A Little Ray of Sunshine

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Who are you and why do you think I know you?

My mother handed me a photo a few days ago.  "Do you know when this was taken?"
I stared at it.  A group of women, strangers all, mostly middle aged, one younger and holding a fairly young baby.  Wait, the outfit the baby was wearing: that was an outfit Treasure had been given by one of my mother's friends, size six months, and long since outgrown.  Dark curls, yes, that baby was my daughter.  So, then, the woman with long blond hair holding the baby must be me.  The grey haired woman next to her, my mother.  Then I could slowly identify the other women.  I've known them all since I was six: they're good friends.  They came to my wedding, I grew up with their children.
"January, last year.  When we went out to dinner with your friends," I said.
"Thanks," said my mother, and turned the photo over to write on the back.

Everyone's a stranger.  If I meet someone in the place they belong--someone from Church at Church--I can probably put together enough clues to figure out who they are.  If I meet someone where they don't belong--someone from Church at the store--I cannot.  Most of my life, I've been told that this is because I'm lazy.  It's not.  It's no more laziness than someone else not recognizing middle C when they hear it.  There's a broken spot in my brain, somewhere between my eyes and the part of the brain that recognizes faces.  Just as there's a spot in your brain that never developed properly, that fails to let you identify pitches.

This is, most likely, the result of a knock to the head I took at a very young age.  For some folks it's genetic.  It doesn't really matter: I deal, as most people deal with whatever quirks of nature and nurture they got landed with.   If the President of the United States sat down next to me, I wouldn't know who he was.

People think I snub them, when in actuality they're just strangers.  Do you say 'Hi!' to strangers?  Well, in a small enough town you do.  I like small towns.  I miss living in a small town, where I could be pretty much guaranteed that everyone I saw was someone who would expect me to recognize them.

So I'm a hermit instead.  It's much easier to not deal with people than to have people I've never seen before in my life come up and give me a hug as if they're my best friend and ask after my family.  Of course, I know that those strangers aren't really strangers, that they must think they know me, but it's nonetheless somewhere between disconcerting and terrifying.  My children seem to recognize them.  How do you teach be wary of strangers when you can't tell who isn't one?

The internet is a safe and comfortable social outlet.  On the internet, people wear name tags.   When someone asks after my family, I know who they are and what I've deemed appropriate to share.  I know people online whom I've never met, and am never likely to meet, better than people I see every week.  I can pick up the thread of a conversation from the day or week before online.  Face to face, I can't, because I have no clue who's talking to me.  My husband's learned to clue me in by greeting people by name.  Not "Hey, how are you," but "Hey Jim, how are you?"

There are exceptions: people who, in spite of my broken face recognition system, I can recognize within a second or so.  There are not very many of them, just a dozen or so.  They do not include most relatives, just my immediate family and a very, very few close friends.  And, apparently, I myself am not in that group.  I don't use faces to recognize them, though, I'm not quite sure what I use, but hair style and color plays a role, as does voice.

I'm used to this, but it's comforting to know it's a physical malfunction, not a moral failing.  It's called prosopagnosia, or if you aren't a fan of scientific names, face blindness.  It explains so many little things, like why a group of fellow writers complained that I never described my characters: that's easy, I don't 'see' them either.  Useful, because now I know that other people need a physical description.  (Which led to a lot of "Wait, he has red  hair?" when they saw revisions.)  It also explains why so many people feel the need to share pictures of themselves on the internet, and a portion of my dislike, even disgust, with social networking services like Facebook.

I'm pretty sure there's a really good short story in this, probably horror.  If it is horror, I'm not the one to write it, but if you are, by all means ask me questions.  It's a story I'd like to read.

You can learn more about prosopagnosia here: http://faceblind.org/  Estimates are that two out of a hundred people have this particular malfunction.  If you take their famous faces test, you may be interested to know that I scored a zero.  To me, everyone's a stranger.