Sines and Cosines

When in Doubt:
Jennifer Traig

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The Interview

David Holzel: Your book–and life–deals with a topic that fascinates me: religion and psychology. Where do they intersect? How do they complement one another? And is one a modern replacement for the other? Before we get into these deep things, I was wondering how you got from Judaikitsch to this?

Jennifer Traig: I was working on a terrible novel. It was a parody of a bad novel, but it was more bad than parody. And about three chapters in I just got blocked and kept thinking about my adolescence and how it was kind of weird, and maybe there was a story there. And finally I decided that I had to write that before I could write anything else.

How long were you working on it?

It took altogether about a year and a half to write.

The other thing that wasn’t clear in the book is where in California you grew up.

It’s a town called Woodland, which is next to Davis. It’s in the Sacramento valley. The population has doubled since I lived there.

How did your parents end up there?

My father’s a surgeon and there’s a big clinic there. So that’s where he ended up going after his residency.

I figured it was for work, because the town didn’t seem to fit anybody’s lifestyle.

Not at all.
If one was to describe a girl who, in preparing for her bat mitzvah, began praying three times a day and chanting psalms and raising theological questions, and doing everything possible in her non-kosher home... And I just have this image of ham being in every nook and cranny of your house...


I just felt that ham was the focal point or something. And in that case, trying to keep kosher–the response would be, “Oh, what a nice Jewish girl.” And yet in your case these were symptoms of mental illness.

"You know it’s pathological if you’re focusing on one or two commandments to the exclusion of everything else."

And in fact they were right. But we forged a truce. They now accept the ham-free lifestyle and don’t think it’s pathological.

Judaism also allows us to make ordinary human activity holy. A rabbi once said to me, “A monkey can eat a banana too.” But only a human can raise the act of eating a banana to a higher level. You write: “Now my rituals were exactly that–rituals. Suddenly I wasn’t just washing, I was purifying myself.” I find a paradox there, between you doing Jewish activities and, on the other hand, it was pathological.

The impulses themselves were not religious at all. They took on the framework. But they could have been anything. But because religion was something I had always been interested, that was the shape it took for me. That was the one thing I retained. I’m not scrupulous anymore, but I’m still more or less Orthodox.

And I guess that’s how you can determine the difference between pathological activities and pious activities?

When I was doing research, one thing that kept coming up is that you know it’s pathological if you’re focusing on one or two commandments to the exclusion of everything else. You’ll violate Shabbat to shower because you think you’ve incurred a ritual impurity. There were a couple of things that were very important to observe, but other things I really didn’t care about.

You call scrupulosity, “The doubting disease. It focuses you to question everything.” Judaism is a religion of intellectual struggle. A lot of people think that to be Orthodox means you don’t question, but the more you know, the more you question. And there you were, torn by theological questions and ruminating, which again can be looked at as a pious activity. The whole question of where piety ends and mental illness begins--“A fine line between piety and wack-ass obsession.”? “Now I wasn’t just a weird kid; I was a religious fanatic.” It’s better to be a religious fanatic than a weird kid, don’t you think?

Oh, yeah. I was perfectly entertained.

And you wrote in the book that in the Catholic Church, for instance, until recently this was looked on as something positive. And it made me wonder how many, who we think of as pious and holy people, if we met them today, we’d say, “Seek help.”

In general, rabbis–and I have to say that my Jewish education is... and I don’t know a lot of rabbinical history, but they all seemed pretty even-handed to me. I really had to dig to find these examples of rabbis who wanted to recheck the locks that many times. But self-loathing... You see a lot of self-loathing... “I’m not worthy.” Which is probably a different impulse.

It’s probably depression. Do you think, because you went largely undiagnosed and untreated for a long time, what have we gained and what have we lost from being able to diagnose and treat various mental illnesses that may have been thought of as something else in times past?

I do think to an extent it was a tradeoff with psychiatry. You do lose the magic. It’s not God telling you to do this. On the other hand I think it makes the equation much less scary. A sufferer has control over this and the choices they want to make over their religious life, with the help of therapy, and have a religious life governed by choices and not psychiatric imperative.

And one, presumably, that’s richer. It’s gotten me to think about free will, which Judaism is very big on. And you wrote: “Sometimes I had to drop to my knees and pray, or chant psalms.” You seemed absent of free will. Then it really surprised me that after your first bout your parents imposed a contract on you. And they threatened to really embarrass you badly if you were going to keep acting like that. And it worked. To what degree of free will did you think you had?

Scrupulosity : Good or bad for the Jews?

  I always thought that I had no control over the impulses, but eventually learned to have some control over what I did with them. I couldn’t help feeling the way I felt, but I could either choose to give in to the impulse or resist it. And over time I got better with it. But things just jump unbidden into my brain. I couldn’t stop that.
When you wrote “The first step [to recovery] would be to distinguish normal Jewish practice from crazy compulsive behavior”–maybe that’s one of the things normative Judaism is about. The term the "hedge around the Torah." Generally we think of it as enlarging practice in order to keep people from backsliding. But I started thinking that it can act the other way–keeping someone from getting into more and more minutia and missing everything else. And you can reality check against that. What is the story of your getting better? It’s been quite a while now.

Unfortunately it was not a good time for OCD. It was the early ‘80s and I just missed Prozac by maybe five years. So I had to do it without SSRIs. For me the process was more or less what is called cognitive behavior therapy. A lot of making me do things that I didn’t think I could do, and proving that it would not kill me.

When you say that, it’s very offhand. But it’s a matter of, if you don’t go back and wash your hands your mother’s going to die.

Right. And it’s all very logical in your head. Why wouldn’t she die? That’s staph infection on your hands.

So how many times do you have to prove that to yourself before you can act on it with a low level of anxiety?

I felt that it was about a year of really resisting impulses. By the time I left for college, I felt that I was fine.
Does it manifest itself in any way today?

Actually, I wasn’t until I started doing research that I realized that I totally have obsessive-compulsive quirks that I thought were just the charming things that make me me. Like, if I’m walking with someone, I have to be on the left side. And if I’m not, it’s very uncomfortable. And that’s pretty common among obsessive-compulsives. My religious practice it doesn’t inform at all. But, oh, I like to check my locks. Patting down my pockets. I certainly don’t feel that it’s out of control, but it definitely is an impulse.

In connection with this you also had some disorders that, I think, disproportionately affect adolescent girls–eating disorders, hair pulling, cutting–although not in your case. “The

"With Judaism, I just had no idea, So I made things up."

perfectibility and control over the body” is the rationale. Can you give me some insight into this?

There definitely seems to be a pretty strong link between anorexia and OCD. Not in everything, but if you have one it’s not unlikely that you have the other. And as far as why girls, I think that girls tend to be more than boys instead of lashing out they lash in. So they tend to act out in ways that are not so good for them. And make a rather dramatic statement.

There also seems to be some connection between some behaviors and religious psychosis. Karen Armstrong’s memoir about her time in the convent. And she and a couple of the other nuns developed anorexia, which is pretty common throughout history, actually. An ascetic lifestyle really lends itself to that kind of behavior.

You’re trying to be more ascetic than thou.

Exactly. It’s just another form of self-flagellation. So is cutting. The hair pulling is something different. It’s the grooming impulse gone haywire.

Do you think if you had been a more knowledgeably Jewish 12-year-old, would your life have been any easier?

Yes, I think so. I’m definitely someone who needs a lot of structure. And if I don’t have it, I’ll invent it. So, with Judaism, I just had no idea, so I made things up from, what was Neil Diamond’s movie?... The Jazz Singer. Trying to extrapolate to my own life. And I think it would have been easier on my parents–my mother is from a Catholic background, my father is Reform–they didn’t have a context to see that, no, no, not turning lights on on Saturday isn’t strange, it’s actually normal. Yeah, it would have been a little easier for all of us.

What do you think of ba’alei teshuvah? You use the term in the book as “return” and “circling” and, in your own sense, of thoughts circling, of ruminating. To what extent do you think the ba’alei teshuvah phenomenon...

I don’t know. It’s so normal to me, I’m hard pressed to think of anyone who grew up Orthodox. Everyone I know who is practicing now came to this on their own. Our religion was shaped by rebellion against our parents. That’s definitely part of it. I worry about us all having kids who’ll go the other way. laughs

The other thing about rebelling against your parents is you can end up coming back again. This line in the book stood out for me: “Hair is sex and touching and death. Cover it. Just cover it.” You didn’t mean it in the context that you had written it, but that is exactly what Orthodox Jewish and Muslim married women do with their hair.


It just struck me–Cover it! Put it away!

That was probably a remnant of the high-strung term papers I wrote in grad school about, I don’t know, pre-Raphaelite women’s hair. I hear the wigs are uncomfortable.

Copyright © 2005 by David Holzel

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