Recently, I stumbled upon a comment on one of TJ Shanoff’s blog posts from an old colleague of his at Second City. The comment linked to the website of author and University of Chicago Alum, Abby Sher, and promoted her new book “Amen, Amen, Amen: Memoir of a Girl who Couldn’t Stop Praying.” I was intrigued by the inside cover:
Until the age of ten, Abby Sher was a happy child in a fun-loving, musical family. But when her father and favorite aunt pass away, Abby fills the void of her loss with rituals: kissing her father's picture over and over each night, washing her hands, counting her steps, and collecting sharp objects that she thinks could harm innocent pedestrians. Then she begins to pray. At first she repeats the few phrases she remembers from synagogue, but by the time she is in high school, Abby is spending hours locked in her closet, urgently reciting a series of incantations and pleas. If she doesn't, she is sure someone else will die, too.
I sat down to read her memoir from start to finish. In a brutally honest, beautifully written, at times funny and often heartbreaking account, Abby opens up about a life ruled by obsessive-compulsive disorder, cutting and anorexia. Abby’s struggle to build a life for herself and her loved ones is difficult to read, especially at her darkest moments— facing an abortion, the death of her aunt, father and mother and the mental abuse of a bad boyfriend. While reading, I began to pray along with Abby that one day she would find the inner peace she was so desperately searching for, some happiness and a semblance of a healthy life.
During our phone interview, Abby opened up about everything from her time living in Chicago and working at Second City to life after her mother’s death and to whether OCD is a Jewish disease and how it shouldn’t be seen as just a negative disorder:
Cheryl Jacobs: When did you decide to turn your life into a book? Did you have concerns about being so open about your life?
Abby Sher: I wrote a piece not really knowing that I would be opening up my life. I was taking a personal essay class in 2004, right after my mom died, and my teacher was an editor at Self Magazine and she bought it. That started the high of writing things that were haunting me and when it ran in 2007 another editor contacted me and wanted the memoir. And I said, “Yeah, do you want to write it because I don’t want to.” This was in 2007, I was done writing about myself and had begun chipping away at fiction and trying to get over this eating disorder. But the fact that somebody said, “you should give it a try” was definitely a huge factor. The whole proposal process wound up being really helpful too, with organizing what kind of story it could make. I sold it to Scribner in 2007 and once it was an assignment I knew there was no turning back. With each draft my editor was great and really pushed me to be more and more open and revealing.
Do you think OCD is somewhat of a Jewish disease?
I have gotten many responses like that where people have said, “well this is what happens to us Jewish ladies.” But I don’t know if I could say it’s Jewish though, because there is Catholic guilt— with repeating the rosary… I think Buddhists are the only ones who don’t have to deal with this as much.
People see it [OCD] as a disorder, but it has also been tremendously helpful for me through some really difficult situations. My praying every day now is a very different experience then even two years ago. The challenge is, can you go back to services without having to repeat every word in the prayer book or kiss it a certain number of times.
Tell me more about your time at Second City?
It was fantastic! I think improv in many ways is the antidote for OCD, because you are forcing yourself to be present (not that I was always successful) living in a character and be spontaneous. You can’t be writing in your head or repeating. You have to present for your partner. I was riddled with self doubt much like any performer in history.
One really harsh director once said to me, “If you are not present for your partner, then get the fuck off the stage.” It’s not just about you. It was a real wakeup call also. I found a vocation where I was accountable to someone in a real non life-threatening way, which was a huge gift for me. I definitely miss the high of performing every night and creating shows all the time. It helped me take my words less seriously because they’d be gone in a minute. I couldn’t recapture whatever just happened on stage.
Do you keep in touch with the people you write about in the book?
Yes, definitely, some of my closest friends are still there [at Second City.] Everyone in the book has read this or I’ve given them at least one version of it and they’ve okayed it.
Tell me about what it was like for you living in Chicago.
I really had a great time in Chicago. It was a very formative time for me. I wouldn’t have left home [in Westchester, New York] given the choice. I went kicking and screaming, but it was the only way I could gain some independence. I loved Hyde Park. I loved the intensity of living down there. I loved how the demographics changed when the school year was over— you became a minority.
How is your relationship with your siblings these days? Have you grown closer?
That’s actually been the hardest one, because so many of my family members learned about the stuff I was going through for the first time through the book. It’s been surprisingly helpful with my distant relationships. My mom’s side, which I wasn’t as close to growing up, has been so welcoming. Everyone should write a memoir so you don’t have to introduce yourself anymore. My brother and sister and I have never been super close and it’s been hard especially not having my mom forge our relationship for us. It’s a lot of work and at this very moment, it feels very tiring.
What advice do you have for other young people facing OCD? What do you want readers to talk away from reading Amen, Amen, Amen?
I think the biggest pillar of OCD or any affliction is secrecy. The more secret your actions or rituals or obsessions become, the more out of control they feel. Many people have reached out to me through my website, I love talking to them. Especially people who have gone through similar experiences. It is so important that you just talk to someone you trust. It’s totally worth it to talk to someone even if you or they don’t have the answers.
Are you still praying every day?
Yes, I do have a daily practice and I will say I really enjoy it. The other day I couldn’t get to it till 8 at night and before I couldn’t do that. Sometimes I still do have to keep myself in-check and make sure that I’m not going over 40 minutes and make sure that other rituals aren’t creeping up and those are definitely things I check in with my doctor about.
Are you planning more books? Is there anything else you want your readers to take away from the book?
I’m slowly chipping away at a little fiction that is hopefully a little lighter, well, it’s fun— it’s dark humor. There are resources at the back of the book and there are also resources on the web site that I think are helpful. And the paperback is coming out October, 2010.