Facing the Facts: A Profile of Heather Sellers

Kevin Larimer
From the November/December 2010 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Heather Sellers refers to the accident as one of those moments in life “when God hits you over the head and says, ‘Wake up!’” It was 1994. She was twenty-nine years old and living in San Antonio. Having received her PhD in English from Florida State University in Tallahassee two years earlier, she was now teaching at the University of Texas, her first real job out of school, her first time living outside her home state of Florida. Things were not going well. She couldn’t find her way around, everyone looked the same, and she wasn’t fitting in. “I remember calling my mom and telling her that I couldn’t recognize anybody, I couldn’t find anybody I knew,” she says. “‘I never see anybody twice,’ I told her.”

Photographs by Pieter Van Hattam.

Sellers knew something was wrong. Everything just seemed so difficult; nothing came easy, least of all friendships—or any close relationships for that matter, personal or professional. But this was nothing new. As a child she had become increasingly anxious about her own mental health. Her parents had offered her little in the way of a solid foundation on which she could structure a confident sense of herself or the world around her. As she likes to put it: “Your parents show you what an inch is and they show you what a foot is and then you say, ‘Thanks, I can make a yardstick now.’ They show you how to see and be in the world. But with the information my mom was giving me, I wasn’t going to end up with a

Sellers had grown up in the low wetlands of Orange County, Florida, in the middle of subtropical Orlando. She moved frequently—living with her mother here and her father there—to neighborhoods shrouded by jacarandas and pockmarked by lakes with names such as Jennie Jewel and Gem Mary. Her parents had an on-and-off-again marriage that eventually ended in divorce, but far more disruptive was their erratic behavior. Her mother stayed in her bedroom for days at a time, nailed all the windows shut, and hung thick blankets over the doors. She thought the house was under surveillance; she forbade the use of radios, telephones, and television—and insisted that Heather walk on her knees in order to protect the carpeting. Her father was an alcoholic who was capable of abuse (he once hit her with an iron skillet) and wore women’s garments, a bra and pantyhose, under his own clothes. He painted his fingernails and toenails; he shaved his chest.

Ironically, and perhaps most damaging of all, both her father and mother told Heather that she was the one who was emotionally disturbed. As she got older, it was more and more difficult to ignore their diagnosis. She had always been prone to getting lost; she was bad with directions and couldn’t differentiate between left and right. She had trouble recognizing anyone—even her own parents. Maybe they were right, she thought, maybe she was crazy.

Now, on her own in San Antonio, Sellers tried to get help. She started therapy, but had no idea where to begin. “I would say things like, ‘I don’t think my colleagues like me,’” she recalls with a laugh. “I had no idea what to talk about. I just didn’t know who I was. I couldn’t recognize myself. I hadn’t really woken up.”

When Sellers talks about the moment God hit her over the head, she means it more literally than one might think. Although she brings to bear an effortless Southern charm and, during the course of a conversation, unravels a kind of aw-shucks sense of humor that could put anyone at ease—two attributes that also come shining through in her poetry collections, The Boys I Borrow (New Issues Poetry & Prose, 2007) and Drinking Girls and Their Dresses (Ahsahta Press, 2002), and in her story collection, Georgia Under Water (Sarabande Books, 2001)—she grows serious when describing the accident.

She was out for a drive on a late summer afternoon when she made a left turn onto a country road. Not knowing which side she was supposed to be on (she had always relied on which way the signs were facing to orient herself; the rural road had none), she accelerated directly into the path of an oncoming car. The other driver was unharmed, but Sellers, who wasn’t wearing her seat belt, was thrown through the windshield and nearly killed. “I was in the hospital for a week,” she says. “I had all these stitches…and the nurse came in and asked, ‘Well, have you seen your face?’”

She hadn’t, and when she was handed a mirror, she saw pretty much what one would expect after a head-on collision. She’d suffered a severe concussion; her face was swollen, with two black eyes and deep lacerations on her cheeks and her upper lip that required more than eighty stitches to close.

But it wasn’t her injuries that were most disturbing. It was the fact that she didn’t recognize the face in the mirror. Even more unsettling was that she never had and, she says now, she probably never will. Heather Sellers has prosopagnosia, a rare neurological disorder that prevents her from recognizing faces. She is face blind.

Her new memoir, You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know, published by Riverhead Books in October, is at once a compelling chronicle of the self-probing investigation that led Sellers to a diagnosis and a layperson’s account of living with the disorder. But it would be a mistake to label the book an illness memoir. Sellers is much more intellectually and emotionally curious than that. While prosopagnosia lies at the heart of the narrative, its true pulse is the author’s search for meaning, compassion, and ultimately forgiveness among the snapshots of a childhood in which she could not trust her parents’ skewed version of reality—or her own.

In his book The Mind’s Eye, published by Knopf in October, renowned author and physician Oliver Sacks traces prosopagnosia to the deep recesses of the human brain, to the “multimodal area of the medial temporal lobe,” he explains, “which has rich reciprocal connections not only to the fusiform face area but to other areas subserving sensory association, emotion, and memory.” In other words, you can’t really isolate a single area of the brain as the root of face blindness, since the region of the brain responsible for the human visual system is connected, via an infinitely complicated cognitive network, to many other parts of the brain.

According to Sacks, who is face blind himself, severe congenital prosopagnosia affects around 2 percent of the population, or about six million people in the United States. (Other notable face-blind figures include the late Kurt Vonnegut, anthropologist Jane Goodall, and painter and photographer Chuck Close.) “People with prosopagnosia,” Sacks writes, “need to be resourceful and inventive, need to find strategies, ways of circumventing their deficits: recognizing people by an unusual nose or beard, spectacles or a certain sort of clothing. Many prosopagnosics recognize people by voice, posture, or gait; and, of course, context and expectation are paramount—one expects to see one’s students at school, one’s colleagues at the office, and so on. Such strategies, both conscious and unconscious, become so automatic that people with moderate prosopagnosia can remain unaware of how poor their facial recognition actually is, and are startled if it is revealed to them by testing.”

So it was for Sellers, who, perhaps already at a deficit due to her family background, couldn’t pinpoint what was wrong and certainly didn’t realize that, in fact, she suffers from severe prosopagnosia. Although God had given her a good wallop down there in San Antonio—she picked glass out of her face for a long time after the accident—Sellers’s confusion about her childhood, her parents, and her own inability to recognize faces was too tightly coiled around her identity to be unraveled in that one instant. If the car accident was supposed to be God’s wake-up call, Sellers hit the snooze button.

After sticking it out in San Antonio for one more year, in 1995 she moved to the small town of Holland, Michigan, about thirty miles southwest of Grand Rapids, where she still lives and teaches English at Hope College, a private liberal arts school. She still couldn’t confront the overwhelming evidence that her mother was mentally ill (signs pointed to paranoid schizophrenia) or that there was a medical explanation for why she couldn’t recognize her own image in photographs.

Instead, she focused on writing—one of the few activities she could engage in that didn’t require social interaction. At her writing desk, she wasn’t expected to recognize anyone. “Socially it’s always been incredibly difficult to maintain friendships,” she says. “It’s like a dyslexic having to read books in public, out loud, and it was just this big struggle for me to go to a party and know and not know [who my friends are]. The isolation is actually good because I get my work done. So many writers get distracted; they maintain their friendships first and then they write. It’s so easy for me to put the writing first.”

But far from just resorting to writing as an activity to fill the hours of relative isolation, Sellers embraced the very process of writing, in particular, the creative uncertainty that every writer, any artist, knows and struggles with. For her, writing was second nature. “With any neurological disorder like this you’re so much more comfortable with chaos than an average person would be, an average writer,” she says. “I’m fine with taking a long time to get to the knowing part of it. It’s that negative capability thing: I’m fine with two things not making sense—I mean…this is the water I swim in! And I think that’s partly the mental illness at home and partly the face blindness. Not knowing, all these great writers tell us, is the state you’ve got to be moving toward. I’m in that place; that’s my address. Chaos doesn’t turn me away, and I think that is what’s so hard for many beginning writers, that initial stage where you sit and nothing’s going to make sense and it’s not going to work for a long time and you have to stay with that—I’m really, really good at that.”

Sellers immersed herself first in writing short stories, then poems—which, in retrospect, served as a kind of creative bridge to the memoir form. Her first book, Georgia Under Water, is a collection of linked stories, set in and around central Florida, about a precocious adolescent girl, Georgia Jackson, and her sexual awakening as she endures the ministrations of an overbearing mother and alcoholic father. “I couldn’t believe this was my family,” Sellers writes in the first story. “I felt this enormous crushing sense. It was never going to be any different. It was never going to be any better. It was never going to be a good family. Suddenly we sprawled in all directions, my family, like a man-o’-war after you poured sugar on it in the sea. Tearing itself apart, as its only way to survive.”

Sarah Gorham, a cofounder of Sarabande, remembers getting the manuscript and being fascinated by “Georgia’s hopelessly dysfunctional, surreal family life.” The book went on to become Sarabande’s all-time best-seller (Gorham says they were able to publish five books of poetry with the profits they made from the collection) and was reviewed in the New York Times—no small feat for a first story collection published by an independent press.

Although the book was labeled fiction, Sellers initially saw the stories as a direct extension of her own experiences growing up in Florida, with a name changed here and a location altered there. “I would go to readings and read this work and I believed at the time that it was all straight autobiography, that I had actually invented nothing,” she recalls. “Later I realized that no, the story I had told myself about my family, as a way to try to understand it, was absolutely invented. It was chilling, because I would give a reading and feel absolutely authentic and completely disingenuous at the same time—which is, I think, what it is to grow up in a house with mentally ill parents. This all makes perfect sense, it’s your mom and it’s your dad. But it makes absolutely no sense if I line it up with the rest of the world. I think the stories reflect that essential tension: It’s absolutely the truth and it’s completely invented. So then, when I found out about creative nonfiction, it was like, ‘Oh, this is what I’ve been trying to do all along.’ I’ve been trying to tell the truth, to see clearly, and that’s what the memoir is about: trying to makes sense of things that are not going to make sense and trying to know what is not knowable.”