What I love best about the genre of memoir is that I get to experience someone else’s life. The books I like best are a blend of the familiar and the unusual.
Heather Sellers’ You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know is the story of a woman at times very familiar to me. Nevertheless, she possesses an unusual trait–one I had never heard about until I read the book.
She has prosopagnosia, or face blindness, meaning that she can’t recognize other people by their faces. Instead, she has to learn how to recognize people by context, setting, clothing, and hair style.
In this memoir, the reader gets inside the world of a girl growing up with an invisible and (for a long time) unrecognized disability. Sellers didn’t understand what was wrong with her. Neither did her family. Her parents had some serious problems of their own, and they were of no help to Sellers. Rather, they made clear that they considered her crazy.
As a reader, I was thoroughly engaged with Sellers’ story and was sorry to see the book come to an end.
As a writer, Sellers did something in this book that has shown me a possible way to handle what can be a problem in writing a memoir. She wrote the story as if she were an only child. I only remember one place in the book where she mentions casually that she also had a brother. In essence, she wrote him out of her story:
Readers will no doubt have noticed that my brother is not much mentioned in this book. He grew up with a very different set of circumstances from me, often under a different roof. Out of respect for his privacy and his own point of view, I chose to leave him out of this account almost entirely. His story is his own to tell, or not.
I found this fascinating because when I read Sellers’ book I had just begun to grapple with how to include my brother in my story. He is eight years younger than I am, and he was adopted and I was not. In many ways, he had a different upbringing than I did, and he wasn’t around for my formative years. I feel strongly that I cannot speak for him.
After reading this book, I brought up the dilemma to an instructor who assured me that I could follow the same plan and not put my brother in my book. But I’m not sure that I’m comfortable with that either. It would feel unnatural and as if I thought his presence in my life(story) had no value.
That’s what made me wonder if Sellers’ brother really did not want to be in her book. Maybe she had to leave him out for legal reasons. I would have liked to see how having a brother helped or hindered her in her relationship with her parents and in negotiating her own disability. I would have liked to see her brother’s reaction to his sister’s disability.
What I learned from this book is to look to published memoirs to decide how to handle issues that come up in the writing of my own book. And that although my brother can’t be in every chapter of my memoir, I would find it difficult to erase him out of my story.
Sellers speaks frequently about prosopagnosia. Check out her website for more information about her writing, her teaching, and her speaking engagements.