The Last Time Ever I Saw Your Face

Shirley, a woman of a certain age, has a heart attack and is rushed to the hospital, where she has a near-death experience and sees God.

She asks, “Is this it?”

“No,” God says. “You have another 30 years to live.”

Shirley figures that since she has so much time left, she may as well make the most of it. So she stays in the hospital and has a face-lift, a tummy tuck, breast enhancement – the works.

When she’s on her feet again, she leaves the hospital, starts to cross the street and is hit by an ambulance speeding to the emergency room entrance.

She arrives in Paradise and says to God, “I thought you said I had another 30 years?”

God takes a long, hard look at her and says, “Shirley, is that you? I didn’t recognize you!”

My daughter, Julie, suffers from a disorder few have heard of: face blindness.

The medical name is prosopagnosia. From the Greek prosopon, for face, and agnosia, for ignorance.

Prosopagnosics have difficulty recognizing people they’ve met in the past. Some can’t recognize their spouses and children. Some can’t even recognize themselves in a mirror.

When Julie worked as a background actor, she says, “I’d meet people in the morning and get friendly with them while shooting a scene. Then there would be a costume change….”

Julie couldn’t recognize other actors after a costume change.
Julie couldn’t recognize other actors after a costume change.

And as a sales associate at an upscale retail outlet: “There was a customer I would spend hours with and she’d always spend a lot of money. But I never recognized her until I saw her credit card.”

Most prosopagnosics learn to distinguish people based on hairstyle, voice or body shape. Or they pretend to be lost in thought. Or they act friendly to everyone -- or to no one.

But some are unaware of their disorder -- because they’ve never recognized faces normally. Like my daughter, they don’t discover their face blindness until adulthood. 

Because of this, they may be misjudged as uppity.

Brad Pitt is one of these. The condition has caused him enough of a headache that he doesn't like going out.

"That's why I stay at home," he says. "You meet so many damned people. And then you meet 'em again."

Jane Goodall, famous for her pioneering studies of chimpanzees, suffers from prosopagnosia. For all we know, old Jane might have thought -- all those lonely years in the jungle -- that she was observing kangaroos.

Prosopagnosic Jane Goodall. 
Prosopagnosic Jane Goodall.

One person in 50 has the disorder. Not so rare at all. No therapies have demonstrated lasting improvements.

The condition is likely caused by a defect in a dominant gene. So if a parent has prosopagnosia, there’s a 50-50 chance the child has it.

If my daughter is a prosopagnosic, I might be the cause.

So many times, for instance, I’ve run into “strangers” who greet me by name … and I think, “I’ve never seen that person in my life.”

I have to ask myself … am I face blind? Or just too self-absorbed to notice anyone else?

I often forget a person’s name as soon as I’m introduced.

Again, I have to ask myself … is it prosopagnosia? Or am I playing a multiple-choice game of wondering if the person I’m introduced to:

a) Likes me
b) Is impressed with me
c) Envies me
d) Lusts after me

I hope my condition is just the forgetfulness that comes with advancing age. Otherwise I’ll have to learn to spell prosopagnosia. And say it, too.

In my next blog, “Chasing Dust”


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  • published this page in Blog 2014-10-27 10:48:59 -0400