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Authors: Jennifer Traig

Devil in the Details

BOOK: Devil in the Details
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Jennifer Traig

Devil in the Details

Scenes from a obsessive girlhood

2004, EN

Jennifer Traig as one of the most hilarious writers to emerge in
recent years – and one of the strangest! Recalling the agony of
growing up as an obsessive-compulsive religious fanatic, Traig
fearlessly confesses the most peculiar behaviour – like scrubbing
her hands for a full half-hour before meals, feeding her stuffed
animals before herself and washing everything she owned because she
thought it was contaminated by pork fumes! The result is a book so
relentlessly funny and frank that it’s totally refreshing.

Table of contents


Devil in the Details: A Primer


The Good Book

Forbidden Fruit

Today I Am a Manic

Idle Hands

Sunrise, Sunset: The Holidays


All Is Vanity

Orange Girl

Sacre Bleu

Hell on Wheels

Shalom Bayit

Devil in the Details


y father and I were
in the laundry room and we were having a crisis. It was the
strangest thing, but I couldn’t stop crying. And there were a few
other weird things: I was wearing a yarmulke and a nightgown, for
one, and then there were my hands, red and raw and wrapped in
plastic baggies. My lip was split. There were paper towels under my
feet. And weirdest of all, everything I owned seemed to be in the
washing machine, whites and colors, clothes and shoes, barrettes
and backpacks, all jumbled together. Huh.

“Huh,” my father said, examining the Reebok Esprit Hello Kitty
stew churning through permanent press. “You want to tell me what
happened here?”

Wasn’t it obvious? The fumes from the bacon my sister had
microwaved for dessert had tainted everything I owned, so now it
all had to be washed. But this sort of rational explanation hadn’t
been going over well with my father lately. I scrambled to think of
another, turning lies over in my mouth: it was homework, an
experiment; it was performance art, a high-concept piece protesting
the consumerization of tweens. I glanced up at my father and down
at the machine, then dragged my baggied wrist under my nose and
exhaled. “I don’t know.”

We didn’t know. Many years later we would learn that what
happened was a strange condition called scrupulosity, a
hyper-religious form of obsessive-compulsive disorder. It hit me
when I was twelve and plagued me, off and on, throughout my teens,
making every day a surprising and mortifying adventure. The disease
manifested itself in different ways, but they were always, always
embarrassing. Sometimes I had to drop to my knees and pray in the
middle of student council meetings, and sometimes I had to hide
under the bleachers and chant psalms. Sometimes I couldn’t touch
anything and sometimes I had to pat something repeatedly. Sometimes
I had to wash my hands and sometimes I had to wash someone else’s.
Sometimes I had to purify my binders. Sometimes I had to put all my
things in the washing machine.

Scrupulosity is also known as scruples, a name I much prefer.
Scruples sounds like it could be a pesky, harmless condition: “I
ate some bad clams last night, and today I’ve got the scruples.”
Scruples is cute and saucy. “Oh, you and your scruples,” I imagined
my date saying, laughing at the coy way I examined my lunch for
spiritual contaminants. Scruples also evokes the fabulous Judith
Krantz novel that would lead me to expect a far different disorder,
one in which my mental illness compelled me to fulfill the
fantasies of Beverly Hills debauchees – for a price.

But it’s none of that. In fact,
is the Latin word
for a small sharp stone. Originally this denoted a measure; the
idea was that the sufferer was constantly weighing the scales of
her conscience. I imagine a pebble in a shoe, perhaps because I was
hobbled by constant nagging worries and by the undersized pointed
flats I wore to punish myself. They pinched and chafed and matched
nothing I owned, but weren’t nearly as uncomfortable as the doubts
that plagued me every second of every day.

Scrupulosity is sometimes called the doubting disease, because
it forces you to question everything. Anything you do or say or
wear or hear or eat or think, you examine in excruciatingly minute
detail. Will I go to hell if I watch HBO? Is it sacrilegious to
shop wholesale? What is the biblical position on organic produce?
One question leads directly to the next, like beads on a rosary,
each doubt a pearl to rub and worry. Foundation garments,
beverages, reading material: for the scrupulous, no matter is too
mundane for a dissertation-length theological interrogation. Oh, we
have fun.

But it was 1982, and we didn’t know any of this then. We didn’t
know what this was or where it had come from. It had come out of
nowhere. Well, there were things. There was the fact that I’d been
having obsessive-compulsive impulses since preschool. These had
been stray and occasional, and while my parents may have thought it
was strange that I couldn’t stop rearranging the coasters, they
didn’t think it was anything worth treating. The compulsions had
grown with me, however, and now they loomed like hulking, moody
preteens. There was also the fact that I’d been systematically
starving myself for a year and was no longer capable of making any
kind of rational decision. I sometimes wore knickers and pumps,
wore fedoras and a vinyl bomber jacket to
seventh grade
setting myself up for the kind of ridicule that takes years of
therapy and precisely calibrated medications to undo. No, I was in
no condition to make rational decisions, no condition at all.

And into this mire had come halachah, Jewish law. I had begun
studying for my bat mitzvah, twelve years old and a little bit
scattered and crazy, and suddenly here were all these wonderful
rules. They were fantastic, prescribing one’s every movement,
giving structure to the erratic compulsions that had begun to beat
a baffling but irresistible tattoo on my nervous system. Halachah
and latent OCD make a wonderful cocktail, and I was intoxicated.
Suddenly I wasn’t just washing; I was purifying myself of sin. I
wasn’t just patting things; I was laying on hands. Now my rituals
were exactly that: rituals.

And my gosh, it was fun. The endless chanting, the incessant
immersing of vessels – I couldn’t get enough. The obsessive
behavior quickly evolved from a casual hobby to an all-consuming
addiction, a full-time occupation. It happened so fast. One day I
was riding bikes to McDonald’s like a normal kid; the next, I was
painting the lintels with marinade to ward off the Angel of

I don’t remember what came first, but I think it was the food.
At this point I’d been having problems with food in an obsessive
but secular way for about a year. I had begun eliminating foods
from my diet, first sugar and shortening, and then cooked foods,
then food that had been touched by human hands, then processed
foods, and then unprocessed. By January we were down to little more
than dried fruit, and my nails were the texture of string

But then came these lovely laws to give shape to my dietary
idiosyncrasies. It was so sudden and unexpected, this revulsion to
pork and shellfish, to meat with dairy. I hadn’t asked for it, but
here it was. Suddenly I was keeping kosher. I was sort of keeping
kosher. I was afraid to tell my parents, so I was hiding it,
spitting ham into napkins, carefully dissecting cheese from burger,
pepperoni from pizza.

“Is there a reason you’re hiding that pork chop under your
plate?” my mother wanted to know.

“Oh, I’m just tenderizing it,” I lied, thwacking it with the

“Is there something wrong with the shrimp?” my father

“Seafood recall, they said on the news. You all can play food
poisoning roulette if you like, but I’m giving mine to the

The food could have kept me busy forever, but I was ambitious.
One by one, things fell away. I would wake up and know: today, no
television, it’s blasphemous. Then: no more reading
, it’s immodest, it’s forbidden. A partial list of
things I considered off-limits: exfoliation, hair color, mix tapes,
lip gloss. Oh, I had so much energy, and there were so many laws I
could take on, and when I ran out I would just make up my own.

The fact that I had no idea what I was doing held me back not at
all. Despite six years of Hebrew school and a bat mitzvah crash
course, I knew next to nothing about daily Jewish practice. I’d
retained a couple folk songs and some Hebrew swear words, but that
was about it. The only source texts I had were a King James Bible,
an encyclopedia, and the collected works of Chaim Potok and Herman
Wouk in paperback.

But this was enough. The Bible alone was chock-full of minute
instructions, obscure decrees banning the plucking of this and the
poking of that. It was these small, specific directives I favored.
I was less interested in big guidelines like commandments than in
the marginalia of Jewish practice, the fine print, the novelty laws
and weird statutes. Had my impulses been secular, I would have
observed the funny forgotten ordinances on the law books banning
the chewing of gum by false-mustache wearers or the dressing up of
one’s mule.

As it was I zeroed in on the biblical laws governing agriculture
and livestock. Later, as I grew older and more disturbed, I would
focus on the laws concerning contamination by death and bodily
fluids, but for now it was plants and pets. We did not have any
crops, but we had a lawn, and that was close enough. I contrived to
leave the corners unmown so the poor could come and glean. I
imagined hordes of kerchiefed, unwashed peasants descending to
gather sheaves of crabgrass at dawn. “Oh, thank you, Jennifer the
Righteous!” they would cry, their dirty faces shining with
happiness, blades of grass caught in their blackened teeth.

They never showed up, but I was undeterred. The Bible said, and
I did. As for livestock, we had only a dog and a cat, but I was
determined to care for them as my faith intended. Halachah
instructs us to feed our animals before we feed ourselves. It’s a
good law, designed to teach compassion, but it wasn’t specific
enough for me. Were you supposed to feed them just once, before
breakfast, or did you have to feed them every time you wanted to
eat? I decided to err on the side of zeal and fed them before every
meal, every snack, every glass of water. The dog was active enough
to burn off the extra calories, but the cat quickly ballooned to
twenty pounds. My mother flinched every time I approached the can

“Oh, I swear, you’re not giving the cat any more food, are you?
She stepped on my foot this morning and I think she broke a

Goodness knows I wanted to stop. The cat’s stomach was brushing
the linoleum; I knew I wasn’t doing her any favors. And I
feeding her. Opening and serving her meaty wet food
was a lengthy and excruciating process that involved washing my
hands and the utensils multiple times. If any cat food splattered,
the cleanup could take twice as long, and if the spray landed near
my mouth – invariably it would, as I spastically flung the food
into the bowl – all hell broke loose. I would be compelled to wash
my mouth in cold water, then hot, then cold again. After my lips
were split and bleeding I would give up and decide the cat food had
rendered me fleishig, as though I had actually eaten the meat; to
avoid mixing the meat with milk, I wouldn’t touch milk for the next
six hours.

That was fine; I had no time for ice cream when there were so
many other laws to observe and question. There was this one: the
Torah commands a master to pay for his animals’ misdeeds. Our dog
had been committing misdeeds all over the neighbors’ lawns for
years. Was I now compelled to offer restitution? Exactly what form
should that take?

BOOK: Devil in the Details
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