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Devil in the Details
By Jennifer Traig
Little, Brown Copyright © 2004 Jennifer Traig
All right reserved.
My 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 dont know."
We didn't know. Many years later we would learn that what happened was a strange condition called scrupulosity, a hyperreligious 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 its none of that. In fact, scruple 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 ones 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 McDonalds like a normal kid; the next, I was painting the lintels with marinade to ward off the Angel of Death.
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 cheese.
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 Fiestaware.
"Is there something wrong with the shrimp?" my father inquired.
"Seafood recall, they said on the news. You all can play food poisoning roulette if you like, but I'm giving mine to the cat."
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, its blasphemous. Then: no more reading Seventeen, its immodest, its 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 ones 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. Its 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 opener.
"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 toe."
Goodness knows I wanted to stop. The cats stomach was brushing the linoleum; I knew I wasn't doing her any favors. And I dreaded 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?
This probably wasn't a concern in normal Jewish homes, I realized, even observant ones, but I couldn't help myself. I didn't know any better. I knew nothing. I did not know, for instance, that girls weren't required to wear yarmulkes. I agonized over the issue. Should I wear a yarmulke all the time, even to school? I really thought I should, but I just wasn't brave enough. A fedora, yes; but a yarmulke was too much.
After several weeks of debate I decided I really only needed to cover my head when I prayed. The thing was, I couldn't stop praying. Since I rarely had a hat with me, I grabbed whatever was near: napkins, paper towels, Kleenex. Mostly I just used my hand. My fingers kept flying up to hover over my head while I quickly muttered a self-composed blessing. I pretended I was waving, or swatting, or scratching. This was not as effective a ruse as I imagined, and I ended up looking not only crazy but infested.
My head was certainly buzzing. It was a beehive, a switchboard with a hundred extensions lighting up at once. The only thing that quieted my brain was prayer. I wished it were something else. Prayer was dull and time-consuming. If only I found relief in more entertaining activities, like watching television or styling hair.
Instead, I had prayer. Soon my day was dominated by lengthy devotional sessions, conducted every morning, afternoon, and evening. I knew Jews were supposed to pray three times a day, but I didn't know the actual prayers, so I composed my own. First was ten minutes of chanting for a dozen missing children whose names I'd memorized after seeing them on the news. Next was extended pleading on behalf of all Americans held hostage abroad. After that I apologized for everything I had done wrong or would do wrong. Then I prayed for my family, begging forgiveness for their excessive pork consumption, and finished up by praying I wouldn't die alone.
On Saturday the prayers were doubled and tripled. Because there Wasn't a synagogue service within walking distance, I conducted my own. Because I did not know what a service consisted of, I made one up. From nine o'clock until half past noon I sat primly in my room, reading my Bible and my Junior Jewish Encyclopedia, line by line, not moving to a new line until I was sure I'd understood the last one completely. When that portion of the service was concluded, I read the "Torah Thoughts" feature in the Jewish newspaper, followed by the wedding announcements. Then I got on my knees and did back exercises. I was fairly certain this wasn't part of the traditional Shabbat service, but I thought it was a nice closer. Sound body equals sound mind and sound spirit.
Excerpted from Devil in the Details by Jennifer Traig Copyright © 2004 by Jennifer Traig. Excerpted by permission.
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