The Minds of Billy Milligan
(1981) is a nonfiction work by Daniel Keyes following the life of Billy Milligan, a rapist and robber who was judged to be insane after claiming to have a multiple-personality disorder (currently called dissociative identity disorder, DID). Keyes is most famous for the novella Flowers for Algernon
(1959). This work blends biography
, true crime, and general psychology. It received several awards and was the basis for several documentaries. Its themes include deception, the nature of mental illness, and the interaction between the criminal justice system and mental illness.
In the first chapter, the author reviews how Billy Milligan was arrested in 1977. Milligan is accused of two rapes, one attempted rape, and several kidnappings and robberies around Ohio State University after his third would-be victim, Polly Newton, identifies him in a lineup of suspects. He’s later arrested by a SWAT team member who’s posing as a pizza delivery boy.
While in custody, Milligan begins showing radically different personalities. One personality speaks in a vague, Eastern European accent and claims to be a con artist. Another, Arthur, has an English accent and appears to be an intellectual.
Milligan claims to have twenty-three to twenty-four unique personalities. When police or therapists ask to speak with the real Billy Milligan, various personalities inform them that Billy is currently hiding because if he were to come out, he would want to commit suicide.
In therapy, Milligan suggests that he was physically and emotionally abused by his stepfather, Chalmers. When his stepfather raped him, Milligan says that the person who became conscious was a lesbian named Adalana; her distaste for the act signifies how much Milligan hated the rape.
More psychologists come to examine Milligan. This includes Dr. Cornelia Wilbur, who pioneered thinking (however erroneous) about multiple personality disorder with her book Sybil
(1973). The psychologists attempt to “fuse” Milligan’s personalities back into one. While they work, Milligan is transported through court, and quickly ruled not guilty by reason of insanity. This is the first case where someone in the U.S. avoids a rape conviction by pleading multiple personality disorder.
When Keyes meets Milligan, Milligan is twenty-three and living at the Athens Mental Health Centers in Ohio. Milligan had reached out to him personally and asked if he could be the one to write his story. Keyes was skeptical but eventually agreed because he had heard that it was possible that some of the personalities had committed crimes that hadn’t yet been reported in any newspaper.
Keyes meets “Billy,” the core personality, but is disappointed that Billy can’t recall what the other personalities have done. There seem to be large swathes of time that Billy just can’t remember. Keyes is about to give up the project when on the next day, Billy is “fused.” There’s a holistic personality that calls himself “the teacher.” This personality claims to recall everything and has taught the other personalities how to behave. Everything that Keyes recreates here is based on videotaped conversations with this “teacher.”
The teacher tells the “writer” (Keyes) all about Billy’s life. The reader learns that Billy’s birth father, Johnny, committed suicide while Billy was a young child. Since before Billy’s birth, Johnny had been struggling with alcoholism. After his mother married the abusive Chalmers, Billy started to imagine more and more playmates. Eventually, these imagined persons become very real, and they each had a specific function. Ragen, a young aggressive male, comes out whenever Billy needs to defend his body. Arthur, the English gentleman with an admirable IQ, appears when Billy needs to be conscientious and orderly. Christine, a young girl, appears so that Billy can feel closer to his slightly younger sister, Kathy Jo.
As Billy grows, so do the number of personalities. Some evolve to match Billy’s desire for simple things, like Candy (a personality that specializes in petty crimes) to drugs (another personality is far more sinister and willing to conduct an armed robbery to get what he wants).
In college, Milligan claims that the personalities put Billy to “sleep” so that he doesn’t kill himself or get in the way of what they want to do. The teacher explains all of Milligan’s crimes on the Ohio State campus by saying that Ragen robbed another college student so he could pay some bills; Adalana—who so desperately wanted to be with a woman her entire life—raped the first two victims, Carrie Dryer and Donna West.
After his arrest, Billy feels safe to appear to others. He’s glad he’s been arrested because now he can receive help.
As Keyes continues talking with Milligan, the media scrutiny around him increases. The country seems split between those who believe Milligan is making these personalities up to avoid rape charges and those who believe he is genuinely sick. After hour upon hour of interviews with Milligan, Keyes comes to believe that Milligan is, in fact, afflicted with nearly two dozen disparate personalities.
Toward the end, Keyes wonders if the institution is doing enough to assist with Milligan’s suicidal ideation. In the epilogue, Keys informs the reader that Milligan was transported to another psychiatrist with more experience with DID.