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Jun 26 2014

When You Can’t Recognize Anybody’s Face

By at 10:42 am

playground

I come from a long line of people who have great difficulty recognizing faces.

The technical term for this is prosopagnosia, and I don’t have a full-blown case, I can recognize people I know well. That said, I’ve definitely failed to recognize my first cousin in an elevator, I have been known to say, “Hi, Shabbat Shalom, my name is Amanda. What’s your name?” to the same people in shul many, many, times, and I was very upset to be voted down in my desire to have everyone at my wedding wear a name tag.

My husband functions as my seeing-eye human, trying to clue me into who people are so I can interact with them normally. Before I met him, I would email pictures of the guys I had gone on a date with to my best friend in Jerusalem, who would email me back a prose description of them so I could attempt to identify them on our second dates. “So and so has glasses, a beard, is very skinny, and has blue eyes,” I would think, over and over again, scanning the sea of pedestrians for a fellow I had last talked to in person for three hours and with whom I planned to have dinner. If they shaved or wore contacts, I was out of luck.

I knew my husband had real potential when I was able to identify him from a crowd of similarly brown haired yarmulke-wearing folks at a friend’s aufruf. I had failed to recognize my previous boyfriend when picking him up at the airport and he had been none too pleased, so the ability to pick my now-husband out of a crowd was a definite plus.

Magically, my lifelong impaired facial recognition seems to lift at the park across the street from my apartment. There, for no reason I can determine, I seem to remember faces more often than everyone else. My son and I spend hours and hours and hours upon hours in the park as he chases pigeons, swings, and climbs terrifyingly high playground equipment while chanting “Careful! Careful!” to himself. I spend a lot of time talking to the other moms, dads, babysitters, nannies, and grandparents. Miraculously–and somewhat creepily–I seem to be able to recognize them when I next see them around town. Sometimes this is nice (when they recognize me back) and sometimes it is less nice (when they think I am a freak because I know their kids names, their names, and where their kids go to daycare and they never remember seeing me before in their lives). Either way it’s strange and not how my brain normally works.

My 19-month-old son also seems to do a better job recognizing people in the park than he does in other places. Like me, he has some people he recognizes all of the time–his parents, his best friends, our closest friends–and others where he’s clearly just guessing. He calls all brown haired girls older than him by the names of his first cousins, who live in New Jersey. When he saw a dollar bill he gleefully exclaimed “Pa!” (his name for my father, who he sees weekly) and kissed George Washington. More awkwardly, he yells “Dada!” at a significant percentage of men that we encounter on our walks. I was getting genuinely concerned that he’d inherited the Curse of The Milsteins, when he jumped down from the ladder he was climbing in the playground, stuck his face in the face of a small blond-haired girl, and screamed her name in glee. She was, apparently, one of his daycare classmates. He repeated the performance a few days later with a different classmate in the same park.

I don’t have a lot of hope that I’ll ever learn to recognize many of the people I pray with or large segments of my family tree, but I am glad I have a small oasis in which I can experience–for whatever reason–being able to recognize almost everyone.  I have hope, looking at my son in the park, that he will inherit his father’s facial recognition abilities and not view his billfold as a family photo album. In the meantime, I need to rely on whatever odd mixture of sunlight and joy opens up my brain to seeing people’s faces in the park and enjoy this strangeness while it lasts.

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