(1981 /2018) Daniel Keyes, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £9.99, pbk, ISBN 978-1-409-16390-9
This 2018 edition of Keyes 1981 fact-based novel is its first British Isles publication.
I have a serious interest in criminology, psychology and the darker places of the human mind, so I was very interested in reviewing this book. On top of that, the author, Daniel Keyes, wrote the classic novel Flowers for Algernon and so can claim serious writing chops – namely a Hugo award. He also has a degree in psychology, and without that background, you can’t even begin to meaningfully attempt a work like this.
The book deals with the case of Billy Milligan, a young man who was arrested for burglary and rape. When he was arrested, he was found to have multiple personality disorder, resulting in a whole range of different individuals running his life. In total there were twenty four separate personalities in his head. Milligan’s lawyers argued that only two of them were responsible for the crimes and so he should be acquitted. The case is particularly interested because other people – most noticeable Kenneth Bianchi, the hillside strangler – have also tried to claim they were suffering from this disorder. The big question for me was – what made Milligan’s story different?
As a step by step analysis of a fascinating case, The Minds of Billy Milligan does an excellent job. It’s that kind of in depth journalistic approach that American writers do really well (think The Perfect Storm or Into Thin Air). But as a read – it is a bit of a slog. If they ever manage to make The Crowded Room, which was the promised film version of this, then they will have to cut out a lot of the book. In particular, many scenes of psychiatrists have dinner with each other, express doubts about the case, then meet one of Milligan’s personalities ‘on the spot’ and are convinced that he is genuinely suffering an illness. The balance between truth and storytelling does not always work. Though to be fair, Keyes is an excellent writer and the individual scenes are well paced and engaging. There just seem to be slightly too many of them. Truth, yes, but repetitive.
This book is detailed, precise and yes, fascinating, but in a really technical way, which may not keep the average reader turning the pages. On the other hand – it is a really good account of one of the few legal cases involving dissociative identity disorder which has yet to be disproved.
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