The Curious Case of the Three Christs:…What happened when three men…who each identify as Jesus Christ…are forced to live together…in a mental hospital…?:
“In the late 1950s, psychologist Milton Rokeach was gripped by an
eccentric plan. He gathered three psychiatric patients, each with the
delusion that they were Jesus Christ, to live together for two years in Ypsilanti State Hospital
to see if their beliefs would change.
The early meetings were stormy.
“You oughta worship me, I’ll tell you that!” one of the Christs yelled.
“I will not worship you! You’re a creature! You better live your own
life and wake up to the facts!” another snapped back. “No two men are
Jesus Christs. … I am the Good Lord!” the third interjected, barely
concealing his anger.
Frustrated by psychology’s focus on what he considered to be
peripheral beliefs, like political opinions and social attitudes,
Rokeach wanted to probe the limits of identity. He had been intrigued by
stories of Secret Service agents who felt they had lost contact with
their original identities, and wondered if a man’s sense of self might
be challenged in a controlled setting.
Unusually for a psychologist, he
found his answer in the Bible. There is only one Son of God, says the
good book, so anyone who believed himself to be Jesus would suffer a
psychological affront by the very existence of another like him. This
was the revelation that led Rokeach to orchestrate his meeting of the
Messiahs and document their encounter in the extraordinary (and
out-of-print) book from 1964, The Three Christs of Ypsilanti.
Although by no means common, Christ conventions have an unexpectedly
long history. In his commentary to Cesare Beccaria’s essay “Crimes and
Punishments,” Voltaire recounted the tale of the “unfortunate madman”
Simon Morin who was burnt at the stake in 1663 for claiming to be Jesus.
Unfortunate it seems, because Morin was originally committed to a
madhouse where he met another who claimed to be God the Father, and “was so struck with the folly of his companion that he acknowledged his own,
and appeared, for a time, to have recovered his senses.” The lucid
period did not last, however, and it seems the authorities lost patience
with his blasphemy.
Another account of a meeting of the Messiahs comes
from Sidney Rosen’s book My Voice Will Go With You: The Teaching Tales of Milton H. Erickson.
The renowned psychiatrist apparently set two delusional Christs in his
ward arguing only for one to gain insight into his madness,
miraculously, after seeing something of himself in his companion. (“I’m saying the same things as that crazy fool is saying,” said one of the patients. “That must mean I’m crazy too.”)
These tales are surprising because delusions, in the medical sense,
are not simply a case of being mistaken. They are considered to be
pathological beliefs, reflecting a warped or broken understanding that
is not, by definition, amenable to being reshaped by reality.
most striking examples is the Cotard delusion,
under which a patient believes she is dead; surely there can be no
clearer demonstration that simple and constant contradiction offers no
lasting remedy. Rokeach, aware of this, did not expect a miraculous
cure. Instead, he was drawing a parallel between the baseless nature of
delusion and the flimsy foundations we use to construct our own
If tomorrow everyone treats me as if I have an electronic
device in my head, there are ways and means I could use to demonstrate
they are wrong and establish the facts of the matter—a visit to the
hospital perhaps. But what if everyone treats me as if my core self were
fundamentally different than I believed it to be? Let’s say they
thought I was an undercover agent—what could I show them to prove
otherwise? From my perspective, the best evidence is the strength of my
conviction. My belief is my identity.(!!)
In one sense, Rokeach’s book reflects a remarkably humane approach for its era. We are asked to see ourselves in the psychiatric
patients, at a time when such people were regularly locked away and
treated as incomprehensible objects of pity rather than individuals
worthy of empathy. Rokeach’s constant attempts to explain the delusions
as understandable reactions to life events require us to accept that the
Christs have not “lost contact” with reality, even if their
interpretations are more than a little uncommon.
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
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
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.”
Although we take little from it scientifically, the book remains a
rare and eccentric journey into the madness of not three, but four men
in an asylum. It is, in that sense, an unexpected tribute to human
folly, and one that works best as a meditation on our own misplaced
self-confidence. Whether scientist or psychiatric patient, we assume
others are more likely to be biased or misled than we are, and we take
for granted that our own beliefs are based on sound reasoning and
observation. This may be the nearest we can get to revelation—the
understanding that our most cherished beliefs could be wrong.”