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On desecration and rededication

VBT: Devil in the Details

Today, something slightly different from usual VR fare: a book review. As part of the Virtual Book Tour (organized by Kevin Smokler) I'm looking at Jennifer Traig's Devil in the Details, a memoir which chronicles Traig's teenage wrestle with scrupulosity ("scruples" for short), a religiously-inflected form of obsessive-compulsive disorder.

The book's opening scene is fantastic (I'll save it for you to discover when you pick up your own copy) and the memoir is peppered throughout with mordant soundbites like, "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 Death." A little funny, a little snarky, and a little pitiful: that seems to have been Traig's adolescence in a nutshell.

Scruples, Traig tells us, felt like being strapped into a roller-coaster one doesn't enjoy but can't stop riding. Mostly she's funny about it. Especially amusing are the early interludes between chapters, written in her sick teenaged voice, which discourse on subjects like how to properly wash one's hands: "What kind of soap is for you? Bar soap is out; other people have probably used it (a possibility too horrible to contemplate) and even if it's unopened it's made from animal fats, which is revolting..." But even when she's mocking herself, cracking jokes about her temptation to "purify" the family cat by marking its forehead with ketchup, the grip of her disease is apparent -- and a little bit terrifying.

One of the major threads in this book is Traig's increased religious observance. The intricacies of halakhah were a perfect match for her obsessive tendencies, so the sicker she got, the more exciting Judaism became. "The fact that I knew next to nothing about what I was doing held me back not at all," she writes. "Despite six years of Hebrew school and a bat mitzvah crash course, I knew next to nothing about daily Jewish practice." Nor the rudiments of Jewish scholarship -- like the notion that the legal code encapsulated in Torah is modulated, in modern practice, through the lenses of Talmud, books like the shulkhan arukh, and rabbinic interpretation. Whoops. I guess that's how she wound up doing wacky things like painting the doorposts of her parents' house with salad dressing.

The book's a little uneven. I think about two-thirds of it is quite good.  The parts about illness and religion and their weird intersection in her life captivate me; when Traig shifts focus, it meanders a little. For instance, the chapter about her sister Vicky's time at a Baptist school: well-written, but I'm not convinced that it's germane. (Though it does show that the Traigs, a secular interfaith couple, were so disoriented by religion that they couldn't have imagined how to handle their older daughter's bizarre religious compulsiveness when it arose.)

At twelve, Traig developed anorexia -- a "rite of passage, expected among girls of a certain class," she notes. But hers was different. The other girls "didn't hide Ziploc bags full of meatballs in their sweater drawer while they combed the Torah to see if it was okay to eat them." For Traig, anorexia was just another manifestation of her need to assert (and keep) control. "Scrupulosity was anorexia amplified, anorexia applied to every area of life. Anorexics only worried about food. I worried about shampoo, shoe polish, water, air..." As part of her eating disorder, Traig adopted her own bizarre form of kashrut, though to her parents her reluctance to eat milk with meat was no more (or less) freakish than the phases when she wanted to become fruitarian or macrobiotic.

Anorexia wasn’t the only shift in Traig’s life at twelve; the other was the approach of her bat mitzvah. Her tutor, a Mr. Stein, tried to teach her that Judaism is a religion of actions, not beliefs; that it's incumbent upon us to live righteously, and that faith follows from observance. Unfortunately, that clicked with Traig's OCD like a Lego snicking into place. "Now I wasn't just a weird kid; I was a religious fanatic," she writes. True to form, she drafted a bat mitzvah speech which led her father to chide her, firmly, that "kill all the infidels" was not an appropriate lesson to offer.

Traig writes about how she experienced the liturgical cycle during her teenage years. Sometimes she focuses on what it was like to be part of an interfaith family; other times, on how holidays intensified her scruples. Though her interfaith stories mostly make me cringe (what fodder for those who argue that honoring both parental traditions is spiritually disastrous!) she does write well about the so-called December Dilemma, in a David Sedaris kind of way. "Hanukkah just can't compete [with Christmas]. It was never supposed to," she writes. "A minor holiday that got trumped up because of Christmas, it's like a cat in doll clothes, all trussed up in someone else's party dress and not very happy about it."

So winter wasn't much fun. Then again, neither was spring, when her family suffered both the Jewish proscription against leaven (during Passover) and the Catholic one against meat (during Lent). Nor summer, when (in between craft projects she describes in exquisite detail) Traig practiced the customary self-abnegation of the Three Weeks in secret, simultaneously thrilling at how self-mortification dovetailed with her scruples and quailing at the proscriptions against bathing, which she (unsurprisingly) took way too seriously. In fall, she wretchedly attended school on the Days of Awe, convinced that she was sinning by being there (she tried to compensate by speaking, writing, and interacting as little as possible, though mostly it just got her in trouble with her teachers). Really, no time of year was easy for Traig back then.

Traig's obsession with her adolescent oddities leads to some surprisingly poignant passages. Like this one:

"We were at war, my body and I, and all these years later we still haven't signed a truce. Perhaps it's because my body failed me so spectacularly so many times before, when the connections in my brain went haywire, when my face froze, when my bones poked out and my skin turned funny colors. The scrupulosity and anorexia eventually went away, but the profound hypochondria remained."

Traig still wrangles, it seems, with these demons. Just not in the all-encompassing way that made her sick. In the end, a combination of therapy and just plain growing-up cured her. Though I couldn't help wanting a more conclusive sense of how the cure happened, I suppose that kind of neat ending would be unreal. Traig muses that religious observance makes her weird now, just as her illness did then. She hints that time has healed many wounds ("Fifteen years have passed since my religiosity made my family want to smother me; fifteen years since their flippancy made me want to stone them") but never gives us a complete picture of what her life is like now. Her teenage religiousity was an unhealthy caricature; I assume her engagement with tradition now is both more informed and more sincere.

The subtitle of this book is "Scenes from an obsessive girlhood," and I think both that's the book's strength and its flaw. These are vignettes; there's not a strong narrative through-line beyond "I got sick, I did wacky things, I got better." The book lacks heft, a little -- which may be inevitable in any memoir by someone my age. (Most thirty-somethings just don't have that much insight to offer, even those of us who had fascinatingly odd mental illnesses as kids.) But I don't think heft is what Traig was after; this book's aim was to string a bunch of pearls into a necklace, and in that it largely succeeds. Don't look for nuanced exploration of theology here, or for life-changing inspiration. But if you're interested in a funny, well-crafted account of someone whose teenage years were almost certainly weirder and less psychologically-comfortable than yours were, give Devil in the Details a try. You'll almost certainly feel better about your own adolescence -- a rare gift that's  well worth the $22.95.