During her preschool years, Tara Sullivan lived in terror that something bad would happen to her mother while they were apart. In grade school, she panicked during the practice fire drills. Practice for what?, Tara asked. For the upcoming disaster that was bound to happen?Then, at the age of 11, it happened. Tara heard the phrase that changed her life: Step on a crack, break your mother’s back. Before Tara knew it, she was counting every crack in the sidewalk. Over time, Tara’s “quirks” grew and developed: arranging her meals on plates, nonstop prayer rituals, until she developed a new ritual wherin she kissed her fingers and touched doorknobs….
Despite recent media attention, obsessive-compulsive disorder remains perplexing to those who haven’t experienced the illness firsthand. In her compassionate debut novel, Terry Spencer Hesser skillfully and credibly explains exactly what OCD feels like, as well as the effects it has on surrounding friends and family. Tara Sullivan first encounters her compulsive behavior at age 11, when she hears of the sidewalk game “Step on a crack, break your mother’s back.” Most people have had the experience of toying with this rhyme, but for Tara, it becomes something worse: “I couldn’t not think the thoughts. And I couldn’t not count the cracks.” In one of several compulsive rituals, she must count every sidewalk crack between her house and school. If she is ever interrupted or loses her place, she must run back to the beginning and start over, or her mother’s spinal health will be endangered. She recognizes this as absurd behavior, and gets absolutely no pleasure from the exercise, yet nonetheless feels inexplicably compelled to perform it. Hesser traces the arc of Tara’s illness through several misdiagnoses, the expansion of her compulsive behaviors (obsessive prayer rituals and the need to touch the doorknob then kiss her fingers 33 times before leaving the house), and the reactions of her loved ones. Tara’s sister responds by beating up anyone who makes fun of the compulsions, her anguished mother’s answer is increasing violence toward her daughter, and friends alternate between acceptance and frustration. Deftly illustrating the depth of Tara’s strained relationships, Hesser also addresses anorexia, shoplifting, drug use, and unsafe sex, subtly reinforcing the idea that these behaviors–though perhaps compulsions as well–are different from OCD in that they inspire some measure of enjoyment for the participant. Nominated by the Young Adult Library Services Association as one of 1998’s Best Books for Young Adults, Kissing Doorknobs addresses a cutting-edge issue with grace, humor, and insight. While the novel refuses to make false promises, it provides an inspiring message of hope. (Ages 12 and older) –Brangien Davis