GUY RAZ, host:
Imagine walking downstairs in the morning and there, in the kitchen, is a stranger making your breakfast. And some kids are sitting around the table, and you have no idea who they are. Or say you go to a party, and you introduce yourself to someone - and this happens.
Ms. HEATHER SELLERS (Author, "You Don't Look Like Anyone I Know: A True Story of Family, Face Blindness, and Forgiveness"): Hi, I'm Heather. I'm in the English Department, I said. Yes, of course, I know, she said. I'm Jane Small in History. Our offices are down the hall from each other. In (unintelligible)? This is my fifth year here. We've met, she smiled, many times.
RAZ: That's Heather Sellers, reading from her new memoir. It's called "You Don't Look Like Anyone I Know." It's about life with a rare neurological disorder she has called prosopagnosia. And what it does is, it prevents her from recognizing -or even distinguishing between - different faces.
Ms. SELLERS: When I'm looking at a face, I think I see what you see when you're looking at a face. It's a processing problem. I can't store images of the face. My memory is great for everything else. But I cannot remember a face, even for a second.
So when I'm looking at your face, I see you. But if I look away from your face, I can't tell you if you're wearing glasses, or what color your eyes are, or if you have a beard or not. So, I go by your hair. I've got, I think, a really great memory for clothes.
RAZ: Because if you saw me - we're not in the same room right now; you're in Michigan, and I'm in Washington - but if you saw me and then we said goodbye, and then I saw you five minutes later, you wouldn't know who I was?
Ms. SELLERS: It would depend. If I was able to remember your tie or something specific about what you were wearing, or your voice, or if you just sit in the same office and I saw you five minutes later, and you're in the same office wearing the same clothes, I'll be able to figure it out. I'll be quite certain. But if I saw you downstairs, and you'd put on a coat over your clothes, I would walk past you as though I'd never seen you before.
RAZ: Unless you heard me speak, and then you could recognize me or other people you know based on their voices, for example.
Ms. SELLERS: Well, I have to work hard at that, but I might be able to get it by the voice. It just happened here at the studio. I walked past the man who let me in - he's the producer here - and I had no idea who it was or why he was talking to me. I didn't remember his clothes.
I think that's what's most confusing about this disorder is, I recognize people all the time, except when I don't. And I never know which is which. You know, if I was just always not knowing, I think you could get used to that. But because there's these compensations, these other things that I can use, it's very confusing.
RAZ: So when you were a kid growing up, you know, in grade school, middle school, high school, did you just have no friends? I mean, did you have friends who you would play with one day, come back to school the next day and not know who they were, or did you just avoid the other kids?
Ms. SELLERS: Well, friendships were difficult. The stuff at home was so difficult. I wasn't allowed to have anyone over or go to people's houses. And then when I did get to school, I wanted to participate, but it was really hard to tell people apart.
So my friends were the weird kids, you know, the ones that were very, very strange, the kids who really stood out - the 7-foot-tall guy; the very, very, very heavy-set girl; the kid with the port wine stain.
And I have to say that that is maybe one of the gifts of this disorder. I have a wide range of normal, and I have an empathy. It's almost like a survival strategy for me socially, this empathy for the people on the edges.
RAZ: Your memoir is an account, obviously, of your condition but also your incredibly troubled childhood in Florida. Your mother, you later sort of realized, was schizophrenic; your father was an alcoholic. How did you cope with that as a kid, and did you know that something was wrong at home?
Ms. SELLERS: Well, yes. I knew something was wrong but, you know, every kid loves their parents.
Ms. SELLER: I loved my parents, and I felt incredibly loyal to them. And I believe their explanations for the things that were going on in our house. It all made sense, you know, when it's your mom, and she's explaining the world to you.
I also had a lot of trouble putting together narrative anyway. I didn't watch TV or movies for reasons that were complicated because of my mother's - my mother was afraid of those. She was afraid of TV and afraid of movies, so we were forbidden to watch. So I always thought - I always had a reason to explain what was wrong. When I had trouble later watching film, I just figured it's because I'd had such a starved childhood - like, I had never seen it, so I never learned how to watch it.
So I think that the face blindness, this incredibly difficult condition, made me live with an enormous amount of uncertainty and get used to it. I got used to living that way, and I think it helped me cope with all the stuff that didn't add up at home, and vice versa.
RAZ: Yet there is no bitterness in this book towards your parents. I mean, it's almost - there's almost a fondness with what you write about them.
Ms. SELLERS: I am fond of them. I'm fond of them to this day. I think, you know, I set out to write this book about how I came to terms with my own experience, how hard it was to see, and I ended up writing a kind of love story, this book about how it is we love incredibly flawed people, and how it is we love all of us in spite of these great limitations.
RAZ: I'm speaking with Heather Sellers. She's the author of a new memoir, called "You Don't Look Like Anyone I Know." It's about her rare disorder, known as face blindness.
Heather, in your memoir, you write that you thought, I mean, for most of your life, you thought that this was a mental disorder. How did you discover that it was neurological?
Ms. SELLERS: I didn't think I was mentally ill, but I worried about it a lot. I'd gone home and had this series of really difficult encounters with my mom and...
RAZ: This is in your...
Ms. SELLERS: ...random...
RAZ: ...sort of mid-to-late 30s.
Ms. SELLERS: Yes. And I saw it for the first time through outsiders' eyes, whereas before whenever I'd gone home, once I crossed that threshold into their life, I went back into that reality. But there was a random comment at my high school reunion from an old boyfriend, asking what was wrong with my mom. And I just started to put together the puzzle; I never had before.
I came back to Michigan to try to find out what was it, what did my mom have? Did it have a name? Was it a thing? And I happened to cross, in this psychology book, these two words: face recognition. And I knew, instantly, this explained everything about my life. And that's when I got on the course of diagnosis and finally ended up at Harvard, where I underwent research and testing, and got the diagnosis in the FMRI machine where they, you know, they hook your brain up with all those little electrodes, and you look at faces.
Ms. SELLERS: And it was a great feeling, to fail that test miserably at Harvard.
RAZ: How do you just cope with everyday life? I mean, do you write down, you know, names and descriptions of people's faces once you see them?
Ms. SELLERS: Well, before I was diagnosed, I think I coped poorly. I created a lot of drama and made a lot of mistakes, and I would have difficult interactions with friends. Someone would say that they'd seen me the night before; why did I just walk by? And I would argue and say, you weren't there. I would question their grasp of reality.
RAZ: A lot of your colleagues thought you were just aloof or snobby.
Ms. SELLERS: Difficult, yes. But now that I know about it and I'm out, I tell everyone I meet and I remind people, and I enlist their support. And that's the only way, and I cannot tell you what a difference in the quality of my life.
RAZ: But when you do - I mean, say - you know, a very close and intimate personal friend, somebody you share secrets with, somebody you confide in, you see him or her, the next day you don't recognize their face. They remind you who they are and then it's back to normal, you know that you have that relationship with that person?
Ms. SELLERS: Yes, absolutely. Once they tell me, I know right away. And I'm really good with gait. All of us are, actually. The brain is actually much better at gait - at recognizing someone walking.
RAZ: The way they walk.
Ms. SELLERS: I'm really good at people from the back, far away, walking. So I'll know someone is coming if I've got a lot of time or, again, by context. But I make a lot of mistakes. But I've been doing it for so long now - just saying, please tell me who you are - that I don't even think about it anymore. I say it, people say it, and we just move right into the moment.
RAZ: Heather Sellers, you end your memoirs by writing: I love face blindness now - and you think of it as a great training tool for being a writer.
Ms. SELLERS: I do. It's the gift of uncertainty. I think a lot of brilliant, talented writers have a hard time staying in that chair long enough to get through the inevitable chaos that comes when you sit down to make a piece of art. And I've got a high tolerance for not knowing. I can sit and not know the heck out of a thing. I've been doing it my whole life. And I've trained myself, when I don't know, to not freak out, to just keep looking closer.
RAZ: So I mean, in a sense, you see this as a kind of a gift, I guess, in a strange way.
Ms. SELLERS: I do see it as a gift. And it's been hard won. I sure didn't at first. But I love the face blindness now. It's allowed me to engage in the world in a meaningful way, and I don't know that I would have come to that without this disorder, which forces me to say right away the most vulnerable thing I could say to someone: I may not know you, but I want to. So I would never leave the land of face blindness now. It's the way I am in the world. I don't see it as a burden at all.
RAZ: That's Heather Sellers, author of the memoir "You Don't Look Like Anyone I Know." She teaches English at Hope College in Michigan.
Heather Sellers, thank you so much.
Ms. SELLERS: Thank you.
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