Sometime in the 1940s, an improbable encounter occurred at a mental institution in Maryland. Two women, each of whom was institutionalized for believing she was the Virgin Mary, chanced upon one another and engaged in conversation. They had been chatting for several minutes when the older woman introduced herself as “Mary, Mother of God.”
“Why you can’t be, my dear,” the other patient replied, unable to conceive of such a notion. “You must be crazy. I am the Mother of God.”
“I’m afraid it’s you who are mixed up,” the first asserted, “I am Mary.”
A hospital staff member eavesdropped as the two Virgin Marys debated their identities. After a while the women paused to quietly regard one another. Finally, the older patient seemed to arrive at a realization. “If you’re Mary,” she said, “I must be Anne, your mother.” That seemed to settle it, and the reconciled patients embraced. In the following weeks the woman who had conceded her delusion was reported to be much more receptive to treatment, and she was soon considered well enough to be discharged from the hospital.
This clinical anecdote was retold in a 1955 issue of Harper’s Magazine, and a highly-regarded social psychologist named Dr. Milton Rokeach read it with great interest. What might happen, he wondered, if a psychologist were to deliberately pair up patients who held directly conflicting identity delusions? Perhaps such psychological leverage could be used to pry at the cracks of an irrational psyche to let in the light of reason. Dr. Rokeach sought and secured a research grant to test his hypothesis, and he began canvassing sanitariums for delusional doppelgängers. Soon he found several suitable subjects: three patients, all in state care, each of whom believed himself to be Jesus Christ. And he saw that it was good.
Rokeach initiated his research experiment at the Ypsilanti State Hospital in Michigan in 1959. He instructed the medical superintendent Dr. Yoder to arrange the transfers that would bring the three patients together. Yoder dutifully sent them to Ypsilanti’s Ward D-23, and then washed his hands of the matter. Three days later, when the “Three Christs” arose, they were summoned to a small antechamber adjacent to Ward D-23.
It was a plain room with bare walls and deliberately unstimulating furniture. As was always the case when Dr. Rokeach was present, a nebula of tobacco smoke hung in the air. The doctor introduced himself and his three research assistants, and he explained that they would all be spending a lot of time together over the next few months. The patients sat across from the researchers in heavy wooden straight-backed chairs. One patient was elderly, another was relatively young, and the third was in between. Rokeach asked the third to introduce himself to the group.
“My name is Joseph Cassel,” the man said. Joseph was a 58-year-old patient who at that time had been institutionalized for almost twenty years. He was quite bald, and he grinned often despite missing half of his front teeth. His shirt and trouser pockets were bulging with belongings such as eyeglasses, tobacco, pencils, handkerchiefs, books, and magazines. Joseph tended to inexplicably fling the reading material from the windows when he thought no one was looking. Although he was not from England, nor had he ever even visited the place, he yearned to return there someday. He was the most mild-mannered of the Three Christs.
“Joseph, is there anything else you want to tell us?” Rokeach prompted.
“Yes.” he replied. “I’m God.”
The next to speak was the eldest of the three. “My name is Clyde Benson,” he mumbled in a low voice that characterized most of his speech. “That’s my name straight.” At 70 years old, Clyde suffered from dementia, but in moments of lucidity he tended to reminisce about working on the railroads, and fishing. He was quite tall and almost entirely toothless.
“Do you have any other names?” Rokeach replied.
“Well, I have other names, but that’s my vital side and I made God five and Jesus six,” Clyde replied.
The third Christ to introduce himself was Leon, the youngest at age 38. He had been raised by a single mother, a militant Christian woman who had struggled with her own mental health. Some five years earlier his mother had come home from her daily church session to find Leon in the process of destroying the crucifixes and other Christian ornamentation that covered every wall of the house. Leon then commanded his mother to reject such false images and worship him as Jesus. He had been committed soon thereafter. He was tall, thin, articulate, and he constantly kept with his hands in front of him to keep them in sight.
“Sir,” Leon introduced himself to Rokeach, “it so happens that my birth certificate says that I am Dr. Domino Dominorum et Rex Rexarum, Simplis Christianus Pueris Mentalis Doktor.” This prolonged moniker was Latin for “Lord of Lords, and King of Kings, Simple Christian Boy Psychiatrist”. Leon continued, “It also states on my birth certificate that I am the reincarnation of Jesus Christ of Nazareth.”
Joseph, the one who had first introduced himself, was also the first to protest. “He says he is the reincarnation of Jesus Christ. I can’t get it. I know who I am. I’m God, Christ, the Holy Ghost, and if I wasn’t, by gosh, I wouldn’t lay claim to anything of the sort. I’m Christ. I don’t want to say I’m Christ, God, the Holy Ghost, Spirit. I know this is an insane house and you have to be very careful.”
After allowing Joseph to rant a bit longer, young Leon interjected. “Mr. Cassel, please! I didn’t agree with the fact that you were generalizing and calling all people insane in this place. There are people here who are not insane. Each person is a house. Please remember that.”
Dr. Rokeach allowed them to argue in this way for a few moments before he turned to Clyde, the eldest, and asked his opinion. “I represent the resurrection,” Clyde replied. “Yeh! I’m the same as Jesus. To represent the resurrection…” He trailed off into indistinct mumbling.
Rokeach attempted to clarify, for the record: “Did you say you are God?”
“That’s right. God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit.”
The decorum disintegrated as Clyde and Joseph, the two older patients, began to bellow at one another. “Don’t try to pull that on me because I will prove it to you! I’m telling you I’m God!” … “You’re not!” … “I’m God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Ghost! I know what I am and I’m going to be what I am!” And so on. They argued thus for the remainder of the session as Leon watched in attentive silence. When they adjourned for the day Leon denounced the sessions as “mental torture.”
Dr. Rokeach’s hypothesis was that it might be possible to alter or eliminate schizophrenic delusions if he forced patients to confront what he described as ‘the ultimate contradiction conceivable for human beings’: more than one person claiming the same identity. To this end, he contrived a battery of experiments to challenge the Christs’ identities over the coming months. The researchers also set up a control group consisting of three female inmates who would receive the same amount of staff attention as the three male inmates. These women likewise exhibited identity delusions, however in the interest of science the researchers would be careful to not dispute the women’s identities. By measuring the delusional drift in these control patients Rokeach hoped to quantify and correct for the effects of increased psychologist interaction.
Rokeach attempted to maximize inter-Christ contact by assigning the three men to adjacent beds in Ward D-23, assigning them adjacent seats in the dining area, and arranging for them to work side-by-side in the laundry. His research assistants were instructed to conduct a daily group session, and to follow the Christs and inventory their activities during the rest of the day. Once per week Dr. Rokeach himself would descend upon the facility to personally prod at the patients’ psyches.
On one occasion, Rokeach asked the group, “Why are you in this hospital?”
Clyde, the oldest, mumbled that he owned the building and adjacent lands and that he stayed on as caretaker. Joseph proudly explained that the hospital was an English stronghold, and that he was there to defend it. Leon, the youngest and least institutionalized, was the only one to acknowledge that he himself was a mental patient, but he stopped short of admitting to delusion. He blamed some ambiguous, jealous persecutors for unjustly subjecting him to the torment of a mental ward.
“Why do you suppose I brought you all together?” Rokeach prompted.
Clyde—who the others began to refer to as “the old man”—stubbornly refused to speculate. As for Joseph, he insisted that his attendance was to convince the others that they were insane, and that he himself was the one and only God. Leon had arrived at a partially correct conclusion, inferring that Dr. Rokeach was pitting the patients against one another, but Leon also asserted that the researchers’ ambition was to use “electronic voodooism” to brainwash patients.
Weeks of such discussions ensued. As the novelty of the sessions wore off the tension began to rise. Debates became passionate as each Christ attempted to disabuse the others of their misguided beliefs. In the meantime the researchers’ questions became more confrontational. Each patient strained to maintain a rational demeanor, nevertheless outbursts, obscenities, and threats became increasingly commonplace both inside and outside of the daily sessions. On one occasion, as Leon waited in the supper line, a bothersome patient approached him and asked, “Do you still think you’re Jesus Christ?”
“Sir, I most certainly am Jesus Christ,” Leon replied.
The agitator turned to another man waiting in line and said, “This guy thinks he’s Christ. He’s nuts, isn’t he?”
“He’s not Christ, I am!” the man replied angrily. It happened to be Joseph.
Old Man Clyde was not far away, and was heard to bellow, “No, he’s not! I am!”
The first physical violence occurred three weeks into the experiment. During the daily group session, Leon contended that Adam of the Bible was a “colored man.” Clyde confronted him angrily, to which Leon replied, “I believe in truthful bullshit but I don’t care for your bullshit.” The old man struck him on the cheek with a solid right smite. Leon sat with his hands folded and made no effort to retaliate or defend himself. Dr. Rokeach and his assistant wrestled Clyde away, allowed him to compose himself, and before long the conversation continued as though nothing had happened.
This was not the only time the self-styled Christs came to fisticuffs over philosophical differences, but gradually the spirited discourse gave way to a shaky, mutually patronizing peace. The men sometimes humored one another’s delusions, and other times they tap-danced around them. Over time, each Christ cultivated new delusions to retain his claim to godliness. Clyde squared his reality with the others’ by concluding that the other men were actually dead—in his mind they were absurd corpse puppets whose limbs and faces were controlled by machines hidden inside of them. Leon explained away the others’ assertions as lies from attention-seeking imposters, or the result of technical-sounding nonsense terms such as “duping”, “interferences”, or “electronic imposition”. As for Joseph, he sagely observed that the other Christ claimants were, in fact, patients in a mental hospital, which proved that they were quite insane.
As weeks turned into months, pedestrian subjects such as favorite foods and personal anecdotes began to dominate the sessions. Even outside of meetings the three men frequently sat together quietly despite being free to roam and mingle with others. They shared tobacco and stuck up for one another against interlopers. Each continued to believe that he was the embodiment of the Holy Trinity, with the power to perform miracles, but all three had learned that discussing religion was not conducive to peaceful co-existence.
Quite late one evening the patients of Ypsilanti’s ward D-23 were having trouble sleeping due to some slumberer’s coarse snoring disrupting the otherwise silent night. Frustrated, one of the patients finally shouted, “Jesus Christ! Quit that snoring!”
Clyde sat up in bed and replied, “That wasn’t me who was snoring. It was him!”
Six months into the study Dr. Rokeach decided to disband the all-female control group. He cited “boredom and fatigue” as the reason to sacrifice the scientific counterweight, as well as budgetary concerns. The daily sessions with the male subjects continued unabated. In fact, Dr. Rokeach decided to accelerate his campaign to scrutinize the captive Christs and test the depths of their delusions.
During one session Dr. Rokeach produced a newspaper clipping he had brought with him and handed it around. Old Man Clyde and Almost-As-Old-Man Joseph had trouble reading the small text, so Leon volunteered to read it aloud for the others. It was a local reporter’s summary of a lecture recently given by one “Dr. Rokeach.” Evidently this lecturer was conducting an odd psychological experiment at Ypsilanti State Hospital with three men who all believed they were Jesus Christ.
As Leon read aloud, Clyde withdrew into a unresponsive “stupor.” Leon himself grew increasingly visibly upset. He was wholly aware of the article’s substance. After he finished reading he protested the incomplete picture offered by the report. “When psychology is used to agitate, it’s not sound psychology any more,” he told Dr. Rokeach. “You’re not helping the person. You’re agitating. When you agitate you belittle your intelligence.” With that, Leon left. Joseph failed to grasp that the article was discussing Clyde, Leon, and himself. He simply remarked that it is “pure insanity” to believe one is God when one is not. As for Clyde, he had nothing more to say for the day.
In October Joseph began to receive letters from Dr. Yoder, the hospital superintendent. Or rather, he believed he was corresponding with Dr. Yoder—the letters were actually written by Dr. Rokeach himself, with Dr. Yoder’s permission. Rokeach wanted to find out whether pressure from a respected outside authority figure could effect change in a patient’s beliefs and behaviors. Given urgings from the superintendent himself, what would Joseph do? Rokeach acknowledged the “serious ethical issues” involved, and his research assistants voiced concerns regarding the methodology, but Dr. Rokeach emphasized his intent to employ caution, adding, “we hoped there might be, therapeutically, little to lose and, hopefully, a good deal to gain.”
The first of these letters commended Joseph on his clinical progress, and urged him to renounce his claims of English heritage. Joseph wrote enthusiastic letters in response, but he was reluctant to disclaim his beloved England. The impostor Yoder goaded him to attend church, which was not something that had ever interested Joseph, but after much pestering he relented. Rokeach then began to enclose small amounts of cash to be spent at the hospital store, indicating in the letters that Dr. Yoder loved Joseph “like a son.” Joseph responded to this by addressing his subsequent replies to “My dear Dad.” The fake Yoder even arranged for Joseph to try a promising new drug called potent-valuemiocene—actually a placebo—and then Rokeach abruptly cut off the supply despite Joseph’s positive response. Finally, frustrated, Joseph appealed to a higher authority by writing directly to President Kennedy pleading for release from the hospital.
Dr. Rokeach also engaged in deceptive correspondence with Leon. Rokeach decided to test the strength of Leon’s oft-expressed delusion that he had a wife outside of the hospital. The first letter was handed to Leon by an aide shortly before a daily group session. Leon saw that it was signed with his imaginary wife’s name, and the note informed him that she intended to come visit him at an appointed day and time in the near future. Leon told the aide the letter must be a forgery. His demeanor during the subsequent session was unusually depressed, but he would not say why. When the appointed day and time arrived, the researchers observed as Leon went to the meeting place. He did not return until much later. Researchers noted that Leon had grown much more depressed in general, and that he was being uncharacteristically rude to female hospital volunteers.
Rokeach wrote still more such letters to Leon, these integrating some of Leon’s home-grown psychological jargon. Gradually Leon seemed to consider the possibility that the letters were genuine. His non-existent wife made a new appointment to come visit him, and Leon showered and shaved to greet her. She did not appear. Yet another letter led to yet another missed appointment. The research assistant monitoring him noted that the repeated fraudulent rendezvous made Leon “visibly upset and angry.”
Despite all this, Dr. Rokeach was still not convinced that Leon truly believed the letters were from his wife. Perhaps Leon was merely keeping the appointments in hopes of identifying the impostor. Rokeach’s next idea was for Mrs. Leon to send some money, then wait and see if Leon would accept it and spend it. In all his institutionalized days Leon had adamantly repudiated the use of money for any purpose, and as a result his untouched hospital bank account was quite substantial. Dr. Rokeach later wrote about what happened when Leon opened the letter:
Leon was now gazing at the dollar bill that had been enclosed in his letter with an intensity of expression which puzzled me.
—What are you looking at?—
Suddenly I realized that he was really doing something I had not expected to witness. He was struggling to hold back his tears. With this much effort he would surely succeed. But he did not. Two tiny droplets formed in the corner of his eyes, and ever so slowly they grew slightly larger. There they remained for a moment or two until they squeezed themselves out as if of their own accord, despite Leon’s struggle. I watched their slow descent down his face.
The mood this aroused soon gave way to another. As the two tiny droplets approached the halfway mark down his cheeks, Leon neatly scooped them up with his index finger, first one, then the other, and sucked them into his mouth.
—What are you doing?—
“Tears are the best antiseptic there is,” said Leon. “There’s no use wasting tears.”
He began to examine the dollar bill, turning it over from one side to the other. “I haven’t seen one of these for years. I mean, to handle.” He read the name of the Treasurer of the United States and the serial number.
—Does the letter make you happy or sad?—
“I feel somewhat glad.”
—Is there something the matter with your eyes?—
“Oh, they’re smarting, sir, so I’m enjoying some disinfectant, sir,—the best in the world: tears.”
—Are you crying?—
“No, my eyes are smarting because of some condition.”
The counterfeit letters from Leon’s wife continued for weeks, often along with money and specific instructions on how to spend it. Sometimes the notes asked him to make small changes in his daily rituals, such as what brand of tobacco to smoke for the day. He complied for a few weeks, but gradually Leon came to the conclusion that the letter-writer was not his wife, but some female patient in the hospital who was cruelly stringing him along by impersonating his bride. Leon sat down and wrote a letter to Dr. Broadhurst, the female resident psychiatrist of the ward. “I know you know who she is,” Leon accused. “Tell her I do not want any more donations, or letters.” He refused all subsequent correspondence addressed from his wife.
Dr. Rokeach next employed a more overt approach in his clinical crusade. Hospital aides delivered a final forged letter to Leon, this one signed with the name of his trusted uncle, George Bernard Brown. Therein Leon learned that a change in Ypsilanti personnel would soon come to pass. His false uncle prophesied that a new psychologist was about to join the hospital staff, and that this change of personnel would align with Leon’s interests.
Leon did not have to wait long. At the group session several days later Dr. Rokeach introduced Miss Anderson, his shiny new research assistant. She was, by all accounts, a splendid and glowing sight to behold. Leon was clearly attracted to his foreordained ally, and the curiosity seemed mutual. She listened to him attentively, she laughed at his jokes, and she seemed to share his interests. Miss Anderson’s forward and flirtatious behavior seemed to stir deep conflict within young Leon. Although he frequently and openly discussed the topics of sex and genitalia, he considered intercourse itself to be forbidden. After all, he was a married man.
A few weeks after Miss Anderson’s introduction, Leon approached her at the outset of the regular group session. He handed her a thick envelope which he explained contained “the most important document I have written in my life.” When Dr. Rokeach later examined it he found it contained nothing new to him—it was Leon’s disjointed attempt to summarize his worldview for Miss Anderson. It was only the first of several such crush-driven manifestos. Soon Leon convinced Miss Anderson to start engaging in one-on-one discussions immediately following the daily sessions. He always came prepared with conversation topics jotted onto index cards. Dr. Rokeach noted that Leon made frequent eye contact with Miss Anderson during these discussions, which was not his ordinary inclination.
Although Rokeach’s writings never explicitly admit to it, his other research assistants believed that the psychologist specifically selected Miss Anderson for the fact that she was pleasant to the eyes. They also suspected that he had specifically directed her to flirt with Leon. Perhaps Rokeach thought that a patient forced to choose between delusions and love might abandon his divine claims and be saved.
Over the months that followed, either the dissonance became unmanageable or Miss Anderson’s acting skills were inadequate. A seed of doubt began to germinate within Leon, and he became brooding and withdrawn. He accused the researchers of tempting him into adultery. He assembled a semi-opaque blindfold which he began to wear whenever other people were around, and he later added earplugs to further insulate himself from reality. As Rokeach had hypothesized, Leon’s delusions indeed changed under the pressure of temptation, but not in predictable or positive ways. Leon claimed to have become a hermaphrodite. Soon thereafter he announced that he was pregnant with twins, sobbing as he anticipated their future of having to “suffer from impositions” as he did. He also claimed to have become invisible.
The following June, Miss Anderson departed for a week’s vacation. Upon her return she found the forsaken Leon in a state of extreme anxiety and exasperation. He took the opportunity to announce that he would not be tempted into adultery. He cancelled all future post-session one-on-one meetings. He was done with Miss Anderson. “The truth is my friend,” he told the researchers. “I have no other friends.”
Dr. Rokeach finally brought the Three Christs experiment to an end on 15 August 1961, just over two years since the first meeting of Clyde, Joseph, and Leon. None of the patients had measurably improved, although by the time Rokeach departed Leon had indeed renounced his claim to being Jesus Christ. Instead he insisted upon being referred to as “Dr. Righteous Idealized Dung.” He had also come to believe that he was one of the Yeti people.
Milton Rokeach went on to write an unapologetic book about the experiment entitled The Three Christs of Ypsilanti. Therein Rokeach drew some dubious Freudian conclusions regarding confusion about sexual identity as a basis for identity delusions. However he did find some insight by comparing schizophrenic delusions with his own experiences with LSD. He wrote:
At one point during the time I was under the influence of this drug, the phonograph was on. A woman soloist was singing a hauntingly beautiful melody. I saw the voice lift itself out of the record player; it looked ghostlike and ribbony. I saw it travel across the room toward me; then I felt it pushing its way into my right ear (not my left). And then I heard her singing the rest of the song inside my head. While this was happening, I knew it was a hallucination. But, still, I experienced it! Even though I knew that the reality of this experience would not be supported by social consensus, there was nothing anyone could say or do which would convince me that it was not happening to me. It does not matter whether my experience was produced by an external physical stimulus, nor does it matter whether there are others who agree with me or not. What matters is that I had the experience. I am therefore now inclined to believe that the hallucinations or delusions of psychosis are more than simply matters of pretense or of hyperimagination which a little persuasive logic will prove cannot be so.
Ultimately even Rokeach himself had to acknowledge that his experimental psychology hadn’t helped Clyde, Joseph, or Leon. Nor did the research bear any usable data. As experiments go The Three Christs of Ypsilanti was far from rigorous. The experimenters abandoned their control group when it became inconvenient, they meddled endlessly, and they had a laughably small sample size of Jesuses. But even a perfectly-designed psychotherapy experiment would have been in vain. Later advances in neuroscience revealed that schizophrenia is disorder of thought processes rather than of thought content, associated with subtle differences in brain structures and in brain chemistry, consequently no amount of psychotherapy can “cure” schizophrenic delusions. However, thanks to modern medicine schizophrenia and similar disorders are quite controllable with the use of antipsychotic medications.
In the 1970s the institutionalization of mental health patients rapidly fell from favor in the United States. Further, these sorts of psychological experiments became essentially extinct when Congress passed the National Research Act of 1974, which imposed the requirement for an Institutional review board to oversee behavioral research and to protect the rights and welfare of human research subjects. And there was much rejoicing.
In the 1981 edition of his book Dr. Milton Rokeach appended an afterword entitled, “Some Second Thoughts About the Three Christs: Twenty Years Later.” In this retrospective he described a lecture he delivered several months after his experiment ended, where at one point he misspoke by stating that there had been four gods under scrutiny in his study rather than three. He later ascribed this “Freudian slip” to a subconscious awareness that he himself had been under a delusion of omnipotence at Ypsilanti. He explained that in the intervening years he had grown “uncomfortable about the ethics” of his research, and he attempted to redeem himself by beating around the apology bush:
…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.” […] I came to realize—dimly at the time but increasingly more clearly as the years passed—that I really had no right, even in the name of science, to play God and interfere around-the-clock with their daily lives.
Amen to that.