For Milton Rokeach, it would be more than an experiment in treating mental illness. In many ways, it would be one of the most remarkable studies of its kind ever undertaken and help transform the very meaning of human identity.
Rokeach, a professor at Michigan State University was a pioneer in studying the psychology of dogmatism and the persistence of certain ideas even in the face of conflicting evidence. His books, The Authoritarian Personality and The Open and Closed Mind are classics of political psychology and the psychometric scale he developed to measure dogmatism and the rigidity of belief is still widely used.
His most famous study, however, took place at Ypsilanti State Hospital outside of Saline, Michigan. First opened in 1930, the hospital treated thousands of mental patients with a wide range of different treatments, many staying there for their entire lives during that pre-deinstitutionalization era. Working closely with hospital staff, Milton Rokeach spent three years studying three particular patients who happened to share identical delusions, i.e., being Jesus Christ. What would happen if these three patients were placed in the same ward and forced to confront one another?
Delusions of religious grandeur are relatively common among patients with severe mental illness. I recall dealing with quite a few of these when I worked in the forensic wing of a maximum-security prison (though never at the same time). While the delusions can be temporary, they may also persist for a lifetime and resist all attempts at treatment. Though advances in psychiatric treatment were helping patients control these delusions, developing effective psychotherapeutic strategies meant trying some, er, unique approaches.
As Rokeach would later describe in his now-classic 1964 book, The Three Christs of Ypsilanti, the experiment he arranged was based on three basic assumptoms. The first assumption was that not all the beliefs that a person holds are of equal importance. The beliefs will range from central beliefs to others that are only peripheral. The second assumption was that, the more central a belief was, the more resistant it would be to change. He described these central beliefs as being the most primitive, i.e., at the very basis of how people perceived reality. The third assumption was that changing a primitive belief would have repercussions far greater than changing a more peripheral belief.
For most people, central beliefs about the world and the physical reality around them are rarely questioned and even harder to shake. We can seen that even today considering the ongoing battle between ardent creationists and people defending scientific theories about evolution. In the case of the three patients at the centre of the experiment Rokeach would be overseeing, all of them suffered from an extremely strong central delusion that reflected how they viewed reality itself. What impact would being forced to change that belief have on them?
Identity is at the core of what we believe about ourselves. People suffering from severe amnesia causing them to forget their own names experience strong emotional distress at having lost their sense of identity. Even for people suffering from delusions that they are someone else, disproving it can be extremely difficult since they will simply reject any external evidence. But what happens if three people who believe themselves to be the same person are forced to confront one another?
This has actually happened in the past, believe it or not. In one of his commentaries, Voltaire wrote about a deranged man named Simon Morin. Morin suffered from the delusion that he was Jesus Christ and happened to be placed in an asylum with another man who believed himelf to be God. Morin was reportedly so struck by this strange delusion that he actually recovered for a while and became well enough to leave the asylum. Unfortunately, he quickly relapsed and was eventually burned at the stake in 1663. In another case described by Robert Lindner in his book, The Jet-Propelled Couch, two women admitted to the same mental hospital both claimed to be Mary, the Mother of God. After a brief argument, one of them concluded that she was actually Mary's mother. She was the one who eventually recovered.
With those two examples in mind, Rokeach arranged for inquiries to be sent out to various hospitals in the Michigan area looking for two or more patients who shared the same delusion. As he reported in his book, delusions of identity tended to be fairly rare but eventually three patients were identified, two of whom were at the Ypsilanti hospital. After the third patient was transferred to the same hospital, they were all placed in the same ward and carefully observed over the next two years.
Although the three men shared one delusion, they were otherwise very different. The first of them, Clyde Benson, had been institutionalized since 1942 when he was fifty-three years old. He had a long history of moodiness and substance abuse despite having inherited a share in his family's successful farm. Having been married twice, he eventually left his second wife and family to go into a downward spiral of criminal behaviour that sent him to jail. It was while he was in his cell that he had a psychotic breakdown and insisted that he was Jesus Christ. At the time of his commitment, he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia despite having no prior history of mental illness. By the time of the Three Christs experiment, he had been hospitalized for seventeen years.
The second man, Joseph Cassel, was born in Quebec as part of a French-Canadian family. Interestingly enough, his birth name had been Josephine though he had changed it to Joseph at the earliest opportunity (Freudians take note). Joseph eventually immigrated to Detroit and had hopes of being a writer. Despite marrying and having three children, he was unhappy over being unable to stay home and write. He eventually quit his job in 1938 and refused to get another one so that he could write while his wife worked. After moving in with his father in Quebec along with his wife and family, Joseph was committed to a Canadian mental hospital and later "deported" to the Ypsilanti hospital where he would remain. Along with a history of impulsive attacks on other patients, Joseph was also prone to paranoid delusions of staff and patients conspiring against him. Diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, Joseph developed the delusion that he was God, Christ, and the Holy Ghost which became fixated over time. On being told of this delusion, his older daughter commented that "“He always wanted to be important, better than other people, but he just wasn’t aggressive enough.”
As for the third patient, Leon Gabor, his childhood was marked by several traumas including his mother's religious fanaticism (she claimed to hear voices) and his father's abandonment. Forced to attend seminary school by his mother, he was expelled at the age of seventeen though the reason for his expulsion is not recorded. He enlisted in the military during World War II and was honourably discharged in 1945. After returning to his old job as an electrician, he later tried to attend university but dropped out after one year. Leon drifted from job to job and was largely supported by his mother's old-age pension until being committed to hospital in 1954. About a year before being committed, he reported hearing voices (much like his mother did) although these voices told him he was Jesus. He eventually went on a rampage and smashed all the religious icons in the house. When his mother tried to stop him, he threatened to strangle her. After telling her that she needed to worship him directly since he was Jesus, she called police and he was sent to hospital under guard. Much like the other two patients, he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.
So, would the three patients react to seeing other people with the same delusion?