The Minds of Billy Milligan [1981/2018] – ★★★★1/2
This non-fiction book comes from Daniel Keyes, the writer of classic sci-fi Flowers for Algernon . The Minds of Billy Milligan tells the amazing story of Billy Milligan, the first man in the US history to successfully plead the insanity defence in court based on his proven multiple personality disorder and, therefore, be held not responsible for his major crimes (three counts of robbery and rape). Billy Milligan had twenty-four personalities (or “people”) living inside him, competing for spotlight (or consciousness) at any one time, and some of them developed when he was a toddler and suffering from trauma. This is no fiction as numerous eminent psychiatrists who observed Milligan for years testified repeatedly to his condition and the chances that Milligan could have somehow faked all twenty-four personalities over so many years are close to zero. This is because his personalities were truly different people, observed to have different body temperatures, hand-writing, accents, vocabulary, speech patterns, mannerism, IQ, skills, knowledge, experience and even brain waves. Daniel Keyes traces Milligan’s case, beginning from his arrest and childhood and culminating with Milligan being dragged from one hospital to another, battling public prejudice. This is a mind-blowing account of the most remarkable case of a disorder that lies at the very heart of uncovering the mystery of the human mind and consciousness.
The story of Billy Milligan can be said to be unique in the world. He is the first person ever to have his multiple personality condition studied extensively and for a prolonged period of time in a controlled setting. The findings beggar belief. Milligan was found to have such people “living inside him” as Ragen, a twenty-three year old colour-blind Yugoslavian man who is an expert in ammunitions; Arthur, a man speaking with a distinctive upper-class British accent and who also, incidentally, can read and write fluent Arabic; Philip, “a dangerous thug” with a Brooklyn accent; a little girl named Christene, aged three, who is called “the corner child” and “the Teacher”, who represents the “sum of all twenty-three alter egos fused into one…who taught the others everything they’ve learned”. The shocking transformations of Milligan from one person to another were a sight to behold: “it struck him how the change of personality caused a definite facial alteration. Arthur’s tight-jawed, pressed-lipped, heavy-lidded gaze that made him appear arrogant had given away to Billy’s wide-eyed, hesitant expression. He seemed weak and vulnerable. In place of Danny’s fear and apprehension, Billy showed bewilderment” [Keyes, 1981/2018: 120]. One doctor set himself a task of fusing all of Milligan’s personalities together, attempting to establish “lines of communication” between personalities so the need for each of them is soon reduced to zero. That attempt was only partially successful.
Even if it was possible for Milligan to change the so-called “psychological” characteristics of his personalities at whim, it is still a mystery how he was able to change some of his physical/bodily/medical characteristics, which, most probably, only a few shamans or Tibetan Buddhism practitioners are capable of changing at whim. These physical characteristics include the presence of nystagmus (a condition affecting vision which causes repetitive and uncontrolled eye movements) in one of Milligan’s personalities and proven dyslexia in another. Some of his personalities also showed high levels of anxiety which will be difficult to show randomly, including high levels of sweating and symptoms close to having a seizure. Even more of a mystery is how a person could go in a fraction of a second from having a very fast pulse and visible extreme anxiety to being completely relaxed, having a very low pulse and extraordinary self-confidence which verges on complete boredom. Dr George Harding was a person who tried to solve this puzzle.
Another question is why some people develop this very rare disorder whose very existence is still contested by some. The rule seems to be that people only develop it when they had suffered in their childhood some extreme, prolonged and repeated abuse (mental, physical and/or sexual), being victims of unbelievable sadistic behaviour at a very young age, and the aggravating factor is that abuse was perpetrated by a person who should have been this child’s guardian and protector (a father/mother figure). The famous case of Shirley Ardell Mason (aka Sybil) was based on this conclusion, as well as the case of one Australian woman Jenny Haynes (this is the documentary about her – Woman with 2.500 Personalities (warning – distressing content)). It only makes sense then that someone that young would develop a private protective psychological mechanism to deal with the unbelievable trauma “to survive” psychologically. This capability testifies to the human brain’s innate flexibility and adaptability. A brain would then be powerful enough to create a completely separate identity (identities) so they can take on themselves all the unbelievable pain and hurt which the core personality is simply unable to endure. If one cannot change the outside reality, there exists a possibility to change the inward one. Events that happen to people in their childhood sadly echo persistently throughout one’s adult life (whether consciously, subconsciously or even unconsciously).
The case of Milligan also has implications for the study of consciousness. Milligan often talked in the book about his personalities “holding the consciousness” at any single moment in time, but some personalities were also able to be minimally-conscious of the actions of others even when they were not “in the spotlight” or active in real life. That may provide some argument for the idea that consciousness is not assigned to one specific part of a brain, but may be “spread out” and “ever-present” across the human brain or even other human faculties.
The Minds of Billy Milligan is that kind of a non-fiction book that can put to shame any fictional account in terms of imagination. The case of Milligan sounds so unreal no fiction writer would even attempt to imagine it. Milligan’s case also showcases the extent of the human brain’s flexibility and adaptability, shedding light on the wonder which is the human mind. Though the first half of the book is clearly stronger than the second, Daniel Keyes’ narrative still grips like only a powerful thriller can.