The bewildering curse of face blindness

You have trouble remembering a name? Imagine being unable even to remember a face.

Oliver Sacks, the remarkable physician/writer/author/professor of neurology — what does he do in his spare time? — wrote a long and fascinating article in a recent (August 30) New Yorker in which he details a lifelong affliction with face blindness, officially known as prosopagnosia, the inability to recognize faces. What Sacks doesn’t do in his spare time is socialize comfortably. It’s hard to be comfortable when you might walk right past your best friend. (Or greet a perfect stranger you think is your next-door neighbor.)

I had made it through seven decades (Sacks and I happen to be the same age, but that’s about where the similarities end) without ever hearing of face blindness. Then one day renowned artist Chuck Close turned up on PBS NewsHour, discussing a new biography. At some point in the program Close mentioned that he was face blind. Come on, I said to myself and the TV screen. A creative genius known worldwide for, among other things, his remarkable portraits and he doesn’t know faces? Close went on to talk of how he works from photographs, largely because once he reduces a face to two dimensions he can commit the image to memory.

Sacks theorizes that the “flattening” allows Close to memorize certain features. “Although I myself am unable to recognize a particular face,” Sacks writes, “I can recognize various things about a face: that there is a large nose, a pointed chin, tufted eyebrows, or protruding ears.” But he is better at recognizing people by the way they move, their “motor style.” He is “reasonably good at judging age and gender, though I have made a few embarrassing blunders.”

Sacks writes that he avoids parties, conferences and large gatherings as much as possible in order not to have the inevitable embarrassment it brings. Consideration of how difficult it has to be to negotiate through life with such a problem makes the common complaint of, say, blanking on an old friend’s name (and don’t we all!) so trivial as to be embarrassing itself.

Sacks cites the work of research scientist Ken Nakayama, who “is doing so much to promote the scientific understanding of prosopagnosia.” Nakayama heads the Prosopagnosia Research Center at Harvard, on whose Web site one can learn about symptoms, causes, history and where the name came from (the Greek word for face: prosopon.) You can also find, on the site, tests and questionnaires to assess your own face recognition. Sacks is particularly appreciative of a notice posted on Nakayama’s own site which reads: “Recent eye problems and mild prosopagnosia have made it harder for me to recognize people I should know. Please help by giving your name if we meet. Many thanks.”

A very small gesture, for those who take face recognition for granted.


When my daughter Pam was 17, she had a group of incandescent friends – Julie, Catherine, Kim, Martha, Polly and others – who lit the spaces of our lives. They went on to college, jobs, marriages and adventures, lost track of each other at times and got back together at high school reunions. They encountered heartaches and obstacles, found success and contentment and joy.

A few weeks ago, Kim’s daughter Ally, who was born within several months of my own beloved first granddaughter, died in an auto wreck. She was 17. Ally was, according to all reports from her grief-stricken friends, one of those incandescent teenagers herself, a pretty, outgoing, church-going, clean-living young woman of limitless promise. It is an unfathomable sorrow. Akin to the ache that envelops the room as those photos of smiling young service men and women roll silently across the NewsHour screen every Friday, with only their names, ages and hometowns suggesting the overwhelming sadness that their loss now creates.

When Pam and Kim and the others were about 17, their friend Mark was killed in a motorcycle accident. The only son of a very dear friend of mine, I remember Mark as filled with a more macho but equally vibrant incandescence; his loss remains, especially for his family and for those contemporary friends, a giant sorrow.

Here, though, is what sorrow does. It unites. It makes humanity understandable, it makes gentleness essential. Why would anyone who knew Ally or Mark ever want to be unkind? How could any of us fail to cherish the people we see and the day we greet?

It does nothing to lessen the loss. But whether we knew them or not, this is a parting gift from Ally and Mark.

Chance encounters

Stuff matters not. Friends matter. I had that old truism abundantly reinforced in the past several weeks… when I’ve been blogging only in my head. That’s my excuse for this stale blogspace, and hopefully it merits putting down in black, white and cyberspace. I made the leap into a new – gasp – quarter century on June 8, with the help of something over 100 friends in the Bay area and warm wishes from absentee friends elsewhere, something worth celebrating indeed. All were invited not to bring Stuff, but to bring, if they chose, contributions in amounts of 75 cents, $7.50, or multiples that seemed interesting to my three favorite causes. We raised a bunch of dollars; the hostess had a ball. Shortly thereafter I hopped a $99-one-way flight from San Francisco to Baltimore, because who can refuse a $99 cross country flight, even if it’s not going exactly where you want to go? I had not bothered to fill in the blanks until almost the moment of departure, but it worked out this way: An old college friend arranged for her housekeeper to fetch me from B.W.I. to her home in McLean, VA; then delivered me the next day to the Corcoran museum where another friend is curator of American Paintings. That afternoon a childhood friend fetched me from the Corcoran, sated with beautiful art, and took me to her home in Alexandria. Two days (and more art, see Ann McDowell at the Torpedo Factory Art Center) later she and I drove 90 miles south to our hometown of Ashland, VA for a reunion of the famous Ashland High classes of ’47, ’48, and ’49. (We are a sturdy bunch of Depression-era-raised farm kids and small-townies.) Another childhood friend that night nursed me through the cold and laryngitis all this had produced. The next day my second-grade boyfriend fetched me from Ashland to the Richmond airport, where the Alamo people kindly offered a car for return to B.W.I. without charging an arm and a leg. Two days later, nourished by visits to more old friends, a fetched myself back to B.W.I., onto Southwest’s pleasant airplane and home. Exhausted, but exhilarated, because friends just do that, and thank heavens for them all.