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BOOK REVIEW

A professor faces up to her face blindness

Poignant memoir deals with disease and dysfunction

By Eric Liebetrau
Globe Correspondent / November 4, 2010

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It’s an unfortunate reality that many who suffer from rare diseases or little-known psychological disorders also suffer the indignity of having to convince people that their condition is legitimate. In her new memoir, Heather Sellers attests to that fact.

Sellers, a creative-writing and English professor at Hope College in Michigan, is afflicted with prosopagnosia, or face blindness, a form of visual agnosia characterized by an inability to recognize faces. Growing up, the author knew something was wrong.

“Face blindness was too weird,’’ she writes. “It was unreliable. It wasn’t one thing. And just behind that weirdness stood the secret super-weirdness’’ of her mother’s paranoid schizophrenia and her father’s alcoholism and negligent behavior. Her parents, however, hid their problems — particularly her mother’s — behind years of obfuscation and denial, rendering the young woman confused and racked with doubt.

“She was not insane,’’ reasons the author about her mother. “She was difficult, quirky, kind, mysterious, eccentric, ‘peculiar.’ If my mother was a paranoid schizophrenic, Fred [her father] would have known. I would have known. Someone would have noticed and said something . . . it wasn’t a very subtle illness. Was it? You couldn’t be a paranoid schizophrenic and raise two kids and keep it a secret.’’

In a poignant narrative that jumps between adulthood and adolescence, Sellers chronicles her battle with the disorder, unfolding the story gradually within the framework of her chaotic childhood and drifting adulthood. She battles the disintegration of her marriage to Dave, a well-meaning husband who can’t quite break through her mental and emotional walls.

Merely hinting at her condition for more than a third of the narrative, her restraint pays off with a moving epiphany. “Suddenly a long sequence of misunderstandings, from when I was very young to just the night before, sprang into light, lined up, crystallized.’’ The slow accretion of detail about the disorder dovetails nicely with the memories of her rocky childhood. Though prosopagnosia is the narrative vehicle, the memoir is really about the legacy of mental illness, specifically the tie between Sellers and her mother: “face blindness was my mother’s legacy, the shadow of her biology. It was how I was related to her.’’

For years she avoided discussing her family’s dysfunction, making excuses and rationalizing. “I hadn’t forgotten my history,’’ she says. “I’d just worked around it. It was like another me knew and that me and this me had never conversed. . . . What I had done, I saw now, was stitch around the dark parts, making a shape, a presentable story of my family.’’

Convinced that her mother’s mental illness was genetically tied to her face blindness, the author embarked on an intensive research project to learn everything she could about the disorder. When a successful scientific study at Harvard encouraged Sellers to share her condition with her colleagues, she was surprised by the positive response and agreed to appear in a segment on “The Today Show’’ to garner attention for prosopagnosia.

Her short TV clip did not square with her expectations, but Sellers ends the book on a hopeful note. “I love face blindness now,’’ she writes. “I thought of it as great training for being a writer: I had to go over each person, again and again, paying attention to the tiny details that made them distinct.’’ Throughout, the author makes impressive use of well-chosen details, and though there’s no cure for prosopagnosia, her increased self-awareness and stabilized psyche prove to be achievement enough.

Eric Liebetrau is the managing editor and nonfiction editor of Kirkus Reviews. He can be reached at eliebetrau@kirkusreviews.com.

YOU DON’T LOOK LIKE ANYONE I KNOW

By Heather Sellers

Riverhead, 354 pp., $25.95