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The Three Christs from Ysplanti

The Three Christs of Ypsilanti: A Psychological Study - Milton Rokeach

Nonfiction-  From 1959 to 1961, three similar psychotic (schizophrenic, I think) patients lived on the psychiatric ward of the state hospital in Ysplanti, Michigan. Each of these men had a delusional system centered around the belief that he was Christ.


Dr. Milton Rokeach decided to explore the therapeutic possibilities of making these men live together in a suite. This was before any good pharmaceutical options existed (e.g. Thorazine), so treatment of schizophrenia was more or less limited to discussion therapy and exercises intended to desconstruct patient's delusions and bring them back to reality. Time has shown these approaches to be ineffectual in most cases.


The book is written in an evenhanded manner, and is very up-front about the facts: (a) that the science of the day (and still today) has a very poor grasp of the pathology underlying schizophrenia; and (b) that there was little evidence that the novel living situation created here did any good.


The basic idea behind the "experiment" is that each man believes he is Christ, and believes that only he can be Christ. The living arrangement would force each man to confront a challenge to this belief each day. 


So what would happen? Would they fight it out? Would they take turns being Christ? The answer is complicated, but no, they don't fight it out. Each patient has a different response: denial from one, a redefinition of "Christ" from another, from the third: an elaborate expansion of the delusional system to explain (if only to himself) the apparent contraction.  Trust me, these aren't spoilers; the pleasure of this book is not the short answer of how each man responds, but rather the long dissection of why he responds as he does, and how that serves his particular ego needs.


What the three Christs have in common is that each of them respond in a way that allows him to live harmoniously with the other two... partly because it is a survival need (each man is powerless to move off the ward), and partly because each patient already lives a very isolated life, and does not wish to forego the company of fellow patients- those very few people in the world who can relate to his daily experiences, and with whom he can interact.


One of the great takehome conclusions (tenuous as it was, being based on a single anecdote involving three patients) Dr. Rokeach reached from this experiment was that maintaining a delusional world takes a lot of work, and psychotics will only be as delusional as they have to be, to satisfy both their immediate survival needs as well as their higher ego needs. 


If you out there reading this have an issue with that conclusion, don't expect me to defend it. I'm not an expert in this subject. For all I know, psychiatry has moved way past that by now. But it's fascinating to think about, and was a pleasure to read. Well... a pleasure, but one tinged with some discomfort. The experiment caused the patients a lot of anguish at times, and at times, Dr. Rokeach lies to the men, writing them letters from fictional characters in their delusional systems, to gage their reactions.


This is very much a layman's book and is mindful to keep the reader engaged in the human (rather than clinical or theoretical) side of the experiment. Readers are introduced to the three "christs":  Leon, Joseph, and Clyde. Their respective backgrounds are revealed in layers- as they were discovered by the psychiatric staff- and their similarities and differences were dissected enough for me to appreciate what sort of things psychiatrists in the 1950's concerned themselves about... lots of mother issues (this is post-Freud psychiatry, but not by long), discussion about how identity is formed/ preserved/ damaged/ reshaped/ sometimes lost, and ideas about why we think some stuff is real and other stuff is delusional (and it has a lot less to do with evidence than you might think!) 


What the author did not intend, but which might be even more interesting is the view this gives on medical practice sixty years ago. Today, this kind of non-consensual "experiment" would probably not be approved by a research ethics board. For one thing, the patients (or their guardians) never gave consent. For another thing, the letters Rokeach writes tend to support and legitimize these psychotics' delusions rather than deconstruct them. I'm pretty sure that wouldn't be allowed these days. 


If you're interested in psychiatry, medical history, or a good story about three men living in their own personal realities very different from the world we are used to- then I recommend this book. 350 pages, and it reads like a rocket; I consumed it in one week, and I'm not a fast reader.