Do I Know You From Somewhere?

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 quietly tell me–no matter how many times I’d met them before: “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.

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7 thoughts on “Do I Know You From Somewhere?

  1. i am glad the book helped you understand why the world was always filled with strangers. I acquired prosopagnosia. I can only imagine never having the skill to recognize people….concerning and scary. I heard once that the best was to explain prosopagnosia was to have a shirt made saying: “Let me define prosopagnosia for you unless I just did a minute ago.” 🙂 Thank you for painting a clear picture of face blindness. I appreciate seeing others educated on such a hard topic to understand.

    On a side note, why are members of a military family known as dependents? You have to be quite an independent person to live the life you grew up living. Thank you for serving the country in your own special way.

  2. I didn’t learn about face blindness until I was in my 60s. My own is fairly mild, but still caused embarrassment throughout my life. At last, I finally had an explanation for my son, about why I couldn’t recognize an actor or actress I’d seen dozens of times. So many people have what I call “generic” faces, too much alike to recognize easily. And that includes the “handsome” men and the “beautiful” women that the public is most attracted to. I’ve always preferred faces with character or something unusual about them. I never knew why, but even now that I know, that kind of face is just more interesting.

  3. Susan, I’m curious – do you remember, for instance, book covers that feature people? Or is it just a problem in 3D?

    And yeah, I found you via DWS and the Social Networking blogpost, and I’m staying!

  4. Interesting. I thought it was just me. I also have a mild case. I cannot remember the faces of people unless I meet them a few times in the same environment. Sometimes if I meet the person in a different environment I can’t remember who they are. This causes some embarrassment, but I have learned to just shut up and listen for a bit and maybe something will trigger a memory (a mannerism of theirs or a topic they bring up). You learn to fake it 🙂 Sometimes I will walk away from the conversation still not knowing who the person is, but I don’t tell them. Men are the most difficult. I think it may be because men do not have the variety of hairstyles, dress or accessories that women have.
    My family met for lunch for my birthday last month and my husband had to come from work to meet us at the restaurant. He brought a co-worker with him that I had met at a company picnic not too long before. We had eaten with the co-worker and his wife and baby girl at the picnic and had conversation with them, however I did not remember the man. I called him by a different name because originally my husband had told me he was bringing someone else. I was embarrassed, so I mentioned to them both that I sometimes had problems distinguishing men one from another, my husband thought it was hilarious and remarked “So you can’t tell the difference between me and Brad Pitt? Cool.” Ha, ha. It’s frustrating sometimes.

    • Oh, I love your husband’s line! V funny. It’s true, tho’, people who don’t suffer from face blindness really can’t imagine it. I’ve read that the ability to recognize faces is one of our most basic abilities–something very small babies use right out of the box. If you don’t have it, it’s a significant handicap. I used to think: if I’m ever attacked, I would NEVER be able to pick the guy out of a line-up. Not unless he had two heads or something. 🙂

      • Well, the odds are that you would probably know the guy which would help! I depend on my husband to tell me who people are – he can remember anyone even if he’s only met them once!

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