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Turbulent Times for Airlines

What's going on with the airline industry? We talk to journalist Scott McCartney, who follows the airline industry and writes the weekly column "The Middle Seat" for The Wall Street Journal.

30:21

Other segments from the episode on January 13, 2005

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 13, 2005: Interview with Scott McCartney; Interview with Jennifer Traig.

Transcript

DATE January 13, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Scott McCartney discusses the airline industry
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

As if post-9/11 airport security lines, flight delays, cancellations and lost
luggage hadn't made flying challenging enough, now many of us have to figure
out whether the airline we fly will still be in business by the time of our
next trip. My guest, Scott McCartney, has covered the airline industry since
1995. He's The Wall Street Journal's travel editor and writes a consumer
column about flying called The Middle Seat. We asked him for some
explanations and advice.

Let's start with a rundown of the airlines that are currently in bankruptcy.

Mr. SCOTT McCARTNEY (The Wall Street Journal): United just passed its second
anniversary in bankruptcy protection. US Airways is currently in its second
bankruptcy since 2001. ATA airlines, which is based in Indianapolis and flies
quite a bit out of Chicago, is a discount carrier in bankruptcy. And then
both of the carriers based in Hawaii, interestingly, are in bankruptcy,
Hawaiian and Aloha Airlines.

GROSS: Let's talk a little bit about what this means for travelers and ticket
buyers. Are any of these airlines likely to not be around in the next few
weeks or the next few months? Like if you're buying a ticket for a flight in
March or April, are you safe?

Mr. McCARTNEY: I think you run a large risk on US Airways, and I've written
this and it's a hard thing to write because, you know, the trouble with
telling people not to buy tickets on a financially troubled carrier is that
you just make the financial troubles worse. But in this case, USAir still
faces some big hurdles to get out of bankruptcy. It has jumped over the
hurdles that it's faced so far and, you know, may well continue to jump over
hurdles. I think we'll know by, you know, the end of January, February or so
whether they're going to make it. Would I buy a ticket for this summer on US
Airways? No, I think I would wait and see. Fares are, you know, plenty low.
There's not a great need to rush into buying a ticket. If I was buying for
summer travel, I'd buy elsewhere right now. I you have frequent flyer miles
to redeem, and we've been saying this for a while, you can book tickets on
USAir partner airlines and give yourself a little protection that way. So
book your ticket with USAir miles on United or Lufthansa or Air Canada or one
of the other Star Alliance partners and you should be OK.

GROSS: But one suggestion you've made in your column that I think the
discount airlines won't particularly like is that if you want to fly USAir,
buy your ticket, but also buy a backup ticket that's refundable. And I think
those refundable tickets are usually the discount airlines.

Mr. McCARTNEY: Right, the discount airlines. And even a non-refundable
ticket on a discount airline carrier like Southwest has no penalty for
changing a reservation. So you could actually cancel your reservation and
have a credit on Southwest in the next year. It might be a smart thing to do
if you think you--you know, sooner or later, you're going to use the ticket
for Southwest. If I was taking the family from Philadelphia to Orlando to
Disney World or something like that, I think a backup plan, you know, at
spring break might be a good option.

GROSS: If you are holding a ticket for an airline that goes under, what
happens to the value of the ticket? Does the airline have any responsibility
to reimburse you for it?

Mr. McCARTNEY: No, the airline doesn't, but the credit card company does. If
the airline doesn't deliver the service that you paid for, then your credit
card company has to give you a refund. Now that's--you know, that's a good
option for some people who can go buy a ticket somewhere else. If you bought
a real cheap ticket for future travel and, you know, the airline goes under
the day before you're supposed to fly, you may not find that same fare. So
your other option is to try and go standby on other airlines. There's a law
in effect that says that the airlines have to honor tickets of defunct
carriers on a standby basis, and you have to pay a $50 fee. I think it's $25
each way. That's a good option if you get stranded, but again, if you've got
a family of four and you're trying to get somewhere popular, trying to go on
standby is a real nightmare.

GROSS: Are you telling me that the credit card companies are the ones who
have to bail out the passengers left with tickets from a carrier that went
under?

Mr. McCARTNEY: Well, you know, yes, because the credit card companies
reserve for this kind of option. They hold back money from the airline. You
may have paid. You write your check to the credit card company. And they may
or may not have actually sent your dollars to the airline. They may still
have the dollars. So you know, they're the ones under the Fair Credit Act
that are responsible for this.

GROSS: What's your analysis about why so many airlines are in bankruptcy now?
How much of it is just soaring oil prices? How much of it is competition from
the discount airlines? And how much of it is that they--you know, do they get
greedy?

Mr. McCARTNEY: You know, all those--everything you mentioned is an important
factor. And I think greed is really the biggest factor. The biggest mistake
that the incumbent airlines ever made was not offering value to their
customers, overcharging business travelers, gouging them. You know, it's the
old wallet biopsy. The corporation was willing to pay anything to get the guy
to San Francisco to close the deal, and so the airlines were charging
anything. And had fares not been so high, discount airlines wouldn't have had
nearly the market that they had. They wouldn't have had nearly the growth
opportunities that they've had. The legacy airlines, to a large extent, simply
priced themselves out of a lot of markets.

At the same time, the discount airlines had--you know, the big advantage that
they had was starting with a clean sheet of paper, with young work forces,
young fleets, different work rules. The legacy airlines were really saddled
with labor contracts, work rules, inefficiencies left over from the regulated
days that they still haven't been able to shed. Mix all that with the
Internet, which I think was a tremendous driver of all this, which gave
passengers the ability to shop around, to see airline prices.

You know, it used to be if you wanted to go to New York, you called up the
travel agent and said, `I need to go to New York,' and they'd say, `When do
you want to go?' and you'd say, `Friday at 5 PM,' and they'd say, `Here's the
price.' Now you can, in a matter of seconds, search all kinds of
alternatives, see what--you know, if going Thursday night is cheaper than
Friday night or staying over or whatever. And it's all displayed very clearly
for you. That gave consumers enormous power.

Oil prices have hurt, you know, all kinds of--the economy's not helping
airlines. And so it all created just an untenable situation for a lot of
high-cost carriers.

GROSS: I remember I was once on the phone buying a ticket from an airline,
and the person on the phone selling the ticket explained to me that the reason
why the major airlines charge so much more for tickets than the discount
airlines was, in part, because the discount airlines only flew the most
profitable routes, so they were never in a position of taking a loss on a
route, whereas the big airlines were not only flying the profitable routes,
but they were flying a lot of the routes to, like, small towns where there was
very little traffic, where they were probably going to lose money, but it was
such an important service to their customers. Does that ring true to you?

Mr. McCARTNEY: You know, only partially. It's true that the discount
airlines, being new to the business, essentially cherry-picked the routes that
they think were the best routes. But they had the disadvantage. The legacy
airlines had incredible advantages of having these big hubs at the major
cities. You know, the discount airlines have a hard time getting into
Washington Reagan, which is a very important airport, very profitable for the
legacy airlines. So partially true on that front.

On the other end, on the small cities, you know, small cities can be very
profitable for big airlines if they have the right size equipment. And those
cities, you know, bring in a lot of travelers that allow them to operate big
hubs. If you take out all the small cities from the feed traffic of the hub
airlines, you know, the whole thing is not nearly as profitable. One of the
interesting developments recently is that the discount airlines are pushing
more and more into smaller cities. Next fall, JetBlue Airways brings in a
hundred-seat jet, small, essentially your regional airline-size jet, that
they'll fly to smaller cities and start feeding their hub at JFK.

GROSS: Now you mentioned the fares that took advantage of business travelers
who were booking their reservations at the last minute, and those fares were
much higher than the fares you would book if you were booking, say, a month in
advance. Can you talk a little bit about how that kind of fare system came to
be in the first place, you know, where you have the long-term booking price,
and then it got much more expensive 14 days in advance, and even more
expensive seven days in advance, and if you're booking the day before, wow.

Mr. McCARTNEY: Yeah.

GROSS: What was the rationale behind those different levels?

Mr. McCARTNEY: It was a way to segregate leisure travelers, who are
incredibly price-sensitive, from business travelers, who aren't. It's the
difference between if the ticket is being bought out of your wallet or your
company's wallet. And the Saturday night stay was the key driver in all of
that because airlines figured, `Hey,' you know, `how can we figure out who's
a leisure traveler and who's a business traveler? Well, we can do it by
setting all these conditions.' Business travelers--and I think this has
changed, too, but business travelers, historically, did not want to buy
tickets far in advance. They didn't really know what their schedule might be
three weeks from now. Leisure travelers did, because you would, you know,
plan the vacation way in advance. Saturday night stay was another segregator.

So all of these rules came into being as a way simply to separate
price-sensitive travelers from non-price-sensitive travelers. And if you
could--and then once you had them separated, you could charge different
amounts.

GROSS: But the Saturday night thing really wreaked havoc on a lot of
convention travelers, because, you know, your company's spending a lot of money
to a convention that starts on Thursday. You have to stay that extra night,
Saturday night, at the hotel...

Mr. McCARTNEY: Right.

GROSS: ...because if you don't do that, you're going to pay a fortune to fly
to and from the destination. So even business travelers were often hit hard
by that Saturday night rule. Do any of the airlines still have the Saturday
night rule?

Mr. McCARTNEY: You know, it's almost completely gone, and that's a very
recent development with the Delta fare changes earlier this month; basically
has eliminated the Saturday night stay. I live in Dallas, and I recently
booked a business trip to New York, going up on a Tuesday and coming back on a
Thursday. And I used to pay--the company used to pay, you know, $2,000 or
more for that trip, and The Wall Street Journal's going to pay $250 for this
trip. I mean, I was astounded when I saw it. It's historic.

And the elimination of Saturday night stay requirements changes a lot of
things. It changes how we may vacation. I mean, you can leave on a Sunday
and come back on a Friday and have a couple days before you have to go back to
work. I mean, I think people planned a lot of vacations around that Saturday
night stay rule as well.

GROSS: My guest is Scott McCartney. He writes a column in air travel for The
Wall Street Journal called The Middle Seat. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Scott McCartney, and he writes
The Wall Street Journal travel column called The Middle Seat. And he is the
travel editor and has covered the airlines since 1995.

There are many things that the airlines have been trying to do to cut their
costs. What are the things they've done ranging from the smart to the
ridiculous?

Mr. McCARTNEY: You know, there's quite a bit of both. We've seen
straight-up wage cuts at a lot of carriers that's been very painful for
airline employees. You know, been a great time to be a passenger except for
the baggage disruptions and canceled flights and all that. But from a ticket
standpoint, it's a great time. It's been a terrible time, obviously, to be an
airline employee. So they've taken pay cuts. Their work rules have been
changed. They're working longer. And all of that probably needed to happen.
It was an industry that had gotten out of whack economically with labor.

The more interesting changes to cut costs are: Several airlines have
essentially been dismantling the--flattening out the peaks at their hubs. So
instead of a bunch of planes all arriving at the same time and all trying to
leave at the same time, they spread the schedule out over the entire hour, the
entire day. That means they can run the same number of flights with fewer
gates. They can run the same number of flights with fewer airplanes--and
airplanes are very expensive--and fewer employees, and employees are
expensive. So that's been a cost savings, and I think that's actually been a
good thing for travelers. I think people like the longer wait at hub
airports. You could get something to eat. You didn't have to run to the
gate. If your flight was 10 minutes late, it didn't mean you had to sprint
through the terminal. So that's been a good thing.

Some of the more ridiculous things, you know, American Airlines just recently
said they're taking pillows off most of their flights. And, you know, the
airline is going to save $300,000 a year or something like that which, for a
company like American, a $20 billion company, is sort of a drop in the bucket.
You have to wonder, you know, how many tickets they won't sell just because of
the late-night talk show jokes and everything else about removing pillows. It
just puts the airline in a very bad light, especially when the discount
competition is really offering a higher quality product. American doesn't
have satellite television. JetBlue does. You know, there are lots of
differentiators now where discount airlines are offering high-quality service.
And to start taking pillows and things off planes is really silly.

GROSS: One of the things that several airlines have done away with is food,
or at least food on most flights. But some of the airlines started to sell
food, so you still had the option of having food. You just had to pay for it.
How is that experiment of selling food going?

Mr. McCARTNEY: You know, I think it's going fine. I think people actually
like it. One of the fascinating developments in all of that is that the food
that they're selling actually isn't so bad. And, you know, airlines had
always said, `Oh, it's so hard to deliver good food. You have all these
challenges of trucking it to the plane and the altitude and the this and the
that.' And, gosh, it turns out, you know, when you have to sell it, they can
actually provide a good sandwich that's not soggy or, you know, a decent salad
that's not all wilted. And I don't think travelers have minded a whole lot
shelling out $9 for the tuna fish sandwich, or whatever the price is, if it's
of decent quality. I mean, that's probably what you'd pay at Au Bon Pain in
the airport terminal. So I think, you know, in that regard, it's gone pretty
well.

GROSS: Let's talk about comfort on planes. Now we talked a little bit about
food. One of the most common complaints is the lack of leg room...

Mr. McCARTNEY: Yes.

GROSS: ...when you're flying. And on first class, of course, there's a lot
more of it. But it's very difficult to get into first class, even if you've
got an upgrade, 'cause everybody else has one, too (laughs).

Mr. McCARTNEY: And upgrades are going to be harder and harder to come by if
they sell more tickets in first class. You're going to have to pay your way
to get into the front.

GROSS: Oh, really? Yeah?

Mr. McCARTNEY: Yeah. It's an interesting development. I mean, from an
airline point of view, they probably should be selling more of those seats.
And by bringing the prices down to reasonable levels--$200, $400, $500 more
than a coach ticket--there will be people who will pay for that. And that
will leave fewer seats for the road warrior upgrades.

GROSS: What was the differential before?

Mr. McCARTNEY: Oh, thousands of dollars. I mean, nobody bought first-class
tickets before. But Delta's offering first-class seats at $599, you know, one
way, and, you know, that's a price people will pay.

GROSS: When it comes to seating comfort now, what direction are the airlines
heading in? Are they heading in making the seats more comfortable for the
passengers or saving money by making the seats small with little leg room?

Mr. McCARTNEY: The leg room's shrinking again. And it's hard to believe that
it could shrink any more, but it's shrinking again. American tried a
more-room-in-coach campaign where they had decided that leg room had just
shrunk to intolerable levels. And they had widened out--taken seats out of
airplanes, widened out the space and hoped that people would pay extra or, you
know, that they could get a bigger share of business travelers and others;
that there would be some premium in that revenuewise for them. Turns out
there really wasn't. It's interesting. It's kind of like the food, where
people complain about the comfort, but they won't necessarily pay extra for
it. United does have a program where it has a couple rows on its planes with
extra leg room, and they think they're getting some kind of premium for that.
If you buy a full-fare ticket, you get into Economy Plus, they call it. But,
by and large, people have never, historically, paid for that.

I mean, there have been all kinds of iterations of three-cabin domestic
service. And airlines tried movable rows, where you could adjust it for the
loads of the day and things like that. And none if it's ever really worked.
For so many people, you know, the fare is everything, and they'll change
airlines for a $5 difference in the fare. And with fares so cheap and losses
so high, airlines have to get as many seats as they can on airplanes these
days.

GROSS: The class system on airplanes is so interesting. If you're a frequent
flier on your carrier, you get to board first, so you make sure you get the
luggage space above your seat; you get a better seat on the plane; you get
more of an opportunity to upgrade to first class. So, you know, it's just
kind of, like, privileged status, and it's so hard because you're so aware of
it if you're a frequent flier.

Mr. McCARTNEY: Yeah.

GROSS: But I'm wondering how the frequent flier programs are going to change
now that so much is changing about air travel. What direction are they
heading in?

Mr. McCARTNEY: I think they have lost a lot of clout in terms of their
marketing force. Frequent flier programs used to be tremendous drivers of
loyalty. You know, a business traveler who was building miles on one airline
just wouldn't go fly somebody else. And then the fare differential got too
high, and you said, `Well, OK, I can spend $2,000 on this airline or 2 or $300
on that airline. What am I going to do? I'm just not going to spend my
company's money, especially if my company's laying off people or squeezing
travel budgets or that kind of thing.' So loyalty kind of went out that way.

And the other way was that airlines made it difficult to actually use miles.
So people accumulated huge frequent flier balances that they really had a hard
time using, or at least using for the kind of trips that they wanted. And in
that case, you know, the miles devalued. And if you weren't going to get a
free ticket to Europe when you wanted to go in the summer, then what good were
they? So I think the combination of that, business travelers being in
multiple programs, discount airlines having their own programs--everybody's
got a program--it's all devalued the frequent flier program.

GROSS: My guest is Scott McCartney. He'll be back in the second half of the
show. He writes a column on air travel for The Wall Street Journal called The
Middle Seat. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) I get no kick in a plane. I aim too high.

(Announcements)

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Coming up, Jennifer Traig talks about her obsessive-compulsive
adolescent years, when she started obsessively following Jewish law and
rituals. She's written a new memoir. And we talk more about air travel with
Wall Street Journal columnist Scott McCartney.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Scott McCartney. He
writes a column about air travel for The Wall Street Journal called The Middle
Seat. He's been covering the airline industry since 1995.

Give us some advice. You go into the airport, you want to check in as quickly
and as least stressfully as possible, what's the smartest approach to checking
in?

Mr. McCARTNEY: I think the smartest approach is to avoid as many lines as you
possibly can, and that means taking advantage of the kiosks, which, I think,
are a great development. You can check yourself in, get your boarding pass
often without standing in line. And that's a huge benefit. I think taking
advantage of skycaps these days--if you can avoid a line inside the terminal
by working with a skycap and tipping him a couple bucks, that's worthwhile.

I think one of the more important things--if you get to the security line and
you see a huge line, don't think that that's the line you have to stand in. A
lot of airports have multiple lines, and it's been so erratic that sometimes
you can have, you know, a 30-minute, 40-minute wait at one line. A 10-minute
walk down the concourse, there's a security line with no wait at all. And so
it's worth it to take the walk. At a couple airports--Atlanta and Denver have
been particular trouble spots. They have central check-in points, where it
looks like everybody gets herded, but actually each of them have one secondary
check-in point. And so even if you have to walk away and, you know, ride the
airport train back to your gate or whatever you have to do, that's a good way
to reduce stress and save yourself some time.

GROSS: Yeah. Well, here's a great way to add stress. If you take that trip
to the line 10 minutes away and it turns out that that line is long, you've
just added 20 minutes to your ordeal.

Mr. McCARTNEY: Yeah, that's right. But I think before you take the 10-minute
walk, if you're worried about that, ask somebody. Ask, you know, the air--you
know, at the airport terminal, if there are five flights leaving from five
consecutive gates, the gate agents are going to know that, and they're going
to know that the other end of the terminal doesn't have any flights or has far
fewer flights and likely has shorter lines. People at the airport have to go
in and out of those lines quite frequently, and they know how it works.

The other thing you can do is check the TSA, the Transportation Security
Administration's, Web site, www.tsa.gov. They have some historical wait-time
data on their Web site, and you can check by airport, by security checkpoint.
And that can give you some guide at terminal B or C or wherever you are of
what the different wait times might be that you'll run into.

GROSS: You write for The Wall Street Journal; you write about travel for The
Wall Street Journal. I'm wondering if you think the airlines represent the
best or the worst or the middle of capitalism. I mean, for example, you said
it's through greed that some of the silliest airline practices develop, like
overcharging last-minute business flyers. And so you could argue that it's
through greedy capitalist practices that the airlines are stuck in this
position that they're in. At the same time, you could argue that, you know,
it's through competition, like the discount airlines, that things in the
airlines are shaking down and prices are coming down and so on. So how do you
interpret the role of capitalism in the way the airlines have been
(unintelligible)?

Mr. McCARTNEY: You know, I think capitalism has led to increased travel in
this country, and I think that's a good thing. I mean, if you look at where
travel was in 1978, before the industry was deregulated, far fewer people
traveled and fares were higher. Since 1978, travel has doubled and fares have
come down significantly and have declined steadily since 1978. You look at a
fare curve since that time, and it is straight down, you know, ski slope. And
that's all good for consumers. I think there are some small towns out there
that may not have the service that they did back when the industry was
regulated, but, you know, that's a bit of the chicken-and-egg thing. They
don't have the population they did then. Airlines generally go where there
are people, and if the town's population has declined, the air service is
going to decline, too.

So, you know, by and large, there's far more choice at cheaper prices. People
can take their families, they can go--business travelers can get where they
want, you know, in a matter of hours. And, all in all, it's a better
transportation system than when the government ran it.

GROSS: Do you like flying?

Mr. McCARTNEY: Yeah, I love flying, sick as that may sound.

GROSS: Why do you love it?

Mr. McCARTNEY: Well, I love travel. I love to see new things. I love to
move around. I love the airline industry. There's something about it when,
you know, jet fuel gets in your veins or something. It's exciting. You know,
for me, it's not like covering technology or, you know, God forbid, banking or
something like that. And I'm a pilot myself, and I love that aspect of
flying. There's just something very peaceful about being in the air,
something enormously relaxing. And there's a great sense of achievement when
you can, you know, fly yourself somewhere.

GROSS: Well, Scott McCartney, thanks so much for talking with us.

Mr. McCARTNEY: It's great to be with you.

GROSS: Scott McCartney writes a column on air travel for The Wall Street
Journal called The Middle Seat.

Jennifer Traig insists that people hate to travel with her. She still has
some of the obsessive-compulsive behavior that dominated her life during her
adolescence. Coming up, we talk about her informative and funny memoir. This
is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Jennifer Traig discusses her memoir, "Devil in the
details: Scenes From an Obsessive Girlhood"
TERRY GROSS, host:

Jennifer Traig spent a lot of her adolescent and teen years washing her hands
over and over and spent very little time eating. She had obsessive-compulsive
disorder, OCD, and everything she did, she did all the way, including praying
and following Jewish laws. As she says, `Suddenly I wasn't just washing
myself. I was purifying myself from sin.' Traig's new memoir is called "Devil
in the Details: Scenes From an Obsessive Girlhood." She's a frequent
contributor to McSweeney's Internet Tendency and The Forward.

Let's start with a reading from the beginning of Traig's book.

Ms. JENNIFER TRAIG (Author, "Devil in the Details: Scenes From an Obsessive
Girlhood"): (Reading) `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 don't know."'

GROSS: When your father came upon you and your hands were bloodied and
wrapped in baggies and there were paper towels underneath your feet and you
were washing everything you owned and you were wearing your yarmulke and your
nightgown, did anything seem wrong to you?

Ms. TRAIG: I think that was really the point where I looked at myself and
knew, `This is not what 12 years old looks like; that I should be, you know,
out romping around in little Izod playsuits and having a great time with my
friends.' And, instead, I was up to my elbows in Clorox. So I definitely
knew things had gotten out of hand.

GROSS: You eventually found out that you had, among other things, a type of
obsessive-compulsive disorder that's known as scrupulosity, which I had never
heard of before. What is it?

Ms. TRAIG: Yeah, it's not at all rare, but it is very obscure. In fact, it's
so little known that my publisher actually made sure it was a real disease
before they bought my book. No one's heard of it, but it's, in fact, the
oldest form of OCD. And, basically, it's simply religious OCD. You do the
exact same things you do with any other kind of OCD, like tap or wash or
check. But you do them because either you think the Bible tells you to or
because God will punish you if you don't. So everything has this sort of
religious framework. And it's been around forever. There are records of
monks with scrupulosity from the sixth century. By the 12th century, the
Catholic Church had named it. Martin Luther had it, John Bunyan, St. Theresa.

GROSS: Is scrupulosity considered a disorder or just a very committed form of
devotion?

Ms. TRAIG: Certainly early on it was seen as a virtue. After a while, as
scrupulosity wore down their clergy with, you know, constant need to confess
and just nagging doubts and worries all the time, everyone started to get
that, `Maybe this isn't a good thing. Maybe this is actually something that
needs treatment.' And the church was the first group to realize that and to
prescribe protocol for priests to deal with their scrupulous parishioners.

GROSS: Now your father is Jewish, your mother is Catholic. You became...

Ms. TRAIG: Exactly.

GROSS: ...an Orthodox Jew when you were in your early teens. What was it
about religion that seemed to--that attracted you so much?

Ms. TRAIG: Well, I loved having the structure, and even still, I mean, having
my choices taken away is just fabulous for me. I really like the order of it.
I was, you know, a fairly serious child, and, you know, had I been Catholic, I
certainly would have been a nun. Because I was raised Jewish, I chose
Orthodoxy. I liked the sense of community it offered. I liked always knowing
what I would need to do at any given time of the day.

GROSS: It seems to me when you were young and becoming Orthodox, there were
things that you did that were based on a total misunderstanding of the
religion.

Ms. TRAIG: Oh, absolutely. And that, I think, had less to do with my OCD
than the fact that, you know, I grew up in this small Northern California farm
town. There are almost no Jews. My mother was Catholic, so I really didn't
get a whole lot of Jewish education. And most of it was just stuff I picked
up on my own, you know, just reading my Junior Jewish Encyclopedia or
reading--I loved "All-of-a-Kind Family." "The Jazz Singer," that movie, I
watched over and over, the remake with Neil Diamond. And that is really what
I based my religious practice on. So it was this strange religion that looked
sort of like Judaism, but everything was just slightly off.

GROSS: For instance, you were wearing a yarmulke, and women don't wear
yarmulkes (laughs).

Ms. TRAIG: No, exactly. But, you know, Neil Diamond had, so it seemed like a
good idea.

GROSS: When you got deeply into Judaism and you were living in a
predominantly non-Jewish town, in order to become an Orthodox Jew, you had to
official convert to Judaism.

Ms. TRAIG: Yeah, yeah, exactly. I had to go through the whole process, which
at 12, it was not maybe really what I wanted to do. I mean, you have to--it
doesn't--at some point you have to go to the ritual bath, go to the miqvah,
and that part I could have lived without. But, you know, it was something I
had to--I kind of felt like it was having a sex change; you know, that my
identity was as a Jew, and I had to go through this procedure to make my
identity and my actual life match. So I was happy to do it.

GROSS: Although you turned to Orthodox Judaism--your mother's Catholic. Did
she think about the saints at all and their commitment or obsessions?

Ms. TRAIG: Not so much--when she and my father got married, they made an
agreement that the kids would be raised Jewish. And she mostly kept her
practice to herself. She's devout and, you know, prays all the time, goes to
church every week and invokes St. Anthony a lot for lost things. And you knew
you were in a lot of trouble when she was bringing up St. Jude, patron saint
of lost causes. That was when you knew you had it coming. But for the most
part, no, she was actually really good about trying to find me Jewish women
role models and would always mention--you know, if we saw, like, Barbara
Hershey or, you know, Tovah Feldshuh on TV, `Oh, she's Jewish.'

And when I was maybe seven or so, she became friendly with Aline
Kominsky-Crumb, Robert Crumb's wife. They happened to meet at this gym called
The Total Woman, where it was mostly people by--you know, these women with
frosted hair and leotards. And, you know, they didn't really look like that.
And she would come back sometimes to the house, you know, for a Jacuzzi and
talk about, you know, her New York Jewish upbringing and her Jewish mother.
And I was just captivated by her. I just loved that. My mom was, really,
always good about trying to expose me to Jewish role models and Jewish
cultural life to the extent that she could.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jennifer Traig, and her new
book is called "Devil in the Details: Scenes From an Obsessive Girlhood."

Let's talk about some of the kind of typical obsessive-compulsive issues that
you had, like starting with washing hands, compulsively washing your hands.
Take me inside your brain for a minute. Like, why did you need to wash your
hands so much?

Ms. TRAIG: Well, the thinking was that the taint of death was everywhere;
that, you know, maybe a hamburger had been on the counter, or maybe, you know,
the dog had licked that spot on the linoleum and he had eaten some meat dog
food half-an-hour earlier, or maybe an insect had died. And, you know, there
wasn't a dead bug sitting right there right now, but who knows? Probably was
there at some point in the past. And as soon as that thought entered my
brain, my brain would not give me a moment's peace, until I got up and washed.
So I would go and wash my hands, and then as soon as I sat down again, I would
start wondering how well I'd washed my hands. Perhaps the water I had washed
them with had contained, you know, a dead shrimp somewhere, you know, on its
way to my faucet. And I would try and fight the urge, and that would last
about 30 seconds, and then again I would wash. And maybe this time maybe I'd
worry about the soap I had used. Maybe it contained lard. Maybe it contained
some animal fat, and then you wash again. And then another 30 seconds later
I'll start thinking about the towel. Who knows what that towel had been used
for? Maybe that's tainted. And, again, I would go. So I could--you know,
50, a hundred times a day, I was at the sink.

GROSS: And what would happen to your hands after washing so much?

Ms. TRAIG: Oh, they were a mess. And I'm also--I'm blessed with eczema, so,
I mean, I had sort of cracked, rashy skin to begin with. And that's, I think,
what got me to the doctor in the first place. I had these bloody hands, and
my parents were very confused.

GROSS: You know, you write--in describing obsessive-compulsive behavior, you
wrote, `Most obsessive-compulsives fear they're going to stab a loved one.
Many of us can't bear to be around knives at all. Though we are neither
pedophiles or animal lovers, we fear that we're going to rape the baby and the
house cat; we worry that we're going to make passes at friends, family members,
strangers we find repulsive.' Why are you afraid? I mean, what is that fear
about, a fear about being around knives, a fear about doing damage to people
you love?

Ms. TRAIG: You know, I think everyone, even people who aren't
obsessive-compulsive, you know, sometimes has that fear. You're just sitting
there, and there's that knife, and it'll occur to you there is nothing
stopping you from picking that up and going on a stabbing rampage. But I
think with obsessive-compulsives, the thing is we can't let that thought go.
Everyone has it, but then we'll start mulling it over and over, and suddenly
it becomes a possibility. You'd never do it, but you can't let go of the
thought, and you can't assure yourself that it actually would never happen.

GROSS: So most of your obsessive-compulsive problems went away after you
became a more mature teen-ager? Is that...

Ms. TRAIG: Yeah. No...

GROSS: ...like 18 or 19 or something?

Ms. TRAIG: Exactly. No one believes that, but it really is true. Sometimes
with pediatric OCD, you just outgrow it. And I had had a year of pretty
intensive therapy, but by the time I started college, I was really ready to
leave it behind and I just did. I thought I was all better, until I started
doing the research for the book and realized that some things I think of as my
charming personality quirks are actually, you know, little
obsessive-compulsive leftovers but nothing that gets in the way of my daily
life.

GROSS: What are you thinking of?

Ms. TRAIG: I check my keys a lot. I check for my keys, I check for my
wallet, I check my locks. And it's not something I spend hours on, but, you
know, several times a day, probably a little more than average. And lately
I've been thinking I might have trichotillomania by proxy because I'm obsessed
with combing my cat, who has a complimentary obsession with eating the hair I
then brush off. So it seems to work pretty well for the both of us, but I'm
probably doing it too much.

GROSS: So when you say one of your obsessions is locks, like, when you leave
the house, do you have to go back and make sure you locked the door? Is it
that kind of thing?

Ms. TRAIG: Yes. (Laughs) I've broken my doorknob several times by jiggling
it too hard, so I'm working on that.

GROSS: My guest is Jennifer Traig. Her new memoir is called "Devil in the
Details: Scenes From an Obsessive Girlhood." We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Jennifer Traig. Her new memoir is called "Devil in the
Details." And it's about her adolescent and teen years when she had
obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Your book is written in a very funny manner, and there's a sense of you
standing back, looking at your younger self and seeing what was going on,
comprehending that you had obsessive-compulsive disorder, understanding how
you were trapped in that and yet being able to stand back and laugh at the
absurdity of your actions. Were you able to stand back and laugh at all when
it was happening?

Ms. TRAIG: Yes and no. I mean, to a certain--for my family, it was just, you
know, certainly hard for them. But there were moments that it was just a
non-stop laugh riot. You know, you've got a kid wearing Kleenex boxes on her
shoes, it's pretty funny. You know, at the time it just drove me crazy. `My
plastic baggies are not funny! Not funny!' But at the same time, you know,
even then I was willing to go for the joke if I thought it would get me out of
trouble. You know, for my parents, there's no `Get Out of Jail Free' card,
like a really good one-liner. And I, even then, was willing to make jokes at
my own expense if it meant that they would, you know, leave me alone, so I
could go wash my hands some more.

GROSS: What did they try to do to stop you?

Ms. TRAIG: They would make a lot of--my mother liked to call me Howard
Hughes--that went on for a long time--and, you know, offered to, you know,
open canned fruit for me and do stuff like that. My sister, you know, would
tease me a lot. When it got pretty bad, when it was clear that joking wasn't
going to fix this, we tried contracted behavior, and at 12 I had to sign a
contract stipulating that if I didn't cut this out--and it was very specific
about, you know, the behavior that would have to change and included clause
that I would have to use lip gloss every day and condition my hair, not for
any aesthetic reason but because my skin had cracked and was bleeding because
I was, you know, afraid of the taint of death and Lipsmackers--and that if I
did not adhere to all these statutes, all my friends would be told what I was
doing. I was 12 at this point, and the thought of junior high ostracization
was enough to really keep me aligned. And at the time that worked.

GROSS: You know, your book has a pretty ironic, absurd tone through most of
it, but the things you write about are really painful, and some of them are
really damaging. And your family sounds great. They must have been really
frightened about some of your behavior and really worried about you. So what
were some of the more serious times like, where your parents would express
their concern or try to change you or fear that they had done something wrong
that was responsible for this disturbing behavior that you were involved with?

Ms. TRAIG: Yeah, certainly by the time I was, like, 15 or 16, every day was
just non-stop crying. I was just--I wasn't functional anymore, and they were
very worried and, you know, ferried me to various doctors and therapists. And
at some point we all ended up in family therapy together. And I just remember
them--you know, I mean, they were certainly very concerned and wanted
desperately for me to get better, but I remember just all of them sort of
sitting in this therapist's office like house cats, you know, wondering what
they were doing here; that they hadn't caused this. And they hadn't. You
know, it was this neurological condition. And it was sort of silly talking
about, you know, how we treated each other, like that was making my brain do
these things. But, you know, they did it because it was the thing to do at
the time.

I remember my mother, at one point when I was really, really bad and just a
mess, very kind of scabby from the washing and very, very thin and couldn't
really go out in the world--and I remember her holding up my junior prom
picture saying, you know, `I want this girl back, this happy girl in this
strapless dress.' And I was thinking, `Wow, I don't--she's crazy.' But, you
know, they just wanted me to be a normal teen, which I would do here and there
enough to give them hope.

GROSS: The tone of your book is pretty comic. You know, you write about the
absurdity of your behavior; you write about it with a lot of wit. And knowing
this, how did you realize that, as a writer, you had that kind of sense of
humor?

Ms. TRAIG: Well, I mean, I think part of it, you know, comes from being
raised in a family where nothing was more important than being funny, you
know. It was expected you'd get good grades, but there would be no reward for
that. But if you were funny, you know, that--there was nothing like it, you
know, getting a big laugh at the dinner table. Then when I sat down to write
this memoir, it was a combination of, you know, mental illness and religion.
And if I did it straight, it would be deadly. It would just be the most
boring, heaviest, most unpleasant thing in the world. And, you know, so I
felt like, really, the only approach you could take was to keep it pretty
light. And actually, you know, for me at this point, it is pretty light. You
know, no one died. I'm not scarred for life. It was just, you know, a weird
time of my life. I have no regrets about it. So the tone sort of fit how I
feel about that time of my life now anyway.

GROSS: I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

Ms. TRAIG: Oh, it was a pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.

GROSS: Jennifer Traig is the author of the new memoir "Devil in the Details:
Scenes From an Obsessive Girlhood."

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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