Friday, May 20, 2011

Pattern recognition

I took a graduate class that focused on memoirs, and it seemed like most of them came from the I'll-see-and-raise-you school of memoir: I'll see your alcoholic father, and raise you a childhood of poverty in West Virginia! Heather Laurie Sellers You Don't Look Like Anyone I Know certainly has the elements - a childhood spent vacillating between her claustrophobic life with a schizophrenic mother and an alcoholic, cross-dressing, violent father with a propensity for allowing drifters and drunks to live with him.

But while Sellers' childhood, and particularly her mother's mental disorder, play a large part in this memoir, You Don't Look is more about Sellers' journey towards being diagnosed with prosopagnosia, or face blindness.

Face blindness is one of the bizarre little side streets of mental disorders. Unlike disorders like schizophrenia, that tend to wreck the entire operating system, face blindness has rather narrowly defined effects. The human brain possesses a remarkable chunk of software devoted solely to recognizing, decoding, and sorting faces. We simply don't look at faces the way we would a chair, or a flower, or a shoe, because faces transmit so much more information.

Imagine, then, the effect if this chunk of your brain simply didn't process faces any differently than it did anything else. Just thinking about it is baffling, since face recognition is one of those fundamental, automatic things that we don't really think about, but we couldn't live our lives the same way if we couldn't do it - like suddenly waking up lacking thumbs or the ability to speak.

Sellers opens her book with an account of an ill-advised road trip with her fiance and his two sons to visit her mother. Sellers, who presents herself as a combination of intelligent and daffy, is constantly surprised by people. Her inability to ever seem to remember having met someone is viewed as alternately hostile, weird, or quirky.

After Sellers and her new family have two disastrous encounters with her estranged father and mother (estranged from Sellers, and from each other) Sellers begins to suspect that her mother is schizophrenic - and that something is also very wrong with her. Sellers visits a number of disbelieving therapists and doctors, but she participates in a face blindness evaluation study and is diagnosed. Her attempts to explain her disorder to others are interspersed with episodes from her childhood that include the mundane and the shocking, although Sellers reports even the most bizarre elements of her life with the same matter-of-factness, including her unorthodox marriage. Sellers' strenuous insistance on the goodness of her husband, Dave, is somewhat undermined by both his drinking (Sellers stresses that he's a recovering alcoholic, although an episode when the two of them drive in his car, emptied beer cans clinking underfoot, would seem to point less towards the 'recovering' and more towards the 'alcoholic' part of that description) and his refusal, as a staunch libertarian, to do anything approaching parenting of his two teenage sons (whose mother, also a schizophrenic, periodically pops up in ways that mirror Sellers' mother's erratic behavior).

Sellers' description of living with face blindness is extremely interesting - imagine that freezing feeling when you realize that the person bearing down on you is someone you know, but you don't remember their name, then imagine that happening nearly every moment of your life, and one starts to think that Dante should have added another circle of hell to his inferno.

Sellers becomes convinced that her mother's as-yet-undiagnosed-schizophrenia played some role in her face blindness, as though an offshoot of the mental disorder took root and bloomed into prosopagnosia. She also briefly considers whether her father suffers from the same disorder. Her face blindness does give her an oddly touchingly tender insight into her mother's disorder, although, as Sellers' ill-advised marriage dissolves over the course of the book, one wonders how much good it's done her.

What I found striking about Sellers' writing was the lack of rancor or bitterness over her chaotic childhood and contentious relationship with her barely-functioning parents. The writing in the early chapters of her book is rather scattered, and it isn't until she begins seriously pondering whether she has a mental disorder that the focus of the book sharpens and the pacing picks up. She's diagnosed fairly early in the book, leaving her the task of both trying to explain her disorder and decipher her parents' multiplicity of issues, although their refusal (or perhaps inability) to cooperate leaves the book with little in the way of a resolution of Sellers' difficult relationship with her parents.

Thanks to Sellers' quick, light writing, You Don't Look is a swift read, albeit a rather unsatisfactory one. Like most mental disorders, there's no definitive cure for face blindness, and very little in the way of managing it, other than explaining the disorder and hoping that you're believed, although Sellers' path to finding out her diagnosis is an interesting one.


  1. Have you read "The Secret Life Of A Schoolgirl" (2003)~ Rosemary Kingsland


  2. Nope, not yet - I've never been really huge into memoir, although I like biographies (go figure). But if you recommend it I'd certainly read it.

  3. I HIGHLY recommend it - the punch-line for the book is outrageous, but in actuality it is not even needed. That the children survived their childhood is a shock in itself.