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When in Doubt
Jennifer Traig talks about the teenage religious compulsions that had her down on her knees at student council meetings, in this interview about her memoir, "Devil in the Details."

by David Holzel
Except for one detail, Jennifer Traig would be your average Orthodox Jewish woman raised in a pork-loving home by an assimilated Jewish father and practicing Catholic mother–parents who had agreed early on to raise Jennifer and her sister as Jews, but who lacked basic Jewish knowledge to guide their children–in the white bread and mayonnaise rural environment of central California.

What marked Traig, now 34, as different from every other Jewish girl of that description was that she suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder, and the particular form the disorder took. Jennifer was determined to become a full-fledged Jew, and when she began studying for her bat mitzvah at age 12, her OCD came to life as something called “scrupulosity.”

Traig defines scrupulosity as a “hyper-religious form of OCD.” And in her recent memoir, Devil in the Details–Scenes from an Obsessive Girlhood (Little, Brown), she details just what being hyper-religious entails.

“Sometimes I had to drop to my knees and pray during student council meetings, and sometimes I had to hide under the bleachers and chant psalms,” she writes. During Pesach she tossed out magazines because there were pictures of leavened food on the cover. She didn’t bathe for the three weeks leading up to Tisha B’av, and she conducted lengthy Shabbat services alone in her bedroom.

Her family had no context in which to put Jennifer’s newfound interest in Jewish ritual, and were unable to distinguish between regular Jewish practice and Jennifer’s wild takes on halachah.

 

Scrupulosity: An overzealous concern that a person's behavior or thoughts may in some way be displeasing or disrespecting to God.

Dr. Stephen Phillipson


 

  “Mr. Stein [her bat mitzvah tutor] did not know, when he told me that milk and meat required separate dishes, that I would decide that they required separate toilets as well,” she writes in the bemused tone she maintains throughout her book.

Up to 3 percent of the population has OCD at some point in their lives, and 10 percent of them suffer from scrupulosity as part of their condition, says Jonathan Huppert, assistant professor of psychology in psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety.

 
OCD attaches to the things that are most important in your life,” says Dr. Huppert, himself an Orthodox Jew who has treated other Orthodox Jews suffering from scrupulosity.

Traig wasn’t diagnosed and treated until late in her teens. Until then, the family humored her and tried to find the light side to her often bizarre behavior. The best home remedy turned out to be the crafts projects her mother did with the girls every summer. The repetitious, ritualized tasks helped Jennifer stay focused. It also gave her the experience to write a series of craft books as an adult, and a humor book she wrote with her sister, called Judaikitsch (Chronicle). Devil in the Details was far different than anything she had written before.

What grabbed me about Traig’s story is that it takes place at a crossroads that is just beginning to come into focus–that place where religion and psychology intersect. Scrupulosity bears an eerie resemblance to observant Judaism, Traig points out, with its outward focus on choreographed ritual.

For me, her experience raises the questions, What is piety? And where is the line that separates it from pathology? Those are among the things we talked about in the following interview.

 

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