I’ve lived in thirty-five different places in my life.
I’m an ex-Air Force Brat, and living in temporary quarters and moving about so much—especially as a child—led to a constant stream of new schools, friends, new rules and situations.
But how I viewed my experiences as a military dependent and how they shaped me as an adult was totally rewritten the day, about fifteen years ago, when I picked up the autobiography of Diane Fossey. In her introduction to her book, she wrote about a rare neurological condition that she suffered from called prosapagnosia.
Before that moment I never knew there was anything wrong with me but when I recognized in myself the condition she described—so many hundreds of things about my life—my past and my present—began to click into place.
Prosapagnosia is a fairly uncommon genetic brain anomaly manifested by the inability to remember faces. Visual recognition is generally considered to be the most basic of human abilities, one that I not only never had, but I assumed everyone else was pretty much the same.
I thought everyone:
· struggled to place characters in a movie as they came in and out of the scenes
· would be hopeless about picking someone out of a lineup (because naturally they all looked identical)
· had trouble recognizing themselves in a mirror
I honestly thought everyone was like that.
I can meet someone, spend the entire evening with them, laughing, talking, sharing personal experiences, and if that person gets up to go the restroom— I will not be able to recognize them again when they reappear five minutes later.
Not even a little bit. Not even a hint.
Can you think of a more disabling condition for a child who averages two different schools every school year?
How many potential girl friends did I piss off in high school when it looked like I was snubbing them later in the school cafeteria after a great chat session in class that morning? I wasn’t stuck up. I just couldn’t recognize them again.
Prosapagnosia, also called “face blindness” is genetic. My youngest brother has it, too. In men, it’s often manifested by the constant selection of women who are extremely tacky or outlandish in their dress and makeup: trailer-trash tarts. This makes sense when you think of it: if most women look alike to you, how much easier to remember one if she’s already standing out from the rest? For the same reason, all my friends in high school (and I apologize ahead of time if any of them read this) were either extremely fat, suffered from disfiguring acne, had gi-normous breasts or were in some other way distinctive from the pact. Pretty women are the worst. They totally all look alike. No offense to anyone who fits the description but there is a certain type of woman that is virtually impossible for me to tell apart and that is the typical tennis-Mom: blonde, athletic and, unhelpfully, dressed in tennis outfits.
Good-looking guys weren’t much better.
When I was single, every date I had with a guy was like a first date. If we met and I agreed to go out with him, when he came to pick me up, I never remembered his face from the initial contact. (Could he have switched places with a roommate who also wasn’t horrible looking? Sure. I’d never have known.)
Once my brother and I became aware of the condition, we both began to develop individual methods for remembering people: memorizing their outfits if we just needed to remember them for a day, or consciously noting differentiating facial characteristics.
Any situation, like at church for example, where people wear name tags is an incredible boon to me: it puts me on equal footing with all the normal people. I become much more relaxed and friendly.
The fact is, trying to fake that you recognize someone almost always ends badly. Either my face shows how much I’m struggling to remember who the hell they were, or I say something that indicates our last meeting obviously didn’t rate enough to be recalled by me.
Why not just tell them of my handicap?
Because most people do not find it believable that you could totally forget an evening of sitting and laughing together—and the next day walk right by them. They assume that you are being rude.
It’s hard to explain to someone who doesn’t suffer from it how you can study someone’s face and then, minutes later when they leave, it all just dissolves away like scrambled eggs off of Teflon.
How relieved I was to discover that my son had not inherited this ultimately anti-social condition. Instead, he would often serve as my “seeing-eye dog” as we met up with the parents of his many friends. As he would see them approach, he would quickly tell me under his breath: “That’s Joe’s Mom, Mrs. Dansen.” And I could take it from there.
While face blindness has been an extremely frustrating situation for me, there was some relief when I realized that I was not, in fact, a racist for not being able to tell African-Americans apart. Up until I realized I had an affliction, I assumed that I fit the unfortunate definition of a racially intolerant person. If I’d really thought about it, I would’ve realized that it wasn’t just blacks that looked alike to me, but everyone.
I think, like any handicap, you get used to it, you re-route your habits to accommodate it and you stop wishing, uselessly, that you’d never had to deal with it. You, in fact, become stronger and more empathetic as a result of it. And I think that’s a pretty big pay-off for a little social embarrassment now and then.