I Like You, but I Can’t See You: A Writer’s Reflections on Face Blindness

The party was in full swing when a man in a sport coat walked in and greeted me by name. Everything about his demeanor said, I got an invitation, but I had no idea who he was. I puzzled over him like a difficult equation. After several hours of deliberation, I figured it out. I had hired him the week before.

But it’s not just new hires.

My good friend Liz dressed up for my book launch in goth regalia. I didn’t recognize her.

I saw a colleague through the windshield of his car. I looked. I looked again. Nope. I didn’t know him. Something about the glass rendered him unrecognizable.

It’s a miracle my wife still watches movies with me. We get to the final showdown, and I lean over and whisper,

“Is that the cop?”

“That’s the killer!” she says. “That’s the killer he’s been chasing the whole movie.

And it’s not one of those movies where the cop is secretly the killer. It’s just that the distinction between Vin Diesel and Jason Statham is lost on me.

I like Orange Is the New Black. There are enough variations in race, hair, and body shape for me to tell all the characters apart reliably, but if Laura Prepon (the beautiful Alex Vause) walked past me on the street and someone said, “who do you think that looks like?” I’d have nothing.  She looks like a woman. I think she’s white (but I get that one wrong too sometimes).

I’m not the only one. I was leafing through old copies of Scientific American Mind and came across the article “Forgetting Faces.”  Apparently two to three percent of the population experiences “prosopagnosia” or face blindness.

To illustrate, the article showed photographs of two clearly [to me] different women.  The side note read, “To someone with prosopagnosia, a friend or relative may become unrecognizable when she changes clothes, dons glasses, or wraps her head in a towel.”

Well, yes of course! How am I expected to recognize people when you all wear such clever disguises?

I’m not going to ask for a special accommodation at work. I just want you – with your devilishly clever ability to tell white people apart – to appreciate how surprisingly normal I act most of the time.

I botch it every once in a while, like the time a dean from my school was in line behind me at Rite Aid. I looked right at him and did not recognize him.

But most of the time, you can’t tell that I can’t see you. I like people. I can sense when someone is sad. I even memorize my students’ names in the first week of class. They’re always impressed.

You see, there’s a lot more to people than the architecture of their noses and the shape of their chins. Each person has a physical signature: a stride, a squint, a way of breathing. They’re like tuning forks. You can hear them living. And you can see how beautiful they are when you can’t see them.




5 thoughts on “I Like You, but I Can’t See You: A Writer’s Reflections on Face Blindness

  1. I had this happen to me recently but in a more “out of context” way rather than, “I don’t know your face.”

    I always see my across the street neighbor in the garden or at the neighborhood dinners or gatherings, but when he showed up to the University I work at to attend a conference, in a suit, and even WITH A NAME tag, I STILL couldn’t place him!

    I KNEW him, but the face didn’t register, and I wracked my brain with “colleague? friend from long ago? different department?” I stared and he stared and I was polite and said hello, twice. But wandered off with my breakfast bagel still puzzling.

    Over the weekend, I saw him at a neighborhood party, and he said, “You know, I almost wandered up to you to tell you how much you look like the girl who lives across the street from me, but then, you looked right through me and walked away! I thought you were avoiding me because you assumed I was hitting on you.”

    I told him he SHOULD HAVE, because the only place I ever see him is at home, but to see him at work, well . . . it was rather like seeing your grade school teacher at the bar or out in public. Awkward and disorienting.

    I love the idea of a physical signature (and your eloquence) at describing it! I’ve been told after deborading a bus, my co-worker knew I was there in the back where he couldn’t see me, because he heard me laugh. I guess it’s a good fingerprint to have.


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