“Monsters Inside” – As well as out [TELEVISION REVIEW]
“Monsters Inside; The 24 Faces of Billy Milligan,” the new Netflix four-part docu-series on Billy Milligan, the sociopath with 24 personalities, attempts to cash in on the serial-criminal-content-trend so popular on streaming services.
Directed by Olivier Magaton and written by Megaton and Brice Lambert, they spend four episodes detailing the troubled life of rapist and probable murderer Billy Milligan when two would have more than sufficed. Milligan, from a dysfunctional family was mercilessly abused mentally, physically, and sexually by his stepfather as Mom stood by, herself a victim of spousal abuse. She was a notoriously poor chooser of protectors, four husbands although one was a repeat offender, for herself and her children. It is believed that serious trauma in childhood can result in a psychotic break in some individuals. Billy, it would appear, was just such an individual.
Billy’s criminal tendencies manifested themselves early and he had already done a stint in prison before he became famous/infamous in 1977 as the Ohio State (as in the University in Columbus) rapist. In the span of a very few weeks, he robbed and raped three coeds. He was caught almost immediately because of fingerprints found at one or more of the scenes and was arrested.
His very savvy and sympathetic public defenders noticed immediately that there was something “off” about their client and requested a psychiatric evaluation. And thus, the circus begins because in no time he is diagnosed with multiple personality disorder. No less an expert than Cornelia Wilber, the psychiatrist who treated “Sybil,” the patient with dissociative identity disorder and co-wrote the book of that name was called in to interview Billy. Whereas Sybil had 16 personalities, Wilber eventually uncovered 24 in Billy.
Going over the testimony of the interested parties through archival film of the trial as well as past interviews with family members, prosecutors, defense attorneys, psychiatrists, and police as well as real time explanations by those same individuals, Megaton attempts to construct a complete portrait of a very complex individual. Many of the interviews, past and present, are very interesting, although analyses given (in French) by French psychiatrists and philosophers (you read that right) are a real mystery. Why the director felt it necessary to pad an already bloated film with the superfluous commentary of “experts” with no skin in the game is a total mystery. The only explanation is that he, as well as two of his executive producers are French. But that’s really not enough of a reason, is it? We could have used far fewer commentary by his former grade school classmates (as in “he was such a nice boy;” “he came from a very troubled family”) and more insight into his life after he was officially released from the mental hospital in 1988. He lived in California, without the scrutiny of the documentarians, for almost 20 years until he died of cancer. What was he doing? How was he living? Were there any more suspicious crimes near him?
Billy Milligan is an interesting character. A sociopath who was a master at manipulation may or may not have suffered from dissociative identity disorder. He was good at getting attention and keeping it. He even collaborated with Daniel Keyes on an autobiography called The Minds of Billy Milligan, In an interesting aside, it was remarked that Keyes was chosen because he wrote a book called Flowers for Algernon. Unlike Wilbur, a psychiatrist with insight into the disorder she was chronicling, Keyes was a novelist whose only famous book, the aforementioned Flowers for Algernon, was science fiction. The Minds of Billy Milligan has been called a “non-fiction novel.” What does that even mean?
The mistake, and it is a massive one, was the endless repetition of interviews that had already proven their point, whatever it might have been. One eventually begins to feel as though one is on an endless loop of the same information by the same people, thus muddying the initial impact and reducing the repercussions of the unraveling of Billy Milligan.
Two episodes would have more than sufficed. Good luck staying interested through the first two episodes. More interesting than Billy himself would have been a better exploration of the rifts in diagnosis, the ethical lapses in psychiatrists who wallow in the celebrity of their clients’ cases, the desire to punish and not “treat,” and the role of the diagnostician when faced with manipulation. All are hinted at, none explored.
Streaming on Netflix beginning Wednesday September 22.
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