Face-Blindness Fridays #1

I figured out that I have face blindness a few years ago. I always knew something was wrong but I just thought I was stupid or self-absorbed when I couldn’t recognize people that I had met multiple times. When I was eight, in foster care, my mom came to visit and I thought she was a kidnapper. Over time, having a kidnapper mother came to be my new normal (that sounds weird but my life hadn’t exactly been going smoothly before that) and I stopped thinking about it.

Eventually, from time to time, I’d remember that odd, short period in my life in which I didn’t think my mom was my mom. Probably about a decade ago, my mom and I were watching 20/20 and there was a story about a young man who was convinced that his parents had been replaced by pod people. He’d been in a bad car accident and the connection between the visual memory of his parents and his affection for them was severed. When he’d talk to them on the phone or picture them in his mind, he knew that he loved them. When he saw them in person, no longer felt that rush of affection and therefore thought that his parents were imposters.

When I saw this story, I remember telling my mom that that was similar to my experience when she visited my brother and I at Mrs. Lewis’. I know what you’re thinking — why didn’t you Google it before that? Here’s why: I was born in 1978. I remember when the internet was basically useless. The “information superhighway” was built fairly quickly but it did take a decade or so for it to be close to what it is today. I did eventually track down that 20/20 story. That kid was diagnosed with Capgras delusion, but a lot of his symptoms didn’t apply to me, so I kept looking and found out about Prosopagnosia.

I shared the definition in a previous post but here it is again: “Prosopagnosia is a neurological disorder characterized by the inability to recognize faces. Prosopagnosia is also known as face blindness or facial agnosia. The term prosopagnosia comes from the Greek words for “face” and “lack of knowledge.”” (Wikipedia)

Prosopagnosia is a disorder that affects people to varying degrees. I’ve taken online tests that suggest that I have mild prosopagnosia but I think that that’s partly because I’ve taken the tests multiple times, but also because I trained myself to look and make mental notes of prominent or interesting facial features. I can actually draw decent portraits of people if I have good reference images and spend a lot of time on them. Here’s a portrait of my mom I drew from one of her favorite photos of herself:

I’d classify my face blindness as moderate because I can learn to recognize people based on their facial features, it just takes way longer than it takes most people. I also easily confuse similar-looking people with each other. If I haven’t seen someone in a long time (2-3 months), they may have to tell me their name before I can recognize them. Ditto if I run into someone I’m not expecting to see, particularly in an environment in which I’m not accustomed to seeing them.

When I didn’t recognize my mom at Mrs. Lewis’ house, I hadn’t seen her in at least a month. Also, in the blurry image I had of her in my mind, she looked basically like the photo above. When she visited at Mrs. Lewis’, she’d gained weight, her skin was gray, and most of the blonde had grown out of her hair. Also, this was the first time she’d ever visited in foster care in which she wasn’t identified by someone who I knew knew her. I remember walking past her in the courthouse when we met for the custody hearing but at the time, I put it down to there being so many people in the hallway that my gaze just bounced off of her too quickly.

People with face blindness tend to identify people by other physical traits; weight, height, voice, gestures, walk, etc. When my mom walked into Mrs. Lewis’, she carried herself differently than I remembered, and even her voice sounded defeated. I really thought she was a new social worker at first, before realizing that she was trying to pass herself off as my mother. And as far as I knew, Mrs. Lewis had never met my mother before, so how was she supposed to know? My brother wasn’t much help because he didn’t reject this woman, but he also didn’t run over and hug her. In fact, he would barely look at her.

Okay, I think that’s enough on face blindness for now. In the future, I’ll get into social anxiety, potential racism and the bland, daily terror of living with face blindness.