Are you sure you have your cell phone? Your wallet? Your keys? Did you lock the door when you left home this morning? Turn off the stove? Turn off the flat iron?


Want to just go back and take a look?

We live in an age of obsession, some of us sick with it and some of us wildly successful because of it. If you ran the appointed number of miles for your workout this morning, took your supplements, read the papers, perused all the necessary Web sites, and are planning to put in a focused, 10- or 12-hour day on the job, you’re headed down the culturally approved obsessive path to reward.

If, on the other hand, you’re mopping your kitchen floor ten times a day or heading to the sink for your 80th hand-washing, hoarding every plastic bag you ever got at Jewel, and lying awake at night counting the lights in neighboring buildings, someone close to you is probably suggesting that you see a doctor, get a diagnosis, and take a pill to fix your obvious case of obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Never mind that the guy writing the prescription is just as obsessed as you are. He’s on the right side of our cultural fixation and you’re not.

That’s the argument in Obsession: A History, UIC professor Lennard J. Davis’s study of the rise and bifurcated path of obsessive behavior as both an illness and an ideal in the modern world. Davis teaches in the English and Disability and Human Development departments, lectures in the medical school, and directs Project Biocultures, an ongoing series of academic workshops and conferences that examine “the intersections between the human and the technological.” He says that in our culture it’s not only common but highly desirable to be a little nuts, as long as the craziness takes the form of obsession—the “singular attention to a particular thing” that our highly specialized jobs, electronically connected environment, and extreme hobbies demand.

Obsession, published this month by the University of Chicago Press, is Davis’s seventh book; the idea for it came to him, as many of his ideas do, while he was running. A veteran of 15 marathons, he has more than a passing acquaintance with his subject.

If you should pick up the book expecting an obsessively thorough discourse, you won’t be disappointed. But Davis is a fine writer, and he grabs the reader at the outset by confessing his own childhood rituals, constructed, as perhaps all obsessive behavior is, as a mental guardrail against the abyss of mortality. Routinely sleepless in his family’s one-bedroom apartment in the Bronx, he counted and compulsively recounted every light in the windows of the building next door. He also chanted at every traffic light, impaled each piece of macaroni before eating it, and put nickels, dimes, and pennies through the acid wash of his digestive system. “While I was doing that,” he writes, “my father and brother were compulsively washing their hands and surviving through their own developed rituals. Every night my father checked and rechecked the locks on the doors, the faucets, and gas jets while closing and rechecking all the kitchen cabinets.... My brother lathered himself up so much that he eventually developed a skin rash.... We didn’t know we were engaged in obsessional and compulsive activities. We were just doing what came naturally to us in our time and place.”

This was not an ordinary childhood. In 1999, Davis edited the love letters of their parents, Shall I Say a Kiss? The Courtship Letters of a Deaf Couple, 1936-1938, and in 2000 Davis published My Sense of Silence, a memoir of his life as the hearing child of a pair of working-class, Jewish, stone-deaf English immigrants. Graceful and unsparing, it begins with the isolation, frustration, fear, and vigilance that were his earliest memories—the futility of crying in his crib, for example, when no one would hear or respond. He writes of finding a haven at school, where he quickly excelled, and of the punishment he took from his brother, a decade older and more inclined to sibling torture than to providing any aid. He also describes the determination that made his father—trapped for a lifetime as a sewing machine operator in a garment factory—a national-champion race walker, and of his regrets at his own responses to his parents’ disability. With this legacy, explored with excruciating candor, it wouldn’t have been surprising if Davis grew into a seriously obsessed adult. But he calls himself only “intermittently obsessed” and says what he got is the upside of the quirk: the focused energy that fuels marathons and books, which he produces “in the zone,” without memory of the laborious process of writing them.

Since joining the UIC faculty in 2000, he’s continued, now and then, to tap his family for subject matter. In “Gaining a Daughter: a Father’s Transgendered Tale,” published that year in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Davis wrestled with his son’s revelation that he considered himself female and intended to dress accordingly: “My mind raced. We were having Stanley Fish and Jane Tompkins over for dinner that night. I imagined my son swirling down the stairs, arriving at dinner like Loretta Young in flowing chiffon.” His next book, Go Ask Your Father, to be released next spring by Random House, is an account of his obsessive, DNA-assisted search for his father’s roots.

Still, Davis says, it wasn’t his personal history but his scholarly work on the history of the novel that turned him on to obsession as a subject. “I was thinking there’s some real difference between characters in 18th-century novels and characters in 19th-century novels,” he says, “and it popped into my head that the characters in the 19th-century novels are obsessed. Think about all of Dostoyevsky’s novels, and Poe’s—those are characters that feel different from the characters in a Jane Austen novel.” Davis says he started researching the origin of the word obsession and realized that to understand it he’d have to “look into the early history of neurology, and of psychiatry, and of psychology.” He’d have to know about hysteria, vapors, spleen, and melancholie; about Galton’s eugenics, Zola’s graphomania, Foucault’s notion of social control, Freud’s Rat Man, Krafft-Ebing, and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.... There was, thankfully, a Guggenheim.

So what is obsession? Davis has a simple definition: thinking about or doing something too much. Technically, if you’re doing, as opposed to thinking, you’re exhibiting compulsion, but, he says, no point in getting hung up in the squishy area between action and thought. Addiction, however, is where he draws the line: Eliot Spitzer and David Duchovny notwithstanding, it’s not an addiction unless there’s a substance involved. It’s also not an illness unless it bothers you. If, like 18th-century icon Samuel Johnson, you count every lamppost on the street, but are OK with that, it’s just a part of who you are. Around for eons before the term OCD was invented, most such behavior was tolerated as more or less “normal” by earlier cultures. The ancients attributed severe cases to demonic possession; Johnson’s contemporaries cited an excess of humors; Freud blamed the unconscious; and now, thanks to new imaging technology, there’s a buzz about what Davis calls simplistic “broken brain” explanations. At the same time, on the heels of the development of SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors), there’s been a marked increase in OCD diagnoses—up as much as 600 percent. Once considered very rare, Davis says, “OCD is now one of the top four psychiatric conditions.”

“People go to the doctor and are relieved to get a name for the thing that’s been bothering them,” he says. But what most of us don’t realize, he adds, is that, especially for psychiatric disorders, diagnostic categories are not monolithic, universal, and permanent. “They’re part of a larger culture, and they have a history; they tend to come and go. A category will last 20 or 30 years, be really popular, and then, all of a sudden, fade away.” In the 1960s, for example, “the big thing was anxiety. Everybody was anxious and everyone was taking Valium and Milltown. Depression and OCD were very rare. Now the big disorder is depression and everyone’s taking Prozac and SSRIs. And the question would be: Did the country change? Did the world change? What happened?”

Davis and others maintain that the recent explosive growth in clinical depression has been driven by the publicity campaigns of the pharmaceutical companies—complete with magazine checklists to help depressives identify themselves. Davis says a similar drug-company-sponsored rise in cultural consciousness is fueling the growth in OCD. Many people exhibit obsessive-compulsive behavior without feeling bad about it and without requiring treatment, he says: “For example, take the guy who built the Watts Towers. What he was doing wasn’t causing him pain and suffering. But, in a slightly different scenario, with his mother going, ‘What are you doing, taking all that junk, wasting time?’ he could easily start feeling terrible about it.”

In most cases, the culture determines whether behavior is considered useful and that, in turn, determines how the individual feels about it. According to Davis, most people who seek treatment for OCD do so because someone close to them thinks they need it. Usually now they’re given a combination of drugs and cognitive behavioral therapy. But the cure rate for these and other psychiatric disorders is generally not much different from what happens without treatment, Davis says: about one third improve, about one third are unchanged, and about one third get worse. Davis says he “doesn’t doubt” that there’s a humanitarian as well as an economic rationale for the drug company public-education programs, but they are, in large part, “shaping the phenomenon that they’re curing.”

Meanwhile, since about the mid-19th century the kind of intensely focused activity that could be categorized as obsession has been encouraged and glorified when it results in, say, a brilliant novel, a research breakthrough, or a slot at the Olympics. “Take somebody like Michael Phelps,” Davis says. “This is a guy who since he was [a child] has been doing nothing but swimming every day. His head’s been below the water for most of his life, but we value that.” Davis argues that we seek obsession in our athletes and lovers, leaders and heroes, and that our culture glorifies it in ads like those multibody nude spreads for Calvin Klein’s Obsession perfume. It may not be a comfortable way to live, but it’s become a cultural goal, widely pursued. “I check my e-mail at least 50 times a day,” Davis says, “as do many people. And most of us expect an instant response. Why wouldn’t any of us be considered to be OCD? All you’d need is a good advertising campaign out there with checklists, and every one of us would be going to therapists to try to reduce our dependence on the Internet.”

As a bioculturalist, Davis renounces the separation of science and the humanities. A biocultural manifesto he cowrote last year with retired University of Virginia professor David B. Morris asserts that “a fact is a socially produced conclusion.” He’s convinced it would be helpful for people diagnosed with OCD and other ailments to learn the history of the disease. He’s talking with researchers about doing a controlled experiment—showing patients a video that explains how the disease category was developed and the social context that influenced it, for example—to see if they have better outcomes. He says he expects flak from some psychiatrists, who “don’t want to see their disease categories as subject to something like culture.” But, he argues, “the DSM can’t be considered as a bible with absolutes.” For example, he says, “We’ve watched it happen, over the last 30 years, that a category like homosexuality went from being a disease to being a lifestyle.” He’s been encouraged by responses like the one he got from an audience member at a lecture who said he’d had OCD for years and tried numerous treatments without success, but “felt a lot better just listening to you. Because I feel that there’s a history to this, and I’m not that weird person, standing alone.”

Davis is now harnessing his own obsessive powers to write another book—about a family member who “lived a very public and notorious life”—and to learn everything there is to know about chickens. He wants to raise them. “For me, all those little obsessive things translated themselves, ultimately, into the productive side of it,” he says. That was lucky, he adds: “I’m aware that the productive side is only a side.”v

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