This article was originally published in the June 2017 Princeton Echo.
On a recent weekday I am visiting Albert Einstein’s house and look out the window. Out in front is one of the groups of Asian tourists that flow like an endless river down to 112 Mercer Street. On the far side of the street, two girls take a selfie.
Then a vintage Chevrolet pulls up in front. A tall thin man steps out with a thick pack of papers under his arm and looks around him, agitated. He seems bewildered, so I ask if I can help him.
“Can you tell me where I can find Einstein’s house?” he asks. “You have to know, I drove all the way from Texas with my amazing proof of the big bang.”
In the back of his car, I see even thicker piles of papers, full of formulas. My diagnosis is clear: an obvious case of the Princeton Syndrome.
This is just one example of the way certain cities can create psychotic delusions in people. The best-known case is Jerusalem Syndrome. Visitors to the Holy City are overwhelmed by intensely religious feelings. Some imagine they are the Messiah; others become ersatz Samsons, pulling blocks out of the Wailing Wall. Women are suddenly convinced that they are going to give birth to the child Jesus without even being pregnant. A falafel sandwich turns into The Last Supper. Visiting politicians get visions of world peace. This well-documented phenomenon dates back to the Middle Ages. The conflux of religious histories in Jerusalem drops its victims into a spiritual black hole.
Another urban illness is the Parisian syndrome, which seems to often strike the Japanese. The endless advertisements of French fashion brands in Tokyo’s warehouses have created such an idealized image of the City of Light that the shock of reality awaits. When the aspirant Parisiennes finally put a foot into the real Paris dressed in Dior dresses and Louboutin shoes, their knees buckle. The avenues do not appear to be filled with fashionable mannequins but with grumpy office workers and overweight Frenchmen. The bursting of the luxury bubble can lead to serious trauma.
The list of syndrome cities continues: the Stockholm Syndrome with its hostages who fall in love with their captors. The London Syndrome, the Florence Syndrome. Who knows if there will someday be a Ho-Ho-Kus Syndrome?
The man who just asked me the way to Einstein’s office suffers from the Princeton Syndrome, which afflicts its victims with delusions of genius. Just as pilgrims travel to Lourdes and Fatima with their physical ailments, aspiring scholars are drawn by their brilliant insights to this little town. They have the idea that merely inhaling the rarefied air here instantly raises their IQ another 30 points. After all, even the students at the university are acclaimed as the smartest of the smart.
My cynical neighbor believes that this phenomenon is not confined to visitors. The Princeton Syndrome also infects permanent residents who begin to identify their intelligence with streets named after John Von Neumann and buildings named for Toni Morrison.
I point the confused man to the Einstein Museum in the center of the city, located at the back of Landau’s clothing store, where the walls are festooned with Einstein photos and memorabilia. The real physicists certainly do not want to be bothered by this crackpot.
In most cases of Jerusalem Syndrome, the complaints disappear once the would-be Messiah or Mother Mary is safely home and detoxed in Kansas. Or friends arrange an intervention. At the end of the day, I see the imaginary Einstein in his car, with more papers in his hand, heading back to Texas.
I hope he heals soon from the malaise of Princeton Syndrome. Or his friends wise him up.
Pia de Jong is a Dutch writer who lives in Princeton. Her memoir, “Saving Charlotte: A Mother and the Power of Intuition,” will be published in July by W.W. Norton. She can be contacted at piadejong.com.