Review: The Minds of Billy Milligan by Daniel Keyes

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 [1959]. 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.

12 thoughts on “Review: The Minds of Billy Milligan by Daniel Keyes

    1. I’ve read Sybil too, but some years ago so I can’t remember it exactly to compare, but I think the two books are rather different. Keyes takes a curious approach and does not really follow the strict timeline of events. I am also a little surprised he did not write more books because I think he was a very gifted storyteller.

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  1. Here’s a very long comment, Diana. Don’t feel obligated to read it all lol😄 Great post, it just really inspired me to try to think about this conundrum. And I enjoyed writing this for my own purposes more than anything. Great post!😃🧠🧩

    People have a hard time fathoming the implications here, as you said. How truly remarkable this is. My intuition is that this case alone holds the key to unraveling the great mystery of consciousness. Yet it eludes my comprehension.

    Nobody yet knows how and why “it is like something to be you” (Derek Parfit). Let alone 24 of you! Each mostly if not entirely unaware of the others. But here are some things we do know about consciousness (which could add some further context to this discussion).

    1) Consciousness can be divided with a knife. Have you read about split-brain patients? People suffering from chronic epileptic seizures can have a procedure done where the two hemispheres of the brain are separated, by cutting the bundle of nerves between them known as the corpus callosum. The result? While it’s anything but obvious at first, the surgery creates two people. The Left faction of the person is operating, solving puzzles, writing, talking, drawing pictures, without the awareness of the Right, and vice versa. So there’s that…

    2) Then there’s the fact that ordinary “healthy” people have a vast reservoir of subconscious knowledge at each and every moment of their lives. I.e., EVERYTHING you’ve ever learned (minus the corrupted files, forgotten knowledge) About every single person you’ve ever met, every subject you’ve read about, every place you’ve visited, etc. 99.99% of which you aren’t thinking about at this present moment, and won’t think about until something prompts you to. Like me telling you to remember your first high school dance. Who you went with, the dinner you ate, etc.

    Now this is semantic knowledge, not fluid, working personality. Of course, that’s the key difference to this multiple personalities case. But the general premise is the same. There are parts of our vast parts of our mind we do not have access to at any given moment. Maybe there’s a special area in the brain That connects everything together, largely for the purpose of what we call “personality.”? And I’m off the rails. Time to sign off. Great post. Prompted me to think and write a lot, obviously. Well done!

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    1. Thanks a lot for this great comment! You raise very interesting points. I wasn’t aware of the experiments with split-brain patients you mentioned, very curious! It reminds me of cases talked by Oliver Sacks in his books of patients who had some abnormality in either their right or left hemispheres and that caused them to become completely oblivious to either their right or left sides – it is as though everything to either their left or right side never ever existed for them and they cannot imagine either left or right (depending where there is an abnormality) even ever “being there”.

      There was also a girl on the news who had her entire left brain hemisphere removed and her right hemisphere took all the functions of the left almost automatically (though with some training), so she behaves like a completely normal child. That got me thinking that brain’s plasticity is remarkable, but I also release that young age is also a factor since brain must be more “pliable” when people are young. I realise that’s different from severing the connection between two hemispheres and the left and the right do have different functions, but the mere thought that some brain areas are capable of “taking the job” of other areas is just mind-blowing.

      I agree with you about subconscious knowledge, too. I also believe we know much much more than we are capable of producing at any given time. I guess it only makes sense for us to have an immediate access only to a fraction of information available at our disposal so we don’t overload our daily life with all the unnecessary information and details we notice and store somewhere in our brain. Our brains haven’t missed anything that happened in our lives and there are a few people in the world who have “a condition” whereby they can recall everything they have ever done in their whole life since, I don’t know, their eleventh month, maybe and know either the date or weather. That shows that our brains haven’t missed anything and store everything and it is only our recall which suffers sometimes.

      It it also interesting that you say that there may be some “special area in the brain” that connects everything together and helps us to provide us with our “personalities”. That may as well be. For me personally it is shocking how little humans still know about the working of their own minds and yet they have explored the world and been to space and have done remarkable scientific achievements re DNA, etc, etc. And yet they still don’t know why they dream, an activity which they engage in every night, and what is going on in their own heads. This is astonishing and perhaps it is precisely because “we are we” we cannot know ourselves and some other higher intelligence entity must exist to study us since our own brains somehow prevent us from discovering ourselves. That’s a crazy thought, but some believe that too. Obviously these just my thoughts and I haven’t studied it all academically. I guess I just have been curious about it all for a very long time and I like giving my “intuitive” answers! 🙂

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      1. Very good additions here. You really know a lot about psychology, don’t you🙌🏼 Oliver Sachs. Was that “The Man who mistook his wife for a hat”?

        Yes sounds like the same phenomenon. With the case of split brain, left right field of vision is the tell that the the 2 halves are working independently. When this patient stares at a dot on the center of the computer screen, everything to the right of the point goes to his left brain. So if a picture of a car appears, or the word “Car”, he will verbally say “Car.” But if it appears to the left of the dot on the screen, he will verbally report seeing nothing. But, if given a marker in his left hand, he will draw a picture of a car. Because the disconnected right hemisphere Sees the car, but cannot communicate this information to the speech center (Left Hemisphere). Right hemisphere also controls the left side of the body.

        Early life experience during those “critical periods” of development, is most definitely in play here with the case of multiple personalities. I’m glad you mentioned that again. We can’t forget how precious those years were to us. How strange they felt. How pliable we were.

        The closest area of the brain that comes to mind as being the “router” is the prefrontal cortex “Executive center” of the brain. This area is disabled in a lobotomy. And you get a very subdued, grumpy personality as a result. Or me every day without coffee😄

        Yes, we may need aliens to solve the hard problem of consciousness.

        Of course there are enlightened individuals among us, philosophers like Derek Parfit, Buddhist Yogis, who claim the problem is not a problem at all. We are self deceived in believing we have a so-called self at all! That we don’t really exist independently of the every thing else in the way tend to believe we do. And now I’ve gone and got me-self cross-eyed🥴Haha😊

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