Heather Sellers owns all the ingredients for a tough-childhood memoir: the schizophrenic mother, the alcoholic, cross-dressing father. But this is not a memoir in the sliced and bleeding vein of “Running With Scissors.” Nor is it, despite Sellers’s timbre of forgiveness and love, a “Glass Castle” clone. “You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know” does not read like any memoir you know, largely because of a condition you may not know and certainly can’t say: prosopagnosia.
Face blindness, to use the more easily pronounced term, is an uncommon neurological condition in which the brain’s “face processor” does not function. (“Voice blindness,” an inability to recognize people by voice, also exists.) Sellers can see faces, but she can’t read their features as a cohesive unit and commit them to memory. She has walked past her mother without recognizing her, watched family movies and not known she was in them. She sees faces the way she — and all of us — see objects. In a test at the Harvard University Prosopagnosia Research Center, Sellers was shown pictures of guns and asked to press a button if she saw one she’d seen before. Like most people, she performed poorly. Only gun collectors, the researcher explained, excel at recognizing guns. “I didn’t even want to think about face-blind gun collectors,” Sellers wryly observes.
Prosopagnosia (it’s pro-so-pag-NO-see-uh) is occasionally upstaged by events around the house — Sellers’s mother making her walk on her knees to protect the carpet or her father stealing her Sally Hansen nail polish and wearing pantyhose under his slacks — but over all it holds its own, both in bizarreness and power to transfix. To get a sense of what it’s like to be face blind, cover the hair on a row of pictures in your high school yearbook and turn it upside down. The human face processor works properly only on level, right-side-up features. Prosopagnosics are quietly unusual: they are delighted when circumstance forces them to a new school or town, where it’s normal to recognize no one. They love conferences — “festivals of labeled strangers,” Sellers calls them. (One man in Sellers’s online support group wrote to George Bush urging legislation, under the Americans With Disabilities Act, that would require name tags in the work place.)
It sometimes appears that contemporary memoir has become a game of misery poker, authors competing for the most appalling hand of woes. Face blindness would seem to be a trump card, but Sellers doesn’t play it that way. On the contrary, it helped her cope with the mood swings and unpredictable behavior of a schizophrenic mother and an alcoholic father: “I was used to being blindsided: Oh, you aren’t who I thought you were at all.” She views prosopagnosia as a gift: “the ability to live with uncertainty, to be receptive to all that a person might turn out to be, literally and metaphorically.”
While Sellers was growing up, prosopagnosia was a kind of kaleidoscope through which she saw her family members. Each was a fractured amalgam of features, some bad, some good. As with faces, Sellers grew accustomed to simply accepting the whole confusing, disconnected package. She felt no need to simplify her parents with labels. She was 38 when she acknowledged that her mother was psychotic, not just strange. “I could sit and not-know the hell out of something,” she writes, “and it was a perfectly pleasant, nonchaotic way to spend time.” Confusion was a normal state.
Sellers believes her condition helped her as a writer by forcing her to focus on “the essence of the person,” not the surface. The writing bears this out. Sellers captures the people in her life in spare, perfect strokes. Her mother, though tiny, took up a lot of room, “like a live downed wire.” In reading about schizophrenia, Sellers comes across the term “icebox mother,” and does the textbook one better: “She was more like all the kitchen appliances going at once.” Of her father, Fred, she writes, “It was like a sunset how his mood changed, from weeping to rage, purple to dark.” Here, in one clean sentence, is the essence of Sellers’s relationship with her mother, and of being 13: “I loved and hated her and loved and hated myself in equal, constant conflicting portions.” (She nails 14 too: “I needed to shave my legs, wear white Levi’s cords . . . keep a comb and lip gloss in my pockets and use both every few minutes.”)
This is memoir devoid of bitterness. Recollections that many writers would blow out into scenes are presented as neutral fact: “My sophomore year of high school, Fred allowed two drifters to move in with us. . . . The men had tried to come in my bedroom at night. They stole my jewelry, my cash. I had to put my dresser in front of the door and hide in there.” The time Dad “clocked me with an iron skillet” is an aside, part of a passage in which Sellers is trying to figure out whether her condition could have been caused by a blow to the head.
This is no indictment of Sellers’s skills. She simply chooses unpredictable material. The book opens with her visiting her father for the first time in years, about to introduce him to her fiancé and two future stepsons. “We stood on the stoop, Dave with his arm around me, his politeness like a silver cape around him, around all of us. . . . From inside, “Wheel of Fortune” went to commercial.” Her father rolls in “from the back room in his wheelchair, trying to stub up over the track of the sliding glass doors. . . . Since his stroke, he was always in shambles, tilted. He looked like he was a pile of pieces of a man.” Unless I’ve got prose blindness, Sellers is an ace.
Midway through the book, the author marries Dave, an on- and increasingly off-the-wagon libertarian whose views on guns, and NPR (“a security threat”) alienate her friends at the university where she teaches writing. True to form, she rejects the labels her colleagues apply and concentrates on the qualities she loves: kindness, patience, wisdom. The drinking worsens. She brings up divorce, but wavers. The couple live apart, but have dinner together every weekend. “I was only comfortable in ambivalence,” she writes, again bringing it back to prosopagnosia. “I wasn’t married, I wasn’t divorced. I did and didn’t have children” (a reference to stepparenting). Blaming prosopagnosia for the events and course of her life occasionally, as here, feels like a mild overreach, a too-tidy blending of the separate narratives of illness and family.
Like face blindness, the eventual divorce isn’t treated as another notch in Sellers’s tear duct. She ends on a note of love. Her calm, glass-half-full-to-overflowing worldview could, in another writer’s hands, veer toward treacle, but she pulls it off beautifully. I predict exciting things for her: critical acclaim, hearty sales and, perhaps best of all, long lines of strangers at every reading.
Sunday, October 10, 2010
The NY Times review:
Posted by BA Haller at 10:05 AM