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Living With Face Blindness: Who Are You, Again?

What if you came downstairs in the morning and there was a stranger in the kitchen making you breakfast? What if unfamiliar kids reached out to you at the supermarket? Or you introduced yourself to someone new at a party, only to discover she was someone you've worked with for years?

For author Heather Sellers, that's everyday life. Sellers suffers from "face blindness." She can't recognize or distinguish between different faces. And until she was in her 30s, Sellers had no idea what was truly wrong with her.

She writes about the experience in a new memoir, You Don't Look Like Anyone I Know: A True Story of Family, Face Blindness, and Forgiveness. Sellers tells NPR's Guy Raz that face blindness isn't a vision problem, but a memory problem: She can see faces, but she forgets them instantly.

"So when I'm looking at your face," she says, "I see you. But if I look away from your face, I can't tell you if you're wearing glasses, or what color your eyes are, or if you have a beard or not.

"I go by your hair, I've got a really great memory for clothes," Sellers adds.  She's also good at recognizing people from far away, just by watching them walk.

"I think that's what's most confusing about this disorder," she says. "I recognize people all the time, except when I don't, and I never know which is which. ... It's very confusing."

Chaos At Home

Sellers was in her mid-30s before she'd even heard of face blindness. And that discovery was intimately linked to another revelation: that her parents were not just quirky, but genuinely mentally ill.

She believes her mother was schizophrenic and paranoid, covering up televisions and paintings, nailing the windows shut and forbidding young Heather to answer the phone. Her father, an alcoholic cross-dresser, brought drifters home to sleep on the couch. Occasionally, they broke into her room and stole her jewelry.

In the midst of all this chaos, Sellers was struggling with her undiagnosed face blindness. "My parents noticed my confusion and anxiety," she writes. "They thought I was crazy. For most of my life, I thought they had that much right."

But Sellers says she loves her parents and feels no bitterness about the difficulty of her childhood. "I set out to write this book about how I came to terms with my own experience, how I came to see. And I ended up writing a kind of love story, this book about how we love incredibly flawed people."

The Gift Of Face Blindness

Sellers says that, in a strange way, her inability to remember faces served her well as a child, because it taught her to cope with uncertainty. That ability is still useful to her as an adult and a writer.

"I think a lot of brilliant, talented writers have a hard time staying in that chair long enough to get through the inevitable chaos that comes when you sit down to make a piece of art, and I've got a high tolerance for not knowing," she says.

"I can sit and not know the heck out of a thing; I've been doing it my whole life," she says. "And I've trained myself, when I don't know, to not freak out, to just keep looking closer."

For years, Sellers looked for a cure, an end to her face blindness. But now, she says, she would never give it up. "It's allowed me to engage with the world in a meaningful way, and to talk to people with depth and authenticity. I don't know that I would have come to that without this disorder."

Face blindness "forces me to say right away the most vulnerable thing I could say to someone: I may not know you, but I want to."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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