‘The Crowded Room’ is based on a disturbing true story

With episode 7, The crowded room finally reveals the big twist that is crucial to the core of understanding the drama series and its menacing protagonist, Danny Sullivan. Danny (Tom Holland) was arrested for a shooting in 1979 New York City, and he spilled his mysterious backstory to a patient but probing listener, Rya Goodwin (Amanda Seyfried). But eventually, the pieces of his story begin to fall apart when it is revealed that Sullivan suffers from dissociative identity disorder.


Tom Holland and Amanda Seyfried unravel a mysterious crime in the trailer for ‘The Crowded Room’.

In her first meeting with Sullivan, Goodwin — skeptical of how the police have characterized him — tries to get him to remember details about two missing people, Ariana and Yitzhak, as well as her own childhood. He’s frustrated and overwhelmed by her ability to remember, and Goodwin is hampered by his lack of response, but at the same time, there’s a tenderness conveyed and his desire to help is made clear. As their conversations continue throughout the episodes, the audience becomes part of a revelation that is not only shocking but also based on real-life events.

Whether you’re into the show, have been totally immersed, or are still thinking about diving into it, we’ve got the facts on this story stranger than fiction.

Who inspired the character of Danny Sullivan?

An anchor from

Credit: Netflix

The crowded room is inspired by the true story of Billy Milligan, the subject of a 1981 non-fiction book by Daniel Keyes titled The Minds of Billy Milligan(opens in a new tab). (If Milligan’s name sounds familiar, it could be because Netflix also launched a docu-series about him in 2021, Monsters Inside: The 24 Faces of Billy Milligan.)

In 1977, at the age of 22, Billy Milligan was arrested for kidnapping, robbery and rape of three women(opens in a new tab) on the Ohio State University campus, all of which occurred between October 14 and 26. Milligan had been released on parole earlier that year after already serving time for rape and robbery.

After Milligan’s face was selected from a series of mugshots of one of Ohio State’s victims, he was jailed, assigned a public defender, and subjected to a series of psychiatric evaluations. It was during these sessions that Milligan told investigators that it was his other personalities who had committed the crimes. Milligan said “Ragen”, a 23-year-old with a Slavic accent lacking empathy, had robbed the women and “Adalana”, a 19-year-old lesbian, raped them. Overall, psychiatrists determined that Milligan had 10 personalities(opens in a new tab) and suffered Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID)(opens in a new tab)formerly known as multiple personality disorder.

On December 4, 1978, Milligan was the first American acquitted of a felony by pleading a DID defense.

What is Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID)?

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Billy and his brothers in a photo from “Monsters Inside: The 24 Faces of Billy Milligan”
Credit: Netflix

DID is a diagnosis most commonly triggered by early childhood trauma, where one disconnects from oneself or one’s environment to distance oneself from the experience or experiences of the trauma. In Milligan’s case, the stressor was believed to be the sexual and physical abuse she suffered at the hands of her stepfather, Chalmer Milligan. This abuse was confirmed by other members of Billy’s family but denied by Chalmer, who died in 1988.

THE criteria for a DID diagnosis(opens in a new tab) requires the existence of two or more personality states, or distinct identities with one’s behavior, thought patterns, and memories, as well as gaps in memory of personal events and information. The symptoms of DID must also lead to discomfort and problems in daily functioning. THE primary treatment(opens in a new tab) for DID patients it is psychotherapy, as well as psychiatric medications such as antidepressants.

In the media – like Split, Fight Club, AND The crowded room – those with DID have been described as violent, when, in fact, there is no known association (opens in a new tab)between the diagnosis and an increase in criminal or violent behavior. Those living with DID are more likely to harm themselves than those around them.

Many, even those in the medical community(opens in a new tab), dismissed Milligan’s diagnosis, arguing that having multiple personalities was a normal aspect of being human and the defense was fraudulent. In 1994, multiple personality disorder was renamed in the DSM-IV psychiatric manual as Dissociative Identity Disorder, to reflect the role that fragmentation plays in protecting the patient from his or her trauma.

Who is Rya Goodwin?

Amanda Seyfried and Tom Holland in

Credit: Apple TV+

Rya Goodwin, played by Amanda Seyfried, is referred to as a “professor” throughout The crowded room. She’s been asked to question Sullivan, but she’s not a police officer. Thus, Goodwin is more likely to be a psychologist or a psychiatrist. It’s not entirely clear who his character is based on, although there are several possibilities.

While Milligan was initially diagnosed as a schizophrenic, Dr. Dorothy Turner of Southwest Community Mental Health Center concluded that he suffered from DID. Milligan has also been seen by Dr. Cornelia Wilbur(opens in a new tab)who stated that Milligan went through four personalities during their brief meeting.

Wilbur was a psychiatrist best known for treating Shirley Ardell Mason, who developed 16 alternate personalities as a result of childhood sexual abuse and whose case inspired both the book (1973) and film Sybil (1976). The case for Mason has been since then(opens in a new tab) debunked(opens in a new tab).

Did Billy Milligan Kill Michael Pierce Madden?

In 1986, Milligan escaped from the psychiatric hospital where he was staying and began calling himself Christopher Carr. During that time, Milligan lived in Bellingham, Washington with a roommate named Michael Pierce Madden(opens in a new tab)who went missing(opens in a new tab) in September of 1986.

Milligan was a suspect in Madden’s murder, mostly after selling Madden’s car. The missing man’s possessions were later found in Milligan’s apartment and it was learned that he was cashing Madden’s disability checks. However, as there was no hard evidence and a body was never found, Milligan was never charged with the crime and Madden’s case still remains unsolved.

Where is Billy Milligan today?

Billy Milligan in a photo from

Credit: Netflix

After receiving a “not guilty by reason of insanity” verdict on the Ohio State crimes, Milligan was committed to Athens Mental Health Center in Ohio. There, he worked with Dr. David Caul(opens in a new tab), an innovator in the treatment of what was known at the time as Multiple Personality Disorder. Caul sought to integrate Milligan’s personalities and, along the way, discovered 14 more, bringing the total number to 24 personalities.

Keyes’ book, The Minds of Billy Milligan it included research on the interview with Milligan and detailed Caul’s treatment of the man. However, despite him being hospitalized, Milligan was still engaging in criminal activity, according to news reports at the time. He was declared a security risk and in 1980 transferred to Lima State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, which Milligan later described to Keyes as a “chamber of horrors”.(opens in a new tab)

In 1988 doctors declared that his personalities were integrated and therefore he was no longer considered dangerous. In 1991 he was released from both mental and legal supervision. Milligan moved to California, but then disappeared from the radar until 1996, when he averaged declaration(opens in a new tab) TO Astrea website(opens in a new tab)a publication for “multiple personality resources and controversies”.

In it, he stated that he owns a company called Stormy Life Production and has plans to make a short film. “My thing is to educate people,” she said. She also said that she trained actors such as John Cusack, Christian Slater and Leonardo DiCaprio to “play MP as he is and not as he is commonly seen”.

And while there doesn’t appear to be a public record of Milligan meeting any of those actors, there is at least a grain of truth in what he said. For the past few decades, Milligan’s story has been a blockbuster property in Hollywood. Leonardo DiCaprio called him a “passion project”(opens in a new tab) of his, with THE Keeper(opens in a new tab) reporting that “DiCaprio has been interested in taking the part since 1997”. James Cameron Done try to adapt Keyes’ book into a big-screen project starring John Cusack, with a resulting screenplay called The crowded room(opens in a new tab). Other names attached include Brad Pitt, Sean Penn(opens in a new tab)Colin Farrell and Johnny Depp, con Danny DeVito(opens in a new tab)GusVanSant, Joel Schumacher(opens in a new tab)and David Fincher some of the high-profile names banned to further develop and/or direct.

If Milligan made a short, it never surfaced, and Milligan wasn’t involved with the Apple TV+ show. Second Katia(opens in a new tab)sister of Milligan, filed for bankruptcy in California, then moved back to Ohio, where she died of cancer in 2014 at age 59.

The crowded room is now streaming on Apple TV.(opens in a new tab)

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