Excuse me, but have we met?
We have? You’re … who? Oh, right, of course!
WHAT I SAY: How’ve ya been?
WHAT I MEAN: I have no idea who the hell you are.
Unbeknownst to me for most of my life, there is a name for a disorder I have. Full disclosure: I am self-diagnosing, but I’m certain I’m right.
Have you ever heard of Prosopagnosia, or face blindness? People with true face blindness can’t distinguish one face from another. They often don’t recognize family members. Believe it or not, they don’t even recognize their own face in the mirror. I first saw this story on 60 Minutes and it sure struck a chord.
My case is not as severe. I know my family and friends. I’m also pretty good at recognizing famous people.
It’s the rest of the world I have trouble with.
I can trace the first incidence of my face blindness to when I was about eight years old. We had a big snowfall over the weekend and my brother and I had a grand old time making snowmen and building tunnels. And helping our dad shovel.
My dad finished shoveling and went inside. My brother, teeth chattering from the falling temps, followed him. But I wasn’t quite ready to stop playing.
The sun was casting pale shadows on the snow that Sunday afternoon. It was almost dusk, with the hush of new fallen snow and the muted sounds of neighborhood kids sledding nearby. So I didn’t notice a car slowly making its way down the street toward our house, snow chains clanking softly. When the driver rolled down the window and called to me, I was startled.
“Is your mother home?” he asked. “I wanted to stop in and say hello.”
My heart beat fast. I squinted at the driver, at the car. No clue who it was.
“Don’t you remember me?” he said.
Should I run? I didn’t want to look scared, so I oh so nonchalantly turned away and slunk in the back door.
The story isn’t as nefarious as it may appear. You see, the driver was a friend of my parents. Someone I’d met before. A person that should have looked familiar. But didn’t.
Several days later, I heard my mother talking on the phone and had an inkling the conversation was about me. “Why didn’t you tell me Mr. So-and-So stopped by,” she asked after hanging up. I was terribly embarrassed but had no answer.
I have experienced countless similar episodes all my life.
Recently, I was attending a conference out of town and checked into the hotel. I got into the elevator with one other person, and as the door closed she said, “Hi Helene!”
Gulp. I looked at her and obviously my flicker of nonrecognition was unmistakable. I hesitated. She raised her eyebrows and I felt a trickle of sweat inch down my neck.
“I’m Cathy,” she told me.
Well of course the name was familiar and I recalled meeting her several months before. But I had no memory of her face. Nor could I describe her to you now.
I’m not sure how many engagements it takes for me to finally learn a face. Even with some of my co-workers, if I saw them out of context, or not wearing glasses as they normally do, I sometimes falter.
So now you know. If I don’t recognize you, it’s not because I am inherently cold or snobby or uncaring. I just need a gentle reminder. Or several.