The Crowded Room landed on Apple TV+ in June 2023, giving us a chance to discover once again a story that many of us already know. The series is based on a true story, and the protagonist Danny Sullivan, played by Tom Holland, represents a person who really existed: his name was Billy Milligan, and he became famous as “the man with 24 personalities.” His true story inspired Split, the movie directed by M. Night Shyamalan in 2016. The series The Crowded Room has been written starting from the book The Minds of Billy Milligan, published in 1981 by Daniel Keyes (“the crowded room” was the way the book’s title was translated in some other languages, referring to Billy’s mind with many personalities inside it). It’s a fascinating story: let’s discover it.
You can watch the official trailer for The Crowded Room here on Youtube.
The Crowded Room true story: who is Danny Sullivan?
Danny Sullivan, the protagonist of the Apple TV+ series The Crowded Room, is based on the true story of Billy Milligan, who became famous starting from the late 70s as “the man with 24 personalities.”
Billy Milligan is one of the most famous cases in the history of multiple personality disorders. He became known in the United States in the 1970s because his story made headlines. He was the first person in U.S. legal history to be acquitted of a serious crime (rape) due to mental illness, arguing that he could not be held responsible because the crimes were committed by other personalities within him, beyond his control.
In October 1977, three girls were raped on the campus of Ohio State University. One of the girls easily identified the perpetrator because she had seen his face in the police sketches distributed in relation to individuals with a propensity for sexual offenses. The perpetrator was Billy Milligan, a familiar name to the state police as he had been convicted two years prior for rape and armed robbery, but was released on parole. The triple rape in 1977 automatically revoked his parole, and Billy was immediately sent back to prison, facing a new trial.
During the preparation for the trial, the first psychological examinations of Billy were conducted, and the situation faced by the state psychiatrists was incredible. In each interview, Billy seemed like a completely different person. At times, he was childlike and fragile; at others, resolute, aggressive, or apathetic. He was diagnosed with acute schizophrenia, followed by a more thorough analysis that revealed one of the most complex cases of dissociative identity disorder in scientific literature.
Billy’s childhood was far from easy. He was the son of his mother’s second marriage, and his father was not exactly a paternal figure. Struggling with depression and alcoholism, his father committed suicide when Billy was four years old. Moreover, one of his mother’s subsequent husbands (she had four in total) was accused of abusing Billy when he was young. According to Daniel Keyes, author of the book The Minds of Billy Milligan, Billy’s first dissociated personalities emerged when he was five years old, probably as a defense mechanism to survive the difficult family environment. It is a typical psychological mechanism, often portrayed in films: in a situation that is difficult to accept rationally, the mind easily creates an alternative personality to experience those events, in an attempt to preserve the mental health of the self.
In The Crowded Room, Danny Sullivan is introduced after the crimes he was involved with in 1979, similar to what happened to Billy Milligan in real life. What happened in the 70s to Billy Milligan is that, before the trial, a very particular form of psychotherapy was attempted, which encouraged the different personalities to “keep Billy awake” and try to merge with him in an attempt to face the trial in the best possible way. The therapy seemed to work for a while, but before the trial, Billy had a new breakdown and dissociated into two of his main alternative personalities: Arthur (an English gentleman with expertise in science and medicine) and Ragen Vadascovinich (a Yugoslav communist who would commit robberies with a “Robin Hood” spirit). In the trial, Milligan was declared “not guilty by reason of insanity,” elevating dissociative identity disorders to recognized and disabling conditions in the judicial system for the first time in U.S. history.
Billy Milligan spent the next ten years in state mental health institutions, where ten main personalities and fourteen “unwanted” personalities were identified, totaling 24 fully developed personalities, making it one of the most complex cases in modern psychiatry. Among the main personalities, in addition to Arthur and Ragen mentioned earlier, were Allen (a manipulative personality), Tommy (an artist), and Adalana (a nineteen-year-old lesbian in need of affection, the one who would commit the rapes). For the curious, the complete list of Billy Milligan’s 24 personalities is here.
The distinction between “desirable” and “undesirable” personalities was based on the existence of five rules agreed upon among his different personalities to facilitate coexistence. Violating these rules would immediately brand the personality as undesirable:
- Do not tell lies.
- Protect women and children.
- Observe chastity.
- Keep intellectually active, cultivating multiple interests, and studying in one’s field of specialization.
- Do not violate the property of other personalities.
In the true story of Billy Milligan that inspired Danny Sullivan in The Crowded Room, Billy was released from the judicial system in 1991 and declared “sane.” He moved to California, where he engaged in various activities, including programming (he developed an advanced artificial intelligence program called Harsesis), film production (he founded Stormy Life Productions, which was supposed to produce a short film but was never released), drawing, and various socially-oriented activities, particularly related to children’s rights. He stated that he still experienced dissociation during that period, although he was no longer compelled to engage in illegal acts. His attorney said that in some walls of his house, there are beautiful frescoes, and in others, complex mathematical formulas. “Knowing everything about Billy Milligan goes beyond human capacity.”
Billy died of cancer in 2014 at the age of 59. Some characteristics related to his personalities and behaviors still remained unanswered. For instance, one of the individuals within him (Tommy) possessed an extraordinary talent for escape, similar to Houdini, and it was never explained where he acquired such ability. Furthermore, in conversations with his victims, Billy explained that he was a partisan and had been “hired as a killer,” which led some doctors to speculate that there might be other undisclosed personalities within Billy that could have a propensity for criminal acts.
The Crowded Room, with Tom Holland as Danny Sullivan, is not the first production based on the true story of Billy Milligan. We already mentioned the movie Split, which drew inspiration from his story but is not explicitly connected to the life of Billy Milligan. In 2021, Netflix released the documentary Monsters Inside: The 24 Faces of Billy Milligan, revealing more details about his true story. Another film recounting his life story had been in development for a long time, starting in the early 1990s under the direction of James Cameron. Unfortunately, the project fell apart when Milligan sued Cameron over rights issues. Cameron abandoned the project, but Warner Bros continued to push for the film titled “The Crowded Room,” approaching directors like Joel Schumacher and David Fincher over the years. In 2015, it was confirmed that the film would be made, and Leonardo DiCaprio would portray Billy Milligan (taking on another potentially impactful role as a mentally ill individual after Shutter Island). No release date is known yet, though.