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The Three Christs of Ypsilanti
May 27, 2010 10:03 AM   Subscribe

In the late 1950s, psychologist Milton Rokeach was gripped by an eccentric plan. He gathered three psychiatric patients, each with the delusion that they were Jesus Christ, to live together for two years in Ypsilanti State Hospital to see if their beliefs would change. Vaughan Bell tells the story of one of the weirdest experiments in the history of psychology. (via)
posted by The Mouthchew (57 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite

 
I toured the Ypsilanti State Hospital when it was still open (back in the '70's as a college student), it closed in '91. It was then, and always had been, a typical state run warehouse for the mentally ill. Ancient building, depressing, dirty, and about as far away from a therapeutic setting as you could get. I can only imagine how archaic it was in the 50's.
posted by HuronBob at 10:15 AM on May 27, 2010


I can't wait to read this after work. I just saw a bit in a book about dealing with someone who believed they were God:

Doctor kneels down before him, gives him the hospital keys. "As God, you're the only one who deserves to have the keys here.


... but if you're God, you have no need of the keys anyway." and he takes the keys back.

A couple minutes later, after thinking and looking really confused, the patient comes over to the doctor, "I don't know what's going one, but one of us is really crazy."
posted by yeloson at 10:15 AM on May 27, 2010 [24 favorites]


Interesting. What if the historical Christ was just the first recorded case of this delusion?
posted by mullingitover at 10:17 AM on May 27, 2010 [9 favorites]


This idea is a small but significant part of The Ruling Class.
posted by Zed at 10:17 AM on May 27, 2010


Zed, the idea that I am not God is something I put in my galvanized pressure cooker. V-rl-rl-rl-room, and it's gone!

Is it wrong that I hoped the Slate story would end with the three men deciding they were the Trinity? That could be a more comfortable accommodation of one's delusions, although a tough role for one of them. What does the Holy Ghost do, anyway? If you're God-the-Father, you can be commanding and smity and wrathful, and if you're God-the-Son, you can sly divide people from their preconceptions and remind them to be humble and kind, but as the Holy Ghost, you'd have a time of it.

Who else has electricity steaming from his eyeballs and from his fingers? I'm the High Voltage Messiah! Cannae you see the wall plug in my forehead? Here, here. Takes everything I eat and drink and turns it into watts and kilowatts.
posted by adipocere at 10:29 AM on May 27, 2010 [3 favorites]


wow, the days before Human Subjects Review Boards were F-ed up.
posted by Dr. Twist at 10:32 AM on May 27, 2010 [3 favorites]


Of course, this experiment already happens on a daily basis in the real world. The only difference is these men thought that they themselves were God. I haven't noticed a lot of theists giving up their contradictory beliefs due to "that crazy guy sounds just like me".
posted by DU at 10:34 AM on May 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


It works, mate! It looks great! The fat one in the middle balances the two skinny ones.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 10:35 AM on May 27, 2010 [5 favorites]


Of course, this experiment already happens on a daily basis in the real world. The only difference is these men thought that they themselves were God. I haven't noticed a lot of theists giving up their contradictory beliefs due to "that crazy guy sounds just like me".

This thread is not the grindstone for that particular axe, DU.
posted by The World Famous at 10:38 AM on May 27, 2010 [13 favorites]


Two men say they're Jesus, one of them must be wrong
there's a protest singer he's singing a protest song - he says
'they wanna have a war to keep their factories
they wanna have a war to keep us on our knees
they wanna have a war to stop us buying Japanese
they wanna have a war to stop Industrial Disease
they're pointing out the enemy to keep you deaf and blind
they wanna sap your energy, incarcerate your mind
they give you Rule Brittania, gassy beer, page three
two weeks in Espana and Sunday striptease'
Meanwhile the first Jesus says "I'd cure it soon
abolish monday mornings and friday afternoons"
The other one's on a hunger strike he's dying by degrees
How come Jesus gets Industrial Disease?
posted by Pastabagel at 10:40 AM on May 27, 2010 [4 favorites]


The Three Christs of Ypsilanti (2011), starring Ben Stiller, Seth Rogen, Paul Dano, with Jennifer Aniston as a delusional Mary Magdalene, the woman who comes between them. Great opening weekend, but dies soon afterwards. Good sales in DVD.
posted by TimTypeZed at 10:41 AM on May 27, 2010 [12 favorites]


Apparently, there's a documentary involving one of the Christs, but it's not available on dvd.
posted by The Mouthchew at 10:46 AM on May 27, 2010


There's no axe. If some theories are right, (extreme?) religious beliefs are a form of psychological disorder/misfiring. This sounds like just another example of that. Believing $X despite all evidence to the contrary will not be wiped out by evidence to the contrary.
posted by DU at 10:47 AM on May 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


If you're God-the-Father, you can be commanding and smity and wrathful ...

Not here on MetaFilter, you can't.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 10:47 AM on May 27, 2010


This is actually a pretty interesting thread without your input; grind your axe somewhere else, DU.
posted by hal_c_on at 11:07 AM on May 27, 2010


three christs. one water tower.
posted by the aloha at 11:07 AM on May 27, 2010 [3 favorites]


"I really had no right, even in the name of science, to play God and interfere round the clock with their daily lives."

The Four Christs of Ypsilanti?
posted by magnificent frigatebird at 11:21 AM on May 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


I think the problem DU is that you appear to be equating all religious belief with mental illness. Rather, this FPP is about a handful of specific cases.
posted by edgeways at 11:24 AM on May 27, 2010


Interesting article and strange experiment.

I think it's a shame, in some respects, that a lot of interesting psychological experiments would also be so unethical, whether using psychiatric patients or not.
posted by selton at 11:28 AM on May 27, 2010


Of course, this experiment already happens on a daily basis in the real world. The only difference is these men thought that they themselves were God. I haven't noticed a lot of theists giving up their contradictory beliefs due to "that crazy guy sounds just like me".
posted by DU

This is actually a pretty interesting thread without your input; grind your axe somewhere else, DU.
posted by hal_c_on


DU's remarks are absolutely Germane.

Rokeach was a Polish Jew. To fail to grasp that he was taking a bit of a poke at Christianity himself would be naive.
posted by jamjam at 11:29 AM on May 27, 2010


Rokeach was a Polish Jew. To fail to grasp that he was taking a bit of a poke at Christianity himself would be naive.

Then let me be naive and ask for evidence of that. I am the grandson of a Polish Jew and would not disrespect another religion by using insane people to satirize their beliefs.

I mean, if we're going to use this specific story as a trampoline so we can vault off on our own broader generalizations of the madness of religion as a whole, the least we could do is make sure we've shown our work.
posted by Astro Zombie at 11:33 AM on May 27, 2010 [4 favorites]


I do have to say that it is not at all uncommon for religious people to begin doubting and eventually abandon their beliefs because of realizations that occur while picking apart and criticizing the belief systems of others, which is not unlike the process that was studied here.
posted by The World Famous at 11:35 AM on May 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


wow, the days before Human Subjects Review Boards were F-ed up.

Undeniably true. That said! And I don't want to be a dick about this, but does anyone else secretly think that the days of (completely unethical) human psych experiments were kinda cool? That shit fascinates me. "Ho hum, I wonder if this will really fuck up some of the subjects? Meh."
posted by Skot at 11:42 AM on May 27, 2010 [6 favorites]


Undeniably true. That said! And I don't want to be a dick about this, but does anyone else secretly think that the days of (completely unethical) human psych experiments were kinda cool? That shit fascinates me. "Ho hum, I wonder if this will really fuck up some of the subjects? Meh."

While fucked-up sociopathy can be deeply entertaining, I am pleased by each social development that pushes it more and more into fiction instead of reality.
posted by Pope Guilty at 11:55 AM on May 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


I don't think it's about playing "test to destruction" so much as the idea that, underneath all of the neuroses and delusions, you will either find a healthy human being or there's no "there there." You're already in the position of having subjects where they aren't functioning in a meaningful sense, so perhaps you're not damaging them so much as letting two objects collide and see if the insanity crust is knocked off.

I wouldn't be surprised if that kind of mindset, at the time, was also responsible for a number of missteps of early artificial intelligence — the mind as a pure machine of logic and symbolic manipulation — if there is something "wrong" with it, we just need to strip it down. Refactor your code. Rebuild the engine. The parts are probably good, we just need to whack on the side with a hammer.

Once you start thinking like that, why not let the two (The Ruling Class) or three (Ysplanti) mostly-busted machines knock about and have a go at one another? The logic engine under the hood must therefore recognize that there is a deficiency in their assumptions and correct. Right?
posted by adipocere at 11:55 AM on May 27, 2010


"but does anyone else secretly think that the days of (completely unethical) human psych experiments were kinda cool?"

well.... one way to think about it is that "back in the day" at least these folks had a warm place to sleep, three meals a day, and some medication... all for the price of having some Dr. mess with them a bit....

as opposed to now, when we've torn down the hospitals, booted the patients out to the streets to be homeless, sleep in the snow, pretty much starve to death and eventually get beaten by gangs of young thugs....
posted by HuronBob at 11:56 AM on May 27, 2010 [5 favorites]


as opposed to now, when we've torn down the hospitals, booted the patients out to the streets to be homeless, sleep in the snow, pretty much starve to death and eventually get beaten by gangs of young thugs....

Well when you consider that the alternative was to provide them with food, shelter, and medical care at the expense of the taxpayer, I'm sure you can see that the choice was obvious.
posted by Pope Guilty at 12:00 PM on May 27, 2010


Interesting. What if the historical Christ was just the first recorded case of this delusion?

Ernest Renan 'The Life of Jesus'. This book presents Jesus as a figure who essentially decided to make himself the son of God, then brought himself to ruin by refusing to recognize the reality that denied his self-conception. Renan describes a Jesus who is “faithful to his self-created dream but scornful of the factual truth that finally crushes him and his dream”—a very appropriate description of Gatsby. [via]
posted by litleozy at 12:12 PM on May 27, 2010


Rokeach was a Polish Jew. To fail to grasp that he was taking a bit of a poke at Christianity himself would be naive.

Then let me be naive and ask for evidence of that. I am the grandson of a Polish Jew and would not disrespect another religion by using insane people to satirize their beliefs.

I mean, if we're going to use this specific story as a trampoline so we can vault off on our own broader generalizations of the madness of religion as a whole, the least we could do is make sure we've shown our work.
posted by Astro Zombie


Here is an excerpt from an article he published in Psychology Today in 1970:

Profile. The general picture that emerges from the results is that those who place a high value on salvation are conservative, anxious to maintain the status quo and unsympathetic to the black and the poor. They had reacted fearfully or even gleefully to the news of Martin Luther King’s assassination, they are unsympathetic with student protests, and they do not want the church to become involved with the social or political issues of our society.

Considered all together the data suggest a portrait of the religious-minded as a churchgoer who has a self-centered preoccupation with saving his own soul, and an alienated, other-worldly orientation coupled with indifference toward -- a tacit endorsement of -- a social system that would perpetuate social inequality and injustice.

If is a discrepancy between a person’s espoused values and his conduct and position on important contemporary issues, then these data from a representative sample of Americans strongly suggest a hypocrisy deeply embedded within many religiously oriented individuals. And by implication, the date point to a hypocrisy deeply embedded within organized religion as a social institution.

posted by jamjam at 12:14 PM on May 27, 2010 [4 favorites]


Christs, what assholes.
posted by growli at 12:18 PM on May 27, 2010 [3 favorites]


I realise this is somewhat off topic, but does anyone know where I could find this book at a reasonable price?
posted by litleozy at 12:27 PM on May 27, 2010


Thank you for that link, jamjam. It's extraordinarily interesting.
posted by Astro Zombie at 12:32 PM on May 27, 2010


What does the Holy Ghost do, anyway?

Aw, yeah.
posted by ODiV at 12:36 PM on May 27, 2010 [9 favorites]


You are welcome, Astro Zombie; your objection to my naked assertion was just and reasonable.
posted by jamjam at 12:39 PM on May 27, 2010


I've been to Ypsilanti. The only way to survive is convince yourself you are Jesus.
posted by spicynuts at 12:48 PM on May 27, 2010


I haven't read the article yet, can someone tell me if the 3 jesuses came to blows? it's the only result I really expect for the experiment.
posted by shmegegge at 1:00 PM on May 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


can someone tell me if the 3 jesuses came to blows?

I wish I was a more mature individual, but the sentence above had me giggling helplessly.
posted by VikingSword at 1:14 PM on May 27, 2010 [3 favorites]


I'd normally bag on DU for his instinctive anti-religious hating, of which he has been guilty in the past, but I think he's on point here.* I don't see anything terribly anti-religious in the observation that seeing other people who one considers to be crazy but who sound just like one's self can produce some significant cognitive dissonance.

I think what made this "experiment" interesting, reprehensible as it is, is that instead of putting three men in the same room who maintain inconsistent beliefs but are otherwise rational, he put in three men who were as close to objectively delusional as we're likely to find. They don't respond like average people when confronted with a belief that challenges their own.

Take the Teabaggers, for instance. We've got a system here which does not appear to be entirely based in reality, but which is internally consistent. Yet when you challenge their beliefs, they make arguments which are at least colorably rational. They may be factually incorrect, but they make the kinds of moves that, in other contexts, would be unobjectionable.

But the guys rounded up by Rokeach don't respond that way, at least not all the time. One guy thinks that the others are corpses being animated by machines. Leon starts going by "Dr Righteous Idealed Dung," which is even less sensible than his previous word-salad moniker.

There are two different kinds of problems here. The first kind is arguably a function of "epistemic closure" of the sort discussed last month on the Blue. One can make similar arguments about religion, i.e. it's all about how one legitimizes one's sources.** But Leon, Joseph, and Clyde don't even reference sources. They don't make arguments. They are, for lack of a better word, just crazy.

Which is sad. I've spent a little time around psych patients. Not the depressive kind, but the delusional, paranoid kind. It's freaky. But messing with them just to see what happens is Not Okay. One needn't cater to their delusions, but playing with them for one's own amusement, even in the name of science, is just sick.

*Or at least he started that way.

**A phenomenon about which one can have an interesting discussion if one has a mind to. Epistemology is fascinating, but far from uncontroversial
posted by valkyryn at 1:17 PM on May 27, 2010


At the very least, hanging out with the Three Jesii would be a welcome break from the Richard III Ward.
posted by Halloween Jack at 1:20 PM on May 27, 2010


shmeggege: From the article
In fact, very little seems to shift the identities of the self-appointed Messiahs. They debate, argue, at one point come to blows, but show few signs that their beliefs have become any less intense.
posted by Lafe at 1:29 PM on May 27, 2010


I read the book when I was in college, it's a wonderful work. As I recall, there is a strange interlude when one of the subjects, an older man, spontaneously exhibits some sort of amazing physical feat, like a huge standing high jump or something.

That scene stuck with me, because my first year living in the dorms we had an obviously mentally ill older student living with us on the floor. He failed all his classes, but he was there for three quarters, subsidized in some way.

One day, out of the blue, our guy is walking down the hallway and suddenly decides to start walking on his hands! Absolutely surreal, but I saw it with my own eyes.

As a book, the Three Christs is kind of like Martha, the last passenger pigeon, as the phenothiazines changed major mental illness treatment forever.
posted by Tube at 1:32 PM on May 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


Apropos of nothing, Elvis Costello reports that the girls in Ypsilanti don't wear any panties.
posted by Joey Michaels at 1:55 PM on May 27, 2010


I thought it was a story but it turned out to be an advertisement for a book.

Best of the web!
posted by Sukiari at 2:11 PM on May 27, 2010


"Elvis Costello reports that the girls in Ypsilanti don't wear any panties "

I spent the entire day in Ypsilanti and am unable to confirm this... either Elvis is wrong or I'm not doing it right.... :-\
posted by HuronBob at 2:34 PM on May 27, 2010


Great opening weekend, but dies soon afterwards.

Only to mysteriously reappear in theaters three days later to rave reviews.
posted by Combustible Edison Lighthouse at 2:51 PM on May 27, 2010


About 10 years ago, I had a friend who worked nights in a mental treatment facility. At one point, there were 3 men being treated there who all claimed to be Jesus. We referred to them as the 3 Jesi. They voluntarily spent time together, which I found interesting. They also came to their own conclusions that they couldn't all be Jesus. The last I heard about them, one of them responded to his meds positively and quickly, and went to live with family. Of the remaining two, one decided that he wasn't Jesus after all. Instead, he was Superman.
posted by lilywing13 at 3:39 PM on May 27, 2010


Interesting article. I wish they went a little more deeply into the disorders the men had. Were these monothematic delusions? Were they all schizophrenic? Did they have the same disorder? Did they share other symptoms?

It's really unclear to me what Rokeach's goal was. The article sounds like he was trying to come to sort of general conclusion about the construction of identity in normal, cognitively functional humans. But that makes the experiment silly. It's hard to see what he hoped to achieve by using delusional patients. Delusional patients can't be reasoned out of their delusions by normal means (if at all). The intro paragraph looks like he decided to use delusional patients because they had formed identities that were so crazy that they would be easy to challenge. But this totally ignores the fact that their identities are crazy because they are, and challenging their identities would be anything but easy. Another possible goal Rokeach could have had was to learn something about the delusional pathologies themselves, but the article makes it sound as if this was not his goal. A third possibility is that he was less interested in theoretical results and more interested in clinical therapy. If that were the case, and he thought the experiment might snap them out of their delusions, then I don't think the experiment should be considered morally reprehensible. But again, the article makes it seem like that was not the case.

It's kinda neat that the article links quotes from the book to the relevant passage in Google Books. (Well, Google Libros, actually. They link to the Colombian site, for some reason.)
posted by painquale at 3:53 PM on May 27, 2010


I understand that the paperwork for a transfer from the Jesus wing to the Superman wing is not actually all that complicated. You just have to document that the patient has transferred his underpants to the outside and has got a shave and haircut.
posted by The World Famous at 3:53 PM on May 27, 2010


I once heard of another psychiatrist with similar strategies at testing patients' delusions to breaking point. At one stage, when faced with a Jesus, he had the orderlies dress as Roman centurions and appeared, in Roman uniform, carrying two bits of wood and some nails, and telling the patient that it's time for his crucifixion. Soon the patient was arguing impassionedly that he wasn't actually Jesus, or so the story goes.
posted by acb at 3:56 PM on May 27, 2010 [3 favorites]


Yeah, of all the stories of bad doctors fucking with patients, this seems fairly benign. It's kinda what university dormitory managers do every year- "lets make these two people roommates because they both mentioned 'devoutly religious' on their applications."

I would hope someone has the cajones to confront my delusions when I finally break and claim to be Santa Claus. If that means bunking me up with the other St. Nick, so be it.
posted by gjc at 6:47 PM on May 27, 2010


As someone who has spent quite a bit of time talking with people with severe delusions due to schizophrenia, let me just confirm now that it doesn't matter what you do, they are not going to give up on their delusions. At best, they may move to a new delusion or new version of the same delusion, but the same claims generally come up over and over. I'm referring here, of course, either to people who have not responded to medication, or (more commonly) refuse to take medication.

For example, we had one client who would make the fairly normal claim that she had an apartment. She was very convincing, to the extent that the people at the State Hospital would discharge her with instructions to go to her apartment. Of course, we knew there wasn't an apartment, and if we followed her directions and tried to drive her to this apartment, there was no building there. (She had other more obviously wrong delusions, such as that she owned all the car dealerships in town.) But even when confronted with an empty lot, she would simply make something else up about needing to talk to so and so who took her land, etc.

People with severe mental illness (and if you think you're Jesus, I've got bad news for you) are never going to respond the same way a mentally healthy person would to this kind of contradictory confrontation. (On another note, I remember explaining the difference between having God "talk" to you and actually hearing God's voice talking to you to one client. I can see where someone would get confused if they spend all their time listening to Christian Radio.)

That having been said, working with delusional people made me give up on my own (non-Christian) faith. For me, once I saw what the human brain is capable of doing and what kind of faulty logic people regularly use to prop up their beliefs, I just couldn't believe I was the exception who really had it right.
posted by threeturtles at 7:58 PM on May 27, 2010 [5 favorites]


one of them responded to his meds positively and quickly, and went to live with family. Of the remaining two, one decided that he wasn't Jesus after all. Instead, he was Superman.

We need to find the third guy and nail him to a cross.
posted by storybored at 8:32 PM on May 27, 2010


This thread is not the grindstone for that particular axe...

...grind your axe somewhere else, DU...

...if we're going to use this specific story as a trampoline so we can vault off...


If you guys insist on jumping around on trampolines while wielding axes, I'm outta here.
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 8:44 PM on May 27, 2010


Finally got to read the article- too bad it was so light. I guess I'll snag the book from the library sometime.

Also: can we not equivocate all religious belief with insanity for LOLpoints?
posted by yeloson at 9:22 PM on May 27, 2010


If you're God-the-Father, you can be commanding and smity and wrathful

I can be Smitty? OK, but I need to warn you- the last time I did this we had to call the cops.
posted by krinklyfig at 9:49 PM on May 27, 2010


reminds me of the ending of Terry Pratchett's Making Money
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 2:47 AM on May 28, 2010


It's freaky. But messing with them just to see what happens is Not Okay.

I was surprised how Dr Rokeach seemed to implicitly lump himself in with the milgram or stanford experiments or something! This seemed like the sort of situation that could have arisen naturally, and might have been considered beneficial to those involved based on what was known. That's pretty different from a "just to see what would happen" style experiment, and there was no need for rigging or lying about anything. I can't really understand what he did wrong, except misjudge the nature of the delusions (though according to other anecdotes, it sometimes does work...)
posted by mdn at 9:33 PM on May 28, 2010


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