I know I said that I don’t read much non fiction, yet here I am, reviewing a non fiction book. However, the story driving this particular memoir, You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know by Heather Sellers, sounded so intriguing and almost fantastical that I felt compelled to check it out.
The book is ostensibly about Sellers’ struggles with prosopagnosia, or face blindness, but really, it’s about so much more. In fact, for much of the book, it almost seems like Sellers’ face blindness is secondary to the other problems in her life, such as her troubled marriage and relationship with her mentally ill parents. These problems are, in a way, all connected, but often the fascinating and troubling parts of Sellers’ life had nothing to do with face blindness at all. Moreover, she is in denial about/doesn’t recognize her prosopagnosia for much of the book.
Nonetheless, her struggle with prosopagnosia is mind-boggling. The concept of face blindness is really difficult to wrap one’s mind around, and I find it terrifying to imagine living with this condition. Sellers never reliably recognizes anyone, including her own parents and husband. Her friends, colleagues and acquaintances think she is aloof and stuck up because she continually fails to recognize them. I still find it utterly amazing that she managed to be so successful while suffering from this condition.
Sellers does not know how she developed face blindness, whether she was born with it or whether she suffered some sort of trauma that brought it on. Interestingly, she uses it as a coping mechanism. Her life is so chaotic and dangerous that keeping people at a remove is almost essential to her survival; yet, keeping people at a distance also hampers her personal relationships in really crucial ways. Sellers is quite reluctant to reveal her condition to anyone, once she figures out that she is face blind. She likens it to coming out of the closet. I suppose there are various reasons why it might be difficult to admit this condition, especially since she relied on it as an emotional crutch, but I felt like her life would be so much easier if she just let everyone know what was going on. Eventually, with the help of a therapist, she is able to do this.
However, as I mentioned, face blindness is just one aspect of Sellers’ chaotic life. She focuses much of the book on her relationships, particularly those with her parents. She figures out that her mother is a paranoid schizophrenic. Her father is an alcoholic. Nonetheless, we really only get glimpses of their dysfunction, as Sellers lives in Michigan and they live in Florida. She does recall some scenes from her childhood, but it feels like she’s holding a lot back (and with good reason, no doubt). At the end of the book, Sellers notes that she had written a separate memoir primarily about her childhood, but that her editor thought it was too raw and needed perspective. I guess the face blindness provided that needed perspective? This all left me curious about the parts of her upbringing that Sellers left out, but perhaps I’m just being nosy. Yet, the glimpses she does provide of her life with her mom and dad are certainly disturbing. She notes a few times that people have told her that her childhood was unsurvivable, and you certainly get the sense through the anecdotes that she shares that her life has not been easy whatsoever.
Sellers also enters into an ill-advised marriage with a decent but troubled man, Dave, at the start of the book. You can tell from the first twenty-five pages or so that this marriage is doomed, but Sellers doesn’t see it for a long while. Certainly, Sellers has no model of a good relationship in her life, but her relationship with Dave is filled with obvious red flags: he is bankrupt, has two kids from a prior marriage, is at the opposite end of the political spectrum from her, and seems hesitant to settle down with her, among other things. Sellers is likewise hesitant, but has no idea why. Her primary attraction to him seems to be that he understands mental illness well, because his ex-wife is schizophrenic. This makes her feel safe. She also adores his sons, though like most children in relationships with quasi-parental figures, the kids seem ambivalent about her. They are even quite cruel to her at times, but it barely registers in Sellers. I think she likes the idea of a built-in family, but also she relates to the chaos in the lives of these children.
Despite all of these problems, Sellers retains an astounding ability to love. Her relationship with Dave and his boys is fatally flawed, but you don’t doubt that she loves them. She also unthinkingly loves her parents, who have wreaked havoc in her life. Though in the course of the book she does manage to set some boundaries with them, she is very forgiving of her parents’ instability. I’m not sure I could keep myself as emotionally vulnerable as Sellers, who has been profoundly hurt so many times. Moreover, though Sellers’ relationships are complicated, I imagine that forging any connections at all must be immensely difficult when one is face blind.
You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know is a fascinating look at a confounding life. However, I read it as only an introduction to the turbulent life of Heather Sellers. Now that she has faced down her prosopagnosia, what will happen next? Will she unearth more trauma from her childhood? Will she discover the origins of her face blindness? Will she discover what, exactly, is wrong with her mother? Will we hear more about her father’s mysterious life, which she mentions includes cross dressing and a number of marriages? Will she find herself able to enter into a healthy, long-term romantic relationship? I hope she answers some of these questions in a subsequent book.