An unusual psychiatric experiment took place in Michigan in 1959. Three patients with schizophrenia who all believed they were Jesus Christ were brought together.
But before that, there was a remarkable meeting in one of the clinics in the U.S. in the mid-1940s. Two patients were having a cute chat until one of them decided to introduce herself:
“Mary, Mother of the Lord.”
“But, my dear, this is impossible,” answered the other patient.
“You’re just crazy. After all, I am the Virgin Mary.”
The debate dragged on for a long time, and the hospital staff watched them with interest until the eldest of the patients suddenly said:
“Well, if you are Mary, then I must be Anna, your mother.”
This decision satisfied everybody, and moreover, the elderly patient who demonstrated flexibility soon showed a better response to treatment and some time later was discharged from the hospital.
It is hard to say if this story was true or not. But in the 1950s well-known psychologist Milton Rokeach read it. Such a collision seemed very interested to him: what if a direct meeting between two patients with conflicting illusions can help them get rid of them?
Soon, doctor Rokeach received the support of his colleagues and found three eligible patients: all three considered themselves the living incarnation of Jesus.
The psychiatric experiment with three ‘Jesuses’
The unusual psychiatric experiment began at the State Hospital in Ypsilanti, Michigan, in 1959. The Chief Physician of the Hospital Dr. Yoder agreed to cooperate with Rokeach on very limited conditions: he organized the transfer of all three patients in one office, and then withdrew from all further experiments.
Three days later, all three “Jesuses” gathered in one room. The first to introduce himself was 58 -year-old Joseph, who had been in clinics for almost 20 years. He was the softest person of the three.
“And besides all, I am the Lord“, said Joseph, telling the audience about himself.
The second to talk was the eldest of the three, 70 -year-old Clyde. He suffered from senile dementia and only in rare moments of enlightenment recalled that once he worked on the railroad.
“Do you have other names?” Asked the doctor.
“Well, the fifth of them is the Lord, and the sixth is Jesus“, replied Clyde.
The third “Jesus” was the youngest; he was only 38 years old. His name was Leon and he was raised by a single mother, a fanatical Christian.
Once she caught him destroying crucifixes and other religious symbols, hanging on the walls of their home. Leon called his mother to abandon the worship of these false images and recognize him as the true Jesus.
“My birth certificate states that I am the reincarnation of Jesus Christ of Nazareth,” he said.
Joseph was the first to protest, claiming that he was the Christ. Leon began to argue, and Clyde replied with a quiet, barely intelligible mumbling. However, soon the doctor managed to rouse him, and soon, the two older patients were shouting at each other. At the end of therapy, they were completely exhausted.
This is not surprising: Dr. Rokeach subjected their schizophrenic picture of the world to the phenomenon he described as “the strongest disagreement that human beings can face with”: meeting another person, contesting the right to be this person.
Soon, the doctors prolonged the contact between Joseph, Leon, and Clyde and placed them on the nearby beds in the ward, on the nearby spots in the dining room, and gave them a common task in the laundry.
Assistants did not take eyes off of them, and once a week Rokeach personally conducted group therapy with them. On one of the sessions, he asked: “Why do you think I brought three of you together?”
Clyde refused to answer, while Joseph expressed confidence that it was made in order to convince the other two that Joseph was the only and true Jesus. Leon found this question to be an attempt to “wash their brains” (and he was not so wrong).
Week after week passed, and the intensity of disputes between the three patients all increased. The doctor started asking more direct and categorical questions. All three began to enter the fray and out of therapy, debating on various religious issues.
Increasingly, they began making fun of each other’s claims, and, in the end, each of them worked out his own protective mechanisms in order to prove to himself why others think in the same was, but at the same time why they are wrong.
Clyde found the others “reanimated corpses” or empty bodies with an embedded mechanism that gave them the appearance of life. Leon considered his two rivals cunning liars. Joseph declared them crazy.
Months passed, and gradually the tension between the “Jesuses” decreased, so they started telling each other stories and anecdotes and discussing current affairs in the clinic.
They became having more or less friendly chat and outside the therapy sessions and learned how to evade controversial topics in conversations since everyone still considered himself the only real “Jesus.”
At one of the sessions, Dr. Rokeach brought them a compilation of newspaper clippings. The old Clyde and Joseph could not understand the fine print, and Leon began to read aloud to them. The newspaper reported Rokeach’s recent lecture in which he talked about his psychiatric experiment with this trio.
As a result, Clyde fell into a stupor, Joseph simply refused to accept that the article was talking about them, and Leon was getting more and more frustrated until he completely left the room.
The situation became complicated, and sometime later, Rokeach presented a new doctor, his new assistant Miss Anderson, to the patients. Cute and attentive, she immediately won the sympathy of Leon, and he believed that the interest was mutual.
Once he stopped her outside the group sessions and gave her an envelope, which was “the most important paper he wrote in his life.” Nothing particularly new was written there – the letter contained his views and his history.
He began to call Miss Anderson on individual therapy sessions, tried to establish contact with her eyes, so it was clear that “Jesus” was in love.
This, apparently, was the Rokeach’s idea: to use this feeling to make the patient choose between the imaginary and the real world. However, it did not work: Leon (falsely) considered himself married and eventually rebelled claiming that Miss Anderson and other doctors were pushing him to commit adultery.
He became actively isolated from reality, and even started wearing a translucent blindfold and earplugs. The doctor concluded that finally, he managed to “shake” the schizophrenic views of Leon, though not quite in the right direction.
In fact, the situation began to develop in an unpredictable way. Leon declared himself a hermaphrodite and then said he was pregnant with twins and that he became invisible.
In the summer of 1961, about two years after the psychiatric experiment with three “Jesuses” began, Dr. Rokeach was forced to stop it. None of the three showed any improvement, although Leon stopped calling himself Christ – now he claimed from time to time that he was one of the last representatives of the yeti tribe.
In his book, published a few decades later, Milton Rokeach wrote:
“Although I could not help three “Jesuses” get rid of their illusions, they managed to help me to get rid of my own: that quietly changing the lives of people in the clinic, I can change people themselves. I began to understand that I do not have any rights, even in a clinic or in the name of science, to pose myself as a deity.”
- Milton Rokeach. The Three Christs of Ypsilanti
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