LAKIN@LARGE - The face of adversity

December 2012

“I never forget a face, but in your case I’ll be glad to make an exception.” Groucho Marx

I recently spent three weeks travelling across Canada, from Toronto to Vancouver and on to Salt Spring Island, yet despite the magnificence of places like Lake Louise and the Emerald Lake in the Banff National Park and a memorable two-day train trip through the ever-changing panorama of the Rocky Mountains, it was my confrontation with prosopagnosia that will remain with me for many a year.

It happened in Calgary when we dined with a friend and her eighty-three year old beau Robert. The ladies were talking fifty to the dozen so we two males, emboldened by our second gin and tonic, idly chewed the fat until I mentioned that he looked fit and well for his age. He agreed, but rather shyly added, “… except last year I was diagnosed with prosopagnosia.”

Assuming that this was some form of erectile dysfunction, I asked if it was painful. The reply caught me by surprise, “No pain, just frustration, I’m face-blind. Prosopagnosia means face-blindness.”

He went on to explain that if we were to meet tomorrow, or if we were dining alone and I left the table to answer a call of nature, he wouldn’t recognise me from Adam when I returned to the table.

The obvious question was how it had suddenly become apparent and to my astonishment he said it was not sudden, what was sudden was he had only learned last year that he had it. Since he’d been born face-blind it seemed absolutely normal because he’d never known anything else. I smiled when he told me he could never identify his mother from other women and how during his working life he only reacted to his boss’s presence through his colleagues’ demeanour, although after a while he eventually recognised him by both his voice and his lumbering John Wayne–style walk.

LAKIN@LARGE - The face of adversity

Indiscretion and curiosity got the better of me so I asked him what happened when he started going out with the female of the species. “Well, I lost a few girlfriends, more often than not by standing next to them at our agreed meeting place and not recognising them. The worst occasion though was when I got a powerful public slap from a girl when I asked her if we’d met before, not realising that it was the girl I’d spent the night with twenty-four hours earlier.”

I suggested that as a married man it must have been quite exciting being with a ‘new’ woman every day, but he countered that with, “The voice: I eventually became familiar with the voice so by linking it with the location, such as at home, I could usually work out who the person was. But if we’d had a row and were not on speaking terms I had to wait longer until she moved to be sure I could recognise her gait. There was often a problem if a friend visited the house and was there when I arrived since initially I couldn’t tell one from the other.”

Robert went on to explain that one of the additional problems to having prosopagnosia is that it is usually accompanied by topographic agnosia - geographical blindness. As a geologist his saving grace was that on field trips he recognised rocks and their different formations thus avoiding his having to live the life of a hermit in a mountain cave somewhere. In his home town though he often walked past his own house several times before his son or wife came out to tell him he was home and driving a car was chaotic until the GPS system came into being.

Back in our world, I can’t help wondering if horological agnosia exists given the number of watches that seem to have the same looking face – but that’s a story for another day.

All of which reminds me of a blonde woman who was speeding along in her little open top sports car and was pulled over by a blonde woman police officer. She asked to see the blonde driver’s licence, who immediately plunged into her handbag in search for it. “What does it look like?” the blonde finally asked the policewoman in exasperation.
The policewoman replied, “It’s square and it has your photograph on it.”
She finally found a square mirror, opened it, looked at it and then handed it to the policewoman.
The blonde policewoman looked at the mirror, then handed it back saying, “Okay, you can go. I didn’t realise you were a cop.”
Well, you’ve got to laugh haven’t you?
A Happy and Healthy New Year to one and all,

Source: Europa Star December - January 2012-13 Magazine Issue