stories from the wilder side of science

1. A Trinity of Christs (1959)

The unlikely encounter took place on 1 July 1959 on Ward D-23 at the State Psychiatric Clinic at Ypsilanti near Detroit (picture), Michigan. The three men, whom the psychologist Milton Rokeach brought together in a small, plainly furnished visiting room at the institute, introduced themselves in turn. The first to do so was a 58-year-old with a bald head and gappy teeth.

"My name is Joseph Cassel. I’m God."

Next up was a 70-year-old, whose mumbled introduction was hard to make out.

"My name is Clyde Benson. I made God."

Finally, a 38-year-old man with an emaciated body and grave expression stepped forward, but refused to give his real name, Leon Gabor.

"It states on my birth certificate that I am the reincarnation of Jesus of Nazareth".

Thus began one of the most bizarre experiments in the history of psychology. The proposition was to find out what happens when people are confronted with the most extreme paradox imaginable, namely with another person who claims to have the same identity? How would the three men react to the realization that, all of a sudden, there was more than one Jesus? (God and Jesus were identical as far as they were concerned).

Milton Rokeach had already spent a long time investigating the relationship between a person’s identity and his innermost beliefs. What internal canons of behaviour are central to determining one’s personality? Which of these can be altered without any consequences? And what happens when one of the main planks of a person’s belief system comes under threat?

Rokeach had seen from the example of his own children how sensitive people were to any violation of their identity. One time, when he jokingly mixed his two daughters’ names up, their laughter was soon replaced by unease. "Daddy, this is a game, isn’t it?" the younger daughter asked nervously. He answered no, it wasn’t, and soon afterwards both girls were begging him to stop. Rokeach had attacked the very core of their innermost conviction, namely their sense of Self.

Rokeach could only hazard a guess at what would have happened if he had kept on mixing their names up for a whole week. Clearly, conducting an experiment along these lines was out of the question on ethical grounds. Yet reports from Chinese prisons, where brainwashing was carried out using similar techniques, suggested that the effects on a person’s identity were severe.

In casting around for an experiment that would give no cause for concern, Rokeach suddenly called psychotics to mind: that is, people who think they’re someone else. If he could bring together under one roof several of them who all claimed to be the same person, this would cause two fundamental beliefs to collide: their false conviction as to who they were and their correct conviction that two people can’t have the same identity.

In psychological literature, Rokeach found two brief examples of such cases: in the 17th century, two men who both thought they were Jesus Christ met by chance in a lunatic asylum. Three hundred years later, also in a psychiatric institution, two Virgin Marys also came face to face. In both cases, the meeting was said to have led to a partial recovery.

Rokeach hoped that the experiment would not only reveal more about people’s internal belief system but also suggest new therapeutic possibilities for patients with severe personality disorders. He made enquiries at all five of the psychiatric facilities in the state of Michigan in his search for two psychotics who claimed to have the same identity. Among the 25,000 patients, there was only a handful of such cases. There were no Napoleons, no Khrushchevs and no Eisenhowers. There were just a few people who thought they were members of the Ford or Morgan dynasties, plus a female God, a Snow White and a dozen Christs.

Of the three men who thought they were Christ and who were suitable subjects for the experiment, two were resident at the clinic in Ypsilanti. The third one was transferred there. Over a period of two years, they slept in adjacent beds, ate at the same dining table and were assigned similar duties in the hospital laundry.

Leon Gabor had grown up in Detroit. His father had run off and left the family, while his mother was a religious fanatic. She spent the whole day praying in church, and left the children to fend for themselves at home. Gabor enrolled at a seminary for a short time before enlisting in the army. Later, he went back to live with his mother, who completely dominated him. In 1953, at the age of 32, he began to hear voices telling him that he was Jesus. One year later he fetched up in a psychiatric hospital.

Clyde Benson grew up in the Michigan countryside. When he was 24, his wife, his father-in-law and his parents all died. His eldest daughter married and moved away. Benson started drinking and remarried, lost everything he owned, became violent and eventually landed in gaol, where he claimed to be Jesus Christ. In 1942, aged 53, he was referred to a psychiatric institution.

Joseph Cassel was born in the Canadian province of Quebec. He was something of a misanthrope, burying himself in his books and making his wife take a job to support him while he worked on writing his own book. He and his family moved in with his in-laws, where he lived in constant fear of being poisoned. It was this delusion that brought him to Ypsilanti in 1939. At the time, Cassel was 39 years old. Ten years later he started to believe that he was the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.

After just a few encounters, each of the three had a ready explanation for the fact that the other two claimed to be Jesus. Thus, Benson claimed: "They are really not alive. The machines in them are talking. Take the machines out of them and they won’t talk anything". Meanwhile, Cassel’s explanation was disarmingly logical: Gabor and Benson couldn’t be Jesus because they were self-evidently patients in a psychiatric institution. Gabor had various explanations for the others’ impossible identity. For example: they only made out they were Jesus to gain prestige. Even so, he did go so far as to concede that they might be "hollowed-out instrumental gods with a small ‘g’".

To get to now the three men better, Rokeach set the topics for discussion at each of their daily sessions. They talked about families, their childhood, their wives and – repeatedly – about their own identity. Heated debates ensued, which after three weeks led to the first violent clash: when Gabor claimed that Adam was a negro, Benson clouted him. After two further physical altercations – between Benson and Cassel and Cassel and Gabor respectively – the three Jesuses conducted themselves peaceably for the rest of the experiment. However, they stuck to their guns on the question of who they believed themselves to be. Only Gabor, presumably influenced by the smack in the mouth Benson gave him, changed his mind about Adam, conceding that he might not, after all, have been Black.

After two months, Rokeach let the three men lead the discussions. Each of them in turn chaired the daily meetings, chose the topic for discussion and handed out the daily cigarette ration. They covered a broad spectrum of subjects: films, communism and religion, for example, but never touched on the question of their own identity again. And if one of them just happened to mention in passing that he was God, the others deftly changed the subject.

Yet all this did nothing to shake the conviction of each of them that he was the real Christ. Gabor showed the hospital staff his handwritten visiting card, on which he had inscribed: ‘Dr Domino dominorum et Rex rexarum, Simplis Christianus Puer Mentalis Doctor, reincarnation of Jesus Christ of Nazareth’.

However, in a surprise move in January 1960, about six months after the first meeting, Gabor changed his name. Now the visiting card read: ‘Dr Righteous Idealed Dung Sir Simplis Christianus Puer Mentalis Doctor.

"What do you want us to call you?" asked Rokeach.

"If you want to say Dr Dung, sir, that’s your privilege," replied Gabor.

This name caused some difficulties in the clinic. The nurses refused to call a patient ‘Dung’, but Gabor wouldn’t answer to any other name. Finally, he and the matron settled on the name ‘R.I.’, from ‘Righteous Idealed’.

Rokeach immediately asked himself whether the name change betokened a change of identity on Gabor’s part. But in all likelihood his motivation was simply to remove himself from the firing line and remove any grounds for further confrontation.

In the course of the experiment, Rokeach deliberately intervened on several occasions in an attempt to learn more about what made the men tick. For instance, he proposed taking their stated identities at face value and differentiating between them by calling Cassel ‘Mr God’ and Benson ‘Mr Christ’. The men turned this suggestion down. They were evidently well aware that no-one except them shared their conviction, and that an official name change would only cause more problems. Another time he read them an article about the experiment from the local paper. Rokeach then asked Benson:

"Do you know who they are?"

"No, I don’t," replied Benson.

"Do you have any idea?"

"No, their names aren’t in the article".

"What about the one who’s better?" asked Rokeach, meaning Gabor.

"He is not wasting his time trying to be Jesus Christ."

"Why is it a waste of time?"

Benson stuttered a little as he responded: "Why should a man try to be somebody else, when he’s not even himself? Why can’t he be himself?"

Later in this discussion, Benson made it clear that he thought the three men in the article belonged in a mental hospital.

In April 1960, Gabor announced that he was waiting for a letter to arrive from his wife. Rokeach immediately spotted an opportunity to broaden the experiment, since the wife only existed in Gabor’s imagination: he had never been married. Rokeach wanted to find out whether really believed in her existence, and if so, whether he would renounce his false identity if she asked him to. And so he began writing Gabor letters that he signed ‘sincerely Madame Dr R.I. Dung’.

Gabor really was convinced that he had a wife. He dutifully went to the meeting-places mentioned in the letters, where of course she never showed up. About a week after the first letter, he explained to Rokeach that his wife was actually God. Rokeach, alias Madame Dr R.I. Dung, also issued instructions in the letters he sent, telling Gabor for example to sing a particular song or share his money with the other men. At the beginning, he dutifully followed his wife’s orders, though he never complied with his wife’s request to drop the name Dr R. I. Dung.

On 15 August 1961, two years after their first meeting, the three Christs of Ypsilanti – which incidentally was also the title of Rokeach’s book on the experiment – met for the last time. Rokeach had abandoned all hope of returning them to normality through therapy. He had also recognized that the three men preferred simply to live in peace with one another rather than trying to resolve the matter of their identities once and for all.

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