Bottom Line: While prosopagnosia itself is fascinating, the explanations and insight into this rare condition did not prevent me from becoming thoroughly annoyed with Ms. Sellers’ thirty-plus years of denial regarding her parents’ and her own medical health.
“Heather Sellers is face-blind – that is, she has prosopagnosia, a rare neurological condition that prevents her from reliably recognizing people’s faces. Growing up, unaware of the reason for her perpetual confusion and anxiety, she took what cues she could from speech, hairstyle, and gait. The truth was revealed two decades later when Heather took the man she would marry home to meet her parents and discovered the astonishing truth about her family and about herself. In this uplifting memoir, Sellers illuminates a deeper truth: that even in the most chaotic and heartbreaking of families, love may be seen and felt.”
Thoughts: Everyone experiences forgetting someone’s name, but almost everyone can recognize faces of acquaintances and of loved ones. We know those familiar faces we see at the grocery store or at your child’s school. We might even go up to someone, let them know that they look familiar, and ask where we might have met. Amazingly, facial recognition is a learned behavior, something learned during the first six months of life, and the ability to recognize faces has a lasting impact on one’s social and professional life. Not everyone learns this skill however, either through brain trauma or physiological reason. Such is the life of Heather Sellers. In You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know Ms. Sellers describes the emotional journey of finding out that she has a rare medical condition in which is she is completely unable to recognize anyone’s face, even her own. She discusses the coping mechanisms she has inadvertently used her entire life to function in society and addresses the issues she continues to have because of misunderstandings and other miscues. Along with her own personal discovery, she makes some startling revelations about her mother’s mental health. The resulting story is one of medical discovery and personal growth as she learns to accept the flaws within others and herself.
While prosopagnosia has far-reaching consequences for those who are fated with it, there is something about Ms. Sellers’ lack of earlier detection that is difficult to accept. She knows that she does not recognize people on the street. She has plenty of examples of looking friends in the eyes and ignoring them because she does not know who they are. She tries to avoid any gathering in which she will be forced to interact with a multitude of people. She has lost friends and isolated herself from most of her peers. Yet, she never seeks medical help to find out why she is this way; she never connects the dots that there is something more than forgetfulness. She does not obtain any medical guidance until she is almost 40 years old. To make matters worse, when she does find out the truth, she hesitates to tell others for fear of embarrassment and reprisal. Therein lies my sense of incredulity. Why would someone wait so long before seeking help, and more importantly, why be afraid to tell others? Why the worry about what others are going to think?
Along the same vein, Ms. Sellers will strike a reader as terribly conflicted and therefore not the most sympathetic narrator. On the one hand, she is successful, outgoing, fiercely independent, and self-aware. Yet, in certain avenues of her life, she is exceedingly obtuse. Her relationship with David is one example of this, as most readers will recognize the danger signs of a doomed relationship almost from the very beginning, yet it takes Ms. Sellers months to come to the same conclusions. The same holds true for her parents’ behaviors. The significant amount of denial it takes to turn a blind eye to schizophrenic behavior or dangerous drinking patterns is as astonishing as it is difficult to believe. There is no doubt that her upbringing was indeed tragic and very difficult, but a reader will still be left with a sense of disbelief at the extreme behaviors of her entire family and her absolute refusal to seek help.
You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know gets its strength from the intriguing discussions and explanations of prosopagnosia. Its rarity among the population and the implications for those few people who have it open up an entirely new world of medical knowledge regarding facial recognition in the brain and just how closely humans rely on that trained skill for everything. The memoir is weakest when Ms. Sellers discusses her adulthood prior to her diagnosis. Her failure to obtain help earlier as well as her initial unwillingness to share her diagnosis with others does not mesh well with the description of someone who is fairly self-aware and outgoing. As a learning tool and exposure to a rare neurological condition, You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know exceeds expectations. Unfortunately, as a memoir, it only confirms why I tend to avoid this genre.
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