This is an unusual and uncommonly moving family memoir, with a twist that gives new meaning to hindsight, insight, and forgiveness.
Heather Sellers is face-blind - that is, she has prosopagnosia, a rare neurological condition that prevents her from reliably recognizing people’s faces. Growing up, unaware of the reason for her perpetual confusion and anxiety, she took what cues she could from speech, hairstyle, and gait. But she sometimes kissed a stranger, thinking he was her boyfriend, or failed to recognize even her own father and mother. She feared she must be crazy.
Yet it was her mother who nailed windows shut and covered them with blankets, made her daughter walk on her knees to spare the carpeting, and had her practice secret words to use in the likely event of abduction. Her father went on weeklong “fishing trips” (aka benders), took in drifters, and wore panty hose and bras under his regular clothes. Heather clung to a barely coherent story of a “normal” childhood in order to survive the one she had.
That fairy tale unraveled two decades later when Heather took the man she would marry home to meet her parents and began to discover the truth about her family and about herself. As she came at last to trust her own perceptions, she learned the gift of perspective: that embracing the past as it is allows us to let it go. She illuminated a deeper truth - that even in the most flawed circumstances, love may be seen and felt.
Heather Sellers is the author of the short-story collection Georgia under Water and three books on writing. A poet, essayist, and frequent contributor to O, The Oprah Magazine, the Sun, and other publications, she teaches English at Hope College in Holland, Michigan.
It's not hard to become completely engrossed in this strange tale of American familial dysfunction, which features appearances by a schizophrenic mother, an alcoholic cross-dressing father, all manner of Floridian shadiness, and the bizarre condition known as face blindness. What's truly enthralling are the human complexities that Heather Sellers infuses into her memoir. To that end, the book seems to be made of nearly equal parts love and confusion, and then presented as a past viewed through an always accelerating rearview mirror.
Narrator Karen White shows a particular kind of skill here, especially in her ability to ground us in a story that is encompassed by so much chaos. She approaches complicated and distressing content with a calm reflection that is pitch-perfect for the perspective of the piece. White also displays an incredible range as she is able to shift seamlessly from the author's own pondering tone to the gruff Southern roughness of Fred, the author's father.
The book begins and we are flung headlong into an eerie world of the shuttered houses of estranged parents and murky memories constantly trying to be clarified. This generally creepy feeling never subsides, as Sellers struggles to navigate in her uniquely disconcerting reality.
Indeed, without the ability to recognize faces (the main symptom of her rare affliction), the world becomes an ever-disorienting landscape. She pieces her past together like an ornate puzzle, interweaving it with the turbulent present, in which her face recognition problem, her family's mental illness, and her unstable marriage take center stage.
There's also the obvious parallel between the author's face blindness and what emerges to be a kind of life blindness. She does not come to realize that her mother is a schizophrenic until she is middle-aged, even after a childhood of waking up early to track down imagined malicious government operatives and living in a house with nailed-shut windows.
Despite the obvious potential for dramatic situations, it's worth pointing out that what Sellers does best is to remind us that the problems in our lives must first be acknowledged, then improved. She elegantly tackles the subject of coming to terms with her mother and father, coming out as face blind, and divorcing her husband. At one point in the book she writes, “Paranoid Schizophrenia wasn't my address, but for a long time it's where the mail came.” This memoir sees the author making great strides to relocate to a more appropriate “address”, the subtext of which is that we should always be checking in with ourselves to make sure we are doing the same. Gina Pensiero
“A powerfully moving account of childhood lost and regained.” (Diane Ackerman, author of The Zookeeper’s Wife)
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A Very Interesting 'Read'
Frustrating exploration into rare dysfunction
- Pamela Harvey