Episode 3: Milton Rokeach’s The Three Christs of Ypsilanti

In the summer of 1959, Milton Rokeach, a social psychologist at Ypsilanti State Hospital in Michigan, brought together three patients: Clyde Benson, Joseph Cassel, and Leon Gabor, each of whom believed himself to be Jesus Christ. Rokeach hoped that spending time with others claiming the same identity would shake each man of his delusion, or, as he put it, “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.” Rokeach observed them for two years, examining the nature of identity. It didn’t seem to help his patients, but it certainly affected them. Originally published in 1964, The Three Christs of Ypsilanti is a fascinating, sad, and disturbing psychological case study that most likely could not be repeated today.

NYRB Classics published their edition of The Three Christs of Ypsilanti in April of 2011, and it is the book we will be discussing in Episode 3 of The Mookse and the Gripes Podcast.

In Episode 4 we will be discussing Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s Memories of the Future.

Show Notes (1:10:08)

  • Intro
  • Brief Milton Rokeach Bio: 2:29
  • Spoiler-Free, General Discussion: 4:50
  • Spoiler/Specifics Discussion: 31:25

Some Links

Episode Credits

  • Co-Host Trevor Berrett
  • Co-Host Brian Berrett
  • Introduction Music — “Where We Fall We’ll Lie” by Jeff Zentner, from his album The Dying Days of Summer (used with permission)
  • Outro Music — “If This Is to Be Goodbye” by Jeff Zentner, from his album The Dying Days of Summer (used with permission)

3 thoughts on “Episode 3: Milton Rokeach’s The Three Christs of Ypsilanti

  1. Chris Phillips says:

    Thanks for the Podcast – I really enjoyed it and am now a subscriber! I’m a hopeless NYRB Classics enthusiast and welcome the chance to hear you folks talk regularly.

    I too read The Three Christs…not long ago with the partial expectation that it would be a dry and clinical recounting of endless ‘I am God,’ ‘No, I am God,’ ‘NO, I AM GOD!’ exchanges but overall I share many of your thoughts on its readability, narrative drive and overall rating of 4.5 or thereabouts out of 5.

    One area where I differed from you is that until Rokeach tells us otherwise at the end (tiny spoiler alert), I had assumed that Leon was the ‘furthest gone.’ His delusions seem the most extreme and he goes to the most elaborate lengths to justify them. But it is in fact Clyde – the quietest, most passive of the three – who is determined to be the most ill. But all three of these men – my word – aren’t they articulate!. Desperately ill, yet imaginative and highly intelligent men they seem to be to me.

    Yes, disturbing in parts, especially where Rokeach creates a wife for Leon. One thinks of the Nazis for other examples of medical research being unobstructed by the ethical imperative.

  2. Trevor says:

    Hi Chris, and thanks for the kind words!

    I see what you mean about Leon, especially with his ultra-ellaborate delusions. And while I think he meant what he said, there’s a spark of understanding underneath it all that made me think he understood more than he was letting on. Of course, it’s hard to get away from that thought once the author tells you!

    I’m curious why you think Clyde was articulate. I certainly think Leon and Joseph were, but I can’t really remember Clyde expressing himself terribly well — humorously, yes, which was a highlight of the book for me. Still, it’s been near a year since I read it, so I’m sure there are many aspects of it I’m forgetting.

    Anyway, I also wanted to ask if you are the Chris Phillips from Palimpsest way. Either way, thanks again for the comment, and I hope you’ll always feel welcome to let us know how we’re doing :) .

  3. Chris Phillips says:

    Yes, that’s me. Thanks for the kind words! I read this blog and Asylum regularly, but rarely comment. Yes, you are right about Clyde. I haven’t got my copy (which, by the way, so has Jesus on the cover in the top left!)to hand but there are moments of great articulation in both written and verbal form on the part of the other two.

    Something else springs to mind about what I feel was Rokeach’s greatest failing. As he progressed towards writing letters as Leon’s mother and Joseph’s father respectively, he really crosses a frontier away from seeking to improve the condition of these men and purely into experimenting with them. It is like poking a rat in a cage just to see what it will do. At that point, he ceases to be a medical practitioner. In his defence, he does come to recognise that.

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