Billy Milligan · Sybil · Truddi Chase
There's a true crime element to most high-profile tales of DiD
Did you go through a dissociative identity memoir phase? Maybe this didn’t happen at your school, but at some point when I was in high school, books about what we then referred to as “split personalities” were a sudden craze with the kids.
I suspect that the 1987 publication of When Rabbit Howls started the trend; that’s the self-penned tale of Truddi Chase, whose history of abuse at the hands of her stepfather (he denied her claims, though other family members confirmed them) spurred the creation of what she called “The Troops.” The book was adapted into a miniseries called Voices Within: The Lives of Truddi Chase in 1990, with Shelly Long in the lead (you can watch it in full, above). Chase died in 2010 at the age of 74.
Then folks moved through Sybil, the 1973 classic about Shirley Ardell Mason (the book used “Sybil Dorsett” as a pseudonym for Mason). Like Chase, Mason’s dissociative identity was the result of crime, this time alleged abuse by her mother, Hattie. The book spurred a 1976 movie (Sally Field as Sybil and Joanne Woodward as her doctor) and a 2007 one (Tammy Blanchard/Jessica Lange).
I came back around to Sybil about 10 years ago, when Sybil Exposed dropped. In it, writer Debbie Nathan argues that the Mason case — which is credited for a 10-fold uptick in DiD diagnoses (then referred to as “multiple-personality disorder”) in the years after it was published — was a scam cooked up by Mason, Sybil’s author Flora Rheta Schreiber, and Mason’s psychiatrist, Connie Wilbur. From a 2011 report from NPR:
Wilbur began injecting Mason regularly with sodium pentothal, which was then being used to help people remember traumatic events that they had repressed. Under the influence of drugs and hypnosis, the very suggestible Mason uncovered her many personalities.
Reading through Schreiber's papers, Nathan says it becomes obvious that the writer knew that Mason's story was not entirely true. Memories of a traumatic tonsillectomy, for instance, morphed into a lurid story of abuse. And Schreiber seemed eager to pump up or even create drama where none existed. But if Schreiber had doubts, she suppressed them.
"She already had a contract and she already had a deadline," Nathan says. "She was in the middle of writing the book. So she had the dilemma all journalists have nightmares about — what if my thesis turns out to be wrong as I do my research but it's too late?"
At one point, Mason tried to set things straight. She wrote a letter to Wilbur admitting that she had been lying: "I do not really have any multiple personalities," she wrote. "I do not even have a 'double.' ... I am all of them. I have been lying in my pretense of them." Wilbur dismissed the letter as Mason's attempt to avoid going deeper in her therapy. By now, says Nathan, Wilbur was too heavily invested in her patient to let her go.
And more, this one from the CBC in a piece datelined 2017 (but I suspect might be older):
"One day Shirley just knocked on Dr. Wilbur's door and said, 'Hi, I'm Peggy,' a nine-year-old alter personality," Nathan explained. "Dr. Wilbur barely blinked an eye. She seemed very pleased that she now had a multiple personality disorder patient. She told Shirley she'd treat her for free, on credit, and she began giving her strong psychotropic drugs and barbiturates. Within a few weeks, [Dr. Wilbur] asked Shirley if she'd like to write a book with her about the case."
One of the drugs Dr. Wilbur administered was Thorazine, "an anti-psychotic that can have very, very strong side effects, including hallucinations," Nathan said. "And she gave her intravenous barbiturates, which can cause all kinds of fantasies which seem very real while the person's having them. They're like nightmares, but when you wake up from them, you believe that the material you fantasized really happened."
A 2021 deep dive by the Psychiatric Times falls short of Nathan’s fraud claims against Schreiber and Wilbur, but it does argue that more scrutiny should be given to DiD diagnoses.
The argument that DiD may be over-diagnosed was the crux of the case against Billy Milligan. He’s the subject of the third book that my cohort all read, and the news hook for this whole damn item (you were probably wondering when I’d get to that). The Minds of Billy Milligan came out in 1981, so it was still new-ish when we all read it in the 1980s. It was written by — get this — Daniel Keyes, the guy who wrote Flowers for Algernon, the most depressing novel in the world. (I didn’t see its film adaptation, Charly, but I assume it’s a bummer too.)
Milligan was still a controversial figure when we were all toting the book about him around — I remember my history teacher drawling “y’all know he was fakin’, right?” as she held a piece of chalk like it was a Virginia Slim. She was talking about Milligan’s high-profile arrest in 1977 after three women said he raped them in separate incidents on the campus of Ohio State University.
In an evaluation after his arrest, he was diagnosed with DiD, and was eventually declared not guilty by reason of insanity — the first person ever to successfully use that diagnosis in an insanity defense.. He spent about 10 years in mental hospitals, and was released in 1988'; he died of cancer in 2014. Even his obits seemed skeptical of his famous defense,; here’s the Columbus Dispatch:
Milligan was diagnosed with 24 personalities. The psychiatrist said two of Milligan’s personalities — a Yugoslavian man named Ragen and a lesbian named Adalana — had taken over during the crimes.
When a Franklin County Common Pleas Court judge found him not guilty by reason of insanity in 1978, he was believed to be the first defendant in America to successfully use a multiple-personality disorder as a defense for a violent crime. It led to Ohio changing its law so that the defense had a greater burden to prove insanity.
Milligan spent years in Ohio mental hospitals before he was released in 1988, when experts found his personalities had fused.
Out of all these cases, the one I’d most like to see is either an adaptation or a docuseries on Nathan’s Sybil claims, but if I always got what I wanted Sarah and I would be writing Best Evidence from our own private island. Instead, we’re in line for two Billy Milligan takes, part of an apparent — per The Cut — wave of content focused on DiD. Here’s the rundown:
The Crowded Room Tom Holland (the current Spider-Man) will star as Milligan in a 10-episode dramatic series for Apple+ TV. Akiva Goldsman (A Beautiful Mind) is set to write it, director is unknown. Production starts some time this year, Apple said in April 2021, but those were the glorious days between vaccine rollout and the delta variant, so who knows.
Monsters Inside: The 24 Faces of Billy Milligan This four-part docuseries is directed by — of all people — French action movie director Olivier Megaton (Transporter 3, Taken 2 and 3). Per a press release, Megaton “brings his feature film sensibility to this gripping investigative series” (hmm) “setting up cinematic interviews with the Milligan family, as well as friends, doctors, and the law enforcement professionals who've tried to untangle the truth.”
The goal, it appears, is to question Milligan’s diagnosis, as the release asks, “Were Billy's multiple personalities indeed controlling his actions, or were they a convenient cover for a brilliant narcissistic sociopath?” Monsters Inside drops September 22 on Netflix. — EB
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I know I kept you for a while with that last bit, but I have two more little follow-ups from previous BE features I wanted to throw your way.
First, there’s recurring character Dylan Howard, who we were just talking about (again) last week. That’s when the NYT asked a bunch of people why they were dealing with the Catch and Kill villain’s new Hamptons-focused luxury mag after all he allegedly did to hide the alleged crimes of Harvey Weinstein and Donald Trump.
Soon there’ll be even more Howard-owned content to ask questions about, as The Daily Beast reports that Rupert Murdoch-owned NewsCorp has sold its hilariously shitty headline aggregation startup, Knewz, to Howard. No one’s saying what Howard paid for the failed platform, which was Quibi-like in its launch (the press release is like, ew) and demise. Good luck to everyone with that one!
I’ve been thinking about that Airbnb longread we talked about in June, in part because I’m going to be doing a month-long Airbnb stay I totally can’t afford in Indiana next month to see the family I have not clapped eyes on since 2019. The delta variant combined with my sister’s three kids under the age of vaccination mean that it’s not safe to stay at my 76-year-old mom’s house the way I’d hoped, and I was lucky enough to find a very nice host who cut me a “deal.” If by “deal” you mean twice what I pay to live in San Francisco, the most expensive rental market in the world.
Where was I? Yeah, still, it’s a huge deal compared to what it would have cost if I’d just done the booking without asking, I am extremely eager to see my family, and the host is very cool and decent. But not all Airbnb hosts are, as a stunning Bloomberg longread on assaults covered up by the rental company revealed in June.
Now Bloomberg has a satisfying follow-up to that investigation, as following its publication Airbnb announced that that “it would no longer force guests into confidential arbitration to settle claims of sexual assault.” But how the announcement came out was a surprise to Sherry Dooley, one of the assault victims Bloomberg spoke with as part of its reporting. Snip:
Airbnb said on Friday, after being informed of the women’s statements, that it would change its terms of service this fall to no longer require arbitration in cases involving the sexual assault or sexual harassment of guests and hosts. It also said it hasn’t enforced the policy since January 2019, although it didn’t make any announcement at the time or change the terms of service that its 150 million users must accept to register on the site.
That the company said it stopped using the binding arbitration clause in sexual abuse cases two years ago came as a surprise to Dooley. She agreed to shift her lawsuit into arbitration last September after a lawyer for the company threatened to file a motion in court enforcing the terms of service. “It kind of makes me angry,” said Dooley. “Feels like a runaround, and I’m the one stuck in the middle, being retraumatized over and over again.”
Also unaware that Airbnb didn’t require arbitration: “its own safety team, the elite internal group that handles sexual assaults and violent crimes inside platform listings” and “a lawyer representing the company [who] said Dooley had to take the matter to arbitration.” But now it’s out there, so, well, that’s something. — EB
Friday on Best Evidence: What’s up at CourtTV?