What we can learn from Billy Milligan

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons | The American Psychological Association reports almost half the people in U.S. jails and over one third of prisoners have been diagnosed with mental illness.

Rory Brouillard | Staff Writer

Feb. 2, 2023

Most people would agree that if you commit a crime, you do the time, and it is important to carry these sentences out to create a more just society. However, The Minds of Billy Milligan by Daniel Keyes, raises the question: what is truly just?

The Minds of Billy Milligan tells the true story of Billy Milligan, the first person to be tried with multiple personality disorder, now referred to as dissociative identity disorder. He was arrested for several attacks on women on the Ohio State campus in 1977 but was found not guilty by reason of insanity.

Milligan was given treatment in a mental facility, rather than prison, and showed positive improvements. He was allowed certain freedoms, such as visiting his family and shopping on weekends. However, because of the skepticism that diagnosis, many people did not approve.

Due to widespread fear, Milligan was sent to prison where he was denied treatment.

In the original mental facility, doctors worked together to fuse all 24 of Milligan’s identities together. Doctors provided medication and extensive therapy to resolve childhood trauma that trigger the dissociation.

Over time, the core of Milligan began to show and take control. However, this was all stripped from him when treatment stopped. He was shocked back into a jumbled, lost state.

Instead of being shoved in prisons and denied treatment, these criminals should work toward improvement.

Locking up broken people does nothing for society.

If there are ways to treat the mentally ill prisoners, we should want rehabilitation rather than punishment. I am not saying to let them off the hook, but to place them somewhere else to get better. Although crimes were committed, they are still often victims of trauma who never received treatment to recover.

There is also the question of whether this is really justice for the victims. I agree that there should be some sort of punishment carried out for these individuals.

When studying dissociative identity disorder, Elyn Saks wrote the book Jekyll on Trial. It explains how these individuals should be treated and how punishment will affect those who may not understand why they are being punished. “Alters have the capacity to be punished,” she wrote.

When someone has capacity to be punished, punishing him unjustly causes him more suffering than punishing an entity that does not have capacity to be punished. If the alters are separate from the whole, they do not believe they committed these crimes. Therefore, it should be considered the same as punishing an innocent person.

Obviously, you cannot let the person go because there is still the guilty individual. Therefore, rehabilitation would be the best objective in these cases to help those who need it.

There are also those who deny the diagnosis altogether. This causes many people to believe some are faking it to get out of a guilty verdict. What most people don’t know is psychologists are able to tell if someone is faking the symptoms.

For example, Kenneth Bianchi, also known as the Hillside Strangler, claimed to have dissociative identity disorder in the early 1980s. However, trained psychologists could easily tell that this was false from his mannerisms and descriptions of what was happening.

It can take years for a psychologist to settle on dissociative identity disorder as a diagnosis, and it is not the first diagnosis they will turn to. Because of this, people diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder should be taken seriously and given treatment.

After some time, Milligan’s was able to be sent back to the mental institution to receive treatment. He was able to slowly gain back his progress, was released in 1991, and was able to succeed as a member in society.

He started his own film production but passed away before finishing any large projects.

Milligan is an example of how rehabilitation for those truly damaged and broken can help rather than hurt them more.

Obviously, these cases are rare, but they are important for those in them. It is important to help build people back up, instead of breaking them down more.

Criminal justice needs to change when it comes to those who are struggling with mental illness, especially dissociative identity disorder where there is a loss of control and loss of self.

There needs to be a change in how we address all those with mental illness, so they don’t become broken.