Their names were Joseph, Leon, and Clyde. Three people, each believing that they were Jesus Christ, were admitted in the same hospital to be part of an informal experiment about identity and reality.  Strange bedfellows? Things can be stranger still.

***

I recall a class discussion we had about the practicalities of being a psychologist. We were talking about schizophrenia then and the professor was telling us that the said mental ailment is really a hopeless case. Schizophrenia is incurable, he says, and all that we could really do is to teach the person how to manage and cope with his situation.

I’m still unsure about this claim, but I do know enough to say that schizophrenia can be tough to handle. It’s the exemplar of kooky, the very image many of us have about mental illness: a cocktail of delusions, hallucinations, and the occasional straightjacket.  It’s only one of many subtypes because there are actually 5 kinds of schizophrenia. So as a bit of trivia for you, what’s normally shown in the movies is paranoid schzophrenia. (It’s the most theatrical of the bunch.)

There are ways to help. One way is to have the person learn to dispute his realities. Medication helps, but a schizophrenic should learn to quickly distinguish hallucination from reality. Delusions should also be kept in check, made possible by conscripting family members and close friends to this cause. Sadly, these approaches are not altogether fool-proof; sometimes, the removal of one delusion can give birth to another.

One very interesting (and very controversial) example of this was portrayed in the book-length case study The Three Christs of Ypsilanti. What would happen if we place three people, all believing they were Jesus Christ, in the same room? Could we convince these people to let go of their delusions and finally be in touch with reality?

This was what psychiatrist Milton Rokeach had in mind when he did the experiment,  an attempt  to “shock” these individuals into exorcising their delusions.  It’s a reasonable assumption: if you believe that you are the one and only Son of God, and you saw others who have appointed themselves in the same manner, wouldn’t you think twice about your identity? How come there are *three* Jesuses? Reality should be enough of an argument to change your mind.

But it wasn’t the case at Ypsilanti. Instead of curing them of their grandiose delusions, these three people found a way to incorporate the others’ existence without overshadowing their own. For example, one of the patients just proclaimed the others “as crazy”, effectively  shielding his self-appointed status. Another patient explained that the others were “simply machines” and were already dead. Still another shifted his title to another Christ-like figure but with the expressed belief that “he is still Christ”.

In other words, they just shifted to other delusions. The treatment didn’t work.

I haven’t a clue about what happened to them after. I know there’s a documentary featuring one of the patients, and, of course, Rokeach has his book. But what this case affirms is that mental illnesses are generally abnormal reactions to the mundane:  a chair becomes a throne, a person becomes a ninja, someone becomes the Messiah. Reality is bent to distorted proportions.

Of course, we normally ‘bend’ reality according to what fits us – this is the place of white lies and self-affirmations. But taken too far it becomes characteristic of mental illness, and that is what we all need to look out for.

***

Notes:

  1. The book has been out of print for years but Amazon will be coming up with a new paperback edition by March 2011. Pre-order yours here.
  2. If you want to learn more about the case, you can scoot on over to this Fortune City website which has tons of information about the book. Slate.com also has a great essay about the topic.
  3. How’d you like this article? Comments are welcome!
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