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Driving to meet the face reader, I’ve got a cop on my back bumper in the pouring rain, and I can’t help but think of Hazel Motes in Wise Blood when the sheriff pulls over Hazel’s broken-down car and scowls, “I just don’t like your face,” before shoving the heap off the road into a cow pasture.

Fortunately, the cop keeps heading west as I turn off Leesburg Pike for the Northern Virginia subdivision where the face-reading lady lives.

It’s dark and still drizzling, but my headlights eventually find the mailbox with a flying-geese design that she’d mentioned in the directions. Her house is a nondescript suburban rambler, and she greets me at the door. Right off I can tell Rose Rosetree is no secretive, scarf-topped Madame Sarah. As bright and perky as Katie Couric, she’s a petite woman in a sensible business-skirt suit. But even as she takes my coat, her inquisitive eyes probe my face as relentlessly as Orca the killer whale’s.

Her husband and 4-year-old son frolic in the kitchen as Rosetree leads me upstairs to her room for our private session. It’s a small, tidy home office: a wildlife calendar on the wall; an aging desktop computer; and an electric organ, its music stand displaying her published paperbacks: I Can Read Your Face (cover blurb: “Don’t Let Mona Lisa’s Expression Fool You. Her Face Traits Reveal Ruthless Ambition,” under a close-up of da Vinci’s portrait), Face-Reading Secrets, and others.

We take our seats and she mentions that she’s still miffed by I Can Read’s Mona Lisa blurb, which she finds obnoxious and misleading. Then she tries to calm my claustrophobic nerves: “Just be as comfortable as you can be and know that the purpose of this is to validate you. There’s an extremely strong possibility that I’m going to point out some things on your face that you’ve never noticed, but they’re good things. My system is based on the premise, ‘God don’t make no junk.’ ”

Now I really am frightened, especially by that word, “validate,” with its taboo hints of reverse-Trent Reznor self-actualization. I’m an old-school, knee-jerk skeptic, and the only thing I want validated is my parking pass so I can save a few bucks when I’m out on the town. But I’ve got to give her a chance: After all, she’s a pro. For a decade, Rosetree has worked as a face reader, interpreting facial traits to reveal what she calls “long-term character.” She usually charges $85 for a one-hour session, and she occasionally does parties, but I’m getting a 15-minute holiday special.

Rosetree is no fortuneteller; she claims no truck with the supernatural. She reads eyebrows and chins the way some read a John Grisham thriller, hanging on every suspenseful line. There’s no mystery to her system, she insists: It’s all as plain as one’s face. (That’s face, not head: She considers phrenology, the 19th-century method of interpreting skull bumps, pure quackery.) “One of the big fears people have about face reading is they think it’s deterministic,” she explains. “They think the face is a crapshoot—that things are pulled out of the gene pool and you’re stuck with it. What I believe is that our faces reflect our choices and ways of living.”

Rosetree bases her trademarked system, Face Reading Secrets, on an ancient Chinese study of physiognomy, Siang Mien (“investigating spirit”). Full of facial hierarchies and put-downs like “fox eyes,” Siang Mien is far too judgmental for her taste: “I threw away the parts I considered nasty, which was most of it.”

She believes people continually construct their very own facial self-portrait that reveals both private and public selves: Dorian Gray meets Mr. Potato Head. Every life decision—kind gestures and wrong moves alike—is etched on your kisser like a road map to the soul. According to Rosetree, there are no “bad” or “ugly” faces. (What about David Brinkley’s mug, I’m wondering, which grows more satanic with each passing year?) Moreover, she says, there aren’t any “bad” traits, either—just certain “challenges” that need to be kept in mind.

“Your face has a lot of extreme traits,” says Rosetree. Then she flashes her infectious, I’m-OK-you’re-OK smile at my worried look. Clarifying herself, she throws me the first bone of the evening: “You’ve got a lot of great traits to read.”

“You are an extreme low brow,” she says, rather excitedly. “Your eyebrows almost fall into your eyes.” I can feel the beads of sweat on my forehead as I confess my fondness for The Dukes of Hazzard and cockfighting. “It’s not a cultural thing I’m talking about,” she assures me. “It’s a physical thing. The significance of low brow is the timing of your self-expression—I think spontaneity is very important when you’re expressing. For you, blurting puts you in your power. Also, your eyebrows are enders, which means you’re involved with details. The challenge with this trait is that you’re a perfectionist and you tend to procrastinate.”

That’s a dead-on analysis, but before I can fully respond, she’s already on a roll: “Let’s scamper over to the side of your face. I want to see the position of your ears.”

Now, I haven’t seen my ears for years now, and it’s rare that I even wash them. Nevertheless, I reluctantly pull back my hair. With a delicate touch, she examines my ears as if they’re rare seashells: “There’s good proportion between the inner circle, the outer circle, and the lobe. You’re very down-to-earth, you’re very sensitive, and you pay attention to things around you, and you believe that they are real.”

According to Rosetree, ears are sadly misunderstood; in fact, they’re more trustworthy portals to the soul than overrated, easily manipulated eyes. “When you look at a person’s ears, it gives you a lot of information about how the person unconsciously sifts through reality even before it gets to the point of consciousness. You find some people for whom everything is a metaphor, and some people who virtually have no inner life at all—just from looking at their ear structure.”

She continues to inspect my ears, and her eyes widen: “Your lobes actually stick out a little bit. You see this with Colin Powell and other generals. See how your lobes puff out a bit? The lobe is about physical reality.” She pounds on her desk for emphasis, and gives me the bad news: “Now, the challenge of having these lobes is that you may get too literal or just plain stubborn.”

Then she pauses to admire my outer ear structure like a true connoisseur: “The way they’re delineated is very, very fine,” she says. “It’s as if fairies took a little chisel—a special tool—to make that part very, very nice. Whenever there’s a part of the face that is chiseled, it suggests that an aspect of that person is very, very refined.”

At this point, I’m feeling not only validated but truly vindicated for taking up space on the planet: Face reading is a damn sight better way of getting to know yourself than babbling to some high-priced shrink. If some of Rosetree’s comments strike me as overt flattery, it’s at least insightful, empirical flattery based on my mug, and not some flaky zodiac crap connected to the stars and the tides.

In quick succession, she surveys my nose (“Did you ever notice how it narrows toward the tip—you’re independent when you work”); mouth (“Your lower lip is about four times as full as your upper lip—lip proportion is very revealing. This is called Blarney lip: You’re very persuasive. Of course, the potential challenge you have is lying. But you also have a very short mouth, so you’re actually a terrible liar”); cheeks (“Don’t call them chipmunk cheeks. I never, ever use animal metaphors. You have beautifully padded cheeks. Cheeks are about power”); and my jaws (“Those wonderful, wide athletic jaws suggest stamina”).

But it’s her analysis of my over-lip that wins me over completely to her system: “You have a very defined upper over-lip and that has to do with sex appeal. It has a real head-swivel effect. Elvis had a really pronounced groove in his over-lip.”

Enough about me, I say. That’s when I whip out photos of Mayor Marion Barry and Dischord Records guru Ian Mac-

Kaye. Both are local heroes famous for bucking the system; both are idolized and reviled; both are synonymous with Washington D.C. I want Rosetree to read their faces, to find out what makes them tick.

She’s never heard of MacKaye, but finds a glossy black-and-white press photo of him and his band Fugazi a portrait of the post-punk rocker as independent businessman. “Oh, so he’s a musician? Interesting,” she says warmly. “He tends toward being a unibrow. His eyebrows are starting to knit together. That suggests he has an intense mind that just doesn’t turn off: Boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. He also has start-up hairs—these are eyebrow hairs that go straight up. When he’s beginning a project, whether it’s a personal one or a community service project, he sees what can go wrong from the beginning—he anticipates the difficulties, and that can be a real asset. James Taylor has start-up hairs, too, speaking of musicians.”

Her offhand comment linking these kindred spirits rings truer than a hundred reviews of the latest Fugazi album.

She holds the photo closer. “Look at his ears! His ears angle way out from his head: He is a real nonconformist. He does what he wants to do as it strikes him to do and then afterward, he’ll go back and do damage control. The most extreme example of this trait I’ve ever seen in my life is Ross Perot. Think of those ears and think how much he cares what other people think of him. He must have the entrepreneurial talent like Perot does.”

Next, I show her a photo of Mayor Barry before the Visa Hotel arrest. Rosetree recently analyzed the photos of mayoral candidates for the San Francisco Chronicle; she mentions that some corrupt politicians actually develop “crooked,” horribly out-of-sync features.

But Barry is a special case, a sort of face reader’s delight—or nightmare. She stares at the photo for a moment, and finally shudders. Then she speaks in the low tones horror-movie scientists use when they discuss the mutant monster.

“There are some ways in which long-term dishonesty and deceit show on the face,” she says. “What Barry developed right up to the time when he was busted was a big, thick wad of flesh on his forehead, low on the brow, covering up his third eye [a term for the “aura” that everyone has, she explains]. He developed a cover over his third eye with what I call a ‘bump of self-deception,’ and it had to do with lying to himself and refusing to see the truth.”

Indeed, looking at the photo, I can plainly see the so-called bump of deceit, which looks like a costume accessory for a low-budget production of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros.

“It was this fleshly mount of denial of what was going on inside him,” she says. “This was an actual physical aberration. After he’d been in rehabilitation a while and admitted that he had a problem, it started to go down.”

Now I take my leave, hoping that I never confront a bump of self-deceit in the mirror one morning. Rosetree tells me not to worry, saying she’ll be doing more readings at the mall this weekend, dressed as Mrs. Santa Claus. Maybe I’ll drop by for another quick face lift.—Eddie Dean