Wacko Wednesdays: Prosopagnosia by Christine Cavalier

Writing Tips
For three years, I lived in a third floor walkup apartment in a lovely 7-unit brownstone building at 18th and Pine.  Most of us renters were in our twenties and early thirties except “Ellen”, a woman in her late 50’s.  Ellen seemed a bit strange but she was friendly and a good neighbor.  We all knew each other pretty well.   
Ellen, like me and half of Philadelphia, worked at the University of Pennsylvania.  One night we both had worked late and ended up on the same Center City shuttle.  I sat down with her and began chatting away.  Ellen was more shy and reserved than normal.  
Our stop came and Ellen hustled to get out of the shuttle (which, I understood perfectly – those shuttle drivers think South Street is the Autobahn).  After tugging my bag free from the overstuffed masses on the shuttle, I had to jog a bit to catch up with paunchy, middle-aged Ellen, who was booking it and clutching her purse the same way I hold Peeps at Easter.   Just quirky Ellen being Ellen, I thought.  It was pretty dark.  To help her feel more comfortable on the 2 block walk home, I continued chatting in lower tones.  Ellen would nod nervously.
We arrived at the front door.  Ellen’s knuckles were white around her keys.  I could feel her anxiety skyrocket when I stepped up behind her, readying myself to hold the very heavy door for her.  That’s when she said it.
“It was nice talking with you, but I don’t know  you and you can’t come in with me.”


Obviously, I was blown away.  I had known this woman for over 2 years!  While I stood dumbstruck for a moment, Ellen continued.  “My neighbors will hear me and I will have them call the police.”
“Ellen,” I said, “It’s me, Christine!  I live on the third floor.  Look, here is my key.  Let me open the door.”  She stepped aside, her face wrought with fear.  I opened the door and went into the vestibule.  “See?  It’s me!  I live on the 3rd floor.” I repeated.
Ellen slowly came in.   “Oh it’s you!” she said, the color returning to her face.  “Oh, I didn’t recognize you.”
After a 30 minute conversation? I thought.
After some awkward chitchat, we both went to our apartments.  I would have dismissed Ellen’s quirkiness as just that if I didn’t get the same exact reaction twice, a few weeks later.  Once I ran into her at a Rittenhouse Square coffee shop and another time in a local market.  Both times she reacted as if I were a stalker who knew her cat’s name and too many intimate details about her life.
Asking around, I discovered that Ellen probably suffers from Prosopagnosia, which is also called ‘face blindness.’  Congenital damage or brain injury disables a person’s ability to recognize faces, while the ability to recognize other aspects or physical features remains in tact.  Ellen used familiar surroundings of the brownstone as well as the sound of my voice in the vestibule to finally recognize me.  
Cecelia Burman runs Prosopagnosia.com.  One the site, she tries to explain the condition.  “Some individuals we expect to see in certain places. When we suddenly see them in another place we may fail to recognize them altogether.”  Without the familiar surroundings, Ellen could not recognize me or any of the other 5 renters in the Brownstone, despite talking with us and seeing us daily for over two years.   Ms. Burman constructs an exercise with pictures of stones to help us understand what Prosopagnosia is like.  Check out her pages as a start to your research.
In the right hands, an author can touch on some profound personal and social truths by examining those among us who struggle with assumed human abilities.  Face Blindness could be used as an interesting twist to the tired amnesia story, or as a major barrier to overcome in a coming-of-age plot.   Perhaps this condition is what keeps your story’s shut-in character shut in.  Forget the cliched agoraphobia (fear of social embarrassment) – go with a perfectly balanced character with some very acute brain damage; it would be so much more interesting.  How would a person like this feel at a family wedding?  How would they use Facebook?  Would they friend people with very distinct characteristics, like albinos?  Would they prefer to be blind altogether?  What would happen if you woke up one day with this condition?  Would you think you were timetraveling or in a twilight zone?  Do a little research, and you can dive deep into the psyche of a character who is living with this mysterious and debilitating disorder.   You might find some answers to your own life’s questions in the process.
I still see Ellen around Rittenhouse Square sometimes.  If she looks at me, I flash a polite smile.  She does the same, and we keep going on our separate ways.

4 thoughts on “Wacko Wednesdays: Prosopagnosia by Christine Cavalier

  1. Thanks for sharing this story, Christine! This is amazing stuff–as you point out, the possibilities for fiction abound.

    There’s a great book by Carl Sagan called The Dragons of Eden about human brain development. Granted, it’s a few of decades behind in regard to neuroscience, having been published in the late 1970s, but it’s full of wonderful stuff about perception, identity, and the strange changes that come with brain-altering events and disorders. All of that deep human material you’re underlining here. I’ve been carrying around a story in my head for years based on one anecdote I read in this book. One day, I’m going to write it. You watch.


  2. Thanks for writing this!

    I found the condition extremely interesting. How could you not, really? And, I appreciated the story, because it helped me to understand how some one lacking the ability to remember faces’ life might be affected. As I researched, I found a related condition that interested me as well, Capras Delusion. This delusion is a rare disorder where a person suffers from the delusion that someone close to them has been replaced by an identical impostor.

    I found that these conditions have been recorded in early writings, even some BCE. Rare conditions, but long-present. Both also seem to cause fear in day-to-day interaction, usually based in confusion and inability to trust.

    I am so intrigued by the implications of conscious versus unconscious recognition that the articles I reviewed described. I am also fascinated by the concept of the value of emotional response to familiarity. Why is there an entire section of the brain dedicated to recognition of faces specifically?

    I would love to know what people came up with if they took your suggestion! I am wondering how I might incorporate this in to my artwork somehow. I would want to have a deeper understanding of the day-to-day. What sort of jobs could and couldn’t some one with Prosopagnosia have? Would they be able to tell twins apart better than others? What skills might they have developed better than the rest of us?

    I also thought about Magritte’s “The Son of Man”. Did it have the same meaning? I’ve read that Magritte’s faceless man had more to do with the memory of seeing his mother’s face obscured after her suicide. Unrelated to a point, but I then thought about how this disorder could cause objectification? Or, the complete opposite.

    Really thought provoking piece. Thanks again!


  3. Hi Christine, I recently heard an audible memoir (I’m pretty sure it was by P.D. James but can’t swear that was the one) – she has this condition and she said that to compensate, she pretends to recognize everyone. It seems kind of horrifying to me, since I have always prided myself on remembering everyone. But as I teach more workshops it turns out that people recognize me even though I don’t recognize them. And it’s even weirder on the internet, where we get to “know people” without ever seeing them, or maybe just seeing a publicity photo. On the opposite extreme, I have noticed that I meet a person face to face and immediately recognize them because I’ve been seeing their Facebook picture every day. Thanks for the food for thought. Jerry

  4. Hey Christine,

    I’m really glad I came across this blog! I am a senior in high school and as a requirement to graduate, we were given the task of writing a lengthy paper on a topic of our choice. I chose to do mine on Prosopagnosia. I have done much research on this disease and from the sound of it I defiantly think your neighbor has a classic case. I also live in Philadelphia, very close to center city. I was wondering (if she were willing)if you could put me in contact with Ellen via email or otherwise. As a follow up to our paper we have a 30 minute presentation to do and I would really like to include an interview with someone who has or may have face blindness. If this is a possibility please respond back so that we may exchange information. I hope to hear from you soon! – Tricia

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