May 18, 2024
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May 18, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

As some of you may recall, I mentioned some time ago that I suffer from an unusual disorder entitled prosopagnosia, or face blindness. The term comes from the Greek word for face (prosopon) and the medical term for recognition impairment (agnosia). This is a disorder where I find it impossible to recognize people, despite having seen them countless times. We have been in Teaneck for close to three years, and despite davening in the same shul pretty much daily, I am only lately beginning to recognize some of the people I see quite frequently—and even then I only have an idea that I know them, but virtually never know their names (though they may have told me their names many times) or things about them that they may have shared with me. In fact, in a shul of perhaps 600 people, I know the names of only the rabbi, the rebbetzin and a few other people.

Since writing that article, one or two people said that they realize that they may suffer from the same thing. I am sure that there are probably a number of people who share some of my symptoms. Amazingly, I’ve lived with this my whole life, most of which I had no clue that I have a disorder. It was just the way it was! A few years ago, I became aware of the fact that most people wouldn’t even know what I was talking about.

Along with that problem, I have always misplaced or lost things (that is frequently something that goes along with face blindness). When looking for something in the cabinet, it might very well be right in front of me, but I don’t see it! I have lost countless keys, watches, belts, phones and many other thingamajigs. I always assumed that I was just clumsy or didn’t pay attention.

Over the last number of years, the presence and extent of my difficulties have become quite heightened (or at least I am much more aware of them). I now realize that some people with the disorder had some type of brain insult. For many though (like me), they were born with the disorder and many have relatives with similar difficulties.

There is apparently a wide range of how the disorder is expressed. There are many whose problem is so severe that they don’t recognize their spouses or children! Some don’t recognize themselves when looking in the mirror (that was one of the problems that the great neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks suffered from!). My problem is less severe. I certainly have no problem recognizing myself, my wife or my children. But it has followed me throughout my life. I suffered greatly from it, and spent an inordinate amount of energy trying to find out what was wrong with me. But I never did, until quite recently. The answers that I did come up with often involved being angry at myself for not being good enough. The fact that I did remarkably well did not prevent me from having felt that I could do better. Amazingly, approximately 2 ½ percent of the population have some fairly severe form of the disorder, but few know about it because it’s the only way they know!

In many ways, prosopagnosics are like people with any other kind of disorder. Children with learning disabilities, for example, until quite recently, were yelled at, punished or ridiculed. Now that we recognize these issues are biological problems, we are increasingly accommodating to those with these problems and many are living wonderful lives. Most importantly we are, thank God, no longer punishing or blaming people with such difficulties.

It’s amazing that with all of my difficulties, I managed to finish college, get smicha, participate in Rav Aharon Lichtenstein’s kollel, get a Phd in psychology, functioned very well as a psychologist and a rabbi for 35 or 40 years. I was a very popular and successful college teacher and did well in many areas of my life. Nagging away at me was the fact that I could be doing better. I suffered from a disorder that I and the overwhelming majority of people with it don’t know exists.

Very recently, Dr. Sacks passed away. He was a truly remarkable individual. He wrote many wonderful books about people with strange disorders and shed much light on them. Despite living his life with prosopagnosia, he has contributed greatly to our understanding of this and many other unknown disorders. For a fascinating picture of Dr. Sacks, read www.newyorker.com/magazine/2010/08/30/face-blind, or for more information (including a test regarding prosopagnosia) see www.faceblind.org).

One day perhaps, we will accept everyone as they are and live in a much better world.

By Rabbi Dr. Mordechai Glick

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