the three christs of ypsilanti – milton rokeach

The three christs were three institutionalised schizophrenics.

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.

The experiment:

Initially, my main purpose in bringing them together was to explore the processes by which their delusional systems of belief and their behavior might change if they were confronted with the ultimate contradiction conceivable for human beings: more than one person claiming the same identity. Subsequently, a second purpose emerged: an exploration of the processes by which systems of belief and behavior might be changed through messages purporting to come from significant authorities who existed only in the imaginations of the delusional Christs.

The outcome:

… while I had failed to cure the three Christs of their delusions, they had succeeded in curing me of mine—of my God-like delusion that I could change them by omnipotently and omnisciently arranging and rearranging their daily lives within the framework of a “total institution.” I had terminated the project some two years after the initial confrontation when I came to realize—dimly at the time but increasingly more clearly as the years passed—that I really had no right … to play God and interfere around-the-clock with their daily lives. Also, I became increasingly uncomfortable about the ethics of such a confrontation.

Nope, those aren’t spoilers, they’re quotes from the prologue. If you want a good summary of the book, here’s one. Basically, although the author’s redemption is right there in his own admission that the experiment was unethical, it’s still a tragedy. It was a two year mindfuck in the name of psychotherapy. Putting three christs in a room together could have been a good idea, but creating complex illusions to counteract their existing delusions wasn’t. It was cruel.

Reviewers seem to grasp the stupidity and arrogance of the psychiatric professional’s god complex, but they’re missing one other vital point. Just because someone is seriously mentally ill, you shouldn’t assume they’re unintelligent. Simple, yet that’s actually an assumption that perpetrates in these supposedly enlightened times, regardless of how many disturbed creative geniuses anyone lists on the internet.

It’s a book for rubberneckers, I guess.

The hospital was closed in 1991, I couldn’t find out anything about any of the christs.


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battlescarred, bright, bewildered, bent, blue & bipolar

8 thoughts on “the three christs of ypsilanti – milton rokeach”

  1. “Just because someone is seriously mentally ill, you shouldn’t assume they’re unintelligent.” Of all the casual cruelties my sz brother lived with (and there were many), this is the one that hurt him the most.


  2. Now this does sound intriguing, even if it is disturbing it reflects an approach to treating mental illness that may have been misguided. (Mind you releasing some people from institutions without being willing to fund adequate community support is not necessarily better). Having spent time on a psychiatric unit I know that there is always at least one Jesus at any given time. But then there is a Bible in every bedside table too.
    Thanks for calling attention to this book. When I worked in community mental health most of the people I worked with had schizophrenia. Well supported they enjoyed a quality of life which really makes relatively recent accounts like this sound like the Dark Ages.


    1. Let me know your thoughts if you do read it, I’ll be interested to hear. If you visit the link to the summary of it you’ll have a more comprehensive idea of what I was objecting to.


  3. What a sneaky experiment! I would love to read their conversations.

    Re: perception of intelligence… Sometimes it can work in reverse. People not being taken seriously just because they struggle to be high-functioning and are articulate :(


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