Case Study in Smell by Andrea Caswell

Subject 1

Subject 1 (S1) is a female, age 16. She lives w/mother + younger sister in a condo near Boston, MA. S1 reports sense of smell so pronounced that she “feels ready to puke,” w/frequency rating of “>50% of the time.” It appears likely that S1 suffers from hypernosmia (overactive olfactory sense). Smells in home that induce nausea incl. overripe bananas, yeast breads + dog food. S1 rates challenging activities as “difficult to perform without vomiting” (esp. feeding dogs + taking out trash). An odor S1 rates as “pleasant” = gasoline.

S1 offers these anecdotes re hypernosmia:

“I know when milk will go bad. I can smell a carton of milk, then tell my mom, ‘Plan to buy milk by Tuesday.’ I’m like a psychic for dairy products.”

“My sense of smell is so strong that we joke about it sometimes. My mom says I could probably get a job at the airport as a drug-sniffing dog.”

Subject 2

Subject 2 (S2) is a female, age 40. She lives w/two teenage daughters in a condo near Boston, MA. Occupation listed as “teacher.” S2 rates her sense of smell as “average,” but affirms that smells provoke memories “>50% of the time.” When asked which odors evoke specific recollections, subject mentions ammonia + plumeria.

S2 offers anecdotes as follows:

“I lived in the French Alps in Haute-Savoie for a few years. You can’t enter a Savoyard’s home without meeting a tomme or an oozing reblochon, the regional cheeses. The acrid, barnacle-like rind of a tomme reeks so strongly of ammonia and mold, it sears your eyes and nostrils when they put it on the table.” [S2 pauses 4.3 sec.] “When I smell ammonia, I remember cheese in the Haute-Savoie.”

“As a child, my mother sometimes took me to volcanic beaches of Hawai’i. In a circle of black sand, old Hawai’ian women taught me to make a hula skirt from waxy banana leaves. For flower leis, we picked syrupy wild plumeria, so sweet-smelling that the flowers made me lightheaded. On my oldest daughter’s sixteenth birthday, my mom took her to Hawai’i. My daughter brought a fresh lei home from Oahu to Boston, so I could smell my childhood again.”

Subject 3

Subject 3 (S3) is a female, age 13. She lives w/mother + older sister in a condo near Boston, MA. She reports that she cannot smell + denies olfactory memories. Records from neurological testing (dated 2010) note finding of congenital anosmia (lack of olfactory sense from birth). Record states that subject’s father is positive for anosmia.

Further testing requested to confirm genetic etiology of this abnormality. When asked to rate effects of anosmia, subject chooses “Do Not Know.” In further discussion of DNK response, S3 adds: “I can’t miss something that I never had.”

S3 provides these anecdotes re anosmia:

“I need help with certain things. If I want to buy lotion, first I ask my mom to check if it smells okay. She rubs some on her hand, sniffs, then says, ‘It’s fine; it smells like coconut.’ The part about the coconut doesn’t help me, but I assume it’s good.”

“Sometimes I ask my mom to smell me in the morning, when I’m getting ready for school [subject currently enrolled in gr. 7]. I’m afraid I might have body odor. Or maybe my feet stink. So my mom leans in and inhales near my neck or my feet, and usually tells me that I smell wonderful. She says that I smell like me.”

“My mom makes a big deal about it sometimes. Every September, she schedules an appointment with my new science teacher for the year, to be sure the teacher understands that I can’t smell smoke. It think she’s afraid that I won’t know if my sleeve catches on fire or something. She asks the teacher not to take points off my grade, if any of the labs require smelling.”

S3’s mother confirms above fears about youngest daughter’s anosmia. Mother of S3 writes under “Additional Comments”:

Will it be safe for her to live alone?
I’m afraid that if there’s a fire, she won’t get out in time.

Andrea Caswell is from Los Angeles, and is an MFA student in the
Bennington Writing Seminars. She’s the founder of dAWG (dat Arlington
Writers Group). Her work has been published by River Teeth (blog), and is
forthcoming from The Normal School Online. She lives with her husband near
Newburyport, Massachusetts.