Clyde Benson was an elderly farmer and alcoholic; Joseph Cassel was a failed writer; Leon Gabor was a college dropout and World War II veteran. All three were schizophrenics. And each believed he was Jesus Christ. In July 1959, social psychologist Milton Rokeach brought the three together at the Ypsilanti State Hospital in Michigan in what turned out to be an extraordinary meeting, followed by two years that they spent in one another’s company.
It took Rockeach on an investigation into the nature of human identity, belief and delusion. His study, The Three Christs of Ypsilanti, was published in 1964. Since then, it has been made into a stage play, a screenplay, two operas — and recently a film, Three Christs (2017), directed by John Avnet, and featuring Richard Gere, Peter Dinklage, Walton Goggins and Bradley Whitford. Now, the book-length study has been released in a “movie tie-in” edition, with an introduction by novelist Rick Moody.
In the introduction, Moody writes, “There’s an earnestness in Rokeach, both during and after the experiment — no matter his theoretical naiveté and ethical lapses. There’s an earnestness in any attempt to reach schizophrenic on her or his own terms.” Separately, Moody reflects on the film in an article for New York Review Books. While critical of some aspects, he writes: “Avnet’s film, for all its blustering about the institutional period of mental health treatment (a subject on which, it seems to me, it is very frequently incorrect), is on its firmest footing when in its depiction it strives for accuracy about the ache and woe of mental illness, when it says what is true: that they are us.”
Rokeach (1918-88), born in Poland, taught psychology at Michigan State University, University of Western Ontario and University of Southern California.
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