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Savior Self

Jan van Vianen after Holbein, from The Praise of Folly

In The Three Christs of Ypsilanti, a famous account of psychosis recently reprinted by NYRB, the social psychologist Milton Rokeach puts three institutionalized schizophrenics, each of whom claims to be Christ, into shared quarters and coaxes them into daily conversations. He hopes that setting one delusion against another will dissolve them, because, in the words of the psychoanalyst Robert Linder, “it is impossible for two objects to occupy the same space.” This seems like a premise for a play, from an era of psychiatry that hoped to induce Ibsen-like insights through confrontations in speech. It waives the possibility that a man who claims he is Christ has already seen off the identity principle along with several other objections, the most pressing of which is that claiming to be Christ is keeping him inside Ypsilanti State Hospital.

As Rokeach acknowledges later the book, the best he can likely do for these men is to help them “transcend loneliness.” His school of psychology sees a delusion as a cancer on the social self. A delusion fights to keep its host from being credible to most other people, or in the case of schizophrenia, to anyone including other schizophrenics. It can yield to circumstances – two of the Christs of Ypsilanti explain that their cosmic powers have been weakened by enemies, which anticipates the point that the real Christ could fly out of the mental ward – as long as it keeps up a shield of grandiosity, absurdity, and suspicion. Rokeach quotes Erik Erikson's description of paranoid delusion as a determination to “trust nothing but mistrust.”

The three Christs of Ypsilanti represent different generations and cultures with different resources for frustrating Dr. Rokeach's project: cussedness, canniness, creativity. The sullen “Clyde,” sixty-six, began exhibiting his Christ delusion in his fifties after he lost his farm and his family due a series of misfortunes and his own alcoholism. He has the fewest lines in the book. It may be that his decades of social isolation and drinking followed by institutionalization make even him harder to reach than the others, but what we do hear from him evinces a shrewd awareness of how the other men want to change him, alternating with his own grouchy claims of omnipotence. He is Christ the Sultan, waiting for his “carloads” of money and women to arrive. He doesn't have disciples or a cross; he isn't compassionate; he's important, the most important being in the universe, and that's enough talk about it. “Joseph's” delusions contain a theme of identity in the contemporary sense of “identity politics.” Raised in Quebec by a sadistic French-speaking father, his fantasy of being Christ runs parallel to a tireless insistence that he is really English, and that England will extradite him. Waiting for extradition is the theme of this man's life. He wants to gain release from the asylum by doing chores and showing compliance, although not at the cost of renouncing his English country estate and his godhood. He is clearly hoping that Rokeach will put in a word for him with the institution. In a rare reference to the conditions within the hospital that is hosting his research, Rokeach explains that a patient warehoused in the “back wards,” like “Joseph,” can go most of a year without seeing a psychiatrist.

“Leon,” the youngest Christ at thirty-eight, is the only child of a fanatically Catholic single mother. One day he snapped, destroyed the icons that covered the walls of their apartment, and claimed the role of Christ for himself. His Christ is suspicious of sex, money, and conformity; as Rokeach observes, he is the only Christ whose persona includes moralism or self-denial (and I would add, the first one whose fantasies enlist scientific concepts like electromagnetism). He's also a surrealist whose self-conscious elaboration and performance of his delusional system provides the first half of the book with its plot. This mixture of monk, poet, and clown is reminiscent of the “holy goof” persona promoted by the Beat writers in the same period as Rokeach's experiment (1958 to 1960), though “Leon” shows no familiarity with this movement.

Seemingly in response Rokeach's experiment, “Leon” mothballs his contested Christ identity and changes his name to “Righteous Ideal Dung” – the extremes meet, because dung is the seed of creation, hence the rejection of his Christhood substantiates it, and so on. He transcends the God or Man dichotomy with a lateral move by marrying into the tribe of Abominable Snowmen in a lengthy ceremony, which leads up to a crescendo worthy of The Soft Machine

At the group meeting, Leon elaborates on the wedding banquet. There will be all types of food, including undertaker's food, which is cut-off penis and testicles. He says he plans to keep an “open table” when he joins his [Yeti] wife in Hawaii. Day and night, people will come to visit and eat at his table . . . “Dr. Blessed Virgin Mary of Nazareth,” he writes [in an invitation], “please come visit me . . . at your convenience. Bring some cooked or relished rat meat sandwiches. I would like to rejoice with you. If I may ask, bring a few Bankers Choice cigars also.”

Noticing the thread of romantic yearning in this fantasy, Dr. Rokeach introduces his own subplot by recruiting a young, female, and “very attractive” research assistant to spend extra hours with “Leon.” He reasons that, since schizophrenia is a form of withdrawal from other human beings, even a hopeless crush is a step forward. And “Leon” is soon exhibiting vigor, cheerfulness, preoccupation, and neediness. Yet after a few weeks the suspicion rises that the woman is a demonic temptress, and the whole situation is another one of Dr. Rokeach's attempts to corner him. The delusion is looking out for “Leon.” The research assistant who feigns interest in his religious ravings is bound to move on, while the Yeti Queen will always be at his behest.

In an afterword written twenty years later, Milton Rokeach repudiates his experiments. Rather than his curing any of the Christs, he writes, their resistance cured him of playing God, in a way that could have driven them deeper into psychosis. Many readers will find this apology overdue. Rokeach toyed with his subjects the way villagers have always toyed with village idiots by leading them on. Yet even a villager is hard to judge, as that kind of teasing at least hears out the madman, and may aim to help him shed his delusions. People must help each other toward truth, but doing so requires keeping each other's goodwill. The ways Rokeach and his assistants led on and placated the Christs is echoed in the way the Christs instinctively placated one another. For “Clyde,” the other two Christs were mechanical imposters. For “Joseph,” the other two were lunatics in an asylum, a status from which he was keen to distance himself. For “Leon,” all people have a spark of “infinity” inside them, so “Clyde” and “Joseph” were Christs, too – lesser ones. These polite understandings enabled them to live with one another's delusions for two years. While the Ypsilanti experiment did not cure severe insanity, maybe it shows how to bear it in one another. Ibsen is succeeded by Beckett.

Rokeach is like a good novelist in that he is half curious, half detached, and working on his own problems by telling the story. The appeal of eavesdropping on lunatics leads, not to sentimentality or scientific triumph, but around the hospital and back to the gate where the little games people play are suddenly familiar. It is a healthful book. Reading it helps me notice my own efforts to resist influence while trying to influence others.

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