About Face

Jonathan Cole, Author
Jonathan Cole, Author MIT Press (MA) $25 (223p) ISBN 978-0-262-03246-9
Reviewed on: 12/29/1997
Release date: 01/01/1998
This British neurologist's ""natural history of the face"" opens with a delicately empathic case study of Mary, an elderly woman who becomes depressed and isolated after an ailment deprives her of facial expression and speech. Without expression, writes Cole, Mary seemed ""less of a person, because she could not show her animated self."" This revelation launches him on a quest to limn the relationship between our faces and our personalities. With varying degrees of success, Cole tackles this fertile subject from a variety of angles, from the philosophic to the scientific (discourses on the mechanics of expression and the evolution of facial function) to the journalistic (conversations with blind people, burn victims and sufferers of autism, Mobius syndrome, Parkinson's disease and Bell's palsy). While the book covers impressive ground, and while Cole has a generally erudite, pleasantly meditative voice reminiscent of Oliver Sacks (to whom the book is, in part, dedicated), the central thesis, that we are and are not our faces, is a predictable one. It doesn't help matters that some potentially provocative material is left inadequately explained--the failure to more extensively elaborate on autism sufferer and memoirist Donna Williams's rather delphic reflections on her condition is particularly maddening. Nonetheless, readers can't help but come away with a heightened appreciation of our exquisitely mobile facial apparatus, or of that uniquely human form of social exchange, the mutual gaze. (Nov.)
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