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Wacko Wednesdays: Prosopagnosia (Face Blindness)

Wacko Wednesdays: Prosopagnosia.

For three years, I lived in a third floor walkup apartment in a lovely 7-unit brownstone building at 18th and Pine. Most of us renters were in our twenties and early thirties except “Ellen”, a woman in her late 50’s. Ellen seemed a bit strange but she was friendly and a good neighbor. We all knew each other pretty well.

Ellen, like me and half of Philadelphia, worked at the University of Pennsylvania. One night we both had worked late and ended up on the same Center City shuttle. I sat down with her and began chatting away. Ellen was more shy and reserved than normal.

Our stop came and Ellen hustled to get out of the shuttle (which, I understood perfectly – those shuttle drivers think South Street is the Autobahn). After tugging my bag free from the overstuffed masses on the shuttle, I had to jog a bit to catch up with paunchy, middle-aged Ellen, who was booking it and clutching her purse the same way I hold Peeps at Easter. Just quirky Ellen being Ellen, I thought. It was pretty dark. To help her feel more comfortable on the 2 block walk home, I continued chatting in lower tones. Ellen would nod nervously.

We arrived at the front door. Ellen’s knuckles were white around her keys. I could feel her anxiety skyrocket when I stepped up behind her, readying myself to hold the very heavy door for her. That’s when she said it.

“It was nice talking with you, but I don’t know you and you can’t come in with me.”

Obviously, I was blown away. I had known this woman for over 2 years! While I stood dumbstruck for a moment, Ellen continued. “My neighbors will hear me and I will have them call the police.”

“Ellen,” I said, “It’s me, Christine! I live on the third floor. Look, here is my key. Let me open the door.” She stepped aside, her face wrought with fear. I opened the door and went into the vestibule. “See? It’s me! I live on the 3rd floor.” I repeated.

Ellen slowly came in. “Oh it’s you!” she said, the color returning to her face. “Oh, I didn’t recognize you.”

After a 30 minute conversation? I thought.

After some awkward chitchat, we both went to our apartments. I would have dismissed Ellen’s quirkiness as just that if I didn’t get the same exact reaction twice, a few weeks later. Once I ran into her at a Rittenhouse Square coffee shop and another time in a local market. Both times she reacted as if I were a stalker who knew her cat’s name and too many intimate details about her life.

Asking around, I discovered that Ellen probably suffers from Prosopagnosia, which is also called ‘face blindness.’ Congenital damage or brain injury disables a person’s ability to recognize faces, while the ability to recognize other aspects or physical features remains in tact. Ellen used familiar surroundings of the brownstone as well as the sound of my voice in the vestibule to finally recognize me.

Cecelia Burman runs Prosopagnosia.com. One the site, she tries to explain the condition. “Some individuals we expect to see in certain places. When we suddenly see them in another place we may fail to recognize them altogether.” Without the familiar surroundings, Ellen could not recognize me or any of the other 5 renters in the Brownstone, despite talking with us and seeing us daily for over two years. Ms. Burman constructs an exercise with pictures of stones to help us understand what Prosopagnosia is like. Check out her pages as a start to your research.

In the right hands, an author can touch on some profound personal and social truths by examining those among us who struggle with assumed human abilities. Face Blindness could be used as an interesting twist to the tired amnesia story, or as a major barrier to overcome in a coming-of-age plot. Perhaps this condition is what keeps your story’s shut-in character shut in. Forget the cliched agoraphobia (fear of social embarrassment) – go with a perfectly balanced character with some very acute brain damage; it would be so much more interesting. How would a person like this feel at a family wedding? How would they use Facebook? Would they friend people with very distinct characteristics, like albinos? Would they prefer to be blind altogether? What would happen if you woke up one day with this condition? Would you think you were timetraveling or in a twilight zone? Do a little research, and you can dive deep into the psyche of a character who is living with this mysterious and debilitating disorder. You might find some answers to your own life’s questions in the process.

I still see Ellen around Rittenhouse Square sometimes. If she looks at me, I flash a polite smile. She does the same, and we keep going on our separate ways.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Rick Wolff 30 May 2008, 6:29 am

    Sounds like something for which you go to Oliver Sachs for more information and stories of case studies.
    As a plot line, it sounds like the pivot point of a “Law and Order” series. (Sometimes I wish I was that Dick Wolf.)

    • PurpleCar 5 June 2008, 6:11 pm

      Oops- forgot to respond. I wish I was Dick Wolf too. He hardly ever employs these kinds of scenarios though.

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