If you’ve taken the time to watch The Crowded Room ’s opening credits, you already know it is inspired by a true story, but how closely does the miniseries follow actual events?
If you’re one who takes the time to sit through opening credits, you already know the Apple TV+ miniseries The Crowded Room is inspired by the book “The Minds of Billy Milligan.” Released in 1981 by award-winning author Daniel Keyes, who also authored “Flowers for Algernon,” “The Minds of Billy Milligan” tells the story of the first person in United States history acquitted of a major crime due to mental illness—specifically, dissociative identity disorder, also known as multiple personality disorder.
Now that The Crowded Room has come to an end and we know how Danny Sullivan’s story played out, it’s safe to explore the Billy Milligan case. I mean, it’s pretty obvious in the opening credits that we’re dealing with a split personality, but what we don’t know is whether or not that’s real for Danny. It wasn’t for Aaron Stamper/Roy in Primal Fear—Aaron lied about having an alter (and was really good at it) to get off for a gruesome crime. Is Danny making it up or is he telling the truth? That’s what hooked us about the miniseries. Sometimes it’s best not to go digging for information upon learning something you’re watching is inspired by or based on a true story—at least not until after it has ended … keep those expectations and pre-conceived notions at bay so you can truly experience the art.
As mentioned, Billy Milligan was the first person to use multiple personality disorder as a defense and he was the first person to be acquitted of his crimes for that very reason. His case put the controversial “not guilty by reason of insanity” plea and verdict on the map, while also casting a very large spotlight on mental health. How closely does The Crowded Room follow Milligan’s story and case? Let’s take a look.
Typically, the words “inspired by” cue us to the fact that most of what we’ll get is highly fictionalized; that’s not untrue for The Crowded Room, which shares only loose connections with Milligan’s case. According to History vs Hollywood, The Crowded Room’s events happen in 1979 New York; Milligan’s crimes happened between 1973 and 1977 in Columbus, Ohio.
Also, the crimes are very different. While Danny was arrested for a shooting at Rockefeller Center in Manhattan, Milligan’s crimes included, but were not limited to, armed robbery and rape. His armed robbery assaults occurred began in 1973 and his rape assaults occurred in late 1977 when he kidnapped, robbed, and raped three women on the Ohio State University campus. As a result, he was nicknamed “The Campus Rapist.”
When he was arrested, Milligan was 22 years old; Danny was also around this age. While undergoing a psychiatric evaluation following his arrest, Milligan insisted the robberies were carried out by a 23-year-old Yugoslav communist named Ragen, and the rapes were committed by an introverted 19-year-old lesbian named Adalana. The Crowded Room touches on something similar in the identities of two of Danny’s alters, Yitzhak, who is Israeli, not Yugoslavian, and Ariana, who is bisexual, not a lesbian.
Milligan was diagnosed as having 24 personalities. While The Crowded Room’s Danny Sullivan had a known six alters, if you think back to Episode 7 when Ariana takes Danny deeper into his fractured mind, he encounters numerous other personalities who do not ever take the spotlight; they’re known as The Undesirables. We don’t know how many for sure exist within Danny, but it’s safe to assume 24 is the intended total number between the desirable alters and the undesirable alters.
Quick sidenote: Also said to be inspired by Billy Milligan’s case is M. Night Shyamalan’s 2016 hit psychological thriller Split. If you’ll remember, James McAvoy’s character, Kevin Crumb, also has 24 distinct alters. McAvoy even quotes Milligan when he uses the phrase, “taking the light.” Apparently, according to “The Minds of Billy Milligan,” Billy had a real-life phrase, “taking the spot.” The Crowded Room makes a nod at this with its use of the spotlight in Danny’s psyche. Milligan’s case remains one of the most complex cases in modern psychiatry.
Just as Danny suffered horrific childhood abuse, so, too, did Milligan. As is explained in the Netflix documentary “The 24 Faces of Billy Milligan,” Milligan was severely and brutally abused and tortured by his stepfather, a trucker named Chalmer Milligan. Billy’s mother, brother, and sister all attested to this in the documentary and, like Marlin, Chalmer denied the allegations.
In The Crowded Room, Danny is an artist who likes to draw. By the end of the miniseries, he has progressed past a sketch pad onto gorgeous, large canvas paintings. In “The Minds of Billy Milligan,” Keyes talks of Billy being a very talented artist who loved to paint.
The Crowded Room ends with Danny in a psychiatric hospital undergoing fusion therapy, seemingly headed towards a hopeful future, but that’s all the ending we get. In real life, after being acquitted of his crimes, Milligan spent the next decade of his life housed in psychiatric hospitals—one from which he successfully escaped in 1986. He fled to Washington state, where he lived under an alias for a few months until fleeing to Florida after his roommate turned up dead and all signs pointed to Billy as the culprit. Florida police soon picked Milligan up and returned him to Ohio.
Milligan was discharged from an Ohio psychiatric hospital in 1988 after psychiatrists concluded his 24 personalities had fused into one harmless identity as a result of therapy and he was no longer a danger to society. He then underwent outpatient mental health treatment before being released from all state supervision in August 1991. He died in 2014 at the age of 59.
Was there a real-life Dr. Rya Goodman in Billy Milligan’s case? No, not really. Rya represents the involvement of all the different psychiatrists who analyzed Milligan and determined he was suffering from dissociative identity disorder—one of whom was Dr. Cornelia Wilbur, who was famous for her work on the case that inspired the book and TV movie Sybil, the story of a woman possessed by 16 separate personalities. It is also reported that Dr. Rya Goodman was based on The Crowded Room creator Akiva Goldsman’s own mother, Mira Rothenberg, who was a renowned child psychologist who developed pioneering therapy for autistic and schizophrenic children.
So, as you can see there are some similarities between Billy Milligan and Danny Sullivan, it’s clear The Crowded Room took many fictional liberties with its narrative in order to navigate the focus towards something other than multiple personality disorder. Both stories have been fascinating to explore and remain integral to keeping the spotlight on mental health awareness.