- Face Blind
In 1999, Angela Gunn ducked into the women's restroom in the airport terminal in Lincoln, Nebraska. Her plane from New York had arrived 15 minutes early. Angela's mother was picking her up. Since Mrs. Gunn was habitually late, she figured she had time to use the restroom, plus browse through some magazines. While she was washing her hands, she noticed in the wall-length mirror above the sink that a woman by the paper towels was waving to her. She'd forgotten how friendly Nebraskans were. This would never happen in Manhattan. Angela smiled at the woman's reflection and raised one hand in a wave. She nodded to the woman as she headed out the door. "Angela!" the woman called after her. Angela stopped. She recognized that voice. How could it be? She was never early. Angela turned around.
"Why didn't you say hi to me in the bathroom instead of just waving?"
"I'm your mother. You're supposed to recognize me. I shouldn't have to say anything."
Angela had been lousy at recognizing faces her whole life. Mrs. Gunn knew this, but she still didn't believe that her daughter didn't know her own mother's face. How could that be? It didn't make sense. If only Angela paid more attention, she'd be able to remember.
For ten years Mary Zeiler had dusted the same photo on her mantel: a Sherpa man sits on the doorsill of his rock house. His knees are drawn up to his chest; his chin rests on his knees. He wears a hat and sweater made of yak wool. The man's infant son sits in front of him, one arm raised toward the camera. Mary took the picture when she and her husband traveled to Nepal. They were hiking at 14, 000 feet; the weather turned cold. They needed shelter. This man and his family took them in for the night, plied [End Page 131] them with hot tea, told them Yeti stories. The next day Mary snapped the photo so she could remember the family and their kindness.
Unfortunately, over the years, she had forgotten the man's name. Perhaps her husband remembered. "Steve, can you recall the name of the man in this picture? For the life of me, I can't." She held out the photo for him to examine. He looked at it, then back at her. "That's not the Sherpa man," he said. "That's you. Don't you remember? You wanted me to take the picture of you with that cute baby." Mary looked again at the man. He did have her hands; he was holding her journal; those were her clothes. Steve was right.
One day, nearly ten years ago, Bill Choisser, a retired engineer, sat down with his long-term partner, Larry, to watch TV. Bill, who relays this story in his book Face Blind!, complained about the way television shows were produced. He commented they didn't show enough of the person to be able to tell the characters apart. Most shots were of people's faces. How could a viewer tell who was who just by looking at someone's face? "What do you mean?" Larry asked. "That's how people identify each other. Don't you use a person's face to recognize who they are?" Bill had to think about that question. How did he recognize individual people? He'd never thought about it before. Soon after that conversation, Bill purposely went to a busy street corner to find out. He stood there for a couple of hours.
I very carefully watched all the people as they came and went. My aim was to contemplate, for the first time in my life, how I recognized people. I soon realized that all of the women and some of the men were pretty much drawing blanks. If I looked away from any of these people for more than a few seconds, when I looked back I wouldn't be sure it was the same person I had seen before. For some of the men it was different. I...