Viewing the world through a distorted lens
Prosopagnosia (“face blindness”) is a rare neurological disorder that inhibits a person’s ability to recognize a face: When Heather Sellers brings her new husband and two stepchildren home to Florida to meet her parents, she notices the “tiny elderly woman” staring at her angrily in the gas station, but literally doesn’t know her own mother. A lifetime of social anxiety and misunderstandings (hugging the wrong man, offending her best friend by walking right past her) isn’t, however, the only perceptual challenge Sellers documents in her stunning memoir, You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know.
Growing up with a mother who nailed windows shut, who followed suspicious vehicles on the highway and insisted that her daughter walk on her knees to save the carpet, also gave Sellers a thoroughly distorted lens through which to view the world. Amazingly, Sellers was in her late 30s before she developed any sense that her mother was mentally ill; she couldn’t recognize that the disorder and dysfunction in her own childhood was the result of her mother’s paranoid schizophrenic delusions (not to mention her father’s alcoholism and cross-dressing). This sets up a neat parallel between the twin detective stories Sellers narrates: the uncovering of her mother’s illness and the discovery of her own prosopagnosia, both of which create a skewed sense of reality.
Composing a memoir is like composing a life; for Sellers, the process of writing itself helps to correct the distorting mirrors of childhood. As a writer (if not in her messy life), Sellers is confident, a master of her craft. Her memoir is paced like a work of suspenseful fiction, moving back and forth between her childhood and her present-day quest to uncover the truth about herself and her family. A third narrative strand—about the breakdown of her marriage to libertarian Dave, who first helps her to recognize her own perceptual distortions—is equally compelling. Sellers’ balanced approach to these difficult but loving relationships is hard-won and appealing.Despite the dire subject matter, Sellers’ writing is sprightly, even funny; 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.