The three Christs of Ypsilanti

100526_sci_christstnYpsilanti is famous for a few things. It’s where Domino’s Pizza was born. It’s where Iggy Pop grew up. It’s where the “Paul is dead” rumor got started. And, it’s where, in the 1950’s a psychologist by the name of Milton Rokeach made history by forcing three mental patients at the Ypsilanti State Hospital, each living under the delusion that he was Jesus Christ, to live with each other, in hopes that one or more of them might be shocked back to sanity. It’s one of those things you learn about in psychology class, right along with the Milgram experiment, and other things you’re not supposed to do. The hospital is now, for the most part, gone, but the story lives on via the book, The Three Christs of Ypsilanti, which was written by Dr. Rokeach, and published in 1964… The book, which I haven’t read in years, is mentioned today on Slate. Here’s a clip:

…Frustrated by psychology’s focus on what he considered to be peripheral beliefs, like political opinions and social attitudes, Rokeach wanted to probe the limits of identity. He had been intrigued by stories of Secret Service agents who felt they had lost contact with their original identities, and wondered if a man’s sense of self might be challenged in a controlled setting. Unusually for a psychologist, he found his answer in the Bible. There is only one Son of God, says the good book, so anyone who believed himself to be Jesus would suffer a psychological affront by the very existence of another like him. This was the revelation that led Rokeach to orchestrate his meeting of the Messiahs and document their encounter in the extraordinary (and out-of-print) book from 1964, The Three Christs of Ypsilanti…

(T)he book makes for starkly uncomfortable reading as it recounts how the researchers blithely and unethically manipulated the lives of Leon, Joseph, and Clyde in the service of academic curiosity. In one of the most bizarre sections, the researchers begin colluding with the men’s delusions in a deceptive attempt to change their beliefs from within their own frame of reference. The youngest patient, Leon, starts receiving letters from the character he believes to be his wife, “Madame Yeti Woman,” in which she professes her love and suggests minor changes to his routine. Then Joseph, a French Canadian native, starts receiving faked letters from the hospital boss advising certain changes in routine that might benefit his recovery. Despite an initially engaging correspondence, both the delusional spouse and the illusory boss begin to challenge the Christs’ beliefs more than is comfortable, and contact is quickly broken off…

I know it’s probably a small point, but I’m curious as to how these letters were addressed, given that there were three men answering to the name of Jesus Christ. Maybe they didn’t pick up on it, but I think it would have crossed my mind, when the doctor handed me one letter addressed to Christ, and another to someone else, that there was some manipulation going on.

If I were an academic, I’d be staying up late tonight, writing about how Rokeach was essentially the first reality television producer – all-be-it for a very small audience – and how everything since MTV’s Real World owes him a debt of gratitude. As I’m not, though, I’m going to bed.

And, for what it’s worth, I call the band name Madame Yeti Woman.

[I’d like to thank a reader by the name of Marc Kawecki for the heads-up on the Slate article.]

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  1. Michael
    Posted May 26, 2010 at 10:14 pm | Permalink

    Coachville is in Ypsi? Must be. But AA Pub schools, of course. Early example of busing? To give those hapless trailer park kids a leg up. Any pics of Iggy hanging out in Ypsi?

    If Ypsi can claim him, then so can Hamburg, where he spent his summers.

  2. Michael
    Posted May 26, 2010 at 10:30 pm | Permalink

    oops. Sorry. Varsity Day Camp has a Pinckney mailing address. So Pinckney gets to claim Iggy. And technically, Coachville appears to be in Pittsfield Township.

    Article, “Iggy Pop Was My Camp Counselor”:

  3. Michael
    Posted May 26, 2010 at 11:04 pm | Permalink

    Seems everybody had Iggy as their camp counselor:

  4. KTL
    Posted May 27, 2010 at 6:11 am | Permalink

    Iggy writes in his autobiography that he’s from Ypsi. Take it up with him.

  5. EOS
    Posted May 27, 2010 at 6:26 am | Permalink

    It’s a great book. The psychologist brought the 3 Christs together and explained that all 3 of them considered themselves to be Christ. Each one of the patients resolved the cognitive dissonance by explaining that they were Christ and the other two were mentally ill.

  6. elviscostello
    Posted May 27, 2010 at 7:29 am | Permalink

    Another great, little known book about Ypsi, post-war, is “Why Did They Kill?”, by John Barlow Martin. It’s about three Ypsi Teens who killed a nurse from U of M in the late 1950’s. The interesting piece is the view of Ypsilanti by those who were here “before” the Bomber Plant workers, and how they saw Ypsi as a pastoral place, and those southern implants ruined the town. It talks about Ypsi during a period of great change.

  7. Edward
    Posted May 27, 2010 at 8:40 am | Permalink

    Has anyone followed up to see what became of the three Christs after their time with Rokeach?

    And are you suggesting that Iggy was their camp counselor?

    It would have been cool, had the years lined up, to imply that Iggy was the result somehow of the Three Christs experiment.

  8. Michael
    Posted May 27, 2010 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    When Iggy was at Tappan, he lied about living in swanky AA Hills. Didn’t want people to know he lived in a Trailer in Pittsfield Township. When he became a star, it was cool to have lived in a trailer in Ypsi.

    Speaking of strange convergences: Bob McNamara lived in AA at the same time SDS was formed at the same time a Dow Chemical heiress lived there.

  9. West Cross
    Posted May 27, 2010 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    I love how every mention of Iggy Pop results in the origin story debate, seems like Pittsfield township only counts as part of AA when something good happens there.

    And I would totally watch the “Three Christs of Ypsilanti” sitcom. Or maybe a cartoon where the 3 Christs (each with a unique Ypsi-centric super power) solve crimes and prevent punk camp conselors from corrupting pristine AA youths.

  10. Clint McFaddon
    Posted May 27, 2010 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

    If nothing else, it could be a Dreamland Tonight skit.

  11. Bob
    Posted May 27, 2010 at 6:41 pm | Permalink

    What did the Paul is dead rumor have to do with Ypsi? I think it was a guy in Ann Arbor who phoned WKNR in Dearborn.

  12. ypsiosaurus Wrecks
    Posted May 27, 2010 at 7:54 pm | Permalink

    I’m surprised no one has mentioned “rosie” yet…

  13. elviscostello
    Posted May 27, 2010 at 9:02 pm | Permalink

    Bob, It was ginned up by Fred LaBour, who is “Too Slim” in the country band “Riders in the Sky.” He was a student at U of M and has a Master’s in Wildlife Management. He heard the story on Russ Gibb’s WKNR radio show and wrote a piece for the Michigan Daily.

  14. Posted May 27, 2010 at 9:10 pm | Permalink

    According to my research, it was an EMU student who started the Paul is Dead rumor.

    And who is Rosie?

    Do you meant Rosie the Riveter?

  15. Anonymous
    Posted August 9, 2016 at 8:18 am | Permalink

    In case you didn’t see it, I thought that I’d bring this to your attention.

    “‘The Three Christs of Ypsilanti’ starring Richard Gere filming in New York”

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