As a child, Sellers moved between households; her alcoholic father drank all night, slept all day, and wore women's clothing on evenings out. Her schizophrenic mother provided no respite; windows were nailed shut in her house, light bulbs were bare, sponge baths were taken in the garage. Sellers remembers watching kids play and "wondering which ones had mothers who would adopt an extra girl." But it's her realization that she suffers from prosopagnosia (face blindness) that ultimately propels her to seek professional help. At her core, she learns, she is a product of her condition; she'd never married, had no children, constantly sought new houses, jobs, cities, people. She was "only comfortable in ambivalence." To recover she must utterly change her life. In one excruciating incident, Seller's listens to a companion complain about a co-worker seated, unbeknownst to her coworker, nearby; though Sellers can see him, she can't recognize him, ultimately ruining another friendship. But with the help of a therapist, Sellers begins telling people about her condition. Sellers handles the jagged transitions between past and present deftly, explaining her life as a story of "how we love each other in spite of immense limitations." (Oct.)
The Elle's Lettres Readers' Prize 2010
Although it sounds like a train wreck, almost every reader loved this plucky self-portrait…
October 2010 Issue
YOU DON'T LOOK LIKE ANYONE I KNOW
By Heather Sellers
The ELLE’S LETTRES Readers’ Prize 2010
Every month, 15 ELLE readers vote for their favorite book among three new releases we love.
1. Heather Sellers
YOU DON’T LOOK LIKE ANYONE I KNOW (Riverhead)
Although it sounds like a train wreck, almost every reader loved this plucky self-portrait: Her parents chronically beset by mental illness, alcoholism, and domestic dysfunction, Sellers herself struggles with face blindness, a neurological disorder that makes people literally unrecognizable to her.
October 2010 Issue
YOU DON’T LOOK LIKE ANYONE I KNOW
By Heather Sellers
QA: Do I Know You?
Heather Sellers can’t remember anyone’s face- not her mom’s, her boyfriend’s or even her own.
For years she thought she was crazy: Why couldn’t she recognize anyone’s face? Then Heather Sellers learned the truth. She has a neurological syndrome called prosopagnosia, or “face-blindness.” We spoke with the 46-year-old English professor at Hope College in Michigan about her new memoir, You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know.
Q: It’s hard to picture this syndrome- what do you see when you look at a face?
A: I probably see exactly what you do. But when I look away, I don’t remember it- I have no ability to store an image of the human face. I have to go by hair, context, and body type to recognize people. It’s a memory problem, not a vision problem.
Q: How common is prosopagnosia?
A: I have a serious case; others have more mild cases. Studies show that 1 out of 50 people are affected to some degree. It can be caused by a stroke, head injuries, or diseases; or you can be born with it, like I was.
Q: When did you pinpoint the problem?
A: I always knew something was wrong. But I was a super-weird kid- kind of intellectual and dramatic, so my parents just dismissed it. I didn’t understand what the problem was, but it affected me hugely; I have horrible memories of being on the school swim team, with everyone wearing the exact same suit. In college, I was diagnosed with anxiety. But about five years ago, in my research, I came across the term “prosopagnosia” and knew instantly.
Q: How do you cope at work?
A: When I got my first professor job, I’d quietly write down the name and description of everyone I met. Now that I’m “out,” I love talking about it, especially with my students. I tell them on the first day of class.
Q: And in your dating life?
A: I tell men up front so they’re not upset when I don’t recognize them on the street. And, I suppose, there’s an upside to my condition: I don’t take in the surface stuff. Movie stars drive me crazy. Beautiful people all look so similar, with their perfect hair and bodies, that I can’t tell them apart on-screen. The more odd people look, the easier it is to identify them.
– Anna Maltby
It sometimes appears that contemporary memoir has become a game of misery poker, authors competing for the most appalling hand of woes. Face blindness would seem to be a trump card, but Sellers doesn't play it that way. On the contrary…She views prosopagnosia as a gift…[and] believes her condition helped her as a writer by forcing her to focus on "the essence of the person," not the surface. The writing bears this out. Sellers captures the people in her life in spare, perfect strokes…Her calm, glass-half-full-to-overflowing worldview could, in another writer's hands, veer toward treacle, but she pulls it off beautifully.
The New York Times
From the Publisher
"You Don't Look Like Anyone I Know does not read like any memoir you know...Unless I've got prose blindness, Sellers is an ace...Her calm, glass-half- full-to-overflowing worldview could, in another writer's hands, veer towards treacle, but she pulls it off beautifully. I predict exciting things for her: critical acclaim, hearty sales, and, perhaps best of all, long lines of strangers at every reading."
The New York Times Book Review
"Never forget a face? What if you couldn't remember any? Sellers...learns to appreciate the upside: Being blind to faces makes it easier to see herself and those she loves as they really are."
PEOPLE, four star review
"Although [Sellers] can't recognize others, in this book she has managed to find herself."
"Stunning...This is a memoir to be devoured in great chunks. The pleasure of reading it derives both from its graceful style and from its ultimate lesson: that seeing our past for what it really was, and forgiving those involved, frees us up to love them all the more, despite their (and our) limitations."
New York Times Book Review
"I predict exciting things for her: critical acclaim, hearty sales and, perhaps best of all, long lines of strangers at every reading.” --(Mary Roach )
Library Journal - BookSmack!
Sellers thought there was something wrong with her while growing up. It turns out there was, but not what she thought. This memoir chronicles her path to understanding and acceptance of an incredible combination of bad genes and bad luck. The book is both a gripping portrait of a dangerously conducted family life (mentally ill mother; cross-dressing father) and beautifully written reflection on the ability to see and, ultimately, understand the incomprehensible-her own rare neurologic impairment. Focused through the odd lens of prosopagnosia, the inability to recognize or recall faces, her story is less about neurology and more about clarity.What I'm Telling My Friends: Since I like you, I'm telling you to read this. We could all use a little refresher course on recognizing love, even in its imperfect forms. Therese Purcell Nielsen, "Memoir Short Takes," Booksmack! 10/7/10
One woman's struggle with a rare neurological illness.
Sellers (Creative Writing/Hope Coll.;Chapter After Chapter, 2009, etc.) weaves a tale in which the adult version of herself pushes back against the adolescent version in search of the impetus of her illness, prosopagnosia. More commonly known as face blindness, it renders the victim incapable of differentiating between faces. The author discovered it while waiting in line at Walgreens. After staring at the celebrities on the cover ofPeople, she realized, "I recognized the names—Jennifer Aniston, Angelina Jolie, Britney, Jessica—but not the faces." Her problem worsened as she embarked on a new relationship with her soon-to-be husband, Dave, whose previous wife suffered mental problems, and whom Sellers believes understands her own problems because his last marriage forced him "to pitch a tent in the land of the insane." On a trip to Disney World with Dave and his children, she suddenly felt alone amid the swelling crowd, becoming frantic and shouting for the children. When she finally stumbled upon them, a dumbfounded stepson said, "She looked right at me," to which Sellers could only reply, "I didn't see." The author frequently switches the narrative back to her adolescence, recounting a family life in which her cross-dressing, alcoholic father played a unique foil to her paranoid schizophrenic mother. Sellers endured the worst from both parents, and she searched for escape during her freshman year of college. Yet she soon discovered that despite her difficulties with her psychologically unstable parents, she remained connected to them, particularly her mother, whose schizophrenic behavior, she believes, was just a few shades away from her own face blindness. For Sellers, every interaction is predicated by the knowledge that she will not recognize the person she's interacting with—a problem that cannot be solved, only accepted.
A gripping personal account of the mental effects of an unyielding medical condition.