Vol. 33 No. 18 · 22 September 2011

The Three Christs of Ypsilanti

Jenny Diski

4517 words

In 1959, Dr Milton Rokeach, a social psychologist, received a research grant to bring together three psychotic, institutionalised patients at Ypsilanti State Hospital in Michigan, in order to make a two and a half year study of them. Rokeach specialised in belief systems: how it is that people develop and keep (or change) their beliefs according to their needs and the requirements of the social world they inhabit. A matter of the inside coming to terms with the outside in order to rub along well enough to get through a life. As a rule people look for positive authority or referents to back up their essential beliefs about themselves in relation to the world: the priest, imam, Delia Smith, the politburo, gang leader, Milton Friedman, your mother, my favourite novelist. It works well enough, and when it does, we call ourselves and others like us sane. When it goes awry, when people lose and/or reject all positive referents in the real world for the self inside, we call them delusional, psychotic, mad. In order to count as sane, you don’t necessarily have to conform to the norms of the world, but you do have to be nonconformist in a generally acceptable way. One of the basic beliefs we all have, according to Rokeach, is that we are who we are because we know that by definition there can be only one of us. I’m Jenny Diski. You therefore aren’t. The converse is also true: you are the sole example of whoever you say you are. Therefore I can’t be you. It keeps things simple and sane for both you and me, and it’s easy to check the basic facts with each other, as well as with such socially sanctioned authorities as the passport office or the registrar of births and deaths. According to Rokeach that is a fundamental requirement of living coherently in the world of other people, the only world he believed we can effectively live in. He tested it one evening on his two young daughters by calling each of them by the other’s name over the dinner table. At first it was a good game, but within minutes it became so distressing to the girls (‘Daddy, this is a game, isn’t it?’ ‘No, it’s for real’) that they were starting to cry. If you’re thinking Rokeach is a bit of a sadistic daddy, I got the same impression reading The Three Christs of Ypsilanti when it was first published in 1964.* But what researcher doesn’t use the materials to hand – usually family – to begin to investigate a theory? Darwin observed and wrote about his children, as did Freud. And so did that particularly unpleasant behaviourist father in the movie Peeping Tom, made around the same time as Rokeach’s dinner table experiment. Rokeach did at least stop once the girls became tearful. But what would happen, he wondered, if he made three men meet and live closely side by side over a period of time, each of whom believed himself to be the one and only Jesus Christ?

The men chosen were Clyde aged 70, Joseph 58, and Leon not yet 40 when they were brought together. They were all long-term asylum inmates: Clyde and Joseph had been incarcerated for decades, Leon for five years. They had daily meetings with Rokeach and a research assistant, and after the first few months were given their own private sitting room, where they ate and could spend the day in each other’s company instead of having to use the day room. They were also given simple tasks which they were required to do together. (This may be the much more gripping prototype of Big Brother, although in the modern version everyone in the house deludedly believes themselves to be celebrities or interesting.) At the first meeting Rokeach asked the three men their names. Joseph said: ‘My name is Joseph Cassel.’ Was there anything else he had to tell the meeting? ‘Yes, I’m God.’ Clyde introduced himself: ‘My name is Clyde Benson. That’s my name straight.’ Did he have any other names? ‘Well, I have other names, but that’s my vital side and I made God five and Jesus six.’ Did that mean he was God? ‘I made God, yes. I made it 70 years old a year ago. Hell! I passed 70 years old.’ Leon, who demanded that everyone call him Rex, as Leon was his ‘dupe’ name, replied: ‘Sir, it so happens that my birth certificate says that I am Dr Domino Dominorum et Rex Rexarum, Simplis Christianus Pueris Mentalis Doktor.’ (This, Rokeach explains, included all the Latin Leon knew: Lord of Lords, King of Kings, Simple Christian Boy Psychiatrist.)

They all agreed with Rokeach that there could only be one Jesus Christ. Joseph was the first to take up the contradiction. ‘He says he’s 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 know this is an insane house and you have to be very careful.’ Very quickly he decided that the other two were insane, the proof being that they were in a mental hospital, weren’t they? Therefore Clyde and Leon were merely to be ‘laughed off’. Clyde concluded that the other two were ‘rerises’, lower beings, and anyway dead. He took, perhaps, the most godlike tone: ‘I am him. See? Now understand that!’ Leon, who became adept at ducking and diving in order to maintain his position without causing the social disruption they all found threatening, explained that the other two were ‘hollowed-out instrumental gods’. When Rokeach pushed Leon to say that Joseph wasn’t God, he replied:

‘He’s an instrumental god, now please don’t try to antagonise him. [To Joseph] My salute to you, sir, is as many times as you are a hollowed-out instrumental god ... My belief is my belief and I don’t want your belief, and I’m just stating what I believe.’

‘I know who I am,’ Joseph said.

  ‘I don’t want to take it away from you,’ Leon said. ‘You can have it. I don’t want it.’

Leon’s standard response to any claim from the others that went against his delusions was ‘That’s your belief, sir,’ and then to change the subject.

As to their understanding of why they had been brought together, Clyde, often baffled, took what was to be his habitual stance and remained silent on the subject, while Joseph was clear that they were there ‘to iron out that I’m the one and only God’ and for Rokeach to help him convince the other two that they were crazy, so that Joseph could do his work ‘with greater tranquillity’. Leon, right from the start quite aware of the agenda and able to articulate his opinion of it, had another answer:

I understand that you would like us three gentlemen to be a melting pot pertaining to our morals, but as far as I’m concerned I am myself, he is him, and he is him. Using one patient against another, trying to brainwash and also through the backseat driving of electronic voodooism. That has an implication of two against one or one against two ... I know what’s going on here. You’re using one patient against another, and this is warped psychology.

A great problem for the mad in the mid-20th century was that the sane were always trying to get in on their act. Sincere people who were not mad wanted to interfere with the mad in various ways in order to relieve them of their suffering and isolation, while others, equally sincere, wanted to get down with them and reinterpret their crazy ramblings as meta-sanity. What was no longer an option for the mad was to be left alone in asylums to get on with their deluded lives in their own way. There had been some historical pockets of interference and understanding. In 1563, more than two centuries before Philippe Pinel and Jean-Baptiste Pussin released the patients in Bicêtre from their chains and announced they needed treating not punishing, Johann Weyer reported to the Inquisition that the so-called witches everyone was so keen on strangling and burning were in fact delusional and mentally ill, as indeed was anyone who thought themselves a victim of their spells. Nevertheless, for the most part, until the middle of the 20th century, raving, delusional and pathologically withdrawn men and women were got out of society’s way by being incarcerated for much of their lives in formidable asylums, where their keepers had little thought beyond keeping them still, in one place, allowed out only when they died.

By the 1960s and 1970s a coalition of right-wing libertarians, left-wing radicals and the kind-hearted set their faces against such a fate, and, without the left and kind-hearted quite getting the agenda of the libertarians, collaborated to shut down the fortresses and free the mad to roam, not so much cared for in the community as dosed into a palsied stupor or undosed in manic terror, up and down our high streets to participate in the real world. R.D. Laing, along with others in the anti-psychiatry movement, started well by living with and listening to the speech of the mad, but ended up imposing on them his belief that he too had the gift of tongues and took charge of speaking truth to normality. He began as their interpreter but finally lost interest in the middle-mad-man (who kept behaving badly and had to be carted off back to the loony bin) and became the source of his own wisdom. Before and after the time of the anti-psychiatrists, the pro-psychiatrists did everything in their ever increasing ‘scientific’ power to liberate the mad from the bin and bring them back to the world of normality with cold showers, electric shocks, insulin shock, brain cutting and anti-psychotic medication. The libertarians, for their part, simply announced that there was no such thing as madness and therefore the state was not required to oversee and pay for the care of those who were making themselves socially unwelcome (see Thomas Szasz). The so-called mad were to be turned out of the asylums and become part of the general population. If any individual’s behaviour was intolerable to society, they were to be imprisoned, not given sick notes.

Milton Rokeach came in as these diverse voices began to be heard. His interest was not so much in psychopathology as with ‘the general nature of systems of belief and the conditions under which they can be modified’. In the book Rokeach acknowledges that his experiment with his children had to stop where the trial of the three Christs started, with signs of distress: ‘Because it is not feasible to study such phenomena with normal people, it seemed reasonable to focus on delusional systems of belief in the hope that, in subjecting them to strain, there would be little to lose and, hopefully, a great deal to gain.’ This is a very magisterial ‘non-deluded’ view of who in the world has or has not little to lose. Evidently, the mad, having no lives worth speaking of, might benefit from interference, but if they didn’t, if indeed their lives were made worse, it hardly mattered, since such lives were already worthless non-lives. It also incorporated the bang-up-to-the-moment idea that if you want to know about normality you could do worse than watch and manipulate the mad. The three Christs themselves, however, were of the certain opinion that they had something valuable to lose and made truly heroic efforts, each in his own way, to resist, as well as to explain to Rokeach and his team that their lives had considerable meaning for them. All of them, though Leon in particular, had a very clear understanding of what it was to be deluded, why it might be a useful option to choose over normality, and who did and didn’t have the right to interfere in their self-selected delusions. Over the course of the research, each man indicated how far he was prepared to go along with Rokeach, how much he valued what was on offer, and when his boundary had been reached. And they did it with more than ordinary grace and dignity.

There was indeed something on offer. Rokeach describes Clyde, Joseph and Leon as long-term inmates of overcrowded wards of custodial mental hospitals with inadequate staffing who might expect to see a doctor maybe once a year. Suddenly they were receiving a deluge of attention: daily meetings which began and ended with a song of their choice, nurses and a research assistant attending to them, watching and noting their activities all through the day, and special demands made and allowances given that they had never experienced as regular inmates. Even when they expressed anger at being manipulated, they tended to turn up every day to the voluntary meetings, and took their turn as rotating chairmen, writing up the minutes and choosing their favourite song and book. These most psychologically isolated of men were given (enforced) company, novelty in place of rigid daily routine, special privileges and (apparently) the attentive ear of the highest and mightiest in their world (each of them being God notwithstanding). In return they were required consciously to consider their delusions and challenged to alter their particular grasp on reality. The problem that faced them initially was: how can there be another one of me? Rokeach hoped they couldn’t help but conclude, as they looked from one to the other Christ, that logically they were not therefore who they thought they were, though he says nothing about what assistance was available in the overstretched state mental hospital in the event of their suddenly losing their delusions and having to confront themselves with their lost years as plain Clyde, Joseph and Leon. In fact, all three men resolved the logical trap set for them by sinuously changing the nature of the problem. The others were deluded, dead or lesser kinds of god. A kind of positive stability emerged, they associated with each other, sang together, read to each other and, apart from occasional bust-ups usually triggered by the researchers, generally refused to be drawn on the matter of who exactly was or wasn’t the one true Christ.

Leon was the most deft, perhaps because he had the clearest understanding of the invidious situation he was being put in, and found it harder to suppress the logic. He announced one day that he was no longer Rex, but had transformed into Dr Righteous Idealed Dung. One in the eye for his tormenters, you feel, cheering him on. Henceforth he would only answer to the name Dung or, as a concession to the head nurse, who attended a meeting to say that she couldn’t bring herself to call him Dung, simply R.I. He directed the meeting to Philippians 3:8: Yea, doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of knowledge of Jesus Christ my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ. Rokeach knew that, covertly, Leon hadn’t renounced his belief that he was Christ, but had instead shape-shifted, gone underground to the abject opposite. As he said before his transformation, ‘I believe that God is in this chair. He is in my dung and urine and farts and burps and everything.’ (‘That’s crazy,’ Joseph replied. ‘You don’t believe that God can be a patient in this hospital ... I’m the real God and I know I can be in many forms.’) Now Dr R.I. Dung was going to be ‘the humblest creature on the face of the earth – so lowly as not to be worth bothering with’, Rokeach explains. His brilliant plan allowed him to be a secret Christ, who no longer had to confront and defend himself against the claims of the other two, and who in this way could continue to enjoy the companionship and privileges on offer.

Since the researchers had been unable to shift the delusions of the three Christs, they decided to confront the men’s fantasies in other ways. They were shown a newspaper article about a speech Rokeach had given on three psychotic men who thought they were Christ. Clyde read it and fell asleep. Joseph claimed to have no idea who these men were. ‘Why should a man try to be s-somebody [sic] else when he’s not even himself? ... He should be sent to a hospital – not to be gotten out, not to be dismissed until he has gotten well ... when he claims he’s not Jesus Christ any more.’ Leon, lucid as ever, knew exactly who the three men were and expressed his anger: ‘When psychology is used to agitate, it’s not sound psychology any more. You’re not helping the person. You’re agitating. When you agitate you belittle your intelligence.’ Joseph, too, made himself clear: ‘I look forward to quietness. We can win over negativism. By “we” I mean the five of us having the meeting. It’s not going to do us any good. Then the meetings might be dissolved.’

Next the men were asked if it was all right for the researchers and the staff in the hospital publicly to refer to Rex as Dung, Joseph as Mr God, and Clyde as Mr Christ. All three joined forces (a psychologist’s triumph in itself) against Rokeach. ‘Now, don’t be funny,’ Clyde said. ‘You must understand, it’s too heavy for an individual to participate in these meetings over here, to go into that God business,’ Joseph said. ‘It’s indirect agitation. There’s a confliction ... It’s frictional psychology,’ Leon said. From which Rokeach deduced that ‘a psychotic is a psychotic only to the extent that he has to be.’

As Christ, Leon had been married to an absent wife called Dr Blessed Virgin Mary of Nazareth. With his translation to Dung, she was married off to Leon’s mystery uncle, and Leon took a new wife: the powerful but invisible Madame Yeti Woman. Joseph’s ‘delusional authority’, whom he called Dad, was Dr Yoder, the actual head of the hospital. Dad and Madame Yeti Woman became the main players in the final phase of Rokeach’s plan to test the nature and persistence of the three Christs’ belief systems. Clyde, too old and rigid to be further experimented on, was allowed to continue with the meetings but wasn’t confronted with his delusions. Rokeach’s idea was to see if Leon’s and Joseph’s fantasy authority figures were real enough to them to instruct their ‘husband’ and ‘son’ to enact ‘normal’ behaviour. Leon and Joseph began receiving letters. Leon’s were signed Your loving wife (and sometimes Truthfully yours), Madame Yeti Woman. Some of Joseph’s letters from ‘Dr Yoder’, written on hospital headed paper, ended: be assured that I will always love you just exactly like a father who deeply loves his own son. Sincerely yours, O.R. Yoder, MD. Leon’s initial refusal to accept letters from Madame Yeti Woman excited Rokeach into wondering whether he didn’t, after all, really believe in his delusions. Do the deluded take on their persona more consciously than it seemed, as a shield against having to cope in the regular world? Are the mad really mad? Did Leon only want them to think he believed what he said? Leon at first firmly rejected the fleshing out of his fantasy, became extremely depressed and said he didn’t like the idea of people imposing on his beliefs. But gradually, unable to resist the temptation in spite of his deep suspicions, he came to accept her as a real presence. She sent money, told him to buy things for himself and to give the change to Clyde and Joseph. Leon, the only human being Rokeach had encountered who genuinely had no interest in money, did as he was instructed. Madame Yeti Woman made Dung’s inner world as real as the meetings he attended. In one letter she enclosed a ‘positive cigarette holder ... I think you will enjoy this one since it also has a cosmic boupher.’

It is excruciating to read of his capitulation, as he accepts the existence of and is ready to interact with someone else in his isolated world. In a meeting where Leon is given a letter with a dollar bill, Rokeach notes a breakthrough for the study:

Suddenly I realised 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 ... Does the letter make you happy or sad? ‘I feel somewhat glad’ ... Are you crying? ‘No, my eyes are smarting because of some condition.’ You say you feel somewhat happy? ‘Yes, sir, it’s a pleasant feeling to have someone think of you. But there’s still a tugging against her and I don’t care for it.’ Do you want to disobey her? ‘No, no! I don’t! That’s the point! I don’t care for the temptation against her.’

It seems as if the invasion is complete, but Rokeach goes too far as both Madame Yeti Woman and Dad. Madame Yeti Woman arranges a meeting, which Leon goes to, but, of course, finds no one there. ‘When he returns to the ward he is visibly upset and angry. He tells an aide that he is very angry with his wife because she was in the back of the cafeteria having relations with a Negro.’ After transferring his love to a new female research assistant and finding his yearning intolerable, Leon at last announced that all his former wives were dead, that he had discovered his ‘femaleity’, married himself and been pregnant with twins who bled to death before birth.

I’m looking forward to living alone. My love is for infinity and when the human element comes in it’s distasteful ... I’ve found out whenever I receive something, there’s always strings attached and God bless I don’t want that.

Joseph also had his sticking point. When Dad asked him to go to church, he did for a while, but when Dad suggested that he write an article (Joseph had dreamed of being a writer when he was young) and sign a formal statement that he was not Jesus Christ, he wrote back, not to Dr Yoder, but to President Kennedy, offering to be his speechwriter. He announced that he was ‘caught in the net of the three Jesus Christs’, and refused ‘to tell a lie’ by signing Yoder’s statement. Joseph gave up Dad and found himself a higher fantasy authority, in order to live as he had to live. Rokeach at last discovered that he had not succeeded in changing ‘a single one of Joseph’s delusions’ but in the course of trying had gained ‘clinical and theoretical insights about the limits beyond which his delusional system could not be pushed’.

In an epilogue written some months after the experiment ended, Rokeach updated the reader:

Clyde and Joseph give every appearance of remaining essentially unchanged. But Leon continues to show evidence of change or at least further elaborations in his delusional system of belief ... The prognosis for schizophrenia, paranoid type is poor ... But to say that a particular psychiatric condition is incurable or irreversible is to say more about the state of our ignorance than about the state of the patient. This study closes with the hope that at least a small portion of ignorance has here been dispelled.

It turned out that Milton Rokeach was the one who gained the most from his experiment. An afterword, appended when the book was reissued in 1981, is called ‘Some Second Thoughts about the Three Christs: Twenty Years On’. By then Clyde had been released back to the custody of his family, and Leon remained in the ‘back wards’ of Ypsilanti State Hospital; Joseph died in 1976. Rokeach reread the book with regret. There were, he says, four people with delusional beliefs, not three. He failed to take himself into account, and the three Christs, not cured themselves, had cured him of his ‘God-like delusion that I could change them by omnipotently and omnisciently arranging and rearranging their daily lives’. He came to realise that he had no right to play God and interfere, and was increasingly uncomfortable about the ethics of his experiment. ‘I was cured when I was able to leave them in peace, and it was mainly Leon who somehow persuaded me that I should leave them in peace.’ Back when Leon was shown the newspaper article, he’d explained to Rokeach:

‘A person who is supposed to be a doctor or a professor is supposed to lift up, build up, guide, direct, inspire! ... I sensed it at the first meeting – deploring!’

Deploring? Do you know I’ve come 75 miles in snow and storm to see you?

  ‘It is obvious that you did, sir, but the point still remains, what was your intention when you came here, sir?’

No one could have done more than Leon to explain to Rokeach what was wrong with his experiment: ‘You come under the category where a person who knows better and doesn’t want to know is also crazy to the degree he does not want to know. Sir, I sincerely believe you have the capabilities to cast out negative psychology. I believe you can aid yourself.’ Rejecting his false wife he said: ‘I know I’m missing out on pleasure – eating, drinking, merry-making and all that stuff – but it doesn’t please my heart. I have met the world. I got disgusted with the negative ideals I found there.’ The best Rokeach can manage is the acknowledgment that psychosis ‘may sometimes represent the best terms a person can come to with life’.

In 1964, having spent some time myself in a psychiatric hospital, I read The Three Christs, and soon after came on Laing’s early books, which confirmed what I had seen in it. It has made me very wary of reading ‘case histories’, written about the disturbed by those who believe themselves to know better. It also seemed to me, aged 16, that The Three Christs of Ypsilanti contained everything there was to know about the world. That’s not the case of course, but if resources were short, I’d still be inclined to salvage this book as a way of explaining the terror of the human condition, and the astonishing fact that people battle for their rights and dignity in the face of that terror, in order to establish their place in the world, whatever they decide it has to be.

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Vol. 33 No. 20 · 20 October 2011

Especially for someone who has herself experienced coerced psychiatric confinement, Jenny Diski displays an astonishing degree of misunderstanding of postwar psychiatry (LRB, 22 September). ‘By the 1960s and 1970s,’ she writes, ‘a coalition of right-wing libertarians, left-wing radicals and the kind-hearted … collaborated to shut down the fortresses and free the mad to roam.’ Who, other than me, were the right-wing libertarian brutes? What makes a person who opposes the psychiatric incarceration and coerced drugging of innocent persons a right-winger? What happened to the right to liberty, to be let alone by the state?

‘Before and after the time of the anti-psychiatrists,’ Diski continues, ‘the pro-psychiatrists did everything in their ever increasing “scientific” power to liberate the mad from the bin and bring them back to the world of normality with cold showers, electric shocks, insulin shock, brain cutting and anti-psychotic medication.’ Psychiatrists relied on police power – not ‘scientific’ power – to torture the inmates. Diski’s ‘liberating interventions’ were imposed on incarcerated individuals against their will. Diski writes as if she were describing natural events, not examples of man’s inhumanity to man.

She concludes: ‘The libertarians, for their part, simply announced that there was no such thing as madness and therefore the state was not required to oversee and pay for the care of those who were making themselves socially unwelcome (see Thomas Szasz).’ Diski here attributes views to me that are the opposite of those expressed in my writings and psychiatric practice. What Diski sees as overseeing and paying for the care of individuals stigmatised as mentally ill, I see as depriving such persons of liberty and dignity by incarcerating them as mad and dangerous to themselves and others. I see many options other than imprisoning or giving sick notes to socially unwanted persons. Diski sticks to her Manichean worldview composed of good left-wingers and evil right-wingers.

What has this got to do with Rokeach’s contemptible ‘study’, The Three Christs ofYpsilanti? Not much. As I noted in my review of the book in the New York Times in April 1964, the book is about impersonation, not mental illness – patients impersonating Christ, Rokeach impersonating a scientist studying nature. The inmates at Ypsilanti were not ‘Christs’, and everyone, including the inmates, knew it. In the second edition of the book Rokeach acknowledged that he too finally realised it.

Thomas Szasz
Manlius, New York

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