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.

When Memory Lane was Land-Mined

I was nine years old the first time my eleven-year old brother placed a live bomb in my hands. I was living overseas as a military dependent in post-war France with my parents and three brothers. My Dad was the acting commanding officer of Chambley Air Force Base, an American air base situated in Alsace-Lorraine.

There was a best-selling novel a few years ago by Diane Setterfield called “The Thirteenth Tale” in which the author—and the protagonist in the book—states that everyone tends to mythologize his or her childhood. I think there’s some truth to that but I have to say there was a three-year period in my childhood when I didn’t need to make up or embellish the things that happened to me. And most people have difficulty believing me when I tell them my story.

The unexploded bombs my brothers and I found—and we found dozens during the year we lived in France—were the result of an allied bombardment in November 1945 when the 8th Air Force dropped a total of 3,753 tons of bombs in our backyard in one day…resulting in what surely must’ve looked like a demented Easter egg hunt 18 years later when four Boomer kids went on the ultimate scavenger hunt.

(The  photo, above, is of my older brother and myself walking in downtown Vogelway in the mid-sixties. We were as confident and sure of ourselves as brash young Yanks in an occupied land could be.)

A few other memories in my scrapbook at the time include:

The fact that I went to a French Convent school—built in the 1300’s—where I spoke only French.

I got my first kiss from a French boy in a stone washhouse built by the Romans in 300 AD.

When I was ten, I was shot at by an angry French farmer who patrolled his vineyards in an effort to keep pests out (read: wily American kids.)

I once tripped over a dead body in a snake-infested World War II bunker that my brother and I discovered and were trying to fix up for a clubhouse. (The Mouseketeers was real big back then and we were absolutely a product of our culture.) It was a skeleton, wearing a molding German uniform. Showing an early entreprenurial streak, my brother tacked up a sign at the entrance to the bunker selling tours to the local French kids—”Ten francs to see the dead kraut.”

When we moved to Germany, I had a full-scale castle in my backyard—built in the 1200’s—complete with dungeons, stone balconies and towers—that my brothers and I played in nearly every day of the two years that we lived there.

We moved back to the States when I was 12 at which point I began a fairly conventional adolescence, but I’ll always be grateful that there was a time in my childhood when I was not only allowed to discover the world on my own terms but was able to experience history and true adventure as a part of my daily round without exaggeration and without mythology.