by Geo Ong
In 1959 Milton Rokeach, a social psychologist, brought together three paranoid schizophrenics at Ypsilanti State Hospital in Ypsilanti, Michigan, in an attempt to treat their delusions. All three men were of different ages and of different backgrounds, and they were all strangers to one another prior to their first meeting. But all three men believed that they were Jesus Christ.
Clyde Benson (the names of all three men are pseudonyms), the oldest of the three patients. Prior to his hospitalisation, he made his living as a farmer. After eighteen years of marriage, his wife died from an abortion. Four months later, his father died. His mother died shortly after that. This rapid concession of deaths lead Clyde to alcoholism. After a violent episode in a jail cell, having been arrested for drunkenness wherein he claimed to be God and Christ, Clyde was committed to a mental hospital and subsequently diagnosed with schizophrenia, paranoid type. He was fifty-three then, and he was approaching his seventies at the start of these meetings.
Joseph Cassel was born in Quebec to a harshly overbearing father and a mother who died when Joseph was sixteen. He had literary aspirations that were repeatedly squashed, either by his father who did not approve of his interest in books, or the demands from his wife to work a regularly-paying job to support a family. Before long, he retreated into his books, preferring them over social interaction. Paranoid delusions set in soon thereafter, and he was hospitalised and diagnosed with schizophrenia, paranoid type. When asked early on in his hospitalisation whether he had ever seen God, Joseph replied, ‘I can’t very well see God when I am God.’
Leon Gabor, the youngest of the three patients, was raised by a single mother who probably possessed psychotic attributes herself. She was obsessed with praying, often neglecting Leon and her other children. He served in the army during World War II and worked briefly as an electrician upon his return, but he was fired for repeated absenteeism. The same result followed with his next job. After a bout of unemployment, along with pressure from his mother to support her financially, he began hearing voices. It was God telling Leon that he was Jesus. This culminated in a violent episode, involving Leon destroying every religious relic found in his mother’s house. His diagnosis was the same as Clyde’s and Joseph’s: schizophrenia, paranoid type.
Since each man suffered the delusion that he was Jesus Christ, Rokeach wanted to observe how these false identities would react when ‘confronted with the ultimate contradiction conceivable for human beings: more than one person claiming the same identity.’
A new edition of Rokeach’s case study, originally published in 1964, was put out earlier this year by the fine folks at NYRB Classics. It is absolutely fascinating, with turns both touching and disturbing.