New columnist EVIE PRICHARD explains why her freshers week involved grabbing people in the loos at Fez, staring into their eyes and announcing ‘I HAVE A CONDITION’
Any number of the things that can go wrong during Freshers’ Week can be blamed on drunkenness (falling very conspicuously asleep in the middle of a party), nerves (for some reason they had me involuntarily using the same obscure swearword in every sentence; I was throwing around the word buggery like a 19th century gentleman sailor with Tourette’s), or misfortune (bin bag bop costumes become spontaneously transparent under strobe lighting, apparently). Most of the time these fails can be put down to nerviness, naivety or a low alcohol tolerance. Not many people can blame their social handicaps on simply being defective as a person.
I am one of the lucky few.
I suffer from a little known condition called prosopagnosia, a deficiency in my brain that has been described as both excruciatingly embarrassing and hilarious. The first one’s mine, the latter is, well, anyone who’s ever watched me pretend to be close friends with a stranger for a whole conversation.
It is all but impossible for me to recognise faces. Sometimes I walk past a mirror and it takes me a second to work out who I’m looking at. I wince at someone else wearing the same outfit as me in a club before figuring out that the walls are mirrored. I once spent a bitchy half minute judging the shiny slag sitting across from me before realisation struck. Then again, as someone who in a game of ‘which celebrity’ once had her face compared to Buddha’s, it may be no bad thing that I forget about it every now and then.
Prosopagnosia can be humiliating, sometimes almost dangerous. If my primary school had a yearbook, I would undoubtedly have been voted ‘child most likely to get into a stranger’s car’. Once in my early teens I chatted all the way to the Tube with a guy I assumed was my neighbour. When I finally realised he was a stranger I was mortified. ‘Don’t worry about it,’ he said, smiling pervily, ‘it must be because I walk my rottweilers past your house.’ That’s rottweilers plural.
Not only was this weirdo inexplicably interested in discussing my holiday plans, but he kept a pack of rottweilers, knew where I lived, and thought I was anticipating another DMC in the near future. I spent the next few weeks expecting to wake up and find a pack of attack dogs and his creepy smile lurking at the foot of my bed.
Coming to university was, if anything, more terrifying than being picked up by Rottweiler Paedophile. I’d introduce myself to the same person three or four times at fresher mixers – ‘prosopagnosia’ became my catch-phrase. Every time I had a conversation I had to issue the same disclaimer. People began to learn it off by heart. Once I was in the habit it became an obsession. I’d get drunk and start wandering the streets, warning random people that I’d never recognise them again.
One time a friend had to lead me gently away after discovering me terrorising the ladies’ loos at Fez. Apparently I’d spent half an hour explaining prosopagnosia to every one of the girls who came in. And by explaining prosopagnosia, I mean grabbing their upper arms, staring into their eyes and announcing ‘I HAVE A CONDITION’.
It is a minefield of embarrassment. People often assume it’s an inventive excuse for laziness or drunkenness, an obscure method of flirtation – honestly, it’s happened – or sometimes just an extremely elaborate, long-running prank. Broadly speaking, the only categories of people I can recognise from their face alone are extremely good friends. I also have a flair for the very attractive or the more than a little funny-looking. But most of the time I managed by memorizing their hair, gait or jewellery – the strategy for coping which makes me look least weird.
I also find that walking quickly and purposefully while staring straight ahead, pretending to text when passing people and greeting everyone with a vague half-smile when necessary work well. When these failed in the first few weeks I had to patch them up with a slightly reclusive, uninterested demeanour, just to avoid causing offence. All these things in conjunction give me the air of Luna Lovegood if she were CEO of a city bank. But I’d rather that than have people think I’m deliberately blanking them.
And that’s the main reason I’m writing this article: I can’t bear to be so insulting to everyone I meet. There’s only so many people I can issue my tired old disclaimer to in the flesh, and so many times my friends will put up with hearing it. I need the whole of Cambridge to understand just how much I want to recognise it. This column is not just damage control – it’s a public apology.