Sep 022009
Authors: Savannah King

If someone cooks bacon, be prepared to gather up all your belongings and put them through the wash.

Not just clothes. Load in those sneakers, posters, alarm clocks and headbands because they all must be cleaned.

Obviously, they have been contaminated by the pork fumes wafting from the kitchen and are thus a sinful gateway to Hell.

Can you imagine the deranged mind behind this thought process?

Jennifer Traig can only too well, having been one to do this regularly and having grown up with the mental disease known as scrupulosity, or “scruples.”

This hyper-religious form of obsessive-compulsive disorder causes not only the typical behavior known to OCD sufferers, but behavior which is fixated on following the word of God to the letter and beyond.

In the novel “Devil in the Details,” Traig chronicles her life growing up with this disability from the time when she was just a young girl, when no one, including psychologists, had heard of scruples, to her young adulthood being suppressed by unhelpful drugs and eventually her semi-successful therapy sessions during her college years.

Traig dubs scruples “the doubting disease, because it forces you to question everything. . Will I go to hell if I watch HBO? Is it sacrilegious to shop wholesale? What is the biblical position on organic produce? . Foundation garments, beverages, reading material: For the scrupulous, no matter is too mundane for a dissertation-length theological interrogation. Oh, we have fun.”

And it almost sounds like she did have fun in a sick, twisted sort of way.

While she starts out innocently enough — patting the table three times, compulsively touching the back of people’s heads — she eventually discovers the Torah, the epitome of her heritage which no one else in her liberal Jewish family pays any mind.

The young Traig rejoiced that this book “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.”

So Traig starts to feed the cat every time she so much as drinks a glass of water because, after all, the Torah instructs that you feed your livestock before yourself.

Soon she “graduates” to focus wholly on “contamination by death and bodily fluids,” scrubbing her hands until they bleed and considering anything in the vicinity of both milk and meat to be tantamount to a death sentence.

While these sound like disturbing images, it is the tone Traig takes on in the face of her incidents which makes the story so interesting. It is sarcastic and hilarious, yet disdainful, yet curiously tolerant, almost like a mother looking back lovingly on a naughty child’s past misdeeds.

Most kids, though, don’t throw temper tantrums on the kitchen floor because they’ve exceeded their day’s allotted calorie intake by one grape.

Traig is even comfortable enough with her former obsessions to include tidbits such as “A Guide to Proper Hand-Washing Technique” and “My Sister’s Room is the Gateway to Death: A Two-Column Proof.”

It is such self-deprecating actions that make Traig a loveable, if nutty character whose antics become endearing instead of depressing and downright scary.

“After all,” she writes, “for all around appeal, you can’t beat OCD. Except for the tedium, the time commitment, and the incessant badgering, we’re a riot.”

Book reviewer Savannah King can be reached at

 Posted by at 5:00 pm

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