The Poetry of Madness

The Three Christs of Ypsilanti

by Milton Rokeach
Knopf, 332 pp., $5.95

In July, 1959, Dr. Milton Rokeach, a social psychologist and Professor of Psychology at Michigan State University, entered the Ypsilanti State Hospital to begin a research project. He took along with him a group of assistants and a tape recorder. In Ward D-23 of the hospital were gathered three men, pseudonymously named Clyde Bensen, Joseph Cassel, and Leon Gabor. Each suffered from the same psychotic delusion: that he was Jesus Christ. Dr. Rokeach had several intentions in bringing these men together: he wanted to observe the possible results of a direct confrontation of their delusions, to conduct research into general problems of identity, and to explore “the processes by which systems of belief and behavior might be changed through messages purporting to come from significant authorities who existed only in the imaginations of the delusional Christs.” For the next two years these three psychotic men lived together under the close supervision and observation of Dr. Rokeach and his assistants. They worked together, held frequent meetings, were set common tasks, and were subjected to a number of experiments. Tape recordings were made of their speech—soliloquies, their meetings together, interviews with Dr. Rokeach. After two years of this activity, Dr. Rokeach concluded his recordings and experiments and left the hospital. His three delusional charges were returned to their abandonment in the wards.

On one side, Dr. Rokeach’s work represents a further contribution to the study of how human beings behave in extreme situations and under extreme conditions; it is among the few such studies to have been cast in the form of an experiment. His three subjects shared a common systematic delusion about their identity, one that could not be broken into or changed from the outside, since it is in the nature of these delusions that they “cannot be effectively contradicted by another person because the deluded person will accept no external referents or authorities.” Certain psychotic states derive their stability and power from their ability to sustain themselves without reference to the outside world. Their stability is also their horror; to the observer such psychotic states seem as impenetrable as a rusty safe to which the combination has been lost. At the same time, however, even a psychotic who has a mistaken belief about his identity retains another “primitive belief which is based on reality…the belief that only one person can have a particular identity.” (Dr. Rokeach never explains why this belief cannot be given up too, but apparently it cannot.) In bringing these three Christs together, Dr. Rokeach “proposed to bring into dissonant relation two primitive beliefs within each of them: his delusional belief in his identity and his realistic belief that only one person can have a given identity.” In other words, Dr. Rokeach undertook to create a severe conflict in each of these men, to bring about “as untenable a human situation as is conceivable.” And his prediction was that “in a controlled environment wherein escape was not possible, something would have to give.” His project may…

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