by Emily Colas
Pocket Books, 1998
Review by LG on Feb 11th 1999
Several months ago, I happened to tune my radio to Fresh Air just as Terry Gross was concluding her interview with Emily Colas, the author of Just Checking. The discussion was serious, Colas displaying credible expertise in response to Gross's sympathetic questions about obsessive compulsive disorder. How perplexing, then, to read Just Checking and discover that Emily Colas has chosen to address the reader through the persona of a smart but occasionally immature stand-up comedian. The snappy, entertaining descriptions and the misplaced mimicking of spoken language (the phrase "it sucks big time", coming after a sensitive description, was jarring indeed) give the reader the feeling that Colas would have liked to perform the text as an "act". In fact, the book jacket photograph is of an impishly attractive woman with a mobile face that would lend itself to clowning.
At first one admires the toughness and lack of sentimentality implied in Colas's self deprecating sarcasm, but as the book progresses, one realizes that an insightful portrayal of the quick witted narrator may never emerge, and one feels cheated. Certainly, Colas describes numerous manifestations of the her obsession (fear of exposure to blood, contamination and disease) with detailed clarity and allows us to get a sense of the workings of the obsessed imagination, as in this passage, describing the narrator's reaction to rumors of a mislabeled can of cat food: "Now what are the chances you'll accidentally eat cat food? Maybe 0.001 percent. But it's a risk. So to be safe, I became a follower of the 0.001/100 theory of life. If there is a 0.001-percent chance that an event can occur, then it might as well be 100 percent. And life needs to be lived accordingly".
In one of her clever commentaries, Colas labels her disorder 'insanity lite', which is not a bad way to describe the degree of unreality OCD spawns in comparison with, say, full blown psychosis. But those of us who have seen obsessive compulsives up close know that their delusions cause them real torment, something which the author seems reluctant to express. On the other hand, the pain that does come through believably in Colas's tale is that of her husband. One is tempted to sympathize with him in particular, and wish that this were one of those reversible books, containing the two discordant stories a marriage can produce.
The book is laid out as series of brief vignettes and shoot-the-breeze reflective moments that move back and forth in time. The extreme brevity of most sections had me wondering if the writer, or her editor, was anticipating a readership with attention deficit disorder. Ubiquitous section titles range from amusing ("Cereal Killer") to misleading ("If Rape is Inevitable"). Through the assemblage of recollections and reflections, the narrator composes a collage portrait, if not an ontogenetic explanation, of her illness. Abandoning chronological sequence is a great narrative tool, but one that must suggest a growing synthesis, a deepening understanding, and I did not feel that Colas achieved this. At first I was tolerant of the sections about her father's genitals and her attachment to her brother, assuming that these references would eventually acquire some meaning for the narrator. But, as such insight is never expressed, I started to feel that the book was as merely a collection of sharply conceived and well written comic tidbits, in the manner, say, of Woody Allen.
From now on, I will pay closer attention to subtitles containing the words "scenes from the life of a...", which in the case of Just Checking may be a disclaimer meant to alert us its modest aims. It is hard to say whether or not a person suffering from OCD would find the book useful. But just in case I am belittling the value for an afflicted person of being able to see that obsessive compulsive behavior has its hilarious side, I hereby recommend this book to anyone for whom the title has personal meaning. Just Checking has the merit of a cautiously happy resolution, which comes about thanks to the narrator's finding the courage to take medication. That in itself might make the book appealing to loved ones, or to a doctor hoping to convince a patient to give medication a try. Complete newcomers to OCD will probably come away from the book with a sympathetic attitude (a good thing), and a bit of factual of knowledge, which is better than none.