Milton Rokeach: The Three Christs of Ypsilanti

I’m not one to go digging around for old psychological studies — or any old studies, for that matter. Because of this, it is unlikely I would have ever heard of Milton Rokeach’s fascinating The Three Christs of Ypsilanti (1964). Why did I end up purchasing and reading this? It’s an NYRB Classic. That’s enough. If they publish a psychological study from fifty years ago, that means it’s worth reading. This one is proof.

In 1959, Milton Rokeach, a social psychologist working at Ypsilanti State Hospital in Ypsilanti, Michigan, brought together three patients who each firmly believed he was Jesus Christ. Rokeach says:

Initially, my main purpose in bringing them together was to explore the processes by which their delusional systems of belief and their behavior might change if they were confronted with the ultimate contradiction conceivable for human beings: more than one person claiming the same identity.

His study was inspired in part on an account set out by Voltaire in which a man, Simon Morin, believing he was Christ ran into another man proclaiming to be Christ. Simon exclaimed that the other must be crazy and, realizing what this meant, was cured of his delusion for a time (though he was eventually burned at the stake). As he introduces the study, Rokeach says, “This is the only study on which I have ever worked that has aroused the interest of children.” I must say, it’s easy to see why. This is a fascinating look into the minds of three men disturbed on a fundamental level even children recognize.

The three patients are not referred to by their real names, though the book is so well written that these names, as simple as they are, are permanently part of my literary consciousness.

Clyde Benson was the oldest. At 70, he had been hospitalized for 17 years after suffering from a series of tragedies in a short period of time that took from him his parents and his wife (in a botched abortion). Rokeach makes the case that Mr. Benson was never really his own man, that since childhood he had allowed others to make decisions for him, and the strain of losing these authorities in his life was too much. In this book, Mr. Benson is easily forgotten. He’s always sitting there during the meetings, but he rarely speaks, or if he does it is mostly gibberish. Perhaps because of this, Rokeach rarely has the book focus on him, though he does have some good lines, like this one:

Late at night. All fifteen patients in the dorm are in their beds, but there is a great deal of restlessness because one of the patients is snoring loudly. Finally one of the patients, exasperated, yells: “Jesus Christ!  Quit that snoring.” Whereupon Clyde, rearing up in his bed, replies: “That wasn’t me who was snoring. It was him!”

Joseph Cassel was 58 and had been hospitalized for nearly 20 years. A timid man, he grew up with a strict father (who called him Josephine) in a french-speaking household in Canada. Perhaps as a response to the fact that he was not allowed to bring anything “English” into the home, Joseph, besides considering himself Jesus Christ, also considers himself a patriot of England, who protects him and whom he protects. One of the strangest accounts in the study is one when, in peril of losing his beloved placebos, Joseph still will not say that the hospital is not an English stronghold. He doesn’t even have to believe this to keep his placebos; he need only pretend — to lie. He won’t do it. Interestingly, Rokeach notes that had he lied, it would have been a sign of improvement.

The youngest was Leon Gabor, at 38, who had been hospitalized for five years already. Leon was raised by a super-religious mother who, by all evidence, was severely psychotic herself. She instilled in Leon a profound sense of sexual guilt that he struggles with through the entire book, particularly since he is probably gay. Leon receives a great deal of attention throughout the book. He’s vocal and causes the most conflicts. It also seems he is the smartest, or, at least, he is the only one of the men who doesn’t simply deny the others’ claims but tries to reconcile everything. Rokeach seems particularly hopeful that Leon can be helped.

So Clyde, Joseph, and Leon are brought together. They sleep in adjacent beds, eat in the same room, have the same work duties, and hold meetings each day. The meetings take up a large part of the book as we watch these men interact with each other, sometimes with a great deal of tension and sometimes with what can almost be brotherly love — I say “almost” because even though the relationship gives them some contact they desperately desire, they also desperately want to hold on to their beliefs and fret each time they are challenged.

Remarkably, The Three Christs of Ypsilanti is not clinical in tone. Indeed, Rokeach has a great sense of tone, understatement, and timing, that one would think he was also a great novelist. These men are brought to life before our eyes, and we feel their pain and feel compassion towards them. Some parts are funny (like the “squelch eye” incident), and many are incredibly sad.

Yes, it’s very sad, and we can credit Rokeach for helping us feel these emotions through his highly skilled presentation. However, we can also blame him for being the source of some of the more terrible passage. This is a deeply troubling book. In his afterword, written twenty years later, Rokeach doesn’t apologize for his experiment, but he admits that, in a way, there were four men who thought they were god — the three patients and himself, the psychologist who, albeit in the pursuit of knowledge and in the hopes of helping the men, played with their lives.

In the introduction, Rokeach explains that while the initial plan was to see what happened when these men were brought together, “[s]ubsequently, a second purpose emerged: an exploration of the processes by which systems of belief and behavior might be changed through messages purporting to come from significant authorities who existed only in the imaginations of the delusional Christs.” Fully hoping to help these men out, constantly scrutinizing ethical concerns, Rokeach assumes writes letters to Joseph and Leon pretending to be authority figures from their delusions. For example, Joseph rejects his real father (to an extent — he calls him Josephine after all) and has taken to calling the head of Ypsilanti “dad.” With permission from “dad,” Rokeach begins writing to Joseph, asking him to do certain things, hoping that because of his trust in this authority figure, Joseph will begin to changes some of his delusions. This failed, as shown above when Joseph simply would not disclaim that the hospital was an English stronghold.

But even more heart-breaking and cruel were Rokeach’s letters to Leon in which Rokeach assumed the guise of Leon’s non-existent wife. Though never married, Leon often buttressed his claims to godliness by giving details about fictional women in his life, many of whom were gods in their own right and who became his wife. But does Leon actually believe in these women? And what if he received a letter from one?  Here is his response to the first:

Leon’s initial response is disbelief. Without divulging the contents of the letter, he tells the aide that although he has never seen his wife’s handwriting he knows that she didn’t write or sign this letter. He says further that he doesn’t like the idea of people imposing on his beliefs and that he is going to look into this.

A couple of hours later, during the daily meeting, we notice Leon is extremely depressed and we ask him why. He evasively replies that he is meditating, but he does not mention the letter. This is the first time, as far as we know, that he has ever kept information from us.

August 4. This is the day Leon’s wife is supposed to visit him. He goes outdoors shortly before the appointed hour and does not return until it is well past.

So, yes, both Leon and Joseph believe in the delusions they have constructed, and in assuming these authorities’ voices, Rokeach, in a way, assumes the role of a god in the lives of these troubled men.

As I said above, the book is hardly clinical in its tone. It does not read like a study at all but rather like a deeply felt narrative of the troubles of these three men who came together for a time in Ypsilanti State Hospital. I highly recommend it.

5 thoughts on “Milton Rokeach: The Three Christs of Ypsilanti

  1. Isabel says:

    Great review. Another book that I need to add to my TBR.

    Keep well and read much in 2012!

  2. Lisa Hill says:

    This reminds me of the work of Oliver Sacks. He writes about psychiatric and sensory orders in a similarly accessible way, which not only helps us to understand people with these sorts of difficulties but also evokes empathy. Ironically, the most vivid of these for me was the man who could only see things in black, white and grey, and the impact that this had, for example, his ability to enjoy food, sunny weather and tactile experiences.
    If my memory serves me correctly, Sacks also struggles with his own role as a participant/observer.

  3. Scott W. says:

    I’ve seen this book around and have been interested in it; I’m even more interested now. The unorthodox clinical psychologist Milton Erickson, in a fascinating book called Uncommon Therapy, recounts a great story about a similar patient who claimed to be Christ. When Erickson first saw the patient, he said something along the lines of “So, I understand that you’re a carpenter” – then put the patient to work building bookcases, which apparently helped tremendously in bringing the patient back down from the heavens.

  4. I’ve heard about this. Human experimentation without consent. Deeply problematic.

    I think it was the New Statesman that also reviewed the book, and talked a bit about these cases. Rokeach appears to have gone far beyond the needs of the patients, and in doing so ceases to be a doctor to them. It sounds interesting, but ethically bankrupt.

  5. Trevor says:

    Our podcast on this book is recorded and edited and now simply must await its release date (we only have so much storage per month at our price point, so it will still be a week and a half before it all resets).

    One thing my brother pointed out to me during the podcast that I hadn’t noticed before is the image of Christ on the cover of the book. The picture is entitled “Natures Apparition of Christ,” and I had looked at it to see where the photo contained Christ. I didn’t see it until he pointed it out to me. It’s a fascinating shot, and again NYRB Classics has nailed the cover.

    If you don’t see it, his head is in the upper left corner, the branches make his shoulders, below you can see his waist and legs. It takes up most of the left side of the cover.

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