Monsters Inside · Major-Case Headlines

Milligan, MacDonald, Murdaugh, and more

The crime
In case you missed a previous discussion of the particulars around these parts, the crimes that made Billy Milligan a household name back in the seventies and eighties were a series of rapes at Ohio State University. Milligan’s insanity defense asserted that he suffered from what was then called multiple-personality disorder — it’s now known as dissociative identity disorder — and it succeeded; Milligan was sent to a series of state-run hospitals. He perpetrated a high-profile escape from custody (such as it was) in 1986, and may have committed at least one murder during that period, but the reason his case remains a major one even today isn’t the crimes themselves, but whether/which one “of him” is responsible.

The story
Monsters Inside: The 24 Faces of Billy Milligan, the four-part Netflix series dropping Wednesday, probably thinks it tries to answer that question, or at least to furnish a comprehensive overview of possible answers to that question, but the thing is so aggressively overproduced from the jump that it’s hard sometimes to tell what it’s trying to do, or how it might have been done more effectively. Monsters Inside is not bad, or boring, but the first notes I took include phrases like “shot of crows scattering…come on man”; “contemp ftg on a mod TV/dark courtroom calllllm down”; and “what’s w/peeling-paint/squat set for the THes.”

Series director Olivier Megaton also helmed a couple films in the Taken series, and once you know that, it’s hard to unsee the heavy hand of the thriller montage. I understand the perceived need to create narrative momentum by breaking up talking-head interviews with B-roll or a re-enactment, I really do, but the record-scratchy home-movie interstitials and sepia filters don’t do much except slow each hour-long episode down.

The case itself is a compelling one, because of everything it forces us and our systems to confront about mental illness and the criminal-justice system; about the economic and familial perils that can seem to “make” criminals, and how we as a society can set about breaking those cycles instead of merely assessing them ruefully after the fact; about the line between art and science in forensic psychiatry (and…forensic everything else, really). And Megaton gets fantastic access to almost everyone who had contact with Milligan and/or his case who is still living (Milligan himself died of cancer in 2014). But Monsters Inside isn’t as engrossing as it should be, and I can’t quite get at why. Partly it’s that this is one of those properties that needed either to chop itself down to a 100-minute feature and focus much more tightly on one aspect of the case, or get even more granular and spread itself out over two to four more episodes; runtime-wise, a difference feels like it’s getting split here, possibly per network request, but we see certain sequences over and over again over the course of the four eps, and then years-long stretches of Milligan’s life in Los Angeles and especially Las Vegas kind of only get name-checked.

But it’s also a structural/org-chart problem — that Megaton has chosen to proceed chronologically, which means bouncing back and forth among law enforcement, family members, contemporary news stories, doctors, skeptics, and so on to try to get a full picture of a given moment. It’s easy for me to look at the finished product and say Megaton bet the wrong framework pony, of course, but particularly since so many mentions get made of Milligan’s symptoms involving “losing time,” it seems like a more experimental set-up might better have suited the material — i.e., a whole episode about his family, and then one about mid-century psychiatry, and then one that’s all law-enforcement and prison officials and other skeptics, and so on. Group the narrative “subplots” according to outside POV, in other words. Again, I’m aware that it’s not that simple, and you could make the argument — though I hope Megaton does not — that all the jumping around in the series as constructed not only echoes Milligan’s alleged “multiples,” but also underlines the Rashomon-esque construction of any case’s reality in a documentary. But leaning harder into the subjectivity of the diagnosis and various individuals’ experiences of Milligan might have illuminated the subject in a way a lot of frantic frame-jiggling of Milligan’s mugshot fails to.

As far as whether this true crime is worth your time…I’d lean towards yes, because it does raise the questions I mention above, as well as the questions I had about effective build in a true-crime documentary, all of which are worth pondering. The pacing of Monsters Inside is inconsistent, like I said, and some of the visual clichés are eye-rollers, but in the end, though I could have bailed it and written more or less the same review after two episodes, I didn’t; I kept going with it. So, my verdict is this: give it a try — but start E01 about 5-7 minutes in and see how you go. If you’re checking Twitter half an hour after that, ditch it.

As for my verdict on Milligan’s diagnosis…I don’t think DID is per se bullshit, but based on the information presented in Monsters Inside, particularly re: the horrendous abuse Milligan suffered at the hands of his stepfather, I think it’s more likely that he suffered a brain injury or concussion syndrome of some sort as a kid, which could in turn have created impulse-control problems and/or a neurological argument for diminished capacity…as well, potentially, as some degree of dissociation. But as far as fully realized “alters,” it seems more likely that he saw an avenue of mitigation suggested by doctors and drove down it with a quickness. Then again, part of what still draws us to the case is that we’ll never know. — SDB

While we were talking about mental illness, “chic” diagnoses, and other topics adjacent to Milligan at the end of last week, a couple of major-case headlines snuck over the transom. I noted them on our Twitter account, but in the event that you don’t follow us there, 1) go do that! I promise we don’t overpost; and 2) here’s the latest on Messrs. Durst and MacDonald:

  • Jeffrey MacDonald will remain in prison. MacDonald requested compassionate release in November of last year; a hearing in March of this year added COVID concerns to his list of reasons the government should let him out early. The motion was denied; MacDonald’s attorneys promptly appealed it; and that appeal has now been denied as well, leaving MacDonald to his three consecutive life sentences.

  • A jury took less than eight hours to find Robert Durst guilty of the murder of Susan Berman. The story of the trial kind of ended with a whimper, it feels like, but of course even the verdict couldn’t proceed in an entirely straightforward fashion. Here’s the NYT’s Charles V. Bagli on the latest act:

    “The trial was remarkable on many levels. It began in March 2020 but adjourned days later for 14 months because of the coronavirus pandemic. When it resumed in May, the jurors were spread across the gallery while the prosecutors sat in the jury box. Everyone, including the judge and witnesses, wore masks as precautions against Covid-19. Mr. Durst was not present in the courtroom when the jury returned its verdict; he was in isolation, officials said, after an exposure to someone who tested positive for the coronavirus.”

    Durst’s attorneys say they will appeal. Meanwhile, the family of Durst’s wife Kathie, whom he is assumed to have done away with, is urging the relevant law-enforcement agencies to pursue charges against Durst in Kathie’s disappearance. Based on recent photos, Durst doesn’t seem likely to see the ends of either of those proceedings… — SDB

I hadn’t heard of the complete and utter funhouse that is the Murdaugh case until Claire P. mentioned it in the comments last week — and now said case has brought us what is quite possibly the greatest true-crime longread headline in a storied history that, I will remind you, also includes “Headless Body In Topless Bar.Please congratulate Ben Mathis-Lilley on “Let Me Say This With As Much Sensitivity As I Can: Wow, That’s a Lot of Dead People and Crime” — as well as on the piece itself, which is a very informative timeline of, well, all the dead people and crime (…so far), and which was road Mathis-Lilley basically had to drive on while also building it.

If the eventual documentary series on this case isn’t 16 hours long, I’ll eat my hat. — SDB

This week on Best Evidence: Edmund Kemper, The Catholic School, R Kelly witnesses, and more.

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