NEGOTIATIONS for the contract to write this book were rather complicated--as most things in the life of Billy Milligan were complicated. To show his qualifications, Daniel Keyes sent a copy of his novel, Flowers for Algernon, to a sort of committee which examined and discussed it: "That week Allen, Arthur and Billy took turns reading the novel," Keyes reports.
"When they were finished, Billy said to Arthur, 'I think he's the one who should do the book.'" Arthur agreed, but Ragen, another member of the group, thought the book should not be written because it might reveal crimes he had committed. Allen suggested that it would be easy enough to deny anything incriminating, and Ragen was finally persuaded by the prospect that the book could make a lot of money.
This might be the account of a fairly ordinary committee meeting except for one point: Allen, Arthur, Billy and Ragen all use the same body--Billy's--which they share with 20 other persons (not, they insist, "personalities") of varied age, sex, talents, nationalities and religious beliefs. Billy Milligan is the first multiple personality to be publicly identified by his real name, extensively observed in public mental health facilities and made the subject of widely reported litigation. The reason for all this public identification is that some of the personalities are criminal; and Billy, the public personality, had to stand trial on charges of robbery, kidnapping, rape and assault with a deadly weapon--activities of which he was totally unaware.
Billy spent a good part of his life being unaware. Arthur, Ragen and the others "put him to sleep" in 1971, after he attempted to commit suicide, and he remained unaware--out of control of his own actions--until late 1977, when he woke up in jail. Arthur, the organizer and intellectual of the group (who had taught himself Arabic, among other accomplishments) had devised a strict set of rules for that six-year regency period: many of Billy's "tenants" were banished entirely because of socially undesirable qualities. Others would be allowed to hold the "spot"--the control center for public actions, communication, etc. from time to time, in situations suited to their particular abilities (which ranged from cooking, painting and playing golf to martial arts, lock-picking and the handling of explosives or electronic gadgetry). Allen, who had considerable public-relations skills and probably the best techniques for coping with day-to-day reality, would be the usual "front man" for encounters with the outside world. Arthur would make the basic decisions in non-threatening situations, but Ragen (a Yugoslav of unusual strength, agility and skill with guns and knives) would take over when there was danger. Others had highly specialized roles, usually connected to the reasons for which they had been conceived in the first place. David, for example, an 8-year-old who was the "keeper of pain, or the empath," entrusted with absorbing all the hurt and suffering of the others; or Mark, 16, sometimes called "the zombie," who would take care of monotonous labor--or just stare at the wall if he had nothing else to do; or Jason, 13, the pressure valve, who would release the others' pressure sometimes by screaming or throwing a tantrum and would absorb their bad memories, causing partial amnesia. Daniel Keyes supplies a complete, annotated list of characters at the beginning of the book--a considerable help to the reader in keeping track of who does what.
The youngest of the 24 people in Billy is Christene, a shy, pretty 3-year-old who was brought into existence in Billy's early years to provide "companionship for a lonely child." She remains 3, Arthur explains, because "It became important to have someone who knew little or nothing about what was happening. Her not knowing was an important protective device. If William had to hide something, she would come on the spot and draw or play hopscotch or cuddle the little Raggedy Ann doll . . ."
Other characters were generated to help cope with various crises of Billy's childhood, which was anything but happy. His father, a professional comedian, committed suicide; his stepfather left him (and his various alter egos) scarred with searing memories of beatings, sexual abuse, and one traumatic incident where he was threatened with burial alive.
The development of different personalities to cope with different problems is an ingenious ad hoc solution, but the various personalities in Billy did not always communicate with one another and his life became almost unmanageable. He would suffer frequent lapses of memory from periods when his own personality was not on the spot, and he would be called a liar because of memory failures or because a person who was not Billy was using Billy to speak truthfully for himself. For example, most of his personalities remained virginal long after one had had his first sexual experience. This sort of confusion and the implications that he was insane or a criminal finally led him to his suicide attempt while he was in high school and then to Arthur's establishment of the rules for what might be called the Billy Junta. Another ad hoc solution--one that worked well enough most of the time but sometimes failed abysmally during what the Billy group would call "mix-up times," when Arthur and the other leaders would lose control and others would take over.
These others were often the undesirables who were normally kept in seclusion: Philip, a petty criminal; Kevin, who dealt in drugs and masterminded a drug store robbery; April, "the bitch," whose only ambition was to kill Billy's stepfather. A special case is Adalana, a 19-year-old lesbian who suffers from loneliness and yearns for sex as a way of communicating; she is allowed to take the spot occasionally for her cooking and housekeeping skills. Billy's most serious legal problem in the book stems from three occasions when Adalana abruptly preempted the spot and began making love to women while one of the other characters was engaged in robbing them at gunpoint. The courts called it robbery, abduction and rape-- adequate descriptions of what happened, but the total reality is somewhat more complex.
Complexity is, in fact, the keynote of the Billy phenomenon and equally of its treatment by Daniel Keyes. The challenge of first unearthing this story (buried in many partial and often conflicting memories) and then telling it intelligibly was a daunting one. He has carried it off brilliantly, bringing to the assignment not only a fine clarity but a special warmth, and empathy for the victim of circumstances and mental failings that made Flowers for Algernon one of the most memorable novels of the 1960s.
Like the novel, the new nonfiction work ends with a special flavor of intense anguish. The Ohio system of criminal justice was woefully inadequate to deal with a problem as unusual as that of Billy Milligan--and when he was turned over to the state's public mental health system, the results were hardly better. Billy Milligan (as Keyes tells the story--and his case is convincing) fell into the power of the wrong people repeatedly at crucial points. In the basic decision between retribution (in the name of public safety) and an attempt to rehabilitate him (in the name of common decency), the wrong choices seem to have been made again and again. At the end, after many ups and downs and some promising efforts to integrate his various selves into an effective, functioning personality, the epilogue finds Billy slowly disintegrating in a maximum-security institution for the criminally insane. He calls the place where he is now "the Dying Place," and he tell Keyes in a letter: "We, I am a freak, a misfit, a biol, because ogical error. We all hate this place, but it is where we belong." His story is an incredibly unhappy one, but at least he has found the right person to tell it