When I began this blog, I wrote in the space called “About Me” that part of my purpose in starting it was to be able to write about books that fell outside my reviewing niche at the paper I work for. Now I realize it’s more than that. I want to be able to write a different kind of review of some of those books too. I’m currently making notes for a review of a memoir by Heather Sellers, whose writing books (Page After Page, Chapter After Chapter) are some of the best ways I know of to get inspired.
Just as I learned how to spell synesthesesia, the name of the perceptual disorder that causes Linda Hammerick to taste words in Monique Truong’s Bitter in the Mouth, along comes prosopagnosia, another rare neurological condition. It’s the inability to recognize faces, and in You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know, Sellers describes one of her most embarrassing episodes with it:
Earlier that week, I’d come back to Michigan from upstate New York, where I was working as a visiting writer during my sabbatical year, so we could all go to Florida together. Dave [her husband] had picked me up at the airport. I saw him before he saw me, walking down the corridor, past the narrow sports bar. Dave always wore running shoes and his walk was a distinctive leaning-forward walk, springy and gentle…I ran up to him and threw my arms around him and stretched up to kiss him; he drew back, pressing me away.
It wasn’t Dave. I had the wrong guy.
Dave—my real Dave—came up a moment later; we laughed about my mistake. I was embarrassed he had seen me hugging another man. “So many people here look like you!” I said. “We need to move. To a place with fewer Dutch people.” This had happened numerous times before, my mistaking someone else for Dave.
Sellers’ acknowledgment and descriptions of her awkward mix-ups—she doesn’t recognize her own mother in a convenience store, noting a “tiny, elderly woman at the counter, nervous,” who stares hard at her and seems angry—are essentially lighthearted and funny, despite how grueling it’s been for her to cope with her condition all her life. When I read about her childhood, with an alcoholic father and a mother whose psychosis defies description (except, of course, in Sellers’ book), I wondered if a lifetime of trying to pretend things were okay when they weren’t might lead to an inability to recognize the familiar.
In Bitter in the Mouth, Linda hears words that taste like mint, chocolate milk, Fruit Stripe gum and canned peas. She hides her condition from most people, including her family, the same way Sellers tries to do. Linda has a traumatic event in her past as well, but nothing as stone-crazy as what happened to Sellers.
Books about dysfunctional families and abusive parents have gotten funny in the last couple decades—notably, Augusten Burroughs’ Running with Scissors, and David Sedaris’ Naked. But my favorites are still those that are funny in spite of a more serious approach: Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club, Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, and Jeannette Walls’ Glass Castle.
The secret of any memoir about crazy families is tenderness; ironically, where most of these writers learned it from is their crazy parents, who loved their children despite crippling mental illness. Sellers’ passages about her mother, as the two of them set off one day in the car, are matter-of-fact, but never mean:
Mom placed her cardboard box on the seat between us. In her box was her purse, wrapped in a plastic Zayre bag, a nasty old apple, bits of aluminum foil, a thermos of coffee, and a plastic container of water. There were old Triscuits in used wax paper, carefully folded into a tight envelope, mom origami.
If I directed my mom not to use the box, not to carry it into the grocery store or my school or J.C. Penney, for example, she said, “I don’t care what people think. I hate sheep. Most people are sheep. Not your old mom! I like how I am.” The box sat between us like a pet. I didn’t like it even to touch me.
They get no further than a block or so before her mother realizes she may not have locked the front door. After doing this several times—getting in the car, rushing back to check the door—they finally hit the road: her mother’s goal this afternoon is to track down some cars she’d seen the day before with suspicious license plates. And this is after an early morning the two of them spent hiding under the covers of her bed because she thought she heard rapping, then breathing.
It gets much worse, but Sellers remains astonishingly loving—her attitude is nothing less than valiant—whether she’s dealing with her seriously crazy mother, a father who directs her to sleep in a chair, or her own condition. Like the parents in Glass Castle, Sellers’ are breezily nuts.
One day, still in her teens, Sellers is seated in the back of her dad’s car, after kicking aside the gin bottles he and a pal have emptied, when he suggests they throw a barbecue in the backyard. He smiles at her in the rearview mirror.
“Poobah commandeth. We’re having a party. C’mon, now. Don’t be like your mother. Don’t get like her, now. You two are just completely averse to fun, that’s your problem. Smile, now! Get with the program!”
These are terrible parents, but they offer a strangled kind of love that makes their adult children capable of forgiveness instead of resentment and hate. In the end, Sellers knows there’s a lot she’ll never know. “I was never going to know when I became face-blind,” as she calls her prosopagnosia. “I was never going to know how I might have turned out if childhood had been even one notch easier. I was never going to know—really know—what my mother’s life had been, what her illness had been… What I did know was a hell of a lot about the nature of not-knowing. Which is, by definition, the opposite of mental illness. It’s philosophy.”
And she wouldn’t change a thing.
”Face-blindness, in my mind, had saved my life. It was the means by which I learned to recognize myself.” It was great training for a writer, she adds: “I had to go over each person, again and again, paying attention to the tiny details that made them distinct. Face blindness might have been better training for writing than graduate school had been.”
What’s most interesting about her condition is that she does recognize her husband, her mother, her own face—when she’s looking at them. When she knows it’s her, she recognizes herself. When she doesn’t expect to see herself, she doesn’t. On an episode of the Today show, where she was interviewed, Sellers watches herself “walking down the street in my purple dress with my straw purse. My arms are really long! I thought. My gait was syncopated, horsey.” When she sees herself in the segment filmed at her house, it’s exactly as she feared: “I didn’t look like a real writer but more like a woman who owned too many cats.”
After finally coming out about her face blindness—she emails everyone at her job to explain her condition—Sellers is inundated with replies. She saves them all, like “get-well cards.” In one letter, the writer asks, “Do you want me to reintroduce myself to you once or always?” It’s the question, Sellers says, that “matters the most.”
I want you to always, she answers.