Letter: On being new to the town …


To the editor:

In 1958, Oliver Sacks wrote a little book on perceptions. The book is known by the title of one of its subjects, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. The flawed perception is called Prosopagnosia, or, more commonly, face blindness. When I discuss with others my own experiences with partial face blindness, I find that I am far from alone.

Many of us, it seems, have difficulties recognizing folks by their face alone when we run into them in unexpected contexts. For years now, it has embarrassed me to meet people who I do and should know in places like supermarkets and struggle to sustain conversation long enough to collect the clues I need to place the face.  

When younger, I either lived largely within my craft or emerged in groups of friends, who (I now presume) had the natural habits of immediate face recognition. I marveled at the skill that my political friends had for apparently knowing “everyone.” But only after I was elected to a school committee did I begin to understand the gap between my skill and the skill of others. It happened one day as I was working my way through a recollection effort in a supermarket. The teacher to whom I was speaking took a pause and kindly asked me, “You don’t have clue of who I am, do you?” I seized the moment to confess. I spoke of Sacks’ book and I admitted that I have partial face blindness, apologized for that fact. We moved forward with her help of a kind re-introduction.

After that experience, I began more openly admitting my skill deficit … I stand short of calling in a disability, though the skill gap can be socially disabling. I still meet and connect with people at events and then are slow to recognize them at other events. I write this note because I know that I am not alone. Many of us want to connect with our fellow citizens. Yet because I am slow, and sometimes totally unable, to recognize folks who I should know, I fear that I seem to be a bit of an odd duck.

Here is my point: Connecting with each other can be more difficult than we think. If you have the face recognition skill that I lack, and if you sense that I might be struggling to catch up with you in the moment, please throw me a line from shore. This partial face blindness is not, I am assured, a harbinger of dementia. It is not that I have forgotten you or chosen to distance myself from our prior conversation. It is rather like mild color blindness. It takes me a bit longer to reconnect.

I believe there many folks among us who have experienced what I am talking about. And, from time to time, I hope that we will be willing to rescue each other.


Tom Flanagan



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