Prosopagnosia in Literature, and the Strange Importance of Photos


I was re-reading an old series: the well-known Anne of Green Gables books, when I was surprised to discover a character with prosopagnosia! I’ve written about this condition before as I have this problem myself, a difficulty or inability to recognize people from their faces. Here are some relevant excerpts, from “Anne of Windy Poplars”  by L.M. Montgomery (book 4):

“Do you mean to say you’ve got a photo of little Teddy Armstrong?” exclaimed Mr. Merrill.
“That I have and a good one.” Lewis unwrapped it and held it proudly out. “I don’t believe a professional photographer could have taken a better.”
Mr. Merrill slapped his leg resoundingly. “Well, if that don’t beat all! Why, little Teddy Armstrong is dead…”
“Dead!” exclaimed Anne in horror. “Oh, Mr. Merrill…no…don’t tell me…that dear little boy….”
“Sorry, miss, but it’s a fact. And his father is just about wild and all the worse that he hasn’t got any kind of picture of him at all. And now you’ve got a good one. Well, well!”
“It… it seems impossible,” said Anne, her eyes full of tears. She was seeing the slender little figure waving his farewell from the dyke.
“Sorry to say it’s only too true. He died nearly three weeks ago. Pneumonia. Suffered awful but he was just as brave and patient as any one could be, they say. I dunno what’ll become of Jim Armstrong now. They say he’s like a crazy man–just moping and muttering to himself all the time. ‘If only I had a picture of my Little Fellow,’ he keeps saying.”

[…]

00f99833e7a080e82fc03110-lThe golden day was spoiled for Anne. Somehow, the Little Fellow had won her heart in their brief meeting. She and Lewis drove in silence down the Glencove road and up the grassy lane. Carlo was lying on the stone before the blue door. He got up and came over to them, as they descended the buggy, licking Anne’s hand and looking up at her with big, wistful eyes as if asking for news of his little playmate. The door was open and in the dim room beyond they saw a man with his head bowed on the table. At Anne’s knock, he started up and came to the door. She was shocked at the change in him.

[…]

Without a word Lewis took the Little Fellow’s picture from its wrappings and held it out to him. He snatched it up, gave it one amazed, hungry look, then dropped on his chair and burst into tears and sobs. Anne had never seen a man weep so before. She and Lewis stood in mute sympathy until he had regained his self-control.
“Oh, you don’t know what this means to me,” he said brokenly at last. “I hadn’t any picture of him. And I’m not like other folks… I can’t recall a face…. I can’t see faces as most folks do in their mind. It’s been awful since the Little Fellow died. I couldn’t even remember what he looked like. And now you’ve brought me this… after I was so rude to you. Sit down… sit down. I wish I could express my thanks in some way. I guess you’ve saved my reason… maybe my life. Oh, miss, isn’t it like him? You’d think he was going to speak. My dear Little Fellow! How am I going to live without him? I’ve nothing to live for now. First his mother… now him.”

[…Later….]

Finally, Lewis produce the small faded photograph of himself and showed it to him. “Have you ever seen anybody who looked like that, Mr. Armstrong?” asked Anne.
Mr. Armstrong peered at it in perplexity.
“It’s awful like the Little Fellow,” he said at last. “Whose might it be?”
“Mine,” said Lewis, “when I was seven years old. It was because of the strange resemblance to Teddy that Miss Shirley made me bring it to show you. I thought it possible that you and I or the Little Fellow might be some distant relation. My name is Lewis Allen and my father was George Allan. I was born in New Brunswick.”
James Armstrong shook his head. Then he said, “What was your mother’s name?”
“Mary Gardiner.”
James Armstrong looked at him for a moment in silence.
“She was my half-sister,” he said at last.

Aside from simply being pleased to see a representation in literature, I liked how the character, James Armstrong, is simply accepted as having this issue, which he describes so simply. There are a lot of us out there, apparently, but so often it seems like people simply can’t believe me when I describe it to them (usually after they’re offended that I didn’t identify them first, or, if I surreptitiously ask them to tell me who someone is or if I know somebody or not). One time, I asked a coworker to tell me which person in the lunchroom was the guy who had just been hired (who I had already looked up photos of on his website in hopes of identifying him, but I still couldn’t). My coworker laughed and said, just look for the person you don’t know. There were only 4 or 5 people in the lunch room, and a couple of them I could identify from our group, but I don’t think he believed me when I told him I didn’t know which ones I didn’t know.

The grief that the prosopagnosia caused Mr. Armstrong in the story from not having a photo, I could well identify with, though someone who has never thought of such a condition might never consider this issue. It is hard, sometimes, to explain how the facial recognition issue works, and why, if photos can’t serve to identify new people, a photo of someone you know could be of value to a person who doesn’t recognize faces.

Although I think visually, and when I think of something I see a picture of it in my mind, I can’t accurately assemble people’s faces in my mind. The best I can do is to remember a photo of the person, or a drawing. Otherwise, I get most of the person’s body and movement or their voice, but the face is not clear or is not right. (I can picture imaginary people’s faces, but it seems wrong if a real person’s face in my mind is not correct, and like a forgotten line of poetry, nothing but the real thing will satisfy). Sometimes, of course, I can’t clearly bring a photo to mind either. I have to look at it again. It seems that I can hold the facial images short-term, in that, if I am talking to someone and look away, I can still see them in my mind briefly, but it doesn’t last. Also, when I dream about someone, at the time of the dream the face seems accurate, but when I wake up, I often can’t picture the face anymore, I just remember that it *seemed* filled in and correct in the dream, so I don’t know if it really was. You might think that since I don’t recognize faces, the fact of not being able to picture someone’s face would not bother me, but it does. A lot.

Even before I realized that other people could tell who people were a lot easier than I could (I tend to rely on secondary characteristics rather than face), it deeply bothered me when I would try to remember someone close to me, and I could picture everything else, it seemed, but the face was not right. I could sometimes even picture individual parts of the face… the chin, the eyes, the nose… but they would not assemble into something that really looked like a beloved person. Sometimes the failure to do this, especially of someone I missed, as I lay in bed at night lonely trying to find comfort in the memory, would almost panic me. Even the people closest to me, like my parents or siblings, who I can almost always identify in life quickly based on the complete familiarity with them aside from just their faces, present this problem of not being assembled in my mind.

On countless nights, I remember getting out of bed to pull out my old photo albums, or in more recent years my computer photo files, to refresh my memory of certain faces and hold them in my mind again before I slept. For some reason, I can remember the image of a photo much more easily… even though I can’t necessarily accurately identify people I know in photos that I haven’t seen before, nor identify a person I haven’t met based on a photo of him or her. In fact, if someone brought me a photo that I did not know had been taken and had never seen before, in a background I did not recognize, in clothes I did not recognize, of myself, I would likely not know who was in the picture. But, in photos I possess or took myself, I know who the people are because I remember when the pictures were taken or previously identified, so they serve as supplements to my memories. The facial memories I have are not really made in my head, they are made from life and stored outside my head, and only the copy is retrieved. I can close my eyes and on the edge of sleep, I can hear the voices of my family, and call up numerous memories of them that play like videos in my mind, but to put their faces with them, I have to remember these static photos. The people I have not seen photos of (or cannot remember the photos), I cannot picture the faces of. Which is not to say I have no memories of them, I do… but the face is not clear, and despite my recognition problems, the face becomes something I am hungry for, perhaps because the memory is simply incomplete without it. I do not know why I feel this need for the face, when the face in person doesn’t seem to give me information. This is one of the unsolved mysteries of my prosopagnosia.

Even better than photos are drawings that I have made myself. When I like a person, I often want to make a pencil sketch of them… generally their face, as a portrait. Some people of whom I have asked this have refused, as being drawn seems to make some people uncomfortable, and I have to rely on photos, or in some cases I don’t even have that, and their image is eventually, painfully, lost to me. I have, of course, also made small drawings unbeknownst to their subjects 😛 but there isn’t always an opportunity for this. Other times, if this was not available, I remember many occasions where I used to sit and “draw someone in my mind.” By which I mean, I would study their features and imagine I was drawing them, so I could feel where I would put each line with my imaginary pencil, and this helped me to hold a picture of them for a while. I eventually came to realize that this scrutinizing of people also made them somewhat uncomfortable, even though they didn’t know what I was doing, so I stopped doing it as much, but some people who I delighted in but could neither draw nor photograph, I had to continue “memorizing” this way.

And I do not always even keep the drawings. I often tell people who are reluctant to be drawn (friends, of course) that they can have the picture afterwards. It is instead, I think, something in the physical memory of making the drawing, in addition to the image of the drawing in my head, that helps me remember it later. Perhaps akin to how I used to write notes in my classes… I didn’t have to re-read them before a test because I could remember writing them, and even picture where in my notebook the relevant note was written. It was the act of writing that recorded them in my head, whereas if I had simply listened passively, it would not have been imprinted in my memory.

You might think at this point that my drawings are particularly accurate. They are not. As I can’t recognize real-life people from unidentified photos, let alone IN real life, maybe when I assemble their face in my mind it does not look to me like what other people see. I have been told, for instance, that I focus on the wrong features of the face as standing out when I draw a portrait. When I draw a self-portrait it is even more so, apparently, as others tend to universally agree that my self portraits do not look like me (though they seem so to me). For this reason I’m not generally able to match caricatures up with the people they go with (even people I can bring up a photo-memory of). The features I remember people by are not necessarily the features others remember people by, which makes descriptions of someone when I ask what they look like also somewhat difficult to go by for identification purposes. I remember one friend’s shocked exclamation, after I gave her the finished sketch of herself… “Is this really how you see me?” When I had her in front of me, her and the drawing, it looked accurate to me, and it made an image of her in my hand-memory and mind that seemed right. Somehow it was satisfactory to my mind, if not to hers. But I prefer to remember her by a particular photo I took of her the same night. I can picture it now, with her hair in braid loops. We aren’t friends these days; I don’t know if I will ever see her in real life again. And if I ever see her again, I don’t know if I’ll know.

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About qatheworld

I review various and sundry items of life, thereby helping you to seek out positive new experiences and escape the less savory. I also perform a quality review of the other issues encountered in my general life.
This entry was posted in All Reviews, Good, Musings and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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