March 18, 2011
Imagine what it must be like to be surrounded by strangers, never recognizing the face of your spouse, the face of your children, your co-workers and students, or even your own features when revealed in a photo or in film? At first, it sounds amusing. Most of us have trouble remembering names and faces so this couldn’t be that big of a deal. Right? But amusement quickly turns into a nightmare, losing your son in a grocery store, ignoring people you’ve worked with for years, walking past your students as if they are strangers. Add to that an unreliable, alcoholic father with a nasty temper, and a paranoid, schizophrenic mother, and you have the life and times of Heather Sellers. Her memoir is titled You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know (Riverhead Books), and it is her true story of face blindness, and the way her world has been shaped since childhood.
Take this excerpt from the beginning of the book as an example of what her life has been like:
“I ran up to him and threw my arms around him and stretched up to kiss him; he drew back, pressing me away.
It wasn’t Dave. I had the wrong guy.
Dave—my real Dave—came up a moment later; we laughed about my mistake. I was embarrassed he had seen me hugging another man. ‘So many people here look like you!’ I said. ‘We need to move. To a place with fewer Dutch people.’ This had happened numerous times before, my mistaking someone else for Dave.”
Heather Sellers teaches at Hope College, and is a talented author, her books on craft funny and light, never dry, her short stories rooted in humor, but always carrying with them a hint of danger and dysfunction. So to hear this story, well, it just sounds like something Heather might do, always thinking about something else, her mind wandering, maybe just a tad bit ditsy. It’s anything but that.
Face blindness, or prosopagnosia, can be caused by a blow to the head, a stroke, trauma:
“Sufferers recognized people, just never by the internal features of the face. They used voice, gait, jewelry, and context. Common sense. They compensated. Many could function well. Others became withdrawn, housebound, even suicidal.”
But for the longest time, in fact, all of her childhood, and most of her adult life, Heather Sellers had no idea that she had face blindness. She thought she was unique, special, that she simply looked at the world a little bit differently, and she embraced this perspective.
Although, there were times she looked back at her youth, and her mother especially, and hesitated, questioned things, wondered about the sanity and behavior that was, for them, the norm:
“I tried to remember. Had she always nailed the windows shut? Yes. It was just how we lived. Bare light bulbs. Sponge baths in the garage. Walking around on our knees. Windows nailed shut.
That could not be. Schizophrenics were like Dave’s first wife. They were locked away, they were on meds, they were crazy, crazy people. My mom was peculiar. It was not possible for me to be thirty-eight years old and not to have known my mother was a paranoid schizophrenic.”
Face blindness. A mother with a mental illness. An alcoholic father. Nothing was normal. Heather ate paper, an affliction called pica, the craving for unnatural substances. She was eating pencils, metal, sucking on rocks, under a great deal of stress. No, things were not going well.
But life went on. And as any daughter (or son) is naturally inclined to do, she loved her mother, and supported the decisions that her mother made:
“Most of the time, her reasons made sense—as much sense as adult reasons ever make to a child. I had to wear strange used clothes because we were not rich. Trends were for sheep, fools. We had to move because she was dead set against the divorce, the bank was foreclosing. The wrong food contained toxins that killed people; people had died from eating food they thought was perfectly safe. I couldn’t argue. Her bizarre habits were swirled into the days with no obvious pattern; she happened like life, in hours, in years.”
This way of living, it had to shape her. Coupled with her own issues with face blindness, is it any wonder she though she was going insane?
It would take years for Heather Sellers to find the courage to get therapy, to address the mental issues of her father and mother, their weaknesses, their problems. It would take that same courage, and more, to admit to her fellow teachers and students that she had problems, that her face blindness was real, not all in her head. What response could she possibly expect? When she finally revealed her problem to the campus, to her students and peers, she only expected compassion:
“Someone else wrote me. I don’t even remember who it was. But it’s the question that matters the most.
‘Do you want me to reintroduce myself to you once or always?’
I want you to always.”
When you live with uncertainty, when the love you know is flawed, deeply flawed, it can be a life-changing experience. Heather Sellers found the strength to share this experience with others, to let them know that they’re okay as well, whether they suffer from face blindness, or other issues. She asks us to stay open to the possibilities, and to try and understand the intangibles, the unseen, those elusive worries and mental roadblocks, and to keep on going, keep trying, keep evolving. You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know is a touching, heartbreaking story, one that is unique, and yet, filled with the same love, and hope that we all carry with us, or strive to embrace. The next time I run into Heather, I’ll be sure to introduce myself, as I always have, but this time, the moment will carry with itself more weight, a glimmer in my eye as I search her gaze for recognition, the years of suffering unfurling, the laughter and adventure radiating from her smiling face as we shake hands, and I reconnect with a powerful voice in contemporary literature, an inspiration to all of us out here who are writing, teaching, and trying to love each other, flaws and all.