A new Netflix four-part docu-series, “Monsters Inside; The 24 Faces of Billy Milligan,” explores Billy Milligan, the psychopath with 24 identities, capitalizing on the serial criminal content trend that has swept the streaming industry.
Directed by Olivier Magaton and written by Megaton and Brice Lambert (when two would have sufficed), they spend four episodes exploring the problematic life of rapist and likely murderer Billy Milligan,
Milligan was raised in a chaotic household and was ruthlessly tormented emotionally, physically, and sexually by his stepfather while his mother stood by, herself a victim of marital violence. She was a famously lousy chooser of guardians for herself and her children, having four husbands, one of whom was a serial abuser. It is thought that severe childhood trauma might cause a psychotic break in certain people. Billy, it appears, was precisely such a person.
Billy’s criminal proclivities were evident early on, and he had previously served time in jail before becoming famous/infamous in 1977 as the Ohio State (as in the University of Columbus) rapist. He robbed and raped three coeds in a matter of weeks. He was apprehended very quickly after fingerprints were discovered at one or more of the scenes.
His intelligent and compassionate public defense instantly saw that something was “wrong” about their client and demanded a mental evaluation. And thus, the circus begins when he gets diagnosed with multiple personality disorder in no time. The psychiatrist Cornelia Wilber, who treated “Sybil,” the patient with dissociative identity disorder, and co-wrote the same name book, was summoned to question Billy. Whereas Sybil had sixteen personalities, Wilber finally discovered twenty-four in Billy.
Megaton examines the evidence of the interested parties via the archive video of the trial to create a complete image of a highly complex character. He also looks at past interviews with family members, prosecutors, defense attorneys, psychiatrists, and police, as well as real-time explanations by those same individuals. Many of the interviews, both past, and present, are fascinating, though the analyses given (in French) by French psychiatrists and philosophers (yes, you read that correctly) are a complete mystery. I’m not sure why the filmmaker felt the need to add superfluous remarks from experts who have no stake in the outcome to an already bloated video.
The only plausible reason is that he and two of his executive producers are French. But isn’t it insufficient of an explanation? We might have utilized fewer comments from his old elementary school classmates (as in “he was such a sweet child;” “he came from a tough home”) and more information on his life after he was formally freed from the mental hospital in 1988. He lived in California for over 20 years, without the scrutiny of the documentarians, until he died of cancer. What was he up to? How did he make a living? Were there any other suspicious crimes close to him?
Billy Milligan is a unique character. A sociopath who excelled at manipulation may or may not have had dissociative identity disorder. He was adept at attracting and retaining attention. He even co-wrote an autobiography with Daniel Keyes called The Minds of Billy Milligan. On an interesting side note, it was mentioned that Keyes was picked because he wrote the book Flowers for Algernon. Unlike Wilbur, a psychiatrist who understood the illness she was studying, Keyes was a novelist whose only notable work, the aforementioned Flowers for Algernon, was science fiction. Billy Milligan’s Minds has been described as a “non-fiction book.” What exactly does that mean?
The problem, and it was a big one, was the constant repeating of interviews that had already proven their point, whatever it was. One soon begins to feel as if one is on an unending loop of the same material by the same individuals, muddying the initial impact and minimizing the ramifications of Billy Milligan’s unraveling.
Two episodes would have been more than enough. Good luck keeping your attention during the first two episodes. A fuller study of the rifts in diagnosis, the ethical failings in psychiatrists who revel in the fame of their clients’ situations, the urge to punish rather than “cure,” and the function of the diagnostician, when faced with manipulation, would have been more intriguing than Billy himself. All are alluded to, but none are examined.
Netflix will begin streaming the documentary on Wednesday, September 22nd.