”Step on a crack, break your mother’s back!”
Author: Terry Spencer Hesser
Published by Delacorte, 1998
$15.95 USD, hardcover
Intended Audience: Grades 6 and up
Kissing Doorknobs is Terry Spencer Hesser’s first novel. I read this book years ago and had trouble putting it down. “I’ll just read a couple more pages…” It was very absorbing. Hesser introduces readers to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder through the main character, 11-year-old Tara Sullivan, and her struggles with this disorder.
In this book, Tara goes through many typical problems of any teen growing up, but then Tara begins feeling compelled to follow strange rituals in order to deal with the anxieties plaguing her life. These rituals seem meaningless to those around her, but to her feel like life-or-death. Some of her rituals include such things as: Not only avoiding stepping on any cracks in the sidewalk but also endlessly counting them, in order to protect her mother from a broken back. And the need to pronounce a set of prayers five times perfectly, stand directly in front of two different clocks and look at the time, turn the front door knob with equal pressure on each finer, and then stand in the exact center of the road and look both ways twice, as a way to ensure her parents’ safe return from a night out. She is also seen straightening carrots her mother cuts for dinner, and even counting the eyelashes of her therapist.
Tara sees several psychiatrists, each with a different and incorrect diagnosis. She gets diagnosed with things such as ADD and low self-esteem among other things. This young girl’s behavior puts a strain on her friendships. Her family life begins to shatter. Despite the involuntary nature of her behavior it nonetheless continues to cause problems and she is even punished, sometimes physically, by her family who are simply exasperated. She is shunned by her friends, and given the nickname “Count Taracula.” All of this just makes the anxiety all the worse. Eventually a concerned teacher identifies what they call a “doorknob kissing” ritual as a symptom of OCD and steers Tara toward the appropriate help.
Unlike many books of this nature, Kissing Doorknobs does not end with Tara being miraculously cured. There is no instant or perfect cure and the book acknowledges this. At fourteen years old, Tara, has reason to hope for a life free from what she called the “tyrants in her head.” Hesser manages to give an eye-opening view of OCD. It shows us that the person with the diagnosis is not the only victim. Family and friends suffer as well. She shows us many problems faced by these people and allows many people to relate. Not only families dealing with OCD, but with other mental illnesses as well. It offers hope but not a miracle in forms of diagnosis and treatment.
This is a somewhat autobiographical novel, and an excellent read. In the acknowledgements pages the author states, “I have experienced some of the obsessions and compulsions I have written about.” Hesser manages to turn this account of an unusual condition into an honest, fresh, and multilayered story that readers of many ages and backgrounds can instantly relate to. The book is powerful and thoughtful but is not too heavy. There is wry humor throughout that makes this a great book even for those who “don’t like to read”. The book has an afterword that offers a psychiatrist’s explanation of the disorder this story revolves around and a list of organizations and publications about it.