The Perils of Face Blindness
I have a T-shirt, given to me by a colleague, which says: “I’M PROSOPAGNOSIC. WHO ARE YOU?” An article in The Times by Mary-Ann Sieghart in 2006 had finally given a name to a condition that I’d suffered from all my life, but assumed, like other people with prosopagnosia, or face blindness, that my inability to recognise people – even, on occasion, friends and family – was just a sign of social ineptness.
For someone with face blindness, I couldn’t have chosen a worse profession. Or professions. As a publisher attending (oh, the nightmare) Frankfurt Book Fair, I would have to cope with a steady flow of unrecognisable faces, their name-badges hidden or absent, or so low-down that I had to perform a sort of curtsy to see them, who would want to talk business. I wanted to talk business too – that was why I was there – but who the hell were they? How long could I bluff my way through the conversation waiting for a clue to their identity? Janet, the ever-obliging colleague who gave me the T-shirt, was primed to whisper their name as they approached but didn’t always have the opportunity . Then there were the publishing events where I’d fail to recognise our authors, or travel fairs where Bradt’s most loyal fans said sadly “Well I expect you meet so many people” when my face didn’t light up at their approach.
If publishing events were bad, tour leading was dreadful. I’m not sure, looking back, which was worse: the meet and greet at the airport or breakfast the next morning. At the airport I would identify the members of my group and ask them to wait together while I assisted with luggage or met the last stragglers. Then I had no idea which of those little groups of foreigners were mine. But I think, on reflection, that breakfast the first morning was worse. How was I to recognise the group, all sitting at separate tables? Different clothes, washed hair. It was hopeless.
Perversely, however, I have my prosopagnosia to thank for my biggest break-through into writing. More than 20 years before that Times article that broke the news that I wasn’t alone, I was incensed to hear a scientist on Radio 4 say that “recognising faces is as simple and automatic as making footprints in the sand.” I dashed off a short article on the subject to the Sunday Times, inventing the name Dyscognosthesia for my condition. A couple of days later I had a phone call from the editor saying she found it “very funny” and would like to publish it that weekend.
I felt that I’d arrived.