Mixed Media – November 2019
There were some old CDs I was hoping to buy recently, which led me to some long-winded rummages in various second-hand shops. At first, it seemed quite natural to me to be scanning through the tiny print on the spines as the only method of fathoming the nature of each disc. Then I found some displays where it was possible to flip through the CDs face-on. As I continued with this new system, still reading the album titles and artist names one-by-one, it occurred to me that there might be another way of doing this that could speed things up. What if one could simply recognise the artist shown on many of the front covers, in order to ascertain whether the CD was of interest? Was this one of the things that people without Face Blindness can do and take completely for granted, I wondered? It was an amazing revelation and for a while I tried scanning through quickly, only looking at the pictures. Inevitably though, given my lack of face-recognition prowess, I had to back-track and study everything again with the words in order to make quite sure I had not missed the CDs I was searching for. It was a quaint dream to entertain for a short while. Being unable to recognise faces certainly has some unexpected drawbacks at times.
This makes me mindful of a T-shirt I once owned, many years ago. I wore it happily all summer long, attracted to the black-and-white graphic image that I felt lent a distinctive look to my attire. Then one day, when somebody casually remarked that – cool T-shirt! – they really liked the famous person apparently depicted on the clothing, I was absolutely horrified. It had never occurred to me that the facial silhouette portrayed was an actual celebrity. It was some female pop artist whose music I was not in the least partial to. In an instant, the T-shirt I had once enjoyed wearing so much was condemned to the “out” pile. Back in those days, I was unaware of Face Blindness and the many ways it can trip you up: I simply could not understand how it had never even crossed my mind that the face belonged to someone famous. I convinced myself that my poor powers of observation were due to me mainly being in the T-shirt rather than looking at it being worn. For some time afterwards I was quite peeved that nobody who knew me had asked why I would choose to walk round sporting a picture of the character concerned. Only much later, when the horror of Face Blindness and its diverse ramifications began to unfold, could I explain to myself that nobody else was likely to be bothered. Evidently people wear clothing depicting celebrities as quite a norm in life. The only abnormality going on was my inability to register any likeness between an image and an actual person.
This inability is not limited to graphic design on T-shirts, of course. Popular cartoon images are also a tricky business for the Face Blind, especially with features distorted beyond the regular proportions which would pose enough of a recognition challenge even without the artistic exaggeration. Recently I have been shown jokes posted on social media – a phone swung under my nose for inspection – where heads from well-known politicians or socialites have been grafted onto comic bodies other than their own. It certainly kills the spontaneous shared hilarity when the phone holder has to explain who the heads belong to before the joke can be unveiled. Social media itself is a taxing minefield of puzzling faces and frustrating identification challenges that finds no place on my Face Blind phone. At some point in life, I finally came to realise that glossy magazines, TV pages and quite a few celebrity-endorsed advertisements had provided scarcely any entertainment or attraction to me throughout my life because of the inability to register who was being portrayed. When a face is simply a blank, the whole thread of information, association and history associated with that face is unable to be accessed by the Face Blind brain and so the intended story is unapparent, with all of its layers of commonly understood meaning lost to the Prosopagnosia crowd.
This consequence has perhaps the most problematical and immediate effect when trying to follow films or TV programmes. Once a character has changed costume, gone to a different location, taken up a new task/role/occupation, or, alas so common, changed hair-style, anyone Face Blind can quite literally “lose the plot”. To my Face Blind mind, every character that comes along is a New Character, unless I am able to fathom a link – other than by facial recognition – to anyone I have previously seen in the action. For example, one might not realise that the person shown happily married in an earlier scene is also the one flirting outrageously with a third party, hence missing the implication of infidelity and therefore completely floundering to explain why the apparently contented married couple are now shouting at each other and splitting up. Multiply this level of confusion across an entire film, where human interactions and social nuances have to be assessed and applied to the scenes with rapid fluidity in order to understand how events are unfolding and it is perhaps possible then to perceive how those with Prosopagnosia can often falter in stitching together a storyline. Entertainment is trumped by tedious frustration and viewing is sometimes aborted altogether in my household.
A curious oddity is worth noting at this point: Although the Face Blind might struggle with cartoon drawings representing real people, it sometimes proves far easier for someone with such a condition to watch cartoon animations. Perhaps this is because cartoon characters tend to alter in appearance less and have exaggerated features right from the beginning that can enable an easier visual/mental attachment to be made that will flow right through the action, coupled with the actor’s voice. Think of Shrek, where ogres, dragons, cats and donkeys are very easily recognisable, whilst witches, kings and queens are always portrayed in appropriate garb. The who-is-who remains consistently clear.
I would have preferred to watch a cartoon version of Aladdin to the human-based version I recently encountered. Princesses and viziers were indeed always in appropriate costume that maintained easier recognition, but there was an incident with Aladdin himself that had me rewinding the action over and over. After rubbing the magic lamp, Aladdin was supposed to be transformed into a more splendid version of himself, as part of a ploy to attract the attention of the beautiful princess. His clothes were spirited from cotton rags to silken robes; his hair was elegantly restyled beneath a magnificent princely headpiece; those fancy, curly slippers were in evidence – and then one of his companions commented on how even his face had become so very much younger in years… Has it, I immediately found myself asking? I rewound to the footage ahead of his transition, then watched again as the reworked version appeared. I repeated this process at least half a dozen times, completely unable to tell what the difference was between versions old and new. My own face was almost touching the viewing screen by the end of the intense scrutiny. Eventually I could just about perceive that there might have been some kind of facial alteration, but I could not tell definitively how Aladdin had regained his youth. It was a problem of holding the first face as a picture in my head with any detail, then comparing it against the second picture on the screen. I could not do it, comparing the new image against the fuzzy image in my mind, albeit with a lapse of only seconds between seeing one face then the next. Welcome to the crazy-cartoon-world of Face Blindness, I thought to myself!
I further mused that we are waiting for the Genie with the Lamp to grant us the wish of some solution to our recognition capability crisis. To fill blank facial outlines with the magic of the whole story, across the whole mixed media of life.
Boo – November 2019
A Walk in the Park – October 2019
Our local park was beautifully crafted from three fields purchased by a native benefactor. He had made riches in the world and thought of many ways to remember and uplift the place of his birth when gifting portions of his wealth in later life. All this happened 90 years ago – not roughly 90 years ago, but precisely 90 years ago. I know this because we just enjoyed a small ceremony to commemorate the anniversary of the donation of the park to the people.
Luckily for us, the “Parc”, like many Welsh-named places, has the tumbledown relic of a small castle, which is tucked away behind grand old trees on a mound at one end of the land. A short distance from that, helping to form the classic composition of the olden-days, heart-of-town scenario, stands the church. It was through the Parc, past the castle, to the church that a few of us scurried on a blustery autumn day, to hear about our historical benefactor, his life, travels and other generous legacies.
A choir from the local primary school had been mustered in the front pews, with the aim of educating them about their local history and resources, and with the further ambition of entertaining us by sweetly singing. The ceremony progressed and the schoolchildren filed from their seats to regale us with All Things Bright And Beautiful whilst arrayed along the altar steps.
It was then that I realised my partner, Seeing Dog, has a grandson who attends the same school. But was he in the choir? With intense sadness, I began to figure that I had not seen this grandson for some two years and that in the meantime he had probably grown considerably. For most people, the ability to transpose facial features from a younger to an older version of someone seems innate, but from a Face Blind point of view it feels impossible to fathom how this can be done. How was I supposed to be able to identify him without Seeing Dog, who was regrettably unable to escort me to the event?
I recalled vividly the tender moment when I had last encountered the little grandson. I had been walking my Canine Dog in the eponymous park, in contrasting spring sunshine, winding our way up the steep mound to circuit the castle ruins and enjoy the distant views. As we rounded the tumbling stonework, we were startled by a sea of red sweatshirts sported by a class of children enjoying a history lesson in the outdoors, a short walk from their school. Dog and I proceeded to trot by them without disturbing their lesson, but just as our backs were turning I heard the sudden shrill utterance of “Booooo! Booooo!”. Being used to this as my name rather than an unpleasant judgement, I turned to scan the crowd find who on earth that age could possibly know me well enough to hail my attention. I surveyed the body of sweatshirts completely puzzled, confronted by identically young faces all perching above matching sets of school uniform. They were all staring at me, since I had been so abruptly indicated as a point of interest. I delivered a generic smile to stall for time. Then, bless him, little grandson squeaked out: “Boo! It’s me!” and waved. Whereupon I was finally able to spot him and unscramble the mystery.
What a pleasure to see him there. What a relief he had called out to me, rather than forever wondering why the nasty woman he had met a few times had decided to ignore him and hurry past. I do not believe he had been told about my Face Blindness at that young age and was therefore just acting instinctively in calling out to me. However, it occurred to me then that the sooner we can let the little ones know about our condition, the less likely we are to break delicate hearts whilst journeying round the local world. Alas, I shall never be sure whether the young chap was chirping with the choir, but can only hold on to the hope that he was probably not there, since nobody from the host of red sweatshirts waved or squealed this time.
So both of my Dogs and I have many reasons to commemorate our local Parc. It brings many pleasurable encounters, canine and human, as well as a chance to appreciate all the glorious changes of seasons: dedicated swathes of summer wild flowers give way to spontaneous ponds amongst the long grass in heavy autumn rain; stunning winter frosts melt away to reveal tiny crocus petals stealthily determined to usher in spring under the shelter of fine trees.
A few days after the church service, Canine Dog and I were once again enjoying our regular use of the Parc facilities. A lady was passing through on a shortcut between the local shop and home, pulling her trolley along the tarmac perimeter path. Dog went bounding over to her, rather too keenly, and I called out an apology as he approached at full pelt: “Sorry! He must think your shopping trolley is another dog,” I explained. “Silly boy!”
…Silly me, as it turned out. The lady quickly explained that my dog must be able to smell hers, who would usually be with her if she was dog-walking rather than shopping. Then she asked me how I was doing…and described her dog…that of course I knew very well because I knew her too…only I had not recognised her. Once I had been able to understand who she was, whilst praying I had got away with the dithering whilst I tried to process her spoken information to scramble together her identity, I had to inquire that surely she must have dyed her hair blonde and cut it short since we last met? Indeed she had, so I was able to forgive myself in a small way for failing to know her immediately, as well as being able to comfort myself that I do remember details about people once I have calculated which one of them I am dealing with. Then I was able to enjoy something that can be rare for those habitually tripped-up by Face Blindness: A pleasurable catch-up chat. One of the many aspects of enjoyment facilitated by our wonderful local parks.
As Dog and I strolled home, with church, castle and Parc behind us, I mused upon how swiftly and assuredly he had recognised a familiar figure, even though not from the canine species. What a poor comparison was my supposedly superior mental stumbling when trying to get a grip on who was around me. Whether family related or fond acquaintance, with Face Blindness it can be such a great hurdle to clear before recognition of a favoured friend occurs. And yet for my diminutive dog, it seems, such matters are a mere Walk In The Park.
Boo – October 2019
PhotoBOOth – September 2019
Recently I needed to renew my Passport, obliging me to provide a fresh photograph by which the world would be able to identify me for the next ten years.
I have come across many people who particularly dislike their Passport photos, possibly because the required pose is so stern and unnatural, head-on towards the unforgiving lens. And I am quite sure there are many people who cannot abide having their photo taken at any time. Or rather, perhaps, they are unable to endure studying the end results of the photographic process, when they find the world has been presented with an image of them forever captured in an evil grimace, an awkward pose, unflattering clothing, or some other unfortunate visual circumstance.
However, it will not be all people that fail even to realise that they are featured in a photograph placed before them. Surely anyone can recognise their own image, it might be logical to suppose? For people with Prosopagnosia, that simple assumption can turn into a surprising challenge.
Even having known about my own Face Blindness for many years, I still harboured a confidence that I would be able to identify myself in a picture, especially if I remembered the photo being taken. How hard could that really be? So the day came when my mother was showing me photos from an event we had both attended a year earlier. “Oh look, it’s so-and-so,” I bragged – utterly delighted to have spotted someone I could identify, though cheating slightly, because of course I knew who had been there at the time. “Who on earth, though, is that person sitting next to her…?” I then had to ask, unable to recall anyone matching the image of the other person from the attendee list in my head. My mother was genuinely taken aback at needing to inform me: “Well, that’s YOU, isn’t it!”.
Although she was not nearly as thrown as me. I spent ages staring at the person in the picture, mainly quite alarmed at how unlike the portrait of myself in my head this imposter in the photo appeared to be. There was no reason to believe my mother was not telling the truth, but my own eyes were having enormous trouble persuading me about the facts of the matter. Rather, my eyes could see well enough, but that faulty little bit of brain that is supposed to deal with situations like this was messing with my perceptions. Exactly as it has done on those occasions when I have found myself unable to step aside from the person approaching me in a shop, only to discover abruptly that I was walking into a mirror and had possibly made a serious fool of myself. Why had my brain not told me I was me?!?! The Face Blind brain, with all the will in the world, is quite often just incapable of doing such a thing.
So when I sat contemplating my latest Passport photo before posting it away, there were many emotions rolling through my mind. Greatest was deep concern that the image possibly failed to resemble my previous photos submitted to the powers-that-be, therefore putting the processing of my important document in jeopardy. I consulted Seeing Dog (my partner), whose word I had to take that the portrait did indeed resemble my appearance in real life. Other concerns circled around the notion that this stranger was supposed to be me. It was unsettling to be assured that this is how I look, how everybody beholds me every day; whereas I could almost certainly walk straight past myself in the street without ever recognising my likeness. I stared long and deep into the eyes of the photograph and at least felt that same sense of dislocation and puzzlement that gazes back at me whenever I look in a mirror for any length of time.
However, I usually try to avoid looking in mirrors. And, in addition, I have a horror of seeing my own face even further distorted from familiarity by the camouflage of make-up. In my younger years, before any knowledge of Face Blindness, I once famously burst into tears after being shown the ghastly reflection of myself daubed in heavy make-over colours at the department store beauty counter. So I try to avoid make-up nowadays too. And, no surprise to hear, I try to avoid having my photo taken as much as I possibly can.
Then I was asked if I would like to provide a photo of myself to go alongside this Blog. So, apparently, at least one face in the picture shown bears some kind of resemblance to me…
Boo – September 2019
Friend or Foe? – August 2019
Even teeny-weeny little encounters can be very bothersome.
In the local high street, a man was posting something through a letterbox close by me and I had a suspicion that I might know him. He was wearing a jazzy Hawaiian-style shirt and looked like the kind of odd-ball (if he doesn’t mind me saying) that might jog my memory about having encountered him before. Quite often, I get this kind of idea in my head and have trained myself to ignore the notion, because mostly this kind of mental hint turns out to be phenomenally wrong. Such as when I deduced that a lady was one of my partner’s old flames, whereas in fact she was a neighbour, who is now forever on guard that I am suspecting her of having flirted with my beloved at some point in time. My partner had then helped to joke away the awkwardness, but on this occasion, dangerously alone in the high street, without my him to act as my “Seeing Dog for the Face Blind”, I had to rely on my own resources to figure out the situation. Oh dear.
The trouble was, I had already made eye contact with Hawaiian Man. This is also something I try strictly to avoid. “Oh, I didn’t see you there…” is then the instant, honest answer for failing to recognise somebody who greets me first by name or a wave (whilst also stalling and giving me precious seconds to scour the memory banks for voice recognition or a match with other clues: location, clothing, hair, jewellery, anything…). Hawaiian Man had looked back with a cold stare. Oh dear again. Now he actually looked quite frightening. Had I messed with someone who it would have been better to avoid? Terrible long moments passed in my brain as I looked at him. The face was familiar, I was sure, only now I was beginning to wonder whether it was familiar for all the wrong reasons. So my brain switched to recalling anyone local that my partner or myself might have upset, offended or slighted, albeit necessarily in a very minor way, because we tend to be nice people and friendly to all. Now I was quite obviously staring at him and he was staring back, blank and scary.
“Do I know you from somewhere…?” I uttered, hesitantly.
“I don’t think so,” he replied. His voice was surprisingly soft and sweet for a man of his size.
And that turned out to be the clue that saved me. His voice I definitely knew. My brain scurried about, matching voice and overall appearance to possible sighting locations, finally – finally, oh sweet relief! – disclosing to me the exact identity of this person to me.
Everything was all the more awkward because he evidently had no idea who I was either, until I reminded him how and where we had met several times before. We had always discussed Vegetarianism and, once I told him about that, he remembered who I was and that he definitely knew me. Once we were both reassured of each other’s identity, we embarked upon a friendly little chat and all was well.
He had been so guarded about engaging with me because he had no idea who I was, perhaps, bless him, because he is getting on in years – or has Face Blindness himself, without even knowing? This I had mistaken for almost aggression or at least grumpiness that was best left well alone. It happens that some Face Blind folk are not the best at interpreting facial expressions either. I had really been quite scared for a moment, thinking I had led myself into danger. Ironic then that my acquaintance has been vegetarian all his life and is one of the sweetest “gentle giants” anyone could hope to encounter. He would have been most upset to learn how much he had alarmed me.
And I was upset to be wrong-footed yet again by Prosopagnosia. It leaves you never truly knowing whether the person in front of you is a friend or a foe. At best that is unsettling, at worst I suppose it could be quite dangerous. Thank goodness, this time, the horror that is the high street ultimately produced not hurt and puzzlement, but happiness and pleasure for both befuddled beings.
Boo – August 2019
Nemesis – July 2019
Recently I attended a reunion, which can be something of a nemesis for those with Prosopagnosia.
I was meeting with people first encountered twenty-five years ago. We had shared emotional and intense times then, struggling to survive living in a remote Indian jungle “ashram”, where we had headed purposefully for deep exploration of ourselves on physical, emotional and spiritual levels. Those times were tough, so the bonds we forged were deep and enduring. We gather once a year, both to reminisce and to check-in with everybody’s health and happiness.
People approached, smiling in greeting, quite obviously recognising me, whilst I attempted to process every scrap of visible information that might lend a clue to their identity. Of course, many had aged and changed since I had last met them, further hindering any chance of swift identification. I recall the sweet relief when one lady started to speak to me, her particular accent immediately fixing recognition and sparing me the mortification of having to ask this very lovely good acquaintance who exactly she was.
Some of the crowd know about my Face Blindness, but it is not at the forefront of their mind when they are rushing to say hello. Even after apology and a reminder explanation from me, it must seem puzzling and hurtful that a being once so close appears not to remember you upon sight. Though it might not affect the other person significantly or for very long after, it always upsets me and adds another sharp stone to the heavy burden of living with this condition.
At these reunions, I am always mindful of a particular encounter that happened many years ago, before I had ever heard of Prosopagnosia or discovered that it was a condition affecting me and colouring so many incidents in my life. I had just arrived at the annual gathering and there were many people strolling about in a big garden. I walked straight past an individual, who then pursued and stopped me, asking beseechingly: ”Don’t you remember me….?” He was much younger than I was and must have been little more that a child when I had seen him last. The physical change in him and the expanse of time between contact left me with hardly any chance of recognising him. On that occasion, I could only say in all honesty that I did not know who he was, please could he tell me, which he did, enabling me to recall him and pick up the thread of our friendship. However, the hurt and disbelief in his eyes as he had to beg to be acknowledged haunted me for years after the event. I was ashamed to be the one who “forgot” my friends and horrified that I somehow allowed myself to ignore and overlook those with whom I actually shared a profound love. What kind of unpleasant person was I? How could I allow myself to behave like that? And why?
Well, discovering about Face Blindness helped me to answer many of those troubling questions. When similar situations arise over and over again, at least nowadays I can explain to myself and others about the neurological blip that messes with my recognition capabilities. The explanation helps, but the uncomfortable memories and encounters remain.
That friend told me at this year’s reunion that he had seen my documentary feature with the BBC and had been astounded at how great the difficulties can be. Even though he had been one of those I was originally desperate to explain my newfound condition to, alongside an apology for my inadvertently hurtful behaviour many years before, he still had very limited comprehension of the impact it can have on everyday life. Because even such interested and sympathetic individuals struggle to understand our situation, we with Face Blindness seek to raise awareness amongst everybody in this world we share so that perhaps, one day, common knowledge of our impaired capabilities will enable smoother human communications, with less pain and confusion for all. Fewer wounded friends; fewer stones on the Face Blind burden pile. Reunions that can be anticipated as nice and normal, rather than nasty and nemesis.
Boo – July 2019
Hi, I’m Boo! Aptly named, because people jump smartly into focus like a “Boo!” whenever something helps me to finally recognise them… I have been Face Blind all my life, but it took me 30 years to discover that this was the reason for so many puzzling, embarrassing and frustrating encounters with other people. A TV documentary helped me to identify the issue and realise that I was not the only one wrestling with these difficulties.
Then, in February 2019, I spent “one day of fame” all over the BBC, this time it being me that was featuring in a documentary piece about Prosopagnosia. It was fantastic to be able to spread understanding and empathy about this awkward condition to such a big audience. It is hoped that this Blog will now also enable more people to comprehend how troubling it can be to cope with situations in daily life, both for those with Face Blindness and those who know them closely. These true-life incidents aim to explain and entertain through sharing just some of the many day-to-day happenings that can arise from living with this challenging neurological condition of being: FACE BLIND…