I am three years old, my hair in pigtails that curl into ringlets, the way Cindy Brady’s did. I have my arms around a plaid-pant encased leg, my cheek squeezed against the bent knee, eyes closed. I look like the world’s tiniest tree-hugger. There are blurry shelves on either side of both me and the pants, because we are in an aisle of a drugstore.
There is music playing over the speakers, the overhead lights are bright, saturating every corner and crevice. Then an unfamiliar man’s voice says, laughing kindly, “I think you have the wrong person.” I look up and see not-my-dad. This man is white and my father is brown. They are both wearing a pair of 1970s plaid bell bottoms.
So what? Lots of kids make that mistake.
It happened over and over again.
I just told myself that I was flaky, not paying attention. I had been told that by family and friends throughout my whole life, because I couldn’t keep track of birthdays, turn in my homework, be on time, remember how to get home from school. So, I began believing it, too.
When I was in college in New Orleans, in the mid-90s, I cultivated that idea and became the ultimate manic pixie dream girl, before that phrase was even coined. I would flit around The French Quarter in my slip dress and combat boots, flannel shirt flying behind me like a cape. I popped into bars (the drinking age at that time was 18), and, if a man stared at me long enough, I would smile at him and say, running my fingers along my metallic purple dog collar, “Do I know you?”
Only, this was no pick-up line. I was being serious. Were we classmates? Did he work at the local pizza place? Could he be one of my professors?
Of course, once the manic pixie dream girl effect wore off, I was just the flaky, not-paying-attention girl who was hyperfocused on her one or two obsessions, like listening to the same Sundays CD for months on end and playing ragtime music in the piano practice rooms, and completely scattered with everything else. I went from adored to despised pretty quickly.
But, I was used to that.
In my twenties, when I taught English, I could not understand how my colleagues could keep track of their students. This was college and there were no assigned seats. At first, I would just point to people when I asked a question. Since I disliked how impersonal that was, I would simultaneously beam at my students to show them how much I cared. Sometimes, if finger-pointing and crazed grinning felt particularly draining, I would have them turn to each other and discuss the question.
Finally, I created a system that worked: Instead of having one student collect the daily free writes and bring them to me, as I had done in the past, I would collect them in a specific order off the desks. I would then have the students take two minutes to talk about their thoughts in groups while I quickly scribbled their names on a blank seating chart. I did this every class.
This had a really extraordinary side-effect. My scrambling to demonstrate engagement with my students went above and beyond what many of their other instructors had done. Because of this, we built a foundation of trust. They challenged themselves by writing about experiences that had long lain hidden in the dark shadows of their memories. They wrote passionately, carefully crafting their sentences and paragraphs to convey their thoughts as clearly as possible. They were committed to learning.
Of course, when I was offered a full-time position, I panicked and moved across the country.
In my thirties, I worked at the front desk of an animal hospital. We had regular patients, which led to regular humans, which led to an expectation that I would remember their faces when they came in for their monthly, weekly, daily appointments. Only, I couldn’t remember faces. I would spend the first few minutes of my shift reading the schedule. If I wasn’t familiar with the pets, I would look up their accounts to find out whether they were dogs or cats and what breed they were. Then, when it was appointment time, I would make my educated guess, smiling warmly at the ding of the bell as the door opened.
“Hello, [person’s name]! It is good to see you again! How is [pet’s name]? Go ahead and have a seat while I check you in.” Nine out of ten times, I got it right. If I messed up and the owner’s sibling/parent/child/neighbor came in instead, I would make a joke about how I am better with furry faces, which was not untrue.
Again, this had a similar effect as my seating chart. The pet parents would seek me out when they came in for appointments. I was very meticulous with their medical care, in large part due to my executive functioning challenges, and they appreciated that. But, because I lived in the same neighborhood where I worked, I would often run into these same pet parents, and they would hug me and start chatting on the sidewalk or at the store or in a restaurant. I would spend the first moments trying to place them, because of course, I couldn’t recognize them and had no context. It was panic-inducing, especially if they didn’t have their imminently memorable pets with them. I became quite skilled at the self-deprecating Chandler Bing approach, which actually seemed to endear instead of repel me to others.
I still didn’t realize that this was not typical for most people. I just thought I did it (whatever it was) worse than everyone else because of some inherent laziness.
In my forties, I began teaching again, at a small non-profit after-school organization for kids in elementary school through high school. This was not an attendance-based program and I interacted with them outside of a classroom setting, so a seating chart was not the solution here. I had recently purchased miniature marbled composition notebooks and began carrying one with me. Everyday, I would write a description of each kid I encountered. For example: “Jaime, Spider-Man backpack, Minion t-shirt, black Vans” or “Kelly, Frozen backpack, Minion t-shirt, ponytail”.
I knew so much about them — if they had been bullied or had won awards; if they had taken tests or had soccer practice. I knew if they had siblings. I knew how they were going to celebrate their birthdays. It wasn’t a question of loving them. I did. I really really loved them. They were some of the kindest, funniest, most generous humans I have been blessed to know.
However, if Linda cut her hair, it would take me a minute to figure out who she was. Same deal if Miguel got a new backpack. After Linda and Miguel greeted me, I would smile and ask, “Hey, is there something different about you today?” And then they would tell me stories about waiting with her sister for two hours in line to get the free haircut the beauty school offered every month and how the old backpack ripped when he fell while skateboarding … “Ms. Saraswati, wanna look at the scab?”
Because the kids dropped in whenever they wanted, walking from school or their homes, we didn’t have the opportunity to interact with their caregivers very often. Finally, we held a Family Week, inviting loved ones to come to our center, showcasing a different feature of the organization’s offerings each evening. We had name-tags for everyone the first couple of days, but since my coworkers recognized the caregivers after that, they were optional and mostly ignored.
“Who needs name tags when we’re all family?” one of the parents joked, writing “Amelia’s Dad” on his.
Me, that’s who. Out came my little composition book.
The families appreciated my tenacious note-taking because it showed how much I cared for their kids. They thought I was writing down teachers’ names, tutoring needs, family histories. They weren’t wrong. But, I was also writing “Olivia’s grandfather — Charles, primary caregiver, mother’s side, mustache, tall, coveralls” and “Ron’s mom — Maria, divorced, works at bank, blonde, long fingernails, heels”.
Here is how, at the age of forty-two, I finally realized that I have prosopagnosia: on the penultimate day of Family Week, one of the kids left with her mom. I turned to my coworkers and said, “Wow. The mom seemed more serious today, almost like she didn’t know me.”
My colleague, Mona, said, “Uh, that’s because that was the grandmother and this was her first time here.”
Huh? I thought. Out loud, I said, “No way. I checked her nametag. See?” I pointed to the nametag she had put on the table as she left.
“Yeah, the mom and the grandmother have the exact same name — they all live together. See?” Mona pointed to the duplicate names in our system. I thought staff had accidentally added it twice.
“Yeah, plus, if she was the mom, she’d be like, really old. Like forty-five or something,” Kendra piped up.
“I’m forty-two,” I said, “and lots of my friends [ha, what friends!] who are my age have little kids.”
More silence. Of course, I didn’t realize that this was an embarrassed silence on the part of Kendra. I wasn’t embarrassed to be forty-two and old enough to be a grandmother, so why was she? (My husband explained that whole dynamic to me later.)
“They look exactly alike, don’t you think?” I enthused.
“I guess,” Kendra ventured, “they both have long hair.”
Mona added doubtfully, “Yeah, and she was wearing a sweater, so you couldn’t see that she didn’t have tattoos like the mom does.”
“Wait, they don’t look the same to you guys?” I asked.
Nope. They didn’t. And not because of their hairstyles or brown eyes or covered tattoos or similar height. It was because their faces were different and everyone remembered or recognized or whatevered that. Everyone except me.
I went home and looked up “not able to recognize face” and learned about face-blindness. It was like a tumbler locking into place: why I struggled watching shows, why I couldn’t identify loved ones — why I couldn’t identify myself — in photographs, why changes in hairstyles or additions of hats made people completely unrecognizable, and so on and so on.
I always thought face-blindness meant literally not being able to see faces.
It seemed unreal to my husband, Adrian. He believed me; he just couldn’t believe it. He couldn’t understand how we could have been together for over ten years and he never knew.
I said, “I’ve been with myself for over forty years and never knew!”
This discovery led to another … one of my special powers: I am extremely mindful of details and characteristics. I rely on visible clues such as hairstyle, gait, posture, and mannerisms to recognize people. But I also am cognizant of the connections I make with the more nuanced ones, such as Adrian’s chuckle, which always makes me feel as if I have eaten a hot fudge sundae, with that delicious sensation of cold ice cream and sticky hot syrup traveling from my lips to my belly. Or the way my friend Loverne’s saucy, husky voice instantly reminds me of my mother’s surreptitious giggling when she would visit her cheeky childhood schoolmate.
And yesterday, when the stranger at my boxing gym said, pulling her hair up, “Hi, Saraswati, good to see you again”, I didn’t miss a beat.
“Hello! Did you change your hair?” I said, smiling.
“Yeah — I colored it. You’re the first person who noticed!” The familiar ponytail bounced over her shoulder.
“Well, it looks great, Sam,” I said to my instructor and walked over to the locker room to wrap my hands for protection before I came out swinging.