Is Apple’s ‘The Crowded Room’ Based On A True Story?


The Apple TV+ original, The Crowded Room, stars Tom Holland and Amanda Seyfried in the lead playing the characters of Danny Sullivan and Rya, respectively. The series says that it is inspired by a non-fiction book written by Daniel Keyes titled The Minds of Billy Milligan. The character of Holland is inspired by Billy Milligan, though we are yet to know if the makers have adapted it as it is or if they have tweaked some aspect of his personality. Created by Akiva Goldsman, the narrative takes us back to a case that shook the very foundation of American society and, for the first time, brought such an acute case of mental disorder to light.

It was the late 1970s, and terms like multiple personality disorder were not only misunderstood, but a lot of people hadn’t even heard of them. But here was a man who was accused of all sorts of gruesome crimes, but he was pleading that he was not guilty as he was “not himself” when he was committing the act. People and the court of law had heard about crimes of passion, i.e., criminal acts committed by a person who gets aggravated because of anger, jealousy, or any deep-rooted emotion. The basic element that differentiates a crime of passion from other crimes is the fact that it is not premeditated, and the accused acts on an impulse that becomes so great that they are not able to control themselves. Now, had Billy Milligan taken this defense, the people wouldn’t have been so surprised, but this man was saying that he had not acted on any impulse, but still, he could not be held guilty as he didn’t know what he was doing.

For any layman, it was the most absurd defense that anybody could take, and if you had asked any legal advisor back in the day, they would have laughed at the entire stance taken by the defendants. But believe it or not, Billy Milligan was found not guilty on the grounds of insanity in 1978 after he committed multiple sexual offenses, kidnapping, and assault. Though The Crowded Room is based on the life of Billy Milligan, we are pretty sure that apart from changing the names of the characters, the makers would have taken other liberties, mainly to spice up the narrative and make it more dramatic and entertaining.

Some people think that Billy Milligan’s case was a sheer example of how to make a mockery out of the criminal justice system, but it was not so as the rule of law had prevailed in his case. The kind of evidence that the man had, it became impossible for the judge to pass a judgment against him. Billy’s lawyers pleaded that the 22-year-old boy was suffering from multiple personality disorder, a term that later came to be known as dissociative identity disorder (DID). There were a bunch of psychiatrists and medical experts who took all sorts of tests and came to the conclusion that he was not wrong in saying so. DID is generally caused by some kind of traumatic event that takes place in the life of an individual, and the person suffering from it starts forgetting things and becomes very delusional when the impact of the disorder is at its peak. It is not easy to pretend that you have more than 20 personalities within you (if we choose to believe the claims of the people that he was lying all along), and there were witnesses who said that they did notice him behaving in a very strange manner.

There was a police officer who testified that when he was sitting with Milligan after he was arrested and taken to the police station, he started talking in a very weird way, and he almost saw him transform into a different man. The police officer himself wouldn’t have believed it if someone else had told him about it, but because he had seen it happen in front of his own eyes, he couldn’t just negate what the doctors later said. Billy Milligan said that his stepfather sexually abused him, though it could never be proved in court due to a lack of evidence.

In The Crowded Room, Danny Sullivan is shown to dislike his stepfather, Marlin Ried, for quite obvious reasons. Marlin had an intimidating demeanor, and Danny was always a bit scared of him. Marlin persistently told Danny to spend more time with him, and the tone in which he talked made his intentions look very suspicious. We believe that the sexual abuse that Billy had to face early in his youth would have impacted him in ways and means that he or others around him wouldn’t have realized at the time. It’s a tragedy if a minor doesn’t feel safe in his own home, where he should be the most secure. We are no experts, so we don’t know how it turned him into a sexual predator when he went to Ohio University, but we can say that what happened in his childhood kept haunting him all his life. When the defense lawyers argued in court, they said that Billy Milligan suffered from a loss of awareness, which led him to dissociate his actions from himself, and he could not ascertain whether what he was doing was a crime or not. We believe that had the case been tried today, Billy Milligan wouldn’t have been able to plead insanity with success.

Today, it is not that easy to satisfy all the parameters, and the court requires a more objective explanation that helps them establish a direct connection between the act and the mindset of the perpetrator at that point in time. Billy Milligan never left Ohio, which is a bit surprising, as generally, people who go through such a facade tend to change their hometown, go to a place where nobody recognizes them, and try to start afresh. Billy died of cancer in the year 2014, but his life became a subject matter to be discussed and additionally intrigued many filmmakers throughout the globe. If executed properly, The Crowded Room has the potential to become one of the most entertaining and thrilling series of all time, primarily because it seeks to decipher what went inside the convoluted mind of Billy Milligan.

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Sushrut Gopesh
Sushrut Gopesh
I came to Mumbai to bring characters to life. I like to dwell in the cinematic world and ponder over philosophical thoughts. I believe in the kind of cinema that not necessarily makes you laugh or cry but moves something inside you.

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