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.
34 responses to “The Who Are You? Memoir”
I can’t get enough of reading about the lives of others–and Sellers’ disability is so unique I kept imagining being her and having that problem!
I would have a tough time excluding my sister, if I were to write a memoir, Luanne.
Haha, I hear you, Jill! I do think there is a difference between a relationship like Mary Karr had with her sister Lecia (who is such an important figure in “The Liar’s Club”) and my brother who is eight years younger and the other gender, but to write a memoir as if I were an only child seems weird. Right?
I think it would be very weird….almost like being dishonest to your readers.
I’ve read about facial blindness before. It’s hard to imagine being unable to recognize faces. Re: leaving sibs in or out. It depends on what portion of one’s life one is writing about. And I agree that a writer might respect the wish of a sib to be excluded. I feel tempted to wait until everyone’s gone, but who says I’ll be the last one standing? Or how I will feel if I am.
That’s the problem with waiting to long to publish a memoir–that you won’t be the last one left. Yes, if a sibling requests to be left out, then one has to work around it. But to just erase a sibling out of scenes of “growing up” seems odd to me. That’s why I am thinking that a good writer like Sellers must have had a strong reason for doing so.
When writing memoir (or pretty much any kind of story) one has to decide what to include and what to leave out. What details are essential to *the story*? If you decide not to include your brother in your memoir, it doesn’t mean that he is of no importance to you; it simply means that he isn’t essential to the particular story you want to tell. I believe that the hardest thing about writing from our own experience is realizing that any story — even a true one — becomes a certain kind of fiction once we begin to tell it because we must, of necessity, leave some things out.
The thing is, my brother is essential to the story of my family, and my book is about family. But his story only intersects with mine periodically and not in most important scenes. So what I am doing is having him in as a backdrop “prop,” not really a character. does that make sense?
It sounds to me like you’ve figured it out. 🙂
I would have a very hard time not to include a close family member in a memoir. I would be afraid to offend him or her. Having said this, if you decide that you don’t want to include your brother, for whatever reasons, you might want to tell him about this before you publish. I don’t think any book is worth creating family feuds or separations or misunderstandings that blow out of proportion.
Carol, yes, it’s one of the real deterrents to writing memoir–the fear that no matter how you handle it somebody close to you will be unhappy!!!
What an amazing story! This is the first I’ve ever heard of this very strange malady. Thanks for writing about this writer with a most interesting story to tell. As to include a brother or sister or other relative in a memoir, I would think that however the author chooses to handle it, it is OK, assuming that those parts are handled with total honesty and sincerity. Tough call, though, when it comes right down to it. Best of luck as you manage this. 🙂
Isn’t it though! I had never heard of it either. I agree about the honesty and sincerity. Thank you so much, CW, for your good wishes!
That is possibly the biggest sticking point I have with my memoir. Several people intimately involved in my life back then are still close friends. I am paralyzed in writing about them! But they are vital to the story.
Ugh, Elyse, it is so difficult. And there are stories we have that are so intertwined with the stories of other people that they feel as if they aren’t really ours to write. I wonder if that is why more people choose to write fiction?
Like Elyse and so many others, there are stories that I would like to write but can’t – at least not at this point – because (with regard to relationships) talking about what was will affect what is.
I was familiar with face-blindness, but what an opportunity to learn ‘first-hand’ how someone with that unusual affliction navigates through life. Very thought-provoking.
Shel, I also have stories that I cannot share because of others who are such central figures. But my own story is my story even if there are others who revolved in and out of my life during that story. So maybe it depends on who is really the central character in a story?
Yes, it’s very thought-provoking to live through Heather’s mind as you read the book!
Luanne, thank you for this post and addressing the question of family members in memoir. I haven’t read her book, but I like how Sellers’ acknowledges her brother. I think it’s a matter of trust as well as consideration of privacy. I know how my family would feel if I wrote a memoir and included any of them in it. Which is why I haven’t written a memoir 😉
Also interesting for me is that I knew Heather Sellers way back when she and I were both students at Florida State University. I was a lowly Master’s student while she was in the doctoral program. We had mutual friends and I sought her out for guidance when I was teaching. She was a very popular teacher, and actually very popular overall. I’ll admit, I was a bit intimidated by her, even though I was many years her senior 🙂
Her book came out soon after The New Yorker printed an essay about Oliver Sacks and his face-blindness. That was the first I had heard about the condition, and I thought, well, at least Heather is in good company. I guess I should read her book now 🙂
Marie, how fascinating that you knew Sellers! I had no idea she was an intimidating person. Of course, she doesn’t seem that way when you read her book, which makes me wonder if a memoir with its view from inside the mind of the writer really captures all the aspects of the writer’s personality! Good point about trust. I think so. My husband and kids trust that I’m not going to embarrass them (too much) by writing about them. Yes, you should go read her book now, Marie!!
I should clarify that I was intimidated by Sellers because she was so nice, so popular, so attractive, so talented, and I was fresh from California (a completely different culture compared to Florida) and anxious and introverted and unsure of myself. It was my first year in grad school. I had a lot of issues 😉 I do have her now on my TBR list. Thanks, Luanne 🙂
I would have been intimidated, too!!
I found this interesting Luanne… my siblings were angry at being included without having been able to censor my writing. So now I never mention them, which is what they have requested… as you say, it unbalances the story and creates somehow a false perspective… but que sera sera…
Everyone reads something different into words, depending on their perspective, and my truth is obviously not my siblings’ truth…
Valerie, I am coming to think that my brother might not want to be in my book. I’ll see where we are at when the book is done and then I’ll decide what to do. In the meantime, I’ll keep his presence small. What you say about your truth not being your siblings’ truth is, I suspect, always or almost always true. Not only do we have our own ways of seeing things, but parents parent each child differently.
This book sounds so interesting, really unlike anything I’ve read before. Definitely going to give it a go! Her choice to leave her brother out of her memoirs is very intriguing – although I agree with you; I would hate to leave my sisters out of my writing for fear that it seemed I didn’t value what they’ve added to my life, which couldn’t be farther from the truth!
Exactly, the value they added to your life! It was unlike anything I’d read, for sure. Now I’m wondering if there are other disabilities I don’t know about! Enjoy the book, keavaoloan!
I can fully relate to the part about your brother. When I wrote Miedo, I had the same problem with my half sister (9.5 years younger) and my half brother (13 yrs younger) 🙂
And when siblings are so much younger they really have a different childhood!
So very true.
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I was just sent this by a friend, allow me to clarify. I am Heather’s brother. This book is quite full of miss truths and half truths. I would be stunned if Heather actually suffered from this “disease”. She is a very creative writer. I was left out because if she wrote about me I would sue her very quickly! Heathers recollection of our childhood is quite different than mine. And I do not suffer the mental issues she does.
She was highly manipulative throughout her life and took advantage of playing the victim when ever possible. Heather feels the world owes her everything because her parents got divorced and ruined her life supposedly.
Our mother suffered from Alzheimers/dementia and was in nursing homes for almost 5 years, Heather never once visited her,,, Heather stopped talking to our Mother because she finally quit supporting her financially. This happened somewhere around the time Heather was in her 40’s!!!!
We didnt have the best childhood,, many others have had similar,, many much much worse. Heather and I are only 2 years apart,, we lived a very similar life.I am relatively fine 🙂
This is much more a work of fiction,, perhaps inspired by a few real things…
I just found your comment in pending comments. I am so sorry it’s taken me this long to respond. This really gives me food for thought about reading memoir in general–and about Heather’s more specifically. Thank you so much for providing your “side of the story.” I’m sorry that your family has been troubled with these issues.