Associative Agnosia and Me

associative agnosia personal story
From kindergarten through sixth grade, I don’t think any of my pals knew I could only discern cars by color and size.
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Several years ago I began to recognize a mild, life-long disorder after watching a televised interview with film and TV writer/producer Aaron Sorkin.  During the program, Sorkin said he wrote radio scripts, not screenplays because he could not visualize the stories he created.  “I hand the script off to others who fill in settings and background,” he said.  Listening to Sorkin’s words, I experienced an epiphany; I’d endured a similar affliction that I kept secret for fear of embarrassment.   

During my 1940s and 50s elementary school years in Duluth, Minnesota, I was the only boy in my class who could not identify automobiles by make.  Chevrolets, Fords, Plymouths—all appeared indistinct to me.  I couldn’t recognize one from another, unless I happened to spot the name on its hood or trunk.

From kindergarten through sixth grade, I don’t think any of my pals knew I could only discern cars by color and size.  These were kids whose fathers took them downtown to Bolton-Swanby Chevrolet or Sterling Motors, the Ford dealership, to look at the new models each year, and many of them would report on the visits during show and tell.  

During my fifth-grade year I was appointed to the prestigious school-crossing patrol at U. S. Grant Elementary School.  This was a big deal, as most members of the patrol were sixth graders.  A fifth-grade boy would be appointed lieutenant and would ascend to captain the next year, with a special badge indicating this position.  I was pleased and proud to have been selected, but became anxious following a meeting of the patrol with a local police officer who trained crossing guards for all city elementary schools.  The officer congratulated the “police boys” as we were called then, and said he was sure we’d do well during the school year.  He reminded us to be on time for duties, and not to leave our stations until the last youngster had crossed at our intersection.  Then he said, “You probably won’t have to do this, but there’s a very small possibility that someone might drive through your stop sign.  Should that ever happen, try to get the make of the car and the license number, then report it to your principal who will call the police department.”

I panicked.  There was an off-chance I might catch a license number, but wouldn’t know whether the car was a Ford, Chevy, Plymouth or Buick.  Though I could identify station wagons, convertibles and coupes, I couldn’t discern their manufacturer.  At best I might say, “The car was gray, and the front bumper was rusty.”  Luckily, there were no stop sign violations during the two years I served on the school-boy patrol, neither for me, nor any other lads at their posts.

As years passed, however, my car-identification issue diminished.  Not that I was brought up to speed, but rather teen-age boys no longer stood around challenging each other over who first spotted an approaching 1947 Chevy, or 1949 Nash.

In all other boyhood activities and pursuits, I was well within the norm.  I was a decent athlete and even co-captained our high school baseball team.  I participated in activities, and enjoyed a wide circle of friends.  By the time I finished junior high school, the inability to recognize cars wasn’t on my radar.

When the unseeing resurfaced, I was in college, but now, it had nothing to do with cars.  I discovered I could not “see” art.  Paintings were visible, of course, and I could describe any that were realistic—portraits, landscapes, seascapes, but beyond that I was completely at sea.  I barely passed a required art appreciation course as a sophomore because I could only superficially assess fine art.  I was unable to perceive symbolism in collages, paintings or sculptures, or comprehend the artists’ angst, pain, or joie de vivre, which continues to vex my art-teacher wife, Judith.  Our European junkets inevitably bring us to iconic museums and cathedrals, and I always get “museumed out.”  After viewing major works by the masters, my unarticulated thoughts are along the lines of, “Oh, another Leonardo, another Rembrandt, another Picasso, more Rauschenberg.”  Judith, on the other hand, can be moved to tears by some of Monet’s last paintings, and no museum or gallery visit is ever long enough for her.

The writers with whom I associate, are also art connoisseurs, and I have often felt like an island among those knowledgeable about fine art.  I’ve read books about the subject and acquired a dilettantish confidence to utter a brief comment now and then, but that’s it. 

Since Aaron Sorkin’s revelation regarding his inability to visualize scripts, I started feeling less alone in my not seeing.  Over the last forty-odd years, my métiers have been short stories and essays, and almost nothing I’ve published reveals much description.  Dialogue is central to my fiction, while ideas and memories dominate my essays.  I was a broadcasting major in grad school decades ago, and concentrated on radio.  But even by then, the old-time soap operas, mysteries, adventure shows, and comedies had long since moved to television, and the only writing for radio consisted of news, and advertising commercials, which held no appeal for me. 

Poring over some of my early, and mostly unpublished works, I find essays and stories bereft of description, save the obvious: colors, size, distance and the like.  I was unable to capture visual settings in writings.  Re-examining those pieces, I flash back to grade school, standing mute while other boys easily recognized passing cars.

Only recently have I ascertained I fall within the visual agnosia spectrum.  This disorder is defined as impairment in recognition of visually presented objects, and is not related to visual acuity.  In my case, it is called associative agnosia—an inability to distinguish certain objects even with apparent perception and knowledge of them.  It is mainly manifested when I look at automobiles, and art.  But I also cannot interpret blueprints; I’m unable to visualize what the floorplan will look like upon completion.  I only see lines on a grid.  My wife oversees any remodeling or landscape projects we undertake.

In a larger sense, what does it mean to learn I have a touch of associative agnosia?  Some years ago I was asked by an independent film producer to attempt adapting my book, “The Lynchings in Duluth” for a screenplay.  For months I struggled to complete a script, to no avail.  My effort wasn’t working and I abandoned the project.  I had failed at a task that might have been somewhat challenging, but pleasurable to other writers.  I found it frustrating.  At least now I have the associative agnosia excuse for not crafting screenplays, and also declining to spend much time in art galleries and museums. I hope that when Judith or my art aficionado friends ask me to accompany them to exhibits and shows, they’ll understand that my associative agnosia inhibits my appreciation and understanding of visual art.

I’m okay with this, though I’d like to think I’d tackle another screenwriting attempt, if, like Aaron Sorkin, I could access gifted supernumeraries to fill in the visual blanks on any screenplay I might conjure.  


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