Dr. Niama Leslie Williams
March 20, 2012

It was not until I watched the 60 Minutes story this past Sunday, March 18th, 2012, that I realized I had written about a type of face-blindness in my first novel, a senior project completed for my undergraduate degree in Comparative Literature at Occidental College. I remember quite clearly creating a character who grew up to become a villain because throughout his life, in the small, rural village in a fictional Latin American country in which he grew up, no one ever remembered his face.

Thus I watched the 60 Minutes story with no small amount of amazement and recognition. Yet it was not until the wee hours of Tuesday morning that I connected what for me had been a literary device to my own personal history of trauma.

I have long suspected that I willingly forgot people from my past. In at least one instance I am positive that a playwright I met while living in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, was in fact an old boyfriend I had known and interacted with (we never actually went out on a date) during my early twenties.

I remember meeting him on the bus one afternoon, and giving him my number. We spoke, mostly over the phone, and got together for a few groping sessions that I tried to pretend I enjoyed. While I appreciated the positive attention from a tall, handsome African American man and he certainly knew how to flatter a girl over the phone (having a way with words even then) he was not someone in whom I was interested. I faked it because I thought I had to.

Having endured physical and sexual abuse from my stepfather and my brothers in my own home as a child, I routinely avoided the prospect of dating African American men. Everyone knew I had a “serious white boy thang.”

He then called me at my father’s house a few weeks later to tell me that he had been wrongly arrested. A middle class girl who felt herself above dating the incarcerated, I no longer accepted his calls and did not see him again until he tracked me down during my undergraduate years at Oxy.

However, as is the case with many survivors of physical and sexual trauma, even at Occidental College I was not in possession of my no. I lived on campus, having fled my average neighborhood and mother’s home at the insistence of Occidental’s housing office. Back then, all freshmen had to live on campus their first year, and although I had transferred in as a junior, I was told that rule also applied to me.

I was grateful to escape my mother’s house, finally, and when Robert showed up I didn’t know how to tell him I was not the least bit excited to see him. He had done the hard work of looking me up and my best friend at the time could not understand why I was not enthusiastic to meet this man who had worked so hard to find me. I didn’t then know how to tell her why I felt as I did, and met him on campus, welcoming him to my dorm room though the last thing on earth I wanted to do was sleep with him.

Of course, that was all that he wanted, and I remember the joy with which he propelled me toward the bed. For me it was merely something to suffer through for a few minutes as I had suffered through rape at the hands of my older brother so many times as a child. This young man, like many equally untutored men of color raised in South Central Los Angeles, had no clue about the dynamics of abuse and trauma, so immediately accused me of seeing someone else when I was unresponsive (literally dry and disinterested) in bed. The thought was so preposterous that I quickly ended our tryst and escorted him to the door. I remember thinking how obtuse could he be not to know, understand or sense what I was really feeling?

Nevertheless, it didn’t take me long to assemble my thoughts when meeting the playwright all of those years later in Philadelphia. I had not forgotten the unfortunate young man’s name, and though the playwright used a nom de plume, several items caught my attention and intuition. First, his wife was a dead ringer for me, and when I met her she made it very clear that she suspected me of trying to steal her husband. Initially I thought her opinion ludicrous, but as I began to suspect who this playwright really was, it began to make sense.

What I do not want to fail to mention here is that I had had no recollection of this man, this playwright, upon initially meeting him. Despite the traumas I had endured in my twenties at the hands of the young man I met at the bus stop, I could have told you nothing more than that he was tall, Black, and interested in me. Though we had had several intense and loving conversations over the phone, I could not have identified him in a line-up if I’d tried.

Years later, when he showed up in Philadelphia, he probably wondered why I did not recognize him. Truth is, I had wiped his face from my memory with as much permanence and force as my disinterest in him and his inability to see that and honor it had mustered. Thus, as the neurologists and neuroscientists investigate the phenomenon of face-blindness, I sincerely hope that they will bring psychologists, psychiatrists, and therapists into their research because I am quite sure that there are other people from my past who have reappeared in my life and wondered why on earth I had no recollection of whom they might have been.

Author's Bio: 

Niama Leslie Williams, a Leeway Foundation Art and Social Change Grant recipient, and a participant in a Sable Literary Magazine/Arvon Foundation residential course in Shropshire, UK, possesses a doctorate in African American literature from Temple University, a bachelor’s in comparative literature from Occidental College, and a master’s in professional writing from the University of Southern California. Having lived in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, for 15 years, Dr. Williams now resides in Los Angeles, California.

Dr. Williams has participated in several writers’ conferences, including the Squaw Valley Community of Writers (2000), Hurston/Wright Writers Week (1996), and Flight of the Mind (1993). Her work has appeared in Poets & Writers Magazine; Dark Eros: Black Erotic Writings; Spirit & Flame: An Anthology of African American Poetry; Catch the Fire: A Cross-Generational Anthology of Contemporary African-American Poetry; Beyond the Frontier: African American Poetry for the 21st Century; Mischief, Caprice, and Other Poetic Strategies (Red Hen Press); A Deeper Shade of Sex: The Best in Black Erotica, and Check the Rhyme: An Anthology of Female Poets & Emcees. Check the Rhyme was nominated for an NAACP Image Award (2007).

Her prose publications include essays and short stories in MindFire Renewed, Midnight Mind Magazine, Tattoo Highway #6, Obsidian II: Black Literature in Review, and Sojourner: The Women’s Forum. She has 13 titles available for sale on her Lulu.com Storefront (http://lulu.com/spotlight/DrNiama).

Dr. Williams’ radio show, “Poetry & Prose & Anything Goes with Dr. Ni” (www.blogtalkradio.com/drni), is currently on hiatus; there she interviews authors about their writing lives and deepest secrets. Her short story “The Embrace” was selected for the 2006-2007 Writing Aloud series at the InterAct Theatre Company in Philadelphia, PA.

Of her purpose for writing Dr. Williams says: "I frequently do not err on the side of caution in my writing, but I believe in the purpose of it: to speak to the things others do not want to speak of, with the hopes of reaching that one woman, or her lover, or her friend, who refuses to deal with her pain, who hides from it, who doesn't think she'll survive it. That's the audience I hope to reach."