Since my last post on face blindness, I’ve been thinking a lot about how I identify people. Especially because many people have asked me. It’s not an easy question to answer because they’re asking me to compare my experience with something that I’ve never experienced before.
The truth is that until I was tested if someone had asked me if I was face blind, I would have said “no.” How do you know you’re missing something if you’ve never experienced it? In fact, I was in my thirties before I realized there was something odd about me and faces. One of my writing crit partners was talking to me about describing faces in my writing (something that I frequently forget to do). She knew that I’m a visual writer—i.e., I “see” the scene in my head and then I write it down. She asked me to “see” my characters and describe their faces. So I visualized my characters (yes, I can actually see them in my mind). Then when I tried to describe their faces, I realized they didn’t have faces, just fuzziness where a face should be. I don’t know what was more shocking to me, the fact that they didn’t have faces, or that fact that I’d never noticed before.
The last few weeks I began to wonder how I recognize people. I obviously wasn’t identifying them by their faces. When I was at WalMart, for a second, I thought I recognized my friend Sharmon. But it wasn’t her. In fact, this woman looked nothing like my friend. Sharmon has dark hair; this woman was blond. Sharmon is fair; this woman was tanning salon dark. (Thankfully, this woman was scrutinizing lettuce so she didn’t notice me staring.) What I “recognized” was that these two women shared the same haircut and hair texture. They were about the same height and had the same build. Those must be some of the categories I unconsciously use to distinguish people, in the same way that other people use faces.
Another example is a friend of ours from church. I’ve seen this man at least once or twice a week for over four years. Yet, when he posted on his Facebook page that he’d had eye surgery and didn’t need to wear glasses anymore, I was surprised. I didn’t know he wore glasses—even though he’s worn them every day that I’ve seen him. That same Sunday his wife mentioned how different he looked now that he’d shaved his beard too. I said something along the lines of “Oh, right,” but I had no idea that he’d had a beard.
If I close my eyes and try to picture Calvin’s face in my head, I can’t. If I try to picture a photo of him that hangs on our wall, I can drum up a vague representation of what he looks like. But it fades quickly.
In the end, I wonder how many people I’ve treated like complete strangers who weren’t. And then there’s the time I was waiting for a flight and the actress Lily Tomlin was sitting a few rows away. I kept starring at her, wondering why there was something familiar about her—or at least something familiar about the red Converse high tops that she wore. During those hours, I garnered evil looks from her body guard, but that’s another story.