I was thrilled to read Vaughan Bell’s short essay at Slate about Milton Rokeach’s rarely encountered 1964 book, The Three Christs of Ypsilanti. It’s one of my all time favorite books, but alas, one that no one else I’ve ever met has heard of or read. It’s nearly impossible to find for a reasonable price. The Three Christs of Ypsilanti is a psychiatric case study by Rokeach, a detailing of his experiment with a trio of schizophrenic patients at Ypsilanti State Hospital in Ypsilanti, Michigan. The three men—who each harbored the delusional belief that he was Jesus Christ returned—were forced to live with each other in a mental hospital to see if their beliefs could be challenged enough to effect a break-through in at least one of them.
But it wasn’t that simple, as Rokeach found out. Bell writes:
But the book makes for starkly uncomfortable reading as it recounts how the researchers blithely and unethically manipulated the lives of Leon, Joseph, and Clyde in the service of academic curiosity. In one of the most bizarre sections, the researchers begin colluding with the men’s delusions in a deceptive attempt to change their beliefs from within their own frame of reference. The youngest patient, Leon, starts receiving letters from the character he believes to be his wife, “Madame Yeti Woman,” in which she professes her love and suggests minor changes to his routine. Then Joseph, a French Canadian native, starts receiving faked letters from the hospital boss advising certain changes in routine that might benefit his recovery. Despite an initially engaging correspondence, both the delusional spouse and the illusory boss begin to challenge the Christs’ beliefs more than is comfortable, and contact is quickly broken off.
In fact, very little seems to shift the identities of the self-appointed Messiahs. They debate, argue, at one point come to blows, but show few signs that their beliefs have become any less intense. Only Leon seems to waver, eventually asking to be addressed as “Dr Righteous Idealed Dung” instead of his previous moniker of “Dr Domino dominorum et Rex rexarum, Simplis Christianus Puer Mentalis Doctor, reincarnation of Jesus Christ of Nazareth.” Rokeach interprets this more as an attempt to avoid conflict than a reflection of any genuine identity change. The Christs explain one another’s claims to divinity in predictably idiosyncratic ways: Clyde, an elderly gentleman, declares that his companions are, in fact, dead, and that it is the “machines” inside them that produce their false claims, while the other two explain the contradiction by noting that their companions are “crazy” or “duped” or that they don’t really mean what they say.
In hindsight, the Three Christs study looks less like a promising experiment than the absurd plan of a psychologist who suffered the triumph of passion over good sense. The men’s delusions barely shifted over the two years, and from an academic perspective, Rokeach did not make any grand discoveries concerning the psychology of identity and belief. Instead, his conclusions revolve around the personal lives of three particular (and particularly unfortunate) men. He falls back—rather meekly, perhaps—on the Freudian suggestion that their delusions were sparked by confusion over sexual identity, and attempts to end on a flourish by noting that we all “seek ways to live with one another in peace,” even in the face of the most fundamental disagreements. As for the ethics of the study, Rokeach eventually realized its manipulative nature and apologized in an afterword to the 1984 edition: “I really had no right, even in the name of science, to play God and interfere round the clock with their daily lives.”
There’s another piece I found mentioning the book that’s worth bringing in here, too, because it uses the Three Christs of Ypsilanti as a microcosm of how the world’s major religions all believe they have the one truth and worship the one true god. A guy named Steve Bhaerman who writes a humor column under the pen name “Swami Beyondananda” at a New Age website called InnerSelf had a profound insight about the book, seeing the three messianically-challenged protagonists as stand-ins for the world’s big three religions, each under the delusion that their “truth” is the true truth and it’s the other guy’s religion that is superstitious bullshit:
I hadn’t thought about that book for years, until I was reminded of it by two seemingly unrelated news items. The first involved the Middle East peace process, which recently has been neither peaceful nor much of a process. A huge seemingly unresolvable dispute involves Jerusalem, which houses the sacred sites of three major religions. Someone had the enlightening suggestion that Jerusalem be ruled by God. Of course, the next question was, whose God?
The other news item was about the Catholic church declaring that for all intents and purposes, IT alone is the one sure way to heaven—and perhaps more important, the only certain way to avoid hell. A friend of mine who owns a marketing business (and incidentally grew up Catholic) says, “I can only dream of having such an unbeatable marketing premise. Buy my product, go to heaven. Buy the other guy’s, go to hell.” Not to single out the Catholics, though. Fundamentalists of every stripe play out a dyslexic version of that childhood taunt, “My dog’s better than your dog.” Except that “my God’s better than your God” has caused millions of deaths and oceans of tears.
And that’s when it occurred to me that the three major religious systems are like the Three Christs of Ypsilanti. Each lives in a delusional system that it alone is the One True Path. And now, God has placed them all in a therapy group to see if they can accommodate one another.
Brilliant. If you are interested, some parts of The Three Christ of Ypsilanti can be read online here.
The Three Christs of Ypsilanti (InnerSelf)
Jesus, Jesus, Jesus: In the late 1950s, three men who identified as the Son of God were forced to live together in a mental hospital. What happened? (Slate)