Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Book Review - The three Christs of Ypsilanti by Milton Rokeach

The three Christs of Ypsilanti by Milton Rokeach

New York; New York Review Books, 2011 (originally published 1964)

ISBN 9781590173848

Milton Rokeach was a psychologist whose main interest was that of identity - he wondered how we develop one, and what makes us who we are. Something as basic as an identity is hard to study in an ethical fashion, as it is indeed one of the baselines of what makes all of us human.

In order to try and get to the root of what is and isn't important in the formation of identity, Rokeach hit upon the idea of confronting people with what should be the most disturbing thing they could imagine - someone else claiming the same identity. He did this in the early 60s in Michigan, where, in the course of an experiment, he brought together three inmates of mental institutions who all claimed that they were Jesus Christ, and, by extension, God.

The three Christs of Ypsilanti (Ypsilanti is the name of the institution where the three inmates were housed), is the result of just over two years of studying these three men. The premise of the experiment was relatively simple - house the three men in the same ward, have them work together, and bring them together in daily meetings - initially guided by Rokeach and his assistants, but later to be run entirely by the inmates themselves.

The book takes the form of an extended research report, with reports of what is done to the patients, and their reactions. Initially, as one might expect, there is quite a bit of conflict between the three. This develops in some unexpected ways (from Rokeach's point of view). It seemed that, even in their delusional state, each of the three patients, to a greater or lesser extent, wishes to avoid conflict and "get along". They each had different tactics to get to a happier state - "Clyde" (each patient is referred to exclusively by nom-de-plumes throughout the work) simply denies the existence of the other two, referring to them as re-animated corpses. "Joseph" points out that the other two patients are in a mental hospital, so obviously they are sick - and then justifies his own stay there. "Leon", the most interesting of the three inmates in the book, changes in much bigger ways. He actually does change his identity - not, as Rokeach hoped might happen by recovering his "true" identity, but by humiliating himself with the name "Righteous Idealed Dung", and by trading his current "wife", the Virgin Mary, to a "wife" who is a Yeti.

As Rokeach points out and the reader can glean, Leon has reacted to being confronted by other Christs by changing his delusional world system to fit - he continues to do this as the books progresses. As Rokeach realises the initial confrontation is not going to help the men in any way, he then tries a different tack - of using positive role models for the men in an attempt to get them to change their behaviour. He does this by the method of writing the inmates letters, purporting to be from these positive role models. In Leon's case, the letters come from his "Yeti wife". Initially Leon does react to the letters in a positive way, doing the things that his "wife" asks of him. However, as these requests become harder for him to perform (i.e. they ask him to do things more and more against his belief system), he separates himself from his "Yeti-wife", finally discarding her altogether in another change to his delusional world-system.

Joseph is written to by the head of Ypsilanti hospital, whom he sees as his father. While he too changes some of his behaviours at the suggestion of the letters, he also baulks at anything that would make him confront his situation too nearly. So, this experiment also ended in a failure to improve the state of the patients.

The truth of the matter is that Rokeach's work was always probably going to be unlikely to help any of the patients, and it was done really for his benefit, rather than theirs. The further into the book one reads, the more uncomfortable one gets with the ethics of the whole enterprise, particularly when the experiment ends after two years, and the patients are essentially dropped. In this edition of the work there is a postscript written by Rokeach in the 1980s in which he calls himself the "fourth Christ", and comes to a (belated) understanding that what he did was wrong in many ways.

None of that makes the book any less fascinating to read - the long verbatim quotes from the patients do give a real insight into what it might mean to be "mad" - their occasional forays into the "real" world all the more poignant for what they say when deep in their delusions.

While the experiments themselves may have ended in failure, the book that came out of them is much more that what it might be.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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