About Face

Jul 10, 2015
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GLYNN WASHINGTON, HOST:

Welcome back to Snap Judgment, the "Tin Man" episode. Today we're featuring stories from people looking for a missing part of themselves. But what if you don't know that you're missing anything? Our own Nancy Lopez spoke to Tom Conces to find out his story.

TOM CONCES: I live in the middle of nowhere. I rarely see my neighbors. And other than the neighbors that I see, that I know, everybody else to me is a stranger. I'm ecstatic.

NANCY LOPEZ, BYLINE: A few years ago, Tom and his wife sold their home in LA, jumped into their RV with their two dogs and never looked back. They crisscrossed the country three times over and landed on a 13-acre farm in Kentucky - their new home. They raised chicken and cows. They're starting their own organic farm. It's a quiet place. The view from their front porch is breathtaking - endless rolling hills of luscious green pasture.

CONCES: I'm not living with this fear sitting on my shoulder. I am more relaxed. I am more at peace. So I'm like Howard Hughes - I'm a hermit.

LOPEZ: Tom embraces the isolation. It means he doesn't have to deal with anybody. As far back as he can remember, he's always stumbled through his interactions with people, be they strangers or loved ones, co-workers or acquaintances, never quite grasping what he was missing out on.

CONCES: I think it was difficult to attach myself to people. I think it was difficult for people to attach themselves to me. You know, I'm different. I've always known I was different. I never knew why or how. I don't know. I felt like I wanted to go hide in a closet or hide under a rock.

LOPEZ: The only ones he never had trouble connecting with were his kids.

CONCES: My son was my world - came before me, came before anything. So did my daughter when she was born. She wasn't as skinny as Peter was. She wasn't as long as and skinny, but she was little and she fit in my hand too. I didn't have time to worry about whether I fit, or whether I didn't, or whether I was this or whether somebody liked me. In the early 20s with two children, you know, I did the best I could with what I had.

LOPEZ: But as easy as it was with his kids, it was impossible with his first wife. So the day before Christmas in 1975, Tom moved out. Then his wife moved to a different state to be with her new boyfriend and took the kids with her.

CONCES: There was a good period of time where the only way that I could speak to my son was to call the school that he attended and the principal at the school would bring him into the office, and I could talk to him on the phone.

LOPEZ: And that worked for a while. But then during one phone call with his son, Tom learned that his wife's new boyfriend was mistreating his children.

CONCES: Still committed to my children, I had a lawyer, and we were going through a divorce, and I asked for custody because I saw that they were in danger. And it was during that time that this incident occurred. In legal strategy, I had asked that there be psychiatric evaluations of both parents of these children and their stepfather because their stepfather, I was certain was, you know, off of his rocker and was abusing my ex and my children. They agreed to the evaluations. And when it came time for those evaluations, I think I went first.

LOPEZ: Tom went to the doctor's office. He didn't want to run into his ex-wife and her boyfriend, but he was looking forward to seeing his kids that day.

CONCES: I'm sitting in the doctor's little exam room waiting for the doctor to come in, and the door was open and there was a hallway. And there was a little blonde girl that was leaning against the wall, and she was crying. That's my daughter. She's crying. I have to help her, you know? And she's there and she's got her head in her arm, and she had on a little dress. I picked her up and I hugged her, put her on my lap. She also urinated on me. You know, it was a very emotional moment for me - that's my daughter, I haven't seen her in three months, and she's crying. Oh, my God, I've got to take care of her. I told her, everything's OK, it's going to be OK.

And the doctor came in and said, you know, let the kid go. I said, it's my daughter.

Let the child go.

I said, this is my daughter. He says, that's not your daughter.

And I think at that point, I pushed her back and I looked at her. I think I was probably as shocked as the doctor was. He probably asked me to explain it, and I probably couldn't offer an explanation that was reasonable to him. I couldn't offer an explanation that was reasonable to me. You know, how does a father not recognize his child? You know, how do you pick up somebody else's kid and believe it to be yours, and then have a doctor - psychiatrist, of all people - say, that's not your kid?

I never saw my daughter that day. Found out that the stepfather didn't come for the evaluation. So my plan as it was to have him evaluated to protect my children didn't work anyway. The report from the doctor, you know, was several pages long, but the conclusion of the report was he questioned my psychological attachment to my children. Period. The handwriting was on the wall. I wasn't going to get custody, not in that day and age. I messed it up.

I never got past the embarrassment. I don't think I even told my best friends. Embarrassed? Beyond embarrassed - ashamed. You know, how could I fail my children? I've always tried to figure out what happened. It's just, there was never an answer.

LOPEZ: Tom moved to California where things took a turn for the better. His ex-wife called him with some good news. She had left her boyfriend.

CONCES: My kids were coming to live with me for the whole summer. There were leaving Oklahoma. They were coming to stay with their dad in Southern California. It was awesome. And my son came to live with me full-time. And my daughter stayed living with my ex. I don't know what the logic behind her decision was. I was grateful. I was happy to have my son.

LOPEZ: Tom was working as an insurance adjuster. He loved it. He could simply focus on the details of a car accident - when, where, how did it happen, what's the damage. Most of his interaction with people was over the phone. But every so often he would suffer a social faux pas like the time he was a speaker at an auto theft conference. He walked right past a police officer he'd worked with as if he didn't know him.

CONCES: Oh, my god. That was investigator so-and-so from this agency, and we were working on this identity theft case. And it was a big case, and it involved a whole lot of people. And I just looked like an idiot. I think it caused fear. It was a latent fear. I didn't know it was there. But I would be guarded in putting myself in positions like that.

LOPEZ: Then Tom met Lorraine.

LORRAINE: I was working at the Holiday Inn near the Los Angeles airport. He came in and had dinner. And I was his server.

CONCES: She was cute (laughter).

LORRAINE: I think it's - I think he only recognized me because there was only three servers. And I was the only girl. The other two were guys. We talked a little bit and we made arrangements to go out the next night. And we've been together ever since.

LOPEZ: One Sunday night when Tom was a couple of years into retirement, he and Lorraine were home sitting in front of the TV.

CONCES: And "60 Minutes" was on television. They were showing these people who were unable to recognize and identify their spouses or their children. They just didn't know who those people were.

LOPEZ: The show was about a mysterious condition called Prosopagnosia. It's about people who cannot recognize faces. It's not a problem with their vision. It has to do with how their brain is wired. Everything else functions fine, except their ability to process a face. So it's hard to form meaningful relationships. Hearing this struck a chord with Tom.

LORRAINE: And it was like a lightbulb went off - for me, too.

LOPEZ: So they reached out to one of the researchers who gave Tom a series of tests and came back to him with the diagnosis.

CONCES: I'm face blind. It's a stupid analogy, but it's almost like finding out that the aliens had come down and captured me, and they were pulling the strings on my life, and I was living a life that wasn't real. You know, my view of the world didn't match the reality of the world.

LORRAINE: So yeah, after seeing the show it explained a ton - a ton about why he didn't know people. I think we went to go meet his sister for dinner someplace. And we walked into the restaurant, and I was walking right toward her, and he kept asking me where she was. And I said she's right in front of you. Granted, he hadn't seen his sister in a while. But I always kind of wondered, you know, how do you not recognize your own sister? You know, even when we're in a store, he doesn't always recognize me.

LOPEZ: Really?

LORRAINE: Yeah. We've been in Costco, and I've been like hello.

LOPEZ: And he sees you and...

LORRAINE: And he'll look over, and he'll be like oh, oh, oh. It takes him a minute.

CONCES: When I received the diagnosis and I discovered it, initially it was, I would say, almost euphoric. You know, I had an answer to how I misidentified my daughter.

LOPEZ: Did you feel it almost absolved of whatever guilt you carried about it?

CONCES: Maybe. The truth is I failed - didn't do the right thing, did I? I didn't identify that girl. That's a failure. I actually sent a letter to my ex-wife, my children and my sister apologizing.

LOPEZ: For?

CONCES: Being the way I was, you know I always wanted inclusion, but my behavior was exactly the opposite. It pushed people away. And I wouldn't let anybody close enough to be included.

LOPEZ: His daughter's response to the letter was short and sweet.

CONCES: She's awesome. She says don't be so hard on yourself. I never got past the embarrassment. Till we talked, my daughter never knew. Now she knows.

LOPEZ: How long have you guys been together?

LORRAINE: We'll be 27 years this year.

LOPEZ: Lorraine knows Tom's idiosyncrasies probably better than anyone. And now she knows why they can't watch a movie together.

LORRAINE: You know, actually, he will watch a Bruce Willis movie because it's Bruce Willis. He can focus on Bruce Willis. He looks the same. He never changes his shirt. It's always bloody and ripped.

LOPEZ: Bald?

LORRAINE: Yeah, bald. It's easy. Yeah and especially he doesn't have to worry about a changing hairstyle.

LOPEZ: It took Tom 11 years to propose to Lorraine. He figured he'd wake up one day, and she'd be gone. But he got lucky.

LORRAINE: Here we are. Still here. Still telling you who people are (laughter).

CONCES: She says that I'm nicer now.

LORRAINE: He's actually much easier to get along with now, yeah.

LOPEZ: He has a reason.

LORRAINE: Yeah because he has a better understanding of who and what he was and who and what he is now. And it's given us an explanation. So I'm more prepared when we're in a social setting - you know, more prepared if we go to Costco, or go to the market. I don't change my hairstyle in the meat department so he knows who I am (laughter), or take my coat off. You know, I keep an eye out for him.

WASHINGTON: A very big thank you to Tom Conces and his wife Lorraine for sharing their story and a big shout out as well to Brad Duchesne (ph), the researcher who helped Tom with his diagnosis. The original soundscape for that story was created by Renzo Gorrio, and the piece was produced by Nancy Lopez.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WASHINGTON: Now, when SNAP JUDGMENT returns, we pull apart the most powerful bond of all to see if it breaks - when SNAP JUDGMENT, the "Tin Man" episode continues. Stay tuned. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.