“Hi, I’m Jeff.”
Kathy looks somewhat annoyed: “Hi, I’m Kathy. We’ve known each other for three years.”
Kathy has huge hair. A tangled mass, a defining feature. If an artist drew a caricature of Kathy, she would have a tiny face orbited by a universe of hair. On this day, it’s pulled back into a tight pony tail, so I have no idea who she is.
** or **
“Oh hey Jeff, I didn’t recognize you with that beard.” The clock ticks. Moments pass. Frantically, I search my brain. Nothing.
I finally respond: “I’m sorry, I don’t recognize you at all,”
This is Prosopagnosia – face-blindness. “A cognitive disorder – the inability to recognize familiar faces.”
Like many brain disorders, the severity of Prosopagnosia runs a spectrum. It could be serious and disabling, or it might be mild and simply annoying. This is similar to color blindness or Tourette’s Syndrome. I have both of these as well. Mine aren’t crippling, but without a doubt, they’re annoying. Maybe a little more.
Prosopagnosia can be acquired through head injury or it can be congenital – incomplete brain development. I had a serious bicycle accident in my early thirties that included eighteen hours of amnesia – that probably didn’t help. But I remember stumbling over names and faces for years before that. The problem was so prevalent as a young adult that my girlfriend and I created Party Rule #1: if I don’t introduce you, I don’t know who we’re talking with.
These days, we hear a lot of concern about concussions. Head injuries are now known to damage the brain in a cumulative fashion. Well, I’ve been knocked unconscious at least four times, and I’ve had a handful of concussions on top of that. But when I was a child and a teen, no one really cared. I grew up with the Hardy Boys books. In this series, Frank and Joe Hardy were conked out two or three times per story. They were never any worse for wear. Back in my day, serious head injury was seen as normal part of an active boy-hood.
So I’m guessing my face-blindness is acquired.
I’ve beaten myself up over this for years. I always attributed my lack of recognition to laziness, or being self-centered. I obviously don’t take the time to learn who people are. I can tell that others feel this way as well. Not recognizing someone you’ve known for years is weird. Or unbelievable. Or snobbish. I’ve pissed off many long-time acquaintances this way.
My Prosopagnosia is more prevalent with men. I rely on non-facial features to help make the ID. Hair and clothing style are my usual clues, but men don’t always offer enough variety in either area to be useful to me. Glasses are good, beards help. Shaved heads are awesome – on adults.
When my daughter, Sophie, was a baby, she was bald. She was born with a wispy, dusting of blonde hair, and it didn’t change for two full years. I dreaded daycare pickup. I would walk into the room and start the process of elimination. There was Sage, eighteen months old, she had the long, blond locks of a supermodel. Ariel, she was African American. Erin was the only other baby with hair, and hers was brown. Sophie was one of the five bald kids. To me, they all looked identical.
So I relied on clothing. I knew all of Sophie’s outfits. But from time to time, Sophie would have a particularly bad clothing day. After a messy lunch and a diaper malfunction, she wound up in some other kid’s spare outfit. When this happened, I panicked. I couldn’t pick out my own child. So I’d stall. I’d make up a topic to discuss with a teacher for a few minutes, hoping that Sophie would toddle over to me. Sometimes one of the other teachers would go and fetch her.
Once we were packed up and walking home, I would begin to second-guess myself. Just above her belt-line in the center of her back, Sophie has a small round birthmark. We call it her on/off button, but it never worked – it never switched her off. Countless times, leaving day care, I would double check the kid in the stroller. I’d make sure she had that birthmark. Obsessive? Maybe, but better than walking into my house with the wrong baby.
“Jeff! Whose baby is that? Where’s Sophie?”
I make this sound like a big joke, and it is – to a degree. But it’s also sad and disconcerting. In a small town like Gettysburg, we all know each other. School events, parties, even at my work, I run into people I’m sure I know, but I don’t recognize. This is isolating. I keeps me from improving relationships. Because I often don’t know who I’m talking with, I keep conversations at a surface level. Small talk. It makes people think I don’t really care about them. It makes me seem like an asshole.
Until a few years ago, I didn’t even know why I was like this. Susan was listening to NPR one day, and she heard a news report on Prosopagnosia. She couldn’t believe this was actually a thing. She thought it was just another one of the odd, eccentric behaviors that make me so loveable… to her. Now I’m armed with a reason, an excuse. I’ve got an almost unpronounceable disorder to point at after I walk up to one of my friends and say “Hi, I’m Jeff.”
I recently did this to Blair. We’ve been friends for a several months. We’re in a writers’ group together, and we share several interests: running, hiking, and a similar history with alcohol abuse. For some reason he’s one of those people I just can’t recognize. I’m not sure why – it doesn’t make sense. He has a white mustache and even whiter hair. He even wears glasses. Plenty of non-facial features for me to focus on; he should be easy for me to remember.
Blair’s a few years older than me. His kids are grown. They’re through with those trying teenage years. But Sophie is just starting them. He assures me that sometime over the next few years, Sophie will exhibit some face-blindness of her own. I’ll see her downtown hanging out with her friends. When I walk up and say “Hi” she’ll tell her friends “I’ve never seen that man before in my life.”