The Jesus Experiment (Part 2 of 2)

Continued from Part I

So, how did the three patients react to seeing other people with the same delusion? 

Their reactioons were recorded through interviews and through careful observatioon while they were in the same ward together.  Rokeach interacted with all three patients throughout the two-year experiment.   That meant questioning them  to see how much insight they had concerning the experiment and how they handled the identity issues involved   Though the patients argued at first, Clyde, Leon, and Joseph basically developed their own explanations for the apparent conflict.  Clyde, for instance, noted in an interview that the other two men were really not alive.  "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. They’re dead already.”  He insisted that the machines inside them were located in their stomachs although he appeared confused when no trace of these machines could be found on examination. Joseph, on the other hand, was more insistent about his identity.  He said that the others "can’t be God or Jesus Christ or the Holy Spirit, by any means. There is only one God. I’m the only God. Clyde and Rex are patients."   For him, the fact that the other two were patients in a mental hospital was enough to prove that they were insane.   As for Leon, he seemed disturbed enough by the presence of other Christ to come up with several different explanations and suggested that they were only claiming to be Christ .  Though he referred to them as “hollowed-out instrumental gods with a small ‘g’”,  he conceded that he was one as well but, being the first one made, he had the real privileges associated with being God and Christ.   His delusions of grandiosity also extended to his reasons for being in the hospital.   As far as he was concerned, he owned the property and stayed in the hospital to oversee his investment.  When questioned about being mentally ill, he announced that, "“I never contradict myself. I’m darn proud of myself. I can take care of myself. I certainly haven’t been insane for quite a while.”   Leon, on the other hand, insisted that he had been placed in the hospital due to persecution, prejudice, etc.   This was a common theme for all three men.

When Rokeach asked them about the purpose in bringing the three of them together, Joseph came up with the best answer.  He announced that Rokeach wanted him to “to iron out that I’m the one and only God.”   Also, by convincing Clyde and Leon that they were crazy, he would do his work "with greater tranquility."   Leon, however, had a different reply.  “I understand that you would like us three gentlemen to be a melting pot pertaining to our morals, but as far as I’m concerned I am myself , he is him, and he is him," he said.  "Using one patient against another, trying to brainwash and also through the backseat driving of electronic voodooism. That has an implication of two against one, or one against two.”   He also added some thoughts on the sinister motives of what the doctors were doing.  "“You can’t push a person into heaven by an organic thrust into God. This is not a hospital in the true sense; it is noted for brainwashing.” Though all three patients were well aware that they were in a mental hospital, none of them had the insight to see past their own delusions.  While the three patients often argued with one another about identity, the arguments were fairly restrained at first.   Essentially, each Christ tried to convert the others (and the doctors) that they were the one true Christ.   Over the next few months, the tension began to build as the "reasonable" attempts at persuading the others failed.    Verbal outbursts became more common during the meetings as well as threats of violence though the patients had enough awareness to keep themselves from going too far.

The first act of violence took place three weeks after the beginning of the experiment.  Following one of Leon's verbal taunts, Clyde responded by hitting him on the right cheek.   While Leon failed to respond, Rokeach and his assistant pulled Clyde away.   Afterward, he insisted that he only struck Leon to "cool him down.  Then he starts talking straight.  He talks better then."     The violent encounters would continue, often with arguments over which of them was the one who was crazy.   Joseph had particular problems with Leon since Clyde was not as confrontational about his belief that he was God.   Talking about Leon, Joseph said at one point:  "That man is sick.  No joke!  He says everything contrary.  Nobody can talk to him."   After another physical fight broke out between Joseph and Clyde over the same arguments about religious identity, the violence eventually ended.   All three patients decided that there was no point in fighting though the verbal arguments still continued, often bitterly.   

Due to concerns that any improvement shown by the patients might be due to the attention they were receiving rather than by the experiment, Rokeach had also arranged for a "control group" to be used as a comparison.   The three patients in this group were all women who had severe delusions (one believed she was Cinderella, one a member of a wealthy family, and the third thinking she was bewitched). They were largely treated the same as the male patients including daily meetings with staff and sleeping in adjoining cots in their ward.    None of them were confronted about their delusions the way the male patients were and no real behaviour problems ever surfaced.   This control group was disbannded after six months to focus on the three males in the experimental group.

Of the three original patients, only Leon showed signs of actually questioning his beliefs, apparently due to his close contact with the other two Christs.  Not that his delusions ever improved, but he did at least try to elaborate on why the other two men were so confident in their own beliefs.   He also showed some progresss when he interacted with a female clinical worker but he soon returned to his usual state.   According to Rokeach, It was Leon who also succeeded in convincing Rokeach to terminate his experiment and stop forcing the three patients to keep confronting one another as he had been doing during the two years of the study.  Ironically, the regular meetings with the three patients meant that they received more clinical attention than any of the other patients in the hospital although this would fail to have any real impact on their symptoms.

As Rokeach would sadly point out in his book, the Three Christs experiment did little to help the three patients regain their true identities.  Part of the problem may have simply been the fact that they were all too institutionalied to have any real chance of recovery.   Both Clyde and Joseph had been in mental hospitals for nearly two decades while Leon had spent five years in close confinement by the time the experiment began.  The years of neglect that they had spent in hospital, with little chance of actually seeing a doctor more than once a year, left them poorly equipped to handle being exposed to the real world.   At the end of the experiment, the three Christs could often be seen together though there were no more confrontations.   They simply went back to being regular patients and their delusions appeared to be as strong as ever.

In an afterword written by Milton Rokeach twenty years later, he reported that Leon Gabor was the only patient still at Ypsilanti State Hospital.  Clyde Benson was discharged to his family in 1970 while Joseph Cassel died in 1976.   Along with admitting that his experiment was ultimately a failure, Rokeach also candidly admitted that there were major flaws in his research study, particularly concerning the ethics involved in "playing God" with his three patients.   There was also the question of whether forcing these patients to confront one another may have actually made their condition worse.   Did the emotional upheaval that Rokeach's experiment forced on them simply make them more rigid than ever in defending their beliefs? 

Largely based on his experience with Leon, Joseph, and Clyde, Milton Rokeach went on to develop a self-confrontation model  that helps people change their beliefs by having them recognize the limitations of those beliefs for themselves.   Though it likely wouldn't have helped with patients as deeply psychotic as his test subjects, self confrontation continues to be a useful strategy for coming to terms with destructive beliefs.   

Whether or not Milton Rokeach's experiment was truly ethical or provided a real benefit for the three patients he was trying to help, the legacy of the Three Christs lives on.





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  • WHO Releases New Suicide Report


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