In the late 1950s, psychologist Milton Rokeach was involved in an eccentric experiment. He gathered three psychiatric patients, each delusional about being Jesus Christ, to live together for two years at Ypsilanti State Hospital to see if their beliefs would change.
Rokeach wanted to probe the boundaries of identity. He was intrigued by stories of Secret Service agents who felt they had lost touch with their original identities, and wondered if a man’s sense of self could be challenged in a controlled environment.
Strangely and totally unexpectedly, he found an answer in the least thought of place (at least for a psychologist) the Bible. There is only one Son of God, says the good book, so anyone who believed himself to be Jesus would suffer psychological affront at the mere existence of another like him. This was the revelation that led Rokeach to orchestrate the gathering of the Messiahs.
These stories are striking because delusions, in the medical sense, are not simply a case of being wrong. They are considered pathological beliefs, reflecting a warped or broken understanding that, by definition, is not amenable to reform by reality. Rokeach, aware of this, did not expect a miracle cure. On the contrary, he drew a parallel between the unfounded nature of delusion and the flimsy foundations we use to construct our own identities.
In fact, very little seems to change the identities of the self-proclaimed Messiahs. They must debate, argue, and, at one point, come to blows, but they show little sign that their beliefs have become less intense. Only Leon seems to waver, and he ends up asking to be addressed as “Dr. Righteous Idealed Dung” instead of his previous moniker of “Dr. Domino dominorum et Rex rexarum, Simplis Christianus Puer Mentalis Doctor, reincarnation of Jesus Christ of Nazareth.” Rokeach interprets this more as an attempt to avoid conflict than as a reflection of a true change of identity. The Christs explain their claims to divinity to each other in predictably idiosyncratic ways: Clyde, an older gentleman, declares that his companions are, in fact, dead, and that it is the “machines” inside them that produce their…