Menace to Society: Haven’t We Met Before?

Exposing face-blindness, the party circuit’s hidden plague

nyo makeover fin Menace to Society: Haven’t We Met Before?

One faux-socialite’s journey through New York’s caste system…

I have a problem. Well, no, we have a problem. The children of Prozac Nation, medicalized since we entered grammar school: we are a generation of self-diagnosers. Con-artist hypochondriacs, we refuse to take responsibility for any personal shortcomings, attributing them all to in-vogue disorders instead.

It’s not rude to type on your iPhone while talking to someone if you tell them, “I’m just so ADD.”

Feel awkward at parties? Kind of a loner? Don’t sweat it, you just have Asperger’s. This has lately become a handy catchall term for anyone who is even a little bit weird or likes to spend time on the Internet. That’s the great thing about the autism “spectrum”—it’s a spectrum! If you look closely enough, we’re probably all on it somewhere.

Don’t like messes? OCD.

Easily excited? Manic.

Easily excited but sometimes sad? Manic-depressive.

Feeling a little down in the winter? Then you suffer from SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder).

Overslept? You’re depressed.

Worried? You have anxiety issues.

Pretty much anything else? Mildly bipolar.

And my current favorite, the one that I have embraced with the faith of a true believer and have eagerly spread to my group of acquaintances (yes, it is apparently contagious)—well, I might as well just confess it: I have prosopagnosia. Also known as face-blindness, it is a disorder popularized by Oliver Sacks in several high-profile articles and his famous 1985 book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.

Not a lot is known about prosopagnosia, but it does affect one’s ability to recognize faces, making it the best social excuse for not remembering someone since “Did you cut your hair?”

Example: Recently, I was at an after-party for a movie, talking to a publicist I run into approximately five times a week.

“What’s the name of your coworker?” I asked her, pointing to a blonde-ish colleague of hers.

The publicist looked at me askew. “Melanie. You know Melanie.”

“Oh, I totally know Melanie,” I said, instinctively. “It’s just that I have total face-blindness.”

“Face-blindness?”

“Yeah, you know … I can’t, like, remember faces at all.”

“Oh yeah,” the publicist sighed. “I have that, but with names. I can’t remember anyone’s name, even if I’ve met them 1,000 times.”

This puts me in a tricky position. Everyone says they are “bad at faces” or “bad at names,” which tends to cast doubt on the idea that I have a serious neurological handicap. It seems less like a clinical diagnosis and more like I’m just a total flake. So I’ve had to amp it up.

“No,” I stressed, “I mean, I can’t remember what people’s faces look like. Or connect them to names, or how we met. Basically, every day I’m looking at a bunch of strangers.”

“Oh wow … that must make your job difficult,” the publicist said, somewhat shocked that I’d admitted such a severe condition to a casual friend. Now she felt bad for me, but also closer, because obviously this is not just the kind of thing I’d tell everyone. Especially since my job is to remember people: I’m a journalist. Worse, I’m on the social beat. Remembering details is 100 percent of my job, and I can’t even handle the basics.

“It does. It’s a very rare disorder. It’s called … um …”

Ever since then, the publicist has been extremely helpful, making sure that she introduces people to each other in front of me, so I can catch their names for the billionth time when they turn around and say hello. I never got around to telling her, but I still don’t know her name.

Several days later, I heard the publicist tell a partygoer, “I’m sorry, I’m totally face-blind. Remind me who you are again?”