Pillbox

Sellers discusses face blindness in her work

Writer Heather Sellers addressed a room full of avid listeners in the Gladys Schmitt Creative Writing Center on Monday — several of whom were friends, literary colleagues, and students she met in classes she had lectured in earlier that day. But as far as Sellers could tell, she could have been talking to a group of total strangers.

Sellers has prosopagnosia, or face blindness, a rare disorder that impairs the brain’s ability to recognize faces. Though her diagnosis came relatively recently, Sellers’s disorder has become a central topic in the work she has created since, including her memoir, You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know.

Sellers was almost theatrical in her description of the disorder. Her distinctive sense of humor — purposefully spacey in tone yet still sharp and intelligent — kept listeners laughing and engaged throughout her presentation.

In the years before her diagnosis, Sellers knew something was wrong, but couldn’t quite identify the disconnect. Something finally clicked, however, when she stumbled across the words “face recognition” in a bookstore. After a number of doctor visits and tests, she at last had her diagnosis. While her reaction was in part relief, the biggest hurdle lay ahead: “coming out” to her friends and colleagues about her face blindness.

Delving into her personal trials with the disorder, Sellers discussed the disadvantages and even a few advantages to her condition. For the most part, prosopagnosia has presented a unique set of difficulties for her, inhibiting her socially and even costing her at least one close friendship.

But this disorder has also been somewhat advantageous, she says. Scientifically speaking, more attractive faces have more in common with each other — meaning that growing up, Sellers was always drawn to the social outcasts who were more distinctive in appearance, a quirkier group of people. As a result, Sellers reflected, she had a more interesting and diverse group of friends.

At one point, Sellers opened a copy of her memoir and read a passage in the same theatrical voice she used to discuss face blindness: She adopted a friend’s deep Southern drawl as she recreated her “coming out” as face blind over the phone to him. Her dramatic flair, both literary and vocal, kept her audience riveted and entertained.

While the topic of prosopagnosia is fascinating — and Sellers spoke about it engagingly and eloquently — it was somewhat disappointing that so many of the questions from the audience addressed her face blindness rather than her craft. Despite the exhaustive questions, Sellers answered each with clear enthusiasm, making an effort to immerse her listeners in her own experiences with face blindness.

Between Sellers’s dynamism as a speaker and her energetic sense of humor, the talk could easily have continued for double its allotted time. After the reading, curious audience members flocked to Sellers as they waited for refreshments to arrive.