At last I know what ails me. It’s prosopagnosia, or the inability to recognize faces. Faces just don’t register in my mind, or with about 2 percent of the population. I’ve been called stuck up and standoffish, but really, I’ll sometimes pass right by close friends without recognizing them. It’s partly why I have to call my wife when we’re in the supermarket and ask what aisle she’s in.
Prosopagnosa sufferers recognize their problem and ask people to wear a carnation (figuratively). It’s not a disaster, like Capgras Syndrome, when you believe your spouse or sibling is an imposter. Those people totally disbelieve there’s anything wrong with themselves.
Years ago, I worked for Western Electric in Kearny, New Jersey. This vast, 19th century factory had more than 10,000 employees. My job, among other tasks, was to interview employees heading into retirement and sum up their expectations in 50 words of copy for the employee newspaper I edited. I found that after talking with one – any one – I might pass him in the hall two hours later and totally fail to recognize him. They wore gray suits. White socks. Brown shoes. Had short hair. They all seemed to be department chiefs, a kind of limbo classification whose work took over when their dreams were cut short. All seemed uniformly gray-skinned. All said they were going to spend the next month at the Jersey shore, and then putter around their gardens in Toms River.
My problem was that unless I associated each person with a mnemonic clue – a scar here, a missing finger there, a VFW pin in the lapel – I couldn’t recognize him in passing two hours later. (The women were different. Though all of a class, their curves and hairstyles made them individuals.)
Apart from my prosopagnosia, another horrifying realization soon hit me. In six months, I was also writing their obituaries. My job was to chronicle both departures. These people not only looked alike, they subscribed to the same short destinies.
There’s a story in here somewhere.