Art Kavanagh

Criticism, fiction and other writing

Heather Sellers: learning the lessons of face-blindness and place-blindness

Last week, I found this extraordinary true story by Heather Sellers on Longreads. Sellers is a writer and professor of creative writing who suffers from both prosopagnosia (sometimes called face-blindness) and topographical agnosia, which she describes as “a severe disability when it comes to spatial relationships and perceiving direction”. She gets lost, even in very familiar places, is unable to follow directions and often doesn’t know where she is or how to get where she’s going. She writes very well, and her account fascinated me. As I read it, though, I felt an apparently contradictory combination of emotions. “How strange, and impossible to imagine,” I thought, and at the same time “how recognizably familiar”. On the one hand, I couldn’t grasp how it could be that she couldn’t see a pair of red doors straight ahead of her; on the other, I had been in situations curiously analogous to, if much less serious than, those recounted by Sellers.

I don’t suffer from prosopagnosia: I can distinguish between faces and tell what features of one are unlike those of another. What I can’t do, though, is retain a visual memory of any individual’s face, and call it up when I need to. It occasionally happens, therefore, that I fail to recognize a person (including myself in photographs) if I see them out of context. I know that a lot of people have this problem, so I’m not claiming that there’s anything out of the ordinary about my own experience, still less that it’s comparable to the severe difficulties faced by Sellers. It can be embarrassing, of course, but I know that I’m often perceived as a head-in-the-clouds daydreamer, so I can pass my blankness off as inattention.

As a child, I read that someone had “a good sense of direction” and, with misplaced assurance, assumed that I was the same. In spite of the evidence to the contrary, it wasn’t till I was 52 that I finally acknowledged that this was a fantasy. Apart from London (inevitably), I’ve been lost in Marseille, Nice, Toulouse (more than once), Bordeaux, Perugia and Barcelona. In Nice and Toulouse, I cycled around in circles for hours, failing to find a particular route out of the city. In Toulouse, I eventually gave up and put my bike on the train. In Nice, I had to phone my sister, who was staying in nearby Cagnes, and ask her to come and find me. In Marseille, I was using a map which was rotated anticlockwise through 45°, so that North was to the left, East at the top etc. I thought a simple mental adjustment would see me right, but I kept finding myself pedaling East when I meant to go North and South when I wanted to go East. I had relied on paper maps in the other places too. (These incidents happened before I had a smartphone or a data plan, but I don’t think it would have made much difference.)

What I didn’t realize until years later is that I was incapable of visually memorizing the relevant part of the map, so I’d try to convert it mentally into a series of narrative directions but I’d invariably miss something important. The map was useful to me only as long as I was looking directly at it. Once it went back in my pannier I might as well have left it at home. In Perugia and Barcelona I was on foot rather than on the bike, so I could pull the map out as often as I needed to. That didn’t seem to help much.

Though my difficulties with remembering faces, maps and directions don’t cause me problems anywhere near as severe as those encountered by Heather Sellers, I found her account of her condition, and particularly the method she uses to deal with it, useful as well as interesting. Many of her students have disabilities related to learning or mental health difficulties. She has to complete forms for each one, including checking boxes to indicate that she understands what accommodations they need in order to complete her course. It struck her that she needed to understand and make allowances for her own special requirements just as she did for those of her students. She actually printed out a set of the forms used by Students with Disabilities Services, and completed it for herself:

Heather needs more time to plan her route to both new and familiar places.
Heather needs someone to help her when she is lost. She may not be able to explain why she is lost. Do you understand? She doesn’t need to explain.

Instead of berating herself (as had been her habit) for her inability to accomplish an ostensibly simple task like finding her way around Tampa airport, she began to make allowances for her disability — to permit herself the same kind of “accommodations” she would make for one of her students. There’s a lesson to be learned from her experience.

If you find that your child, your student, your employee, your friend or yourself seems inexplicably to have unexpected problems doing things that don’t seem all that difficult, try being patient and kind with them. My own late discovery that my lack of a visual imagination is not shared by a majority of the population taught me that it’s easy, indeed natural, to assume that we all see and relate to the world the same way. That’s a dangerous assumption that we need to be wary of.

Posted by Art on 12-Apr-2020.