How John Hickenlooper deals with face blindness

Ex-Colorado governor suffers from prosopagnosia

By DAN MERICA, CNN
Win McNamee/Getty Images

John Hickenlooper

(CNN) - John Hickenlooper knows he knows you from somewhere. The former Colorado governor just doesn't know if it's really you.

Such is the life of a politician who suffers from prosopagnosia, or face blindness, a medical condition that makes it difficult -- and often impossible -- to recognize or remember people's faces, even if someone with the ailment has met them a handful of times.

Hickenlooper means no offense by his lack of memory and it's an ailment that doesn't discriminate: The former governor had to be introduced to Robin Pringle four times before he actually remembered who she was.

They are now married.

"It happened and it was really awkward," a laughing Hickenlooper said in a recent interview with CNN. "She was perhaps the most skeptical when I tried to explain this condition."

Hickenlooper discovered six years ago -- well into his first term as governor -- that he suffered from face blindness. In what he described as an "aha" moment, the governor was talking to someone and lamenting the fact that he had met someone four times and still couldn't remember them. When that person said he was possibly face blind, Hickenlooper looked into the condition and determined that was the explanation for why he often struggled as a child with connecting with even close family.

"I had been criticized by my family and my friends for not paying attention, for being distant, not caring about the people I met," he said. "So, I felt, in a funny way, I felt liberated, validated, that I was who I was."

Hickenlooper has not been officially diagnosed with the ailment -- experts on face blindness say most doctors aren't able to medically diagnose it -- but the former governor has discussed his issues recognizing and remembering faces with a number of face blindness experts who have said he displays clear signs of having the medical condition.

Some may think that an ailment like face blindness would force a person to retreat from public life, in order to avoid awkward scenarios. For Hickenlooper, an affable politician with a reputation for friendliness and warmth, the ailment has done the opposite.

"I think it's pretty extraordinary that he has been as successful as he has been given the importance of recognizing faces in politics," said Brad Duchaine, associate professor of psychological and brain sciences at Dartmouth College and an expert on face blindness.

Duchaine said face blindness comes in a variety of different forms and impacts between 1 to 2% of the population. Some people struggle with processing faces and others struggle to access faces that they have processed. A number of people come up with strategies to cope with the issue, Duchaine added, but a common reaction to the medical condition is friendliness.

"They are often just friendly to everyone they encounter," Duchaine said. He noted he doesn't know of any other current politicians who are face blind, but said that Lord Robert Cecil, a prime minister of the United Kingdom multiple times in the 1880s, 1890s and 1900s, had the ailment.

Hickenlooper, the former mayor of Denver and governor of Colorado, entered public life as a prominent restaurateur in Denver when he opened the city's first brew pub, Wynkoop, in 1988. The brewery made him a wealthy man and allowed him to invest in 15 other similar businesses across the country.

Hickenlooper was not a behind-the-scenes owner, though, and longtime friends tell stories of the would-be governor spending hours in the business, welcoming patrons and closing down the place on some nights. That meant hundreds of interactions with people every weekend, something that could be paralyzing for someone with face blindness.

Initially, Hickenlooper said, repeat patrons would be disappointed when he didn't remember them. It led the business owner, before he even knew the ailment in his brain, to create a life hack.

"They would feel disappointed when I didn't joyfully reach out and clutch their hand when I would greet them, so I very quickly learned to become more engaged, more welcoming," he said. "With face blindness, I think the way I have overcompensated was to treat everyone who come towards me as a friend, just to assume that I know them."

This trick works with acquaintances and restaurant patrons, but it's harder with family and close friends. Hickenlooper said he once failed to recognize his newly bearded half-brother sitting at his bar.

But possibly the most awkward was with Pringle, the woman Hickenlooper married in 2016 after he got divorced in 2012.

Pringle, as an executive at Liberty Media, was a prominent Coloradoan and therefore had met the governor a few times. In their third meeting -- backstage at an Old Crow Medicine Show concert at Red Rocks Amphitheatre outside Denver -- Hickenlooper said he detected an annoyance in Pringle's voice when he didn't recognize her after she introduced him to Ketch Secor, the band's front man.

It got worse on their fourth meeting -- a gala that the governor arrived late to -- when he had to fake that he remembered her, he said.

"Of course, I pretended, said, 'Of course, Robin, of course I know you,'" he said with laugh. "I realized I had to get my act together."

The ailment presents a political problem, too. Retail politics -- the kind craved by politicos in Iowa and New Hampshire -- want to personally know their candidates. That can be difficult if the candidates can't recognize them.

Hickenlooper disagrees -- and said his campaign has created a system to address the issue.

"They don't want me to remember their face. They want me to remember who they are," he said. "We are setting up a system where at the end of every event, I download who I met, who I talked to, with a staff person and that process of going over it once is valuable."

After each event, Hickenlooper runs down the conversations he had and the people he met with an aide, who takes notes and then saves them for the next time they are in the area.

"So, when I get back in three weeks or if I get back to that town in three months, I will have notes on who I met. So, I won't recognize someone's face but I will have a staff person who will point out the five or six people that I have met and had conversations with," he said. "And I will take the time to prep myself and to review."

It's difficult to tell Hickenlooper is face blind at events in Iowa. He seems to engage with everyone warmly and it is apparent that he has compensated for the ailment by engaging everyone as a friend.

In the end, Hickenlooper said, he believes face blindness could actually make him a better politician and person, even if it is difficult at times to manage.

"I think it makes my life, in a relatively small way, more stressful because there is a little anxiety, but I think ultimately it has benefited me," he said. "And, to be honest, I think the world would be a better place ... if everyone went up to each person, whether they knew them or not and expressed a certain friendliness."

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