Title: You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know: A True Story of Family, Face Blindness, and Forgiveness
Author: Heather Sellers
No. of Pages: 368
Genre: Nonfiction, Memoir
Origins: Riverhead Books
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.
I appreciate your comments and can definitely see how it isn't as easy as I might have thought. Thank you for sharing your frustrations and experiences with me.
I'm face blind. It's very embarrassing to say to people when you first meet them 'Hi. I'm face blind, so I probably won't recognise you next time we meet'. It's too disconcerting for the other person. It makes you sound self-important and it still seems rude to people that you're not going to remember them.
So when are you supposed to say it? When you see someone you think MIGHT be a person you know? What if it isn't?
I didn't figure out my condition until I was an adult. I just thought I was inept, not that I had a neurological condition.
If you want to know how it feels to be face blind, imagine meeting a golden labrador and spending five minutes patting it. Three weeks later, you're in a different part of town and you see a golden labrador. How confident would you feel as to whether it was the same dog?
Thanks, Tanya! RA is a tough disease. I had a childhood friend who suffered from it. You are absolutely correct that we never know how someone else is suffering, whether mentally or physically. It would be wonderful if we could finally stop being so obsessed with appearances.
How interesting that this is a condition people have to endure. Another example of something so simple, recognizing my own face and my sweet family's faces, that I take for granted. I have a medical condition called Rheumatoid Arthritis (its often called an "invisible illness") and I can sympathize with patients who do not want to reveal or be defined by their condition. It seems so many people have conditions and its impossible to know what someone might be battling. It certainly puts in perspective that we shouldn't assume anything about our fellow men and women but unfortunately in our often cruel world many people judge on appearances. Very thought-provoking review.
That was my problem. Would you rather have people think you are a stuck-up snob because you constantly ignore them or have to explain to them that you really have a medical condition? I personally would prefer to explain the medical condition, even if I have to do it multiple times to the same person, if only so that people would understand I was not trying to be rude on purpose. I thought it was just me though.
Heather's story is quite interesting, although her inability to understand that she had a problem was one of the most frustrating things for me. Her excuses to herself got old fairly quickly, but it did help me understand how difficult it is for people to admit they have a problem and to share that with others.
Exactly. The medical condition was fascinating. I just wasn't impressed by her as a person. It makes liking a memoir difficult when you don't necessarily sympathize with the author.
Thank you for sharing your story! It should never fail to amaze me at how rude/intolerant people are, especially when it comes to understanding medical conditions. There should be no fear or shame in sharing your condition with others.
It was the first time I have heard of this condition, and it does sound so difficult when so much of our social interactions is visually biased. I just didn't feel for Heather herself, and this is my issue with memoirs. Most of the time, I struggle to connect with the author and therefore cannot really get into the struggles of the author.
The condition sounds really fascinating. I can't imagine what that is like. My one question, though, is why does she think it would be more embarrassing for people to know there is a condition that causes this than people just thinking she is crazy because she doesn't know who they are?
Wow, I cannot even imagine dealing with that. I'm kinda fascinated by that condition. I wonder about how people really deal with it, etc. I'm a fan of memoirs and I might just have to check this one out 😉
The conditions sounds fascinating even if the story itself was frustrating.
I'm going have to give this book a read. (And check out Oliver Sacks as well.)
I'm mildly face blind. I'll recognize people I'm around a lot and people that I can mark in my mind as having a particular feature (big noses are the best). I never realized that I was face blind until my mid-thirties when I re-met this guy Ryan about five times. While he's traditionally handsome, there is nothing particularly outstanding about Ryan. While I knew his name and I knew what contexts I'd previously interacted with him, every time he talked to me, I had no idea who he was. It took until that point to realize that my forgetfulness of people wasn't not "normal." Previous to that, I have no reason to really question what had been perception of the world. After that, some of my social anxieties made more sense. I'm less comfortable around women in social situations because too many women look like other women, or women change their looks on a regular basis. I'm trying to get better about explaining to people what's going on, but there's always some fear that the person will take it personally. I realize that it's probably as hard for people to understand my lack of recognition as it is for me to understand how easy it is for most people.
This memoir sounds interesting to me, but I tend to like memoirs. Oliver Sacks wrote about having this condition himself. It was a fascinating essay. I've been meaning to read his new book to see if it's included in there.