Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Devil in the Details -- Jennifer Traig

[Disclosure: I read this book several months ago and no longer have it to use while I write this review, as it was on loan from my school library.]

The book club at the high school where I used to teach turned out to be a great source of material for this blog -- I'm going to miss it (though I hope that they will keep me informed of their choices so I can read along with them in the future!). Another book we read this past year was one I've been meaning to pick up for a long while now, after I saw my mother-in-law reading it a few years ago. It was an unusual pick for our club -- most of the works we discuss are fiction -- but our fearless leader chose it because The Glass Castle had been such a big success with the group in the past, and she claimed this was "like it, except funny." (Having never read The Glass Castle, I'll have to take her word for it.)

Devil in the Details: Scenes from an Obsessive Girlhood is very much in the tradition of "my family is crazy" memoirs by the likes of David Sedaris, Haven Kimmel, and perhaps Sarah Vowell, except with one important difference: the author, Jennifer Traig, makes it very clear from the opening pages that her modus operandi is "my family is totally normal and I'm certifiable." Specifically, Traig suffered from "scrupulosity," a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder that includes extreme religious fervor -- in her case, orthodox Judaism. Traig's memoir details her childhood and adolescence living in the grips of this disorder, one that until the very recent past was largely unfamiliar to psychiatrists and consequently treated by prescribing sedatives, something that Traig says made no impact on her compulsions other than to make her sleepy and slow while having them (for more on this, read the chapter on her family's trip to France).

Though Jewish by ethnicity, Traig's family led a very secular life until the development of their daughter's intense scrupulosity. The book begins with an account of a late-night encounter between Traig and her father as Traig attempts to put everything she owns -- whether clothing, books, electronics, or otherwise -- into the laundry. She tells him that she's afraid all of her belongings have become tainted because her sister cooked bacon and the unkosher smell may have permeated the rest of the house. Somehow, her father manages -- as the family does throughout her life -- to have a good sense of humor about it and gently (as gently as one can in the middle of the night) sends the author back to bed so that she can rest up for another day of obsessions and compulsions. And this behavior continues, in riotous hilarity, for the rest of her formative years, and the book. Whether performing calisthenics to add interest to her prayers or using separate bathrooms after milk or meat meals, Traig invites us in to laugh with her, at her.

And the reason we can do this so easily is that this book is really one about identity more than anything else. All adolescents experience growing pains as they try to establish themselves as separate from their parents, and it helps to ease the angst of those memories to laugh at them, especially when magnified and multiplied by other issues. We all remember the terror and excitement of learning to drive for the first time; Traig just remembers it a little differently, since part and parcel of getting her learner's permit was insisting that she drive around and around parking lots before leaving them to make sure she hadn't unknowingly run over any pedestrians while pulling out. Traig's willingness to laugh at what must surely have been an incredibly difficult time in her life must be the result, in part, from the incredibly patient and loving way in which her family treated her throughout her growing up; the glimpses into her parents and sister are a strong reminder to us of how gently we should treat even the most seemingly well-adjusted teenagers entrusted to our own care.

One aspect of the book that takes away from its relatability, though, is that it can feel targeted at a somewhat niche audience when the language and subject matter veers too heavily into the world of Judaism. Traig does an adequate job of explaining the Yiddish phrases and the rituals that most of us aren't familiar with, but at times the assumed familiarity leaves the reader outside the story -- and we really need to feel inside all the time to make the book work. Additionally, Traig's organization of the chapters leaves something to be desired. She weaves in and out of her biographical details in part-chronological, part-topical order, and this creates a sense of repetition that makes some of the stories fall flat.

Devil in the Details is a worthwhile read for an audience already primed for this type of memoir -- fans of the authors listed near the beginning of this post would probably enjoy it. Based on the reaction of my book group, it also seems that adults find this more engaging than teenagers do, probably due to our distance from the pangs of adolescence and therefore our more willing ability to laugh, rather than cry, at our own growing pains magnified in Traig's retelling. One final note: the ends of each chapter contain funny quizzes and self-reflection activities to assess your inner OCD tendencies; these alone are worth the cover price, or the time spent to find the book at your local library.

Final verdict: ***

No comments:

Post a Comment