[January 17, 2012. There are at this moment three pages of comments appended to this entry, which I wrote almost six years ago. The comments are most interesting and revealing. Don't miss 'em -- Vivian].
In The Accidental Tourist (New York [Knopf], 1991), Anne Tyler describes a malady that, as far as I know had never before been acknowledged in literature. All four of her eccentric Leary siblings share "a total inability to find their way around." Macon Leary, who writes travel books for a living and is the novel's focal character, christens this trait "geographical dyslexia."
I'm not convinced that "geographical dyslexia" is a good name for the Learys' condition. An alternative, "directional disability," is not much better. Whatever the name, sufferers will know what is meant. There's a class of people (I'm one of them) who are chronically lost; who take a few steps in a strange city and can't find their way back to the hotel; who don't know how to exit the building they've just entered because they've strolled a corridor or two; who are totally befuddled and even panicked when they drive into a familiar intersection from an unaccustomed direction; who break into a cold sweat when someone says, "you know how to get home -- just reverse the directions"; and who, because they're frequently lost, are subject to ridicule and mockery from their very own families and from their most intimate friends.
Macon Leary has a theory about his persistent dysgeographica. He thinks he's disabled because all his life he's moved from house to house, and "people who'd been moved around a great deal never acquired a fixed point of reference, but wandered forever in a fog." I know of no evidence to support this wholly improbable suggestion. Macon clutches at a straw because there's no data (and there's no data, at least in part, because there's no accepted name for his condition).
Every sufferer nurses his own unscientific, anecdotal theory. I was once convinced that my dysgeographica was related to my total absence of rhythm -- as a child I could never learn to pump a swing or even to jump rope. My brother thinks that it must be connected to his aversion to heights. My niece takes the view that it's somehow related to her motion sickness and to her bouts of dizziness. A friend thinks that the trouble stems from the fact that she was naturally left-handed but was trained to be right-handed. In fact, no one knows whether dysgeographica is connected to any other trait, or whether it's one of a cluster of traits. In terms of hard science, the directionally disabled have been allowed to languish in the dark ages.
I'm almost convinced that dysgeographica runs in families. My father was monumentally disabled, and one of my brothers is so impaired that he's occasionally looked to me for directional advice. Barking up the wrong tree, is he!! (I have another brother who always knows exactly where he is -- perhaps he's adopted.) In The Accidental Tourist, Anne Tyler, who's a very sharp observer of mankind, tellingly attributes dysgeographica to all four Leary siblings.Tyler also notes that Macon has learned how to cope: he "kept a stack of index cards giving detailed directions to the houses of his friends -- even friends he'd known forever." Coping mechanisms are essential to the dysgeographical. When I have to drive any distance without a navigator, I write the directions with a thick pen in a notebook and keep it open on the passenger seat. For some reason, I can't seem to retain more than one or two of the approaching turns in my mind, so I must continually refer to the notebook. Mapquest has proved to be a boon, especially if I remember to print out in very large type.
In The Accidental Tourist, no one pokes fun at the Leary siblings. But in real life, it's considered quite amusing to laugh at the chronically lost. People don't understand that dysgeographica is a disability like colorblindness. I can't say how many times I've been instructed to "concentrate," or "pay attention' -- advice which is just as effective as commanding a color blind person to make an effort to register shades of yellow or blue. Without a label and without a support group, the dysgeographical will continue to be ridiculed. It's time for us to unite. Unless we do so, we are not only doomed, like Macon Leary, to be "adrift upon the planet, helpless, praying that by luck [we] might stumble across [our] destination," but doomed to be humiliated as well.