Earlier this week, Netflix released a four-part documentary series titled "Monster Inside: The 24 Faces of Billy Milligan" chronicling the life of Billy Milligan — a former Athens State Hospital patient. The docuseries included footage of local Athens residents and locations.
The series — currently the fifth most streamed program on Netflix in the United States — explores Milligan’s life from childhood until death. He ended up at The Ridges after being arrested in Columbus for sexually assaulting, kidnapping and robbing three female Ohio State University students. While incarcerated prior to his trial, he was diagnosed with multiple personality disorder (now called dissociative identity disorder) and was deemed not guilty by reason of insanity.
According to Psychology Today, the insanity defense is used in less than 1% of criminal proceedings and is successful in only 1 out of 400 cases. Those found not guilty by reason of insanity are often institutionalized in mental health facilities rather than entering the prison system. The intention is to help the patient while not excusing their behavior due to mental illness.
The Athens State Hospital — located on what is now The Ridges, owned by Ohio University— was one of many facilities where Milligan resided. But he left a lasting impression on those he encountered here, who were not limited to hospital staff: Millligan was allowed to leave the hospital grounds for trips into town.
During his time at The Ridges, Milligan was interviewed extensively by Daniel Keyes, world-renowned author of “Flowers to Algernon” and Ohio University creative writing professor, who would then go on to write a book titled “The Minds Of Billy Milligan.” The book, published in 1981, has since sold worldwide and was nominated for the 1982 Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime book. Keyes was named professor emeritus in 2000 and passed away from pneumonia in 2014.
According to George Eberts, a 30-year employee of the facility and interview subject in the docuseries, residents were fairly relaxed about the situation, taking a sort of pride in their neighborhood asylum.
“The people of Athens have always been cool with their asylum,” said Eberts. “It meant jobs and it meant commerce and it meant a certain amount of fame, being on the map. People always had relatives that worked there and they were good jobs that lasted forever.”
Eberts wasn’t the only local figure to be involved in the production. Jim Murray — known locally for producing 45701, a Athens-produced soap opera that Milligan would eventually have a role in — was interviewed for the series, as well as Dwight Woodward, a former reporter at The Athens Messenger. The Messenger offices were used to film interviews with psychiatrist David Malawista; other filming took place at the Athens County Courthouse and Zenner House.
Kaitlin Thorne, former editor of The Athens Messenger, was in the office during filming and enjoyed watching the process unfold. Everyone in the building was intrigued, popping their heads in to check out the crew.
Thorne emphasizes the importance of telling Milligan’s story as a groundbreaking case.
“Everything about his court case and treatment presents legal, moral and philosophical questions that are still relevant today,” said Thorne, now a reporter for WOUB. “From a local standpoint, I think the documentary will be interesting to the community because of the longstanding fascination with The Ridges. Those who were here when it was open all have stories about its operation and those of us who know it only as the old institution on the hill want to know more about its patients and what they went through.”
Eberts, who currently works with the Southeastern Ohio Historical Society and gives tours of The Ridges, hopes that the documentary will bring renewed attention to the area and possible funding for the restoration of the historic and fascinating site.
He also hopes that Milligan’s story will bring greater understanding of the phenomenon that was multiple personality disorder at that time.
“And I don’t know with someone presented like Milligan nowadays, I don’t know what they’d make of him clinically or legally,” said Eberts.
Dissociative identity disorder is not a new phenomenon; it appears in ancient Chinese medical literature and has been defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders since the first edition. Cases are extremely rare, occurring once in every 200,000 people according to the Cleveland Clinic.
The brain creates these fractured personalities in order to cope with severe trauma such as long-term childhood abuse or neglect. Talk therapy and medication are used to manage the disorder. Whether Milligan was actually living with the illness is a central theme in the docuseries.