Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Review of Oxford Messed Up by Andrea Kayne Kaufman: Facing OCD

[Note: In celebration of love, life and hope, Andrea Kayne Kaufman will be offering the Ebook edition for $ .99 on Amazon from May Day thru Cinco de Mayo - May 1-5.]

When Grant Place Press contacted me about reviewing Oxford Messed Up by Andrea Kayne Kaufman, little did I realize the connections I would find with my own life.  The protagonist, Gloria Zimmerman, is traveling to Oxford to study feminist poets, and struggles with OCD.

I have a degree focused on feminist poets.  Reading poems written by these women, and writing my own poems gave me strength to deal with depression, OCD and other pain.   I was a very serious young woman, who didn't know she had OCD, but knew that I was often scared about symptoms in my body, and trying to be perfect.  Gloria knows she has OCD, but attempts to keep herself together with rituals, Klonopin, and Van Morrison's music.

Van Morrison's music is a source of strength to both Gloria, and her "loo-mate" Henry Young(the other protagonist who has had many traumas in his life).   As a girl, I  remember sitting on the floor going through my parents record collection, trying to understand what a Moondance was, and mesmerized by the album.

I was intrigued that one of the recommendations on the back of the book came from Susan Richman from OCD Chicago, a chapter of the International OCD Foundation.  Oxford Messed Up does indeed explore Exposure and Response Prevention Therapy(ERP), the standard for treating OCD, and is the only novel for the adult market that I've ever come across that does.

Henry is the catalyst for Gloria's ERP, and this shows the importance of rapport for willingness to do Exposures.  If I hadn't trusted my ERP therapist, I wouldn't have done any of the Exposures he suggested.  I believe that family and friends are often on the frontlines of working on Exposures with the ones they love who have OCD, and that self-help has been very important for many sufferers, especially Jonathan Grayson's book Freedom from OCD, and his model of GOAL support groups.

At the same time, though, I was ambivalent about Henry's quick study of ERP, and how unrealistic this might be.  I was able to suspend disbelief because I remembered reading somewhere that ERP, even incompletely done, can be better than years and years of talk therapy. I only wish more therapists were  quick as Henry--like the 6 or 8 of them I saw before I found Leonard, who actually specializes in OCD and was expert in Exposure Therapy, rather than asking me to simply avoid my triggers or use logic to make it all go away.  I would imagine a novelist's dilemma would be how to portray a series of ERP sessions with a therapist, in a way that would make good fiction.  

Gloria has contamination OCD, which I don't have, and which gave me a brief flash of disappointment, because this is the stereotype of people who have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.   But she also has perfectionism, a mandate to be a "Superstar,"  which I identify with, and I liked that Kaufman showed how perfectionism can underlay everything, and that this may be slower to respond than other aspects of OCD.  If patterns have been in place for a lifetime, through family culture, personal history, combined with genetic heritage, that simply habituating to the "dirty world" isn't enough, and that compassion, love, understanding and hope are crucial to regaining a life that has been ordered by taking as few risks as possible, and trying to earn the love of others.  

I recommend Oxford Messed Up for it's improvisational dialogue both internal and external, for an inside look at the OCD thought process while facing fears, for the importance of hope, and of "fatalistic optimism"(as the characters describe the music of Van Morrison).

In celebration of love, life and hope, Andrea Kayne Kaufman will be offering the Ebook edition for $ .99 on Amazon from May Day thru Cinco de Mayo - May 1-5.


  1. Thank you so much for your thoughtful review and for your own courageous story!

  2. Good review. I read the book for a review also. I thought Gloria's rituals were very realistically portrayed, and I enjoyed the background of Morrison's music.

    What did you think about the speed of Gloria's recovery? I found that part of the book unrealistic and wondered if it gives the wrong impression about improvement during therapy. Some people have that kind of speedy response to ERP/meds, but it is not the norm. I read another review with a similar take, and I wondered what you thought.

    I think overall this is a very good and important book. It's great that it's being offered for a very low price these next few days.

    1. Tina,
      Yes, I had some ambivalence about the speed of her recovery. Part of it is the compressed timeframe--there really isn't enough time in the story to get to the point of new challenges or relapses that occur in the longterm. I did ask this question of why such rapid progress of the author, and when I get a response I will be posting it.