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Wednesday, October 20,2010

Facing facts

Heather Sellers kept a secret for decades: She couldn’t recognize anyone she knew

by Bill Castanier
Heather Sellers — whose memoir, “You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know,” comes out this week — is not a friend of Facebook. It’s not that Sellers isn’t social. She loves going to conventions, addressing writers’ groups and teaching her writing classes at Hope College.

She just can’t see faces. To her, pretty much everyone on Facebook looks like the default picture.


But don’t say Sellers “suffers” from prosopagnosia, the inability to distinguish one face from another; a few readers may recall Oliver Sacks’ “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat,” which touched on the condition. A recent New Yorker article by Sacks mentioned Sellers, but while Sacks’ writing was on the clinical side, Sellers delves into the emotional side.


In simple terms, Sellers says she’s “face-blind.” Sellers has found about one in 50 have the disorder (including Sacks), but it’s extremely rare that someone has it to the degree she does: Throughout her life, she has been unable to recognize friends or even those closer to her.


She once kissed the wrong man in an airport, thinking it was her husband. She called the police once thinking the man in the backyard was an intruder; it was her husband.


On the flip side Sellers said she is “really, really good with groups.”


“I’m comfortable doing public speaking and being in the classroom,” she said. “It’s a perfect situation for the face-blind.”


Her memoir, which was recently the focus of a full-page review in The New York Times, is getting noticed for its straightforward, no whining/no regrets style. It’s not that Sellers doesn’t look back on or discounts her experiences: She just doesn’t pass judgment on them.


Some would say Sellers should have plenty to complain about, having grown up in a Florida family that would take scores of pages to describe in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Her mother was a schizophrenic and her father was a cross-dressing alcoholic. It wasn’t pretty, but Sellers does not use her book to malign her family or to offer surly lectures about mental illness or alcoholism.


In no way should the upbeat writing of Sellers discount her painful upbringing and her ultimate coming to grips with her face-blindness. In many ways her condition seems to pale in comparison to living with her compulsive-obsessive mother (as a teenager, Sellers would help her mother chase down mysterious government agents) and her womanizing father.


Her family’s dysfunctional lifestyle, in many ways, helps to compensate for her disorder. They moved often, and Sellers would frequently find herself among people she didn’t know, which created a certain comfort level for her. Her troubles came from the people she did know. For example, having one red-headed friend would be great, but having three posed major recognition problems.


What is absolutely amazing about Sellers’ story is she did not confront, recognize or deal with face-blindness until she was in her late 30s and already a full professor. Her previous denial and her ultimate acceptance of the disorder were linked closely to her coming to grips with her mother’s psychosis. Sellers said that before coming to grips with face-blindness, she was concerned she might be mentally ill, perhaps with something related to her mother’s schizophrenia.


After dramatic confrontations with her mother and father (whom she writes lovingly about), Sellers meticulously researched her disorder to see if it was related to schizophrenia. When she finally saw therapists and doctors, they turned out to be inept, and through her writing her frustration and her anxiety become yours.


But it was the one-two punch of her face-blindness and her dysfunctional family that caused Sellers to turn inward and create her own world. “I was profoundly isolated,” she said. “But it was through that isolation I turned into a writer.” A writer who can use the tools of smell, sound and the ability to describe size, gate and the whole presentation of a person with beauty.


Her memoir provides a clear look at one woman coming to grips with her past, present and future. Today, she goes about her life writing, bicycling and making sure that any new person she meets knows she is face-blind.


Sellers knows readers will get a laugh out of some of the circumstances she describes in the book. She’s not afraid, for example, to use the term “blindsided” in a whole new context.


“On one level, it’s funny,” she said. “But on another level, it’s scary not being able to recognize your step-kids or being able to pick them up at school.”


Sellers said she never thought about fictionalizing her experiences.


“I’d already started the book (about my family) when I came across the word (prosopagnasia),” she said. “I’ve been asked if I’d get the cure if there was one. I couldn’t: It’s who I am.”


If she has one regret that stands out in her journey, it would be all the friends she left behind, who mistook her condition for sheer snobbery and stopped speaking to her. “It’s not like I can connect on Facebook with them,” Sellers said.


She has a Facebook page, by the way, and has several hundred friends.


But Sellers said conventions are the best friends of the face-blind: “You don’t know anyone — and if you do, they are wearing a name tag.”




Heather Sellers


7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 27 Schuler Books & Music 2820 Towne Center Blvd. Lansing www.schulerbooks.com



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