Posted Friday, March 18, 2011, at 12:01 PM
Heather Sellers kisses strange men. She ignores her own mother at a convenience store, claims not to know her stepchildren when she sees them in an amusement park, and runs out of a potluck lunch after twice introducing herself to a woman she sees every day. Sellers has prosopagnosia, a disease that renders her unable to recognize faces-even those of people she’s known her whole life. But despite these hardships, Sellers remains a fundamentally optimistic person. In her memoir, You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know , she tells her story of isolation, pain-and, ultimately, love-with what I can only imagine as a wry grin.
That story has a harsh beginning. Growing up with an undiagnosed schizophrenic for a mother and a cross-dressing alcoholic for a father, young Heather has no adults in her life with the empathy or insight to recognize that she, too, is suffering from an affliction. Her childhood has its moments of run-of-the-mill teenage angst-like when she yearns for grownup underwear or forbidden lip gloss-as well as true emotional distress. Her father abuses her physically. At age fourteen, she develops pica and secretly sucks on rocks and metal. As Heather grows older, however, she learns to accept her parents, her disease, and the fact that her life will always be somewhat of a mystery to her.
You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know is completely engrossing, in that I-just-walked-into-a-pole-while-reading kind of way. Not only are the events Sellers describes intriguing, but her affliction pushes her prose into evocative territory. Sellers, after all, can’t describe people physically, but she is fantastic at sensing the way people actually come across-such as when she describes her mother as "papery and difficult, like good stationery." Sellers tells her story in snippets, moving back and forth through time. It’s a convoluted structure, but an appropriate one: It helps the reader empathize-just a little-with the author, who lives with confusion every day.
Sellers has a unique ability to see the hardships in her life as stepping stones towards success, and that’s both her great strength as a person as well as her major weakness as a narrator. As Mary Roach points out in her New York Times review , Sellers is a person "devoid of bitterness." When she finds out about her disease she does not just feel sorry for herself, but instead participates in research studies so that she can be active in finding a cure. Instead of wallowing after her divorce, she makes an effort to stay connected with her stepchildren and works on herself as a parent. Although her own parents have caused her immeasurable pain, she still loves them without reservation. "If I could love these people," she says of her mother and father at one point, "who could I not love?"
While unconditional love may be an asset in her personal life, this barrage of tenderness can be irritating to read about. At times her piety makes it seem like she is not only flawless, but almost divinely forgiving. However, as long as you can take her righteousness with a grain of salt, Sellers’ story is a fascinating one.