In 1959, Dr Milton Rokeach, a social psychologist, received a research grant to bring together three psychotic, institutionalised patients at Ypsilanti State Hospital in Michigan, in order to make a two and a half year study of them. Rokeach specialised in belief systems: how it is that people develop and keep (or change) their beliefs according to their needs and the requirements of the social world they inhabit. A matter of the inside coming to terms with the outside in order to rub along well enough to get through a life. As a rule people look for positive authority or referents to back up their essential beliefs about themselves in relation to the world: the priest, imam, Delia Smith, the politburo, gang leader, Milton Friedman, your mother, my favourite novelist. It works well enough, and when it does, we call ourselves and others like us sane. When it goes awry, when people lose and/or reject all positive referents in the real world for the self inside, we call them delusional, psychotic, mad. In order to count as sane, you donít necessarily have to conform to the norms of the world, but you do have to be nonconformist in a generally acceptable way. One of the basic beliefs we all have, according to Rokeach, is that we are who we are because we know that by definition there can be only one of us. Iím Jenny Diski. You therefore arenít. The converse is also true: you are the sole example of whoever you say you are. Therefore I canít be you. It keeps things simple and sane for both you and me, and itís easy to check the basic facts with each other, as well as with such socially sanctioned authorities as the passport office or the registrar of births and deaths. According to Rokeach that is a fundamental requirement of living coherently in the world of other people, the only world he believed we can effectively live in. He tested it one evening on his two young daughters by calling each of them by the otherís name over the dinner table. At first it was a good game, but within minutes it became so distressing to the girls (ĎDaddy, this is a game, isnít it?í ĎNo, itís for realí) that they were starting to cry. If youíre thinking Rokeach is a bit of a sadistic daddy, I got the same impression reading The Three Christs of Ypsilanti when it was first published in 1964.[*] But what researcher doesnít use the materials to hand Ė usually family Ė to begin to investigate a theory? Darwin observed and wrote about his children, as did Freud. And so did that particularly unpleasant behaviourist father in the movie Peeping Tom, made around the same time as Rokeachís dinner table experiment. Rokeach did at least stop once the girls became tearful. But what would happen, he wondered, if he made three men meet and live closely side by side over a period of time, each of whom believed himself to be the one and only Jesus Christ?
LRB 22 September 2011 | PDF Download