“What is it?” Faye Bennett, wearing a plaid shirt and gabardine slacks, ran from her bedroom to the top of the stairs. “It sounds like someone shot you out of a cannon.” She stared down at the foyer below.
“Mama!” Emily shouted for the seventh time, each time louder than the one before. “You’ll never, never guess!” She slammed the front door shut. “Never in a billion years!” She swooped up her Pekinese, Suki, from the tidy little rock garden that occupied one corner of the foyer.
From amidst a meadow of bone-white stones, Saint Francis, surrounded by plaster sparrows gathered at his feet, kept his focus on his birds and ignored Emily, who was furiously petting Suki. “You know that show we saw last night about the new vice president’s wife?”
Emily clenched her eyes, sucking in a measured breath. “She’s my new teacher!”
“That woman. The one from last night. The lady who’s married to the vice president, Mrs. Johnson.” She glanced down at Saint Francis’s flock. “That Ladybird.”
Her mother came down the stairs. “I don’t understand, darling. Your new teacher is named Mrs. Johnson?”
“No! She’s named something else. Mrs. Nichols, I think. But she is that vice president’s wife from last night.” She set Suki back next to the birds and Saint Francis. “That Ladybird.”
“You’re teacher is Ladybird Johnson … then who is Mrs. Nichols?”
“They’re the same,” said Emily. “They’re exactly the same.”
Faye Bennett knelt and put her arms around her. “No, darling, they’re not.” She stroked her cheek, then took hold of her shoulders, looking her in the eye. “Your new teacher is Mrs. Nichols. You learned her name today. Right? … I’m right, yes?”
Emily looked down and in a small voice said, “Yeah.”
“Then she can’t be the vice president’s wife, can she?”
Emily collapsed into her mother, burying her head in her stomach. “Why doesn’t anybody ever believe me?”
Faye stroked her hair, petting her. “Your father and I believe you, honey. We just don’t know what to make of all these … people you keep seeing.” She felt dampness through her blouse from Emily’s tears. “It’ll be okay, baby. You’ll see. We’ll get everything straightened out.”
Emily had no idea what her mother was talking about.
It wasn’t until her junior year in high school, in early 1966, that she was given a brain scan. MRI technology was still in its infancy, its earliest use primarily as a diagnostic technique. Earlier neuropsychological assessments had labeled her a victim of a form of prosopagnosia, a term derived from Classical Greek, literally meaning “face” and “non-knowledge.” In the late nineties it would come to be commonly known as “face blindness,” after sufferers’ inability to recognize the faces of familiar people.
The disorder is still little understood. No one knew the cause of Emily’s occurrence of it. There was no evidence it was genetic or that it had been trauma-induced. A subsequent brain scan demonstrated there was no sign of a lesion and no indication she’d ever suffered trauma to the brain. It was something she would have to learn to live with. Many others had. Famous people who did or would later suffer from the syndrome included Brad Pitt, neuroscientist/author Oliver Sacks, Jane Goodall, Tom Stoppard, Steve Wozniak (co-founder of Apple), and many more. The argument could be made that if the affliction didn’t halt the careers of many successful people, why should it hold Emily back?
Also, according to all of the diagnosticians she had been sent to, Emily’s case was “not seriously debilitating.”
She had one atypical symptom: an inability to distinguish ordinary people from those in the public eye, primarily celebrities. The effect of this syndrome was to bring two images of a person together into one, as with the focusing mechanism of a camera. The new, combined picture was of someone she recognized from film or television or wherever, and could think of by name.
Dr. Aaron Withers, a pricey psychoanalyst to whom she was sent by her father, decreed that Emily’s presentation of face blindness was especially possible in Beverly Hills, California, where the girl was raised.
If you spend any time in Beverly Hills, in the post office or the local markets, drug stores, parks, movie theatres, and so on, celebrity sightings are an almost daily occurrence. Emily had seen Jack Nicholson, Tuesday Weld, Rock Hudson, Lucille Ball, and hundreds more, oftener than she could imagine, although in the end she wasn’t absolutely sure if she was seeing those celebrities, or if it was someone who looked—to her—like whichever celebrity it either was or wasn’t.
She saw roughly half the people she encountered, wherever she went, as this or that well-known personality. Some of them, because of where she lived, actually were the celebrities she thought they were.
Most were not.
Because her case seemed mild and was not always an issue, Dr. Withers called her “celebrity-challenged.” “Look at the happy side,” he said. “Most people with your ‘little problem’ feel constantly threatened. At least you’re able to recognize some of the strangers you run into.”
In the back of her mind, she heard the words “little problem” almost every school day; her classmates could be very unkind about it. The good news was that she discovered, within herself, unquestionable spirit; the confusion and resulting cruelty she experienced helped her develop a way of coping with the difficult adolescent years. Although she wouldn’t realize it for a long time, in a backward way, Dr. Withers proved to be useful.
For the moment, she felt no resilience at all. “I don’t know why I keep seeing you,” she said to him one early day of therapy. “I know you and Daddy think it’s helping, but that’s because I’ve learned to keep most of it to myself. And anyway, to be really honest, I’m not positive I wouldn’t feel a little lost if I didn’t have … this whatever it is.”
She covered her eyes in mock frustration that did not disguise substrata upon substrata of anxieties that today might be diagnosed as a milder form of panic disorder.
Withers helped her trace the beginnings of her condition back to childhood days when she was home from school, sick, looking at movies with her beloved Suki wedged between Emily and her mother. They would get lost, watching Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Katharine Hepburn, Bob Hope, and the rest. Emily found herself—in a game-playing way at first, she thought—imposing the people from her movie world onto the people in the real one. Mr. Lassiter, her history teacher, became James Stewart; Ms. Pesetsky, her home economics teacher, was magically transfigured into feisty character actress Thelma Ritter; the mailman was James Cagney, and so on. From the beginning, her ailment had seemed to be incurable. Although it wasn’t with her all the time, it was like a cunning imp, sometimes escaping from the nighttime of her unconscious into the glaring sunlight of her wakeful mind, gleefully wreaking its mischief.
It was not enough now that the logical part of her knew that Lew Ayres was too old to be her brother, that her mother had not really been Myrna Loy, and that she had to have been hallucinating that first day she’d stared at her own father’s profile and realized with dismay that she was looking at the usually benevolent, older, Academy Award-winning actor Melvyn Douglas.
Her father was far too mean to be Melvyn Douglas.
An additional and pivotal wrinkle to Emily’s problem was that having lived in the world’s major geographical concentration of actual celebrities for most of her life, she developed an all-consuming desire to make it in film.
Despite the supporting roles of the music and television businesses in Tinseltown, the movie industry was still the reason Hollywood was Hollywood. If you truly wanted to be somebody amongst that gathering of pixies, you did it by way of the movie industry.
From the beginning, she knew that was not as easy as a lot of old films make it out to be. She couldn’t compose music scores, sing, dance, choreograph, write, or design scenery. She had little knowledge of cinematography or film editing. She’d had some success acting in school and community theatre plays—one local reviewer even called her “radiant”—but she never forgot her high school drama teacher calling her “perky.” It was a strong enough message to start her thinking about more common-sense roles in the movie business.
But nothing small. She didn’t mind not being in the spotlight—as long as she was able to believe that someday, somehow, the world would recognize that she was special and, by the final reel, understand that in fact it loved and cherished her. She realized that along the way some people might misinterpret her ambitions as delusions of grandeur, and that anyone aware of her little problem might look at those ambitions as a desperate attempt to escape it, but she couldn’t let herself worry about that.
For a short time, she worked in a studio mailroom, and then, for an even briefer period, in the menial, thankless job of on-set Directors Guild of America trainee. She soon dismissed her directorial ambitions, deciding that profession was unsuited to her periodically timid nature, not to mention her face blindness—although, as she reached young womanhood, she developed more and more skill at disguising her condition.
And so she decided to be a producer.
That wasn’t so easy either. For now her major problem was that she didn’t know anyone in the business to teach her the ropes or open important doors.
In the beginning, in 1971, after she’d graduated from UCLA, she found herself a job as a personal assistant to a TV series star of the time, a gorgeous young man who had been an overnight sensation and whose name, the following season, nobody knew. Emily’s star was cancelled along with the beauty’s series.
She tried non-union extra work, bit-acting parts, and even a stint as an assistant casting director. She wanted to become familiar with the film business from as many points of view as possible and, at the same time, demonstrate that she was sure of herself—sure enough, at least, to be a movie producer.
As is often the paradoxical case with people who go into show business, she longed for certainty.
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