Book Review: The Three Christs of Ypsilanti by Milton Rokeach

I was pretty sure that The Three Christs of Ypsilanti was going to be exciting. Here is the blurb on the back cover:

On July 1, 1959, at Ypsilanti State Hospital in Michigan, the social psychologist Milton Rokeach brought together three paranoid schizophranics […] The men had one thing in common: each believed himself to be Jesus Christ.

This is the type of crazy shit that was possible in the 1950s. But don’t worry, it’s all in the name of Science.

Rokeach’s investigation was “based on three simple assumptions: (1) Not all beliefs a person holds are of equal importance to him; beliefs range from central to peripheral. (2) The more central – or, in our terminology, the more primitive – a belief, the more it will resist change. (3) If a primitive belief is somehow changed, the repercussions in the rest of the system will be wide – far wider than those produced by change in a peripheral belief.”

The difference between primitive and peripheral beliefs is central to the book. Primitive beliefs, to Rokeach, “are taken for granted: a person’s primitive beliefs represent the basic truths he holds about physical reality, social reality, and himself and his own nature.” These can be backed up by other people or they can be simply based on a person’s own decisions about themselves and their world. Basically, a person’s belief in a physical object, such as a table, will be endorsed by society, while their belief in their own religious faith needs no endorsement.

Rokeach goes much deeper into the literature and research on belief systems, which was interesting to me, since I am not a psychologist. Even though Three Christs was written in the 1960s, it was all news to me. I can’t say how someone in psychology today would react to Rokeach’s descriptions, but he at least bases a lot of his assertions on the ideas of the time.

The belief system is also central to Three Christs because Rokeach’s experiment was essentially to see if he could get one or more of his three patients to change a primitive belief that they held, namely, that they were Jesus Christ. Since primitive beliefs are so resistant to change and so taken for granted, Rokeach wondered what would happen when the Christs were presented with two other people claiming the exact same identity, thereby giving each of them the ultimate contradiction to their primitive belief. Rokeach placed them together in the same ward of the same mental hospital and they had daily meetings for two years.

It’s an intriguing idea and one not without its problems. First, there is the ethical question of what Rokeach was doing. It may have been done with good intentions, but Rokeach himself admits that he “really had no right, even in the name of science, to play God and interfere round the clock with their daily lives.” Funny that a man studying three people who believe they are Christ would describe himself as God, isn’t it? No. To some people it represents what can go horribly wrong in psychology.

A related problem with Rokeach’s study is actually voiced by one of the Christs, Leon, who says Rokeach is casting out “negative psychology,” meaning he’s doing more harm than good. This is very possible and the ways that the Christs react to Rokeach interrupting their lives and beliefs can be seen as evidence of it. It’s especially poignant because of how Leon notes that Rokeach is someone who should know better.

I must point out that there are several ways to read this book. In a review of Three Christs, wrote that “Rokeach’s book reflects a remarkably humane approach for its era,” but also noted that the book can be “starkly uncomfortable reading as it recounts how the researchers blithely and unethically manipulated the lives of [the three Christs] in the service of academic curiosity.”

For another set of contrasting views, Jenny Diski writes that Three Christs can explain “the terror of the human condition, and the astonishing fact that people battle for their rights and dignity in the face of that terror, in order to establish their place in the world, whatever they decide it has to be.” Thomas Szasz, on the other hand, disagrees and says “the book is about impersonation, not mental illness – patients impersonating Christ, Rokeach impersonating a scientist studying nature. The inmates at Ypsilanti were not ‘Christs’, and everyone, including the inmates, knew it.”

All of these readings are possible. Also, after reading the book, they all seem plausible. But instead of dwelling on these different readings and clicking through to the full reviews, I would suggest that you just read the thing and take away from it what you will. It’s an extreme case, for sure, so don’t make too many generalizations about schizophrenia, the mental health system, or psychologists based on Three Christs. But get a version of the book that has the afterword which Rokeach wrote twenty years after the book was first published. In a few short pages it manages to put the study into perspective.

Speaking of Christ, happy holidays everyone.

Up next: Stardust by Neil Gaiman