The Three Christs of Ypsilanti

Because, apparently, one Jesus isn’t enough.

In the 1950’s, psychologist Milton Rokeach conducted an experiment where he brought together three psychiatric patients who all claimed to be Jesus.

These three patients were made to live together for two years, in an attempt to determine whether their beliefs would change.

Now, early on, there were heated exchanges. One patient would yell to another, “No, you will worship me!” to which he was replied, “No! I will not worship you!” and such things. You can imagine what kinds of exchanges would have occurred between these delusional Jesus Christs.

Now, Rokeach was no fool. He knew that the psychological traditions of his day did not probe well into individual identities. The stories of Secret Agents who felt that they had lost their identities were intriguing to Rokeach, as they would be to most anyone.

With these interests and experiences in mind, Rokeach set out to determine is a person’s self of self can be challenges in a controlled setting, such as a psychiatric hospital, under his eye. That is, if the Bible says there is only one Jesus, and a person believes themselves to be Jesus, what would happen to their self-identity if they are confronted with another who claims to also be Jesus.

It’s certainly a question to wonder. And Rokeach wrote all about it in his book, The Three Christs of Ypsilanti.

Rokeach was not the first to bring about this sort of Jesus get-together. In the 1660’s, Simon Morin, whom Voltaire wrote about in one of his essays, claimed to be Jesus. However, at one point, Morin had been committed to a psychiatric unit (or madhouse, as they were called), where he met with another man who also claimed to be Jesus. Morin deemed that other man to be ridiculous, and then recognized his own “ridiculousness”, and thus renounced his Jesus identity. However, this recognition did not last long, and Morin was thereafter burned at the stake.

Going back to Rokeach. He was rather humane with the patients, for that era, that is. He figured, smart man that he was, that a cure could not be had for these men. However, he also recognized that we draw our self-identities from rather weak foundations, and can build up beliefs that may not be grounded in a solid reality.

What was not so great, or smart, was how the researchers of the study manipulated the three men, simply out of curiosity. The three men, Clyde, Leon and Joseph, were, to put it mildly, manipulated. Leon, for example, received letters from a character he believed to be his wife. His “wife” professed her love to him, and also suggested small changes to Leon’s routine.

Joseph received false letters from the head of the hospital, suggesting changes to his (Joseph’s) routine that would lead to recovery.

In both these instances, the Jesus identity is progressively challenges, until things begin to get uncomfortable, and contact is cut off.

Interestingly, and perhaps unsurprisingly, the Jesus identities are not budged. The three Jesuses continue to argue and even fight, but their self-belief does not budge. Clyde claims that the other Jesuses are actually dead, and there are machines inside the bodies that are producing the false Jesus claims. Joseph and Leon claim that the others are crazy. Of course, they never claim the same about themselves, for the same Jesus-identity belief.

Even after two years, the Jesus identities do not shift. Rokeach eventually goes to Freudian lore, and states that perhaps the mistaken identities are due to some sort of sexual identity confusion. Rokeach, in a later edition to his book, apologized for the way he ran his experiment, stating that he had no right to interfere with the patient’s lives the way he did.

Rokeach, however, is still a fascinating man who contributed to psychology. He built the Rokeach Value System, which is used in empirical psychological work to classify people’s values. He also conducted a study where he determined that racial prejudice is due to people trying to make themselves feel better, to put it in simpler terms, and that the ones who are most prejudiced also tend to be lower in terms of their socioeconomic status (SES). That is, prejudice is inversely related to SES.

 

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