esau and Jacob, admits she was anorexic. While it's great to be able to squeeze humor from stuff like this, it's even greater to be able to acknowledge the real sorrow behind it too. I think the author is up to the task. I look forward to her next book.