I am waiting outside my daughter’s school when another mom greets me. I smile and say, “hello,” unsure if we have met before. Does she have a child in my daughter’s class? Is she just being friendly or should I know her? I wait to see if she wants to converse and try to gauge how I should act based on her next move. Can I “fake it” and identify her after an exchange or two? Or am I going to be forced to justify my ignorance with my standard line, “I am terrible with faces. I’m so sorry. Can you remind me who you are?” And then there is always the fear that I’ve been through this same scenario before with this same person. How many times can I do this with one person before they give up trying? And how many of the other moms around me consider me a snob because they have been through this with me a few times before, yet I still do not behave appropriately when they encounter me? This is my life. I am face blind. When I meet people, unless I am going to see them again immediately and then repeatedly, I will not be able to recognize them. Frankly, I’m baffled at the superpowers the rest of you seem to have. How do you do it? People basically all look very similar to me: two eyes, two ears, a nose and a mouth. Thank goodness for hair, or the lack thereof, and its differing colors and styles.
I cannot differentiate between faces, but I can often identify people by their voices, the way they walk, and body shape or size. If I can find a distinguishing characteristic then I am thankful. Things like a pair of glasses, painted fingernails, a tattoo, or facial hair often give me the clue I need to place someone. I can frequently identify people by their clothing or shoes, by the car they drive, or the place they live or work. Those things change though. Meeting someone out of context can thwart all my best cheats.
I volunteer one morning a week in a first grade class with a teacher friend of mine. I love it but I usually do not have the children’s names matched to their faces until the end of the year. Last year there were three boys with the same shade of blonde hair and the same type of cut. I tried every cheat I knew to figure out which boy was which and I never succeeded. Today I took my two youngest to McDonalds for lunch. A little girl ran across the restaurant and hugged me around the middle. I did recognize her as one of my little first grade friends but had no idea which one. That just exasperates me. Of course I smiled and visited with my little friend but I could not call her by name. This is a regular occurrence for me. It is bothersome. I want to be like everyone else who has the superpower of recognition!
My inability to discriminate between faces is very frustrating in other ways too. Without my husband to help me sort out the characters in a movie I am often lost. An evening in front of the television goes something like this: I ask, “Who just got shot? Was it the detective or the lawyer?” My husband patiently says, “It’s the detective.” I ask, “Who shot her?” He pauses the movie to explain, “Remember the guy we saw at the beginning of the movie? He was sitting in the car outside the bank.” Now I’ve got it straight and we can resume watching, until the next time I get confused about who is who. A few evenings ago we were watching a news show. I commented about the lady news anchor being on since the morning show. My husband explained that three of the lady anchors look similar. They all have shoulder-length blonde hair. I’ve watched this channel for years. I always wondered how the same lady managed to be in every newscast. I am stumbling through life, face blind.
If I am in a public place I probably walk past many people who I should be greeting as acquaintances but I am oblivious. If my husband is along, he will sometimes stop to speak with someone as I walk on. Later I ask, “Was that someone I should have known?” My husband says, “Yes” and then goes on to explain how I should have known them. Usually this ends with me embarrassed and apologetic, and him reminding me that it is not in my control. Regardless, it is humiliating and frustrating.
Upon meeting people for the first time I usually let them know I have trouble recognizing faces and probably will not acknowledge them the next time we meet. I ask them to be sure and speak to me and remind me who they are. So many times people will insist, “I understand. I am bad with names and faces too.” I’m sure this is to minimize the awkwardness of my disclosure and to help me feel better. What is really does is tell me they do not really understand that my face blindness is more than just an occasional memory glitch. Until very recently I did not know there was a population of people “like me” but an internet search tells me two percent of the population is face blind, and it has a name: prosopagnosia. I also found there are differing degrees of face blindness. Some people with prosopagnosia do not even recognize their own family members or close circle of friends. I can only imagine giving my, “I’m bad with faces so can you give me a reminder?” speech to my family members. My “handicap” does not seem like such a burden to me some days when I consider how much worse it could be. When my kids climb in my car after school I know they are mine. I do have that. I've blogged about this and more in a post about thinking with a black and white mind. Read that here: A Look Inside a Black and White Mind