In 1959, in the Ypsilanti State Hospital in Michigan, there lived three men who each believed that they were the biblical figure Jesus Christ.
Each of the men had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, and would soon be the subject of an ethically dubious and at times distressing experiment by their psychologist Milton Rokeach. Rokeach believed he could break their delusions by getting all three together, prompting them to question their identity as God's only son.
As such, the three were moved to the same ward and held many meetings together under Rokeach's supervision, to play out what was at best a mediocre sitcom idea at Rokeach's request.
The first meeting was – as you'd probably expect – a little tense. These men were unshakably convinced of who they were, and so when confronted with someone else claiming their identity, the three became hostile to who they believed were imposters.
"I'm telling you I'm God!" the patient Joseph yelled, while Clyde protested that he was God. The third "Jesus", Leon, said nothing until the end of the first session, calling it "mental torture".
Nevertheless, all three showed up to the sessions when asked, though to no avail. Rather than questioning their own belief that they were Jesus, they would incorporate the other two into their delusional beliefs. Clyde believed that the other two were "not really alive," adding "the machines in them are talking. Take the machines out of them and they won't talk anything. You can't kill the ones with machines in them."
Joseph believed himself to be God, and that the other two were "patients in a mental hospital and their being patients proves they are insane". Leon, seemingly the more amicable of the three, believed that the other two were lesser gods, or occasionally reincarnations of Captain Davy Jones and the King Mathius. Each of them believed that they had created the others.
Over time – the experiments would last two whole years – Rokeach would come to use many different techniques, which his students came to see as cruel and unethical. At times the team would play along with the patients' delusions, others they would question them. During one portion of the experiment, they hired an attractive research assistant in an attempt to get Leon to fall in love with her, and use her to break his belief. He did fall in love with her, and withdrew even more than he had previously when he discovered she was only flirting with him on request.
“Truth is my friend," Leon said after the incident. "I have no other friends."
The relative friendliness that the men showed to each other – which Rokeach put down to the patients attempting to appear amenable, as befitting their status as the son of God – soon broke down and led to verbal and physical fights between the three "Jesuses".
In one meeting, Clyde declared that Leon "oughta worship me, I'll tell you that" to which Leon replied that he was a "creature" who needed to wake up to the facts. Another day saw Clyde announce "I'm gonna kill you, you son-of-a-gun!" when Leon declared that Clyde's foster father was a sandpiper, a type of bird. The first violence occurred during an argument over whether the biblical figure Adam was white or not, as well as whether Adam was Leon's brother-in-law. Clyde punched Leon, who did not respond.
The patients, especially Leon, believed that the psychologists were "trying to agitate one against the other". Although you could maybe argue that at least the psychologists were attempting to understand and treat the patients – patients at the time were often set aside without proper treatment – he definitely had a point. Their researchers began to send letters to the patients, pretending to be from the head of the hospital – or, in Leon's case, an invented "Madame Yeti Woman" who he believed to be his wife. The letters promised that she would show up to meet him at the hospital. When she didn't show up, he became upset, angry, and confused.
The letters continued to send him instructions on how to change his behavior, which he followed to the letter. When the letters eventually began to question the identity of the men, they cut off contact.
As the experiment went on, and the three were moved into closer quarters during the day as well as for meetings, the three developed strategies for talking to each other without antagonizing the other two. By the end, they got along quite well by avoiding the elephant in the room (that all of them believed themselves to be Jesus), even humoring each other's delusions (such as Leon's belief that he was married).
The experiment was by no stretch of the imagination a success, and the only shift in identity came when Leon requested that people call him Dr Righteous Idealized Dung rather than Jesus of Nazareth. He continued to believe that he was God.
After the experiment was closed down, Rokeach wrote an account of it in a book titled The Three Christs of Ypsilanti. Though a fascinating look at belief and identity, he too saw the unethical nature of his work and the manipulation of his patients.
“I really had no right, even in the name of science, to play God and interfere round the clock with their daily lives," he wrote in an apology in a revised edition of the book, adding, "while I had failed to cure the three Christs of their delusions, they had succeeded in curing 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’.”