I have to confess something. I have no idea who in the hell you are.
At least some of the time, anyway.
I’m honestly not trying to be rude, though you might well think me snobbish because I blew you off at the mall or glared at you in yoga class or cooly averted my gaze when we happened to pass each other on the street.
If you stopped me, our conversation might well have gone something like this:
“Erin! Hey! I thought that was you!”
“It’s been so long! Ohmygosh! How have you been doing?”
“I’m … good? … and … you?”
“Well, OK, bye.
I know our theoretical convo probably went like this, regardless of who you are, because I have had this conversation more times in my 33 years than I can even begin to count. And I have had this conversation more times in my 33 years than I can even begin to count because I appear to be suffering from a strange little condition called “prosopagnosia.”
It’s a big, jumbled-up word that essentially translates to “face blindness,” and what it means is that I sometimes struggle to recognize people’s faces. I’ve never been officially diagnosed with the condition by a neurologist or any other kind of doctor. That’s the disclaimer. But prosopagnosia explains so many awkward moments in my life that it’s practically uncanny.
I first heard about the disorder while driving in my car a few years back, listening to public radio like the nerd I am. I caught the tail end of an interview with a man who suffers from an extreme version of the condition, and as I listened to him describe his experiences, it felt like getting hit on the head with a frying pan, in the best possible way. Or like being handed the last piece in a demented puzzle I didn’t even realize I’d spent the last 30-some-odd years assembling.
Prosopagnosia is a cognitive disorder that causes its sufferers to struggle with visual processing and facial perception. The biology: some weird little collection of folds in my gray matter called the “fusiform gyrus” fails to light up properly when presented with a face. In short, my brain is an asshole.
Those with serious versions of the condition cannot even recognize the faces of their partners or children. It’s nothing like that for me (although I’ve more than once approached random strangers in public places, mistaking them for uncles and aunts, and it is completely mortifying, especially when you go in for the hug). What is true is this: everybody I don’t know well kinda looks alike.
If you are on the periphery of my life and your features are at all generic, there’s a good chance that I would be unable to pick you out from a line-up of close or even not-so-close lookalikes. And there’s an even better chance I won’t notice you when I encounter you in a place I do not associate you with.
Hence the string of awkward, this-feels-like-a-blowoff conversations that have punctured my social interactions since as far back as I can remember.
My condition regularly renders me incredibly obnoxious to watch movies with, especially in an age of such ethnic homogeneity – I find it incredibly vexing to distinguish one petite brown-haired woman from another, one doe-eyed, wispy child from the next.
But such moments of gracelessness are just the tip of the prosopagnosia iceberg. The condition often makes me look downright bitchy.
Exhibit A: That time when a friend and I went to watch a basketball game my high school boyfriend was refereeing. We spent the whole game sitting in the bleachers, giggling at the awkward way my boyfriend raced up and down the court with a whistle hanging out of his mouth. I told her he was a bad kisser. We laughed some more. My boyfriend dumped me a few weeks later. As it turned out, I’d failed to realize that his father was seated right next to me for the entire duration of the game. I’d met him twice before. I had no idea.
Exhibit B: The time a few years ago when I spent three hours sitting in a six-person writing workshop in a tiny classroom before it dawned on me that the woman sitting directly across the table from me was my landlord, and had also come to several sessions of a creative writing class I was teaching at the time. To make the matter even more embarrassing, I’d once written a feature story about her and a book she’d published for the local paper. (This was a small town: such overlap was common.) And yet I totally failed to register her as somebody I had met before. I’d said a formal “Hello” at the start of the workshop, but absolutely no kind of bell lit up inside my skull to alert me she was someone I knew until I caught her staring at me in a weird way and it occurred to me that she looked vaguely familiar. Cue horrible, overwhelming embarrassment and guilt.
Exhibit C: The time I realized at the end of grad school that this one guy I’d had a few classes with and chatted to on occasion with was actually TWO COMPLETELY DIFFERENT PEOPLE THE ENTIRE TIME. I have no idea if he (they) ever caught wind of my gaffe, but I was embarrassed enough to avoid him (them) until graduation.
It also occasionally makes me look like a racist.
SEE: Me thinking the All State Insurance spokesman was Denzel Washington for like three years and feeling too ashamed to admit it because I was afraid I’d end up looking like an uncaring Caucasian dickbag who thinks every black person I encounter is either a criminal or a celebrity.
SEE also: The time I taught a business English class in Korea and made it to the end of an entire term still completely incapable of telling two of the women in one of my classes apart. I admitted my folly to a Canadian I met while on a visa-renewal run to Japan and confessed that all of my Korean students looked “sort of alike” to me. In exchange for my candor, she gave me a harsh dressing down for my white supremacist generalizations.
“We all look alike to them, too you know,” she hissed, shaking her blonde curls in disgust.
“NO WE DON’T!” I wanted to shout. Because while things like hair color and nose shape don’t mean that much to most people in the grand scheme of a face and the complex, completely unique person living behind it, they are my only anchors to windward in a rollicking, mixed-up sea of duplicate, free-floating heads.
I study the landmarks of people’s faces like others study maps (also bewitching and befuddling things for this brain of mine, although they tend to swim and blur far less than people do). I carefully note the placement of moles, crevaces, piercings and gap-tooths, and I commit them to memory like others commit recipes and sports trivia. On occasion, the whole exhausting exercise strikes me as somewhat futile because I’m studying for an exam that may or may not ever come. A good 95 percent of the time, it won’t. But when it does, on the street, in yoga class, or wherever else, man does it suck to flunk out. Because I’m not just failing myself. I’m failing others, too. Making them feel unimportant and forgettable. And that sucks.
What makes my condition even stranger is that I’ve got a nearly photographic memory for other stuff. So even if your face is completely unrecognizable to me, I probably recall, word for word, every important conversation we ever had. I recall what your house looked like when I came over for dinner in 1992. The purse you carried when I ran into you at the mall or in yoga class, even if I had no idea who you were by that point.
Oh, I’ve got my workarounds. I smile at strangers almost compulsively, even though I’d really rather not most of the time, as a way of hedging my bets, just in case I know somebody I don’t realize that I know. And if I can’t be bothered to smile on that particular day, I’ll avoid people completely. This goes double if somebody’s face looks vaguely familiar to me but I cannot place it: I will literally cross the street or duck into a storefront to avoid dealing with the situation.
Prosopagnosia is a mental deficit, and knowing that sort of puts my heart at ease. There’s a certain comfort we humans seem to take in pathology. It gives our neuroses and failings the blush of legitimacy. We can feel divinely afflicted instead of merely idiotic or racist, or, and this softens the sharp, ungiving countours of our mistakes and oversights.
But still, I feel sometimes as if my invitation to some fantastic gilded party got lost in the mail. As if my shortcoming prevents me from fully participating in what are supposed to be simple, easy, enjoyable human interactions.
In South Africa, there is a concept called “ubuntu.” It means the only way for me to be legitimately human is for you to reflect my humanity back at me. If it’s true, what does it mean to be totally incapable of such mirroring? To be hardwired, instead, to erase and forget?
Certainly, the fates have given far harsher undressings to those who’ve committed the folly of staring too long and too hard, especially at themselves. Narcissus stared and stared into his glittering pool, so bewitched of his own reflection that he refused food and drink and withered into dust.
As for me, I’ve lately been avoiding mirrors entirely. They make me feel uncomfortable, exposed. Is this discomfort also the work of the jumbled facial recognition portion of my brain? I’m not sure. What I do know by now is that a blank slate can be far lonelier than any rippling pond.
. . . I’m sorry. Have we met?