Sunday, November 20, 2016

The Three Christs of Ypsilanti by Milton Rokeach

The three Christs met for the first time in a small room off the large ward where they live.  The date was July 1, 1959.  All three had been transferred to Ward D-23 of Ypsilanti State Hospital a few days before and had been assigned to adjacent beds, a shared table in the dining hall, and similar jobs in the laundry room.

In 1959, a psychologist named Milton Rokeach brought three schizophrenic patients from hospitals across Michigan to a state hospital in the city of Ypsilanti.  All three patients suffered from the same delusion: they thought they were Jesus Christ.  Rokeach wanted to see what would happen if the three men's identities were challenged by the assertions of others who claimed to be the same person.  In a larger sense, he was testing certain theories about the way we create, protect, and manage our images of ourselves.  Could a delusional man be brought to sense through a carefully managed exterior environment that challenged his delusions?

The Three Christs of Ypsilanti isn't an academic research paper; its methods really aren't scientific.  (We're told there was a control group of three schizophrenic women, abandoned because it was useless, and relative to the group of Christs, boring.)  Rather, it's a compelling non-fiction story that is at times profound, bitter, and funny.  You would think that a book consisting greatly of dialogue between three schizophrenics would be almost unreadable, but Rokeach's plain style and simple insights into the men's ravings make it surprisingly easy to follow.

The three Christs are: Clyde, an older man whose delusion is the most simplistic, and the most resistant to change; Joseph, a French Canadian man who aspires to be a writer; and Leon, the youngest of the three, a repressed homosexual who hates his mother and spins out grandiose theories about "Yetis" and "squelch chambers" and, of course, God.  The three men are wary of each other at first, going at each others' throats for what they perceive as lying claims to their identity, but ultimately settle into a functional, but strange, relationship.  Their exchanges can be funny, and Rokeach is careful to get out of the way and not patronize them by underlining the humor, as when Leon insists that God is everywhere, even in "my dung and urine and farts and burps and everything," or in this small moment:

Group meeting.  Joseph puts a book on the window sill "to give it some air."  This, he says, will make the book healthier for him to read.  Leon reads aloud from an article in the Reader's Digest about voting to select a national flower.  Leon votes for dandelions, Joseph and Clyde for grass.

But it can also be deeply sad in a way that makes us confront a part of society that we try our best to ignore.  Sometimes the pathos comes from how little the men know or understand about themselves, as when Rokeach shows them a news clipping about a speech he gave about the three Christs.  Joseph successfully paraphrases the article--three men think they are the same person--but has no idea that it is about himself.  Other times, it comes from the surprising amount of insight they do have, as when Leon, in the first stages of the experiment, cannily pegs it as a kind of manipulation:

On one occasion, following an argument, Leon abruptly stood up and said that he didn't want to discuss the matter any further, and that he was wasting his time here.  With a little effort he was persuaded to stay, but as he sat down he proclaimed: "I know what's going on here.  You're using one patient against another, and this is warped psychology."

Leon is perhaps the saddest of the three Christs.  During the course of the experiment, he retreats into a kind of self-deprecation that will allow him to hold on to his identity in a strange, circuitous way: He renames him self R. I. Dung, and refuses to respond to any other name.  (At the beginning of the book, he responds only to "Rex"--that is, "Rex Rexorum," the King of Kings.)  An experiment where he receives letters from his invented wife, compelling him to go by his birth name, leads to a scene where Leon lingers outside of the ward doors, waiting for a wife who doesn't exist.  The manipulation torpedoes their relationship, one which wasn't real, except, perhaps, to Leon.

In the post-script, written years after the book's initial publication, Rokeach says that he came to realize there were really four Christs in the room, including himself.  It was a mistake, he thinks, to have assumed the responsibility for manipulating a man's life in such a way, even with the noble intention of expelling his delusions.  Leon was right, he concedes, those years ago: it was a kind of "warped pyschology."  As an experiment, it didn't succeed, but as a book, it's gripping.

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