In A Nutshell
In the late 1950s, psychologist Milton Rokeach and a team of researchers began an experiment in which they gathered three psychiatric patients and had them live together in Michigan’s Ypsilanti State Hospital to see how their beliefs might change or adapt. The bombshell? They were all suffering under the delusion that they were Christ. Rokeach’s methods were questionable, and his results both inconclusive and of little worth, but the experiment has become one of the weirder and more infamous of psychological case studies.
The Whole Bushel
Social psychologist Milton Rokeach was inspired to conduct the experiment after reading an account in a 1955 issue of Harper’s Magazine that told the story of two women who thought that they were Mary, Mother of God who had come face to face by chance within a mental institution in Maryland. He chose three patients, all suffering from the delusion that they were Jesus, and set them up to live together in the Ypsilanti State Hospital in Michigan in 1959.
The three patients each had their own unique ideas. Joseph Cassel went either by his given name or “God.” Clyde Benson stated upon introducing himself that, “Well, I have other names, but that’s my vital side and I made God five and Jesus six.” Leon Gabor said, “Sir, it so happens that my birth certificate says that I am Dr. Domino Dominorum et Rex Rexarum, Simplis Christianus Pueris Mentalis Doktor [Latin for “Lord of Lords, and King of Kings, Simple Christian Boy Psychiatrist”]. It also states on my birth certificate that I am the reincarnation of Jesus Christ of Nazareth.”
When joined together, the three patients almost immediately fell to arguing among themselves over who was the “true” Jesus among them, and did so throughout their first sessions, with Leon likening them to “mental torture.” Just what was Rokeach trying to prove?
Dr. Rokeach wondered how individuals with conflicting identity delusions would react when deliberately paired up. He thought that it might be possible to alter or even eliminate schizophrenic delusions if patients were forced to confront the existential contradiction of others who possessed the same delusions of identity. A sort of mental “shock treatment,” if you will.
The beginning of the experiment went about as well as one would expect. The three men argued and were upset in each other’s nearly constant company. They ate, slept, and worked in a laundry room together. In one of their arguments, in response to Leon’s contention that Adam was a “colored man,” Clyde became visibly angry, which prompted Leon to utter perhaps the most profound statement of the whole experiment, at least when it comes to the question of how conflicting beliefs and ideologies accommodate or come in conflict with each other in the outside world: “I believe in truthful bulls—t but I don’t care for your bulls—t.” (Clyde responded by punching him in the cheek.)
Almost from the beginning of the experiment, the doctor was manipulating the men’s lives, especially Leon. Once it became clear that direct confrontation had little effect, he would show them fake newspaper clippings designed to elicit a response, send fake letters from Dr. Yodar (the hospital’s superintendent) to Joseph (in an attempt to see what effect a higher authority figure might have on Joseph’s beliefs), and even impersonated Leon’s delusional wife outside of the hospital, in letters the doctor signed “Madame Yeti Woman” and later, “Madame Dr R.I. Dung.” This name was used after Leon insisted on a name change to “Dr Righteous Idealed Dung Sir Simplis Christianus Puer Mentalis Doctor” (in an apparent effort to distance himself from confrontations within the group). This was perhaps, the worst of the Doctor’s ethical lapses, in that it caused Leon great distress. He suspected the letters from the start, but always went to the meeting places the letters arranged; his “wife” never showed.
Instead of having breakthroughs, the men began to accommodate each other, even going so far as to show a clear preference for each other’s company. Each patient came to explain away the others in eccentric ways. Clyde decided that the other two were actually dead, and that it was “the machines inside of them” that kept them alive, while the other two settled on variations of believing that the others were “duped” or “crazy.” Leon especially came close to revelation when he noted that the others were in a mental institution, so they must be crazy. As Leon had constructed elaborate explanations as to why he was living in a mental institution, obviously, it did not apply to him.
None of the patients were ever cured, or ever had positive results, and no useful material was ever developed from the experiments, especially when advances in neuroscience showed that many of the experiment’s assumptions on the nature of schizophrenia were dead wrong. The patients never did seem interested in resolving the question of “who was the real Jesus among them?” and showed clear signs that they only wanted to live in peace together. When Dr. Rokeach finally pulled the plug on the experiment in 1961, the three men were carefully avoiding mention of any subject that could lead to religion or the question of their identities.
Dr. Rokeach wrote a book on the subject entitled The Three Christs of Ypsilanti, where he concluded (rather weakly) with the Freudian idea that the delusions suffered by the three men were the result of confusion over sexual identity and noting that we all, “seek ways to live with one another in peace.”
There may have been a fourth person within the study who was under the delusion that he was God; the good Dr. Rokeach himself. The doctor acknowledges his ethical lapses in the afterword to the 1981 paperback edition of his book, where he writes, “While I had failed to cure the three Christs of their delusions, they had succeeded in curing me of mine—of my God-like delusion that I could change them by omnipotently and omnisciently arranging and rearranging their daily lives within the framework of a ‘total institution.’ ”