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Is Anyone Really Normal?

DiCaprio's 'Crowded Room' brings excitement to some, reality to others

Editor’s Note: The reporter chose to use first-person in the introduction and conclusion of the article to exemplify an interaction with someone who has the disorder profiled. Furthermore, while Keyes’ book is available to the public, DeLaval Miller’s memoir and Murray’s documentary are not.

Sitting in China Panda on East State Street, Nancy DeLaval Miller answers questions in between bites of shrimp and broccoli.

DeLaval Miller, 73, an Athens resident, said I was talking to Functional Nancy, Control, Julie and Jane — all while sitting in a booth, just the two of us.

DeLaval Miller, writer of Multiple: A Christian’s Battle with Insanity, has dissociative identity disorder. She has 14 known personalities living inside her and, occasionally, as she puts it, "meets someone new."

As we were talking, she’s contemplated letting someone else speak with me.

“We’re very anxious to be discovered and have people talk to them — like Allen wants to talk to you,” DeLaval Miller said. “I don’t know if I should let him or not.”

Before Allen could speak, a commercial came on the TV behind me.

“There is this underwear ad that’s showing people from the back,” she said. “Allen just went right back in. He can’t handle that. That was disgusting.”

I didn’t get a chance to talk to Allen.

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Dissociative identity disorder (DID) might be better known by its previous name, multiple personality disorder, and by the infamous characters who embodied it. This includes Sybil, the fictionalized version of Shirley Ardell Mason, and Billy Milligan, an Athens Mental Health Center (The Ridges) patient who was the first to use multiple personalities as a successful defense in court in 1978.

Milligan’s story will be told in The Crowded Room, a film in which Leonardo DiCaprio will produce and star. Milligan died in December 2014.

Explaining the unexplainable

The National Alliance on Mental Illness’ website defines the disorder as a “disturbance of identity in which two or more separate and distinct personality states (or identities) control an individual's behavior at different times.”

“I would describe it as the most severe form of post-traumatic stress disorder,” Thomas Walker, a board member of NAMI’s Athens chapter, said. “The individual has suffered a horrible trauma and when that happens, the mind just clicks off and you have no memory of the trauma that happened and all of a sudden you have several personalities.”

Personalities can split once or 100 times, according to NAMI's website.

Erika Gray, outreach and consultation coordinator at Ohio University’s Counseling and Psychological Services, said in an email that “dissociative experiences are not unusual.”

“We all have them,” she said in an email. “For example, you may have had the experience of driving your car to a familiar location and arriving there with no memory of the trip there. It happens to all of us, sometimes daily. It is only when it becomes extreme that you see a DID manifestation.”

When identities switch, memory can be jeopardized for those with the disorder.

“It’s very hard for you to communicate with people, and it’s very hard for people to communicate with you because they don’t know who you’re talking to,” Walker said. “They may tell you at one moment to go cut the lawn and ... the next day the lawn hasn’t been cut and the mother says, ‘Why didn’t you cut the lawn?’ and the person says, ‘You didn’t tell me to.’ ”

"I would describe it as the most severe form of post-traumatic stress disorder. The individual has suffered a horrible trauma and when that happens, the mind just clicks off and you have no memory of the trauma that happened and all of a sudden you have several personalities,” Thomas Walker, a board member of NAMI’s Athens chapter, said.

The making of a movie multiple

The conversation about DID in Athens arose when the Leonardo DiCaprio film was announced in March. Mostly Athenians were wondering: Will DiCaprio be filming at The Ridges?

Katie Quaranta, OU spokeswoman, said the university has not been approached about the film using The Ridges as a location.   

Without any indication as to filming locations or plot, Walker is unsure if this would be a good move for public knowledge on the disorder.

The issue with many mental illnesses, Walker said, is they are usually sensationalized by the media.

DeLaval Miller said there is one key factor that would make the portrayal accurate.

“People with multiple personalities are usually confused unless they have a really strong inner core of someone who takes care of everything,” DeLaval Miller said.

The plea of personalities

Twenty-four identities lived inside Milligan’s head — all with different accents, skills, genders, sexual preferences and ages spanning from 3 to 26.

Milligan had been charged with multiple rapes, kidnappings and robberies in the Ohio State University area, but was found not guilty by plea of insanity.

Milligan was treated at The Ridges following his trial.

Jim Murray, an Athens resident and filmmaker, produced a two-hour documentary, Billy, in 1985 and spoke to Milligan, Dr. David Caul (Milligan’s doctor at The Ridges), Daniel Keyes (author of the book The Minds of Billy Milligan), Dorothy Moore (Milligan’s mother), in addition to others.

“Changes (in personalities) can take place almost instantly within the twinkling of an eye,” Caul said in the documentary, which is not available to the public.

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Milligan’s father abused him as a child, causing the splits in his personality.

“Billy was a quiet, withdrawn-type person, shy ... (his father) picked on him, even the little things,” Moore, Milligan’s mother, said in the documentary. “So from there on, this is what started Billy breaking off, and I could see it.”

Caul worked to fuse the identities by attempting to have them work together to become one cohesive individual.

“When all 23 fused to create 'the teacher,' I was dealing with the most articulate, intelligent and fascinating human I had ever met,” Keyes said in the documentary. “But then sometimes he would un-fuse, and I would see the core Billy again who was an empty shell.”

In the documentary, Milligan’s mother said she also had to learn to adjust to each identity’s likes and dislikes and love them as her own children. She also had to deal with people thinking Milligan was an imposter.

“(People) think he’s an actor or a con man. He should be so lucky. Can you imagine what goes on in his mind and his body when he changes?” Moore asked in the documentary. “Can you imagine that hell? ... I know my son. He is not an imposter.”

Keyes, who was approached by Milligan to write a book about his life, was diligent in checking to make sure everything Milligan told him was true, and even went back to Milligan’s childhood home in Florida.

“I never caught him in a lie, and believe me, I tried. I approached this with incredible skepticism,” Keyes said in the documentary.  

Living with insanity

DeLaval Miller just thought she was “crazy.”

As a survivor of sexual assault as a child, DeLaval Miller’s identity began to split. She was unaware of the personalities or that she had dissociative identity disorder until she was 50.

“I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me and I couldn’t get away,” DeLaval Miller said. “I couldn’t stop being crazy.”

In Keyes’ book, Milligan described his mind as a large spotlight with beds all around it, and when an identity took over, it would come to the middle of the light — known as “the spot.”

For DeLaval Miller, she pictures a long hallway with many rooms on either side. When a personality comes out, it steps out of the room. When it wants to leave, it goes back inside.

“When any of them get frustrated or upset, I get frustrated and upset,” DeLaval Miller said.

She said she has to do different activities to help appease the others.

“It’s really hard to keep track of them,” DeLaval Miller said. “For instance, ... Julie’s my artist and she longs to do art, but I never have time to do it. So ... I started coloring (in a coloring book) ... and I stayed up until 4:30 (a.m.).”

DeLaval Miller said it takes trust and time to tell people about her disorder. However, she said there are problems when it does occur — most people think she is “a murderer” or “a serial killer.”

“(You need) to believe them and to realize the person is still the same person you’ve been friends with all along,” DeLaval Miller said. “It’s you who’s going to have to change because it’s you that has to suddenly realize how mixed up they are.”

The new normal

DeLaval Miller ended her book with, “Is anyone really normal?” When asked about that quote, she suggested that society should expand its definition of normality.

“Collect a few extra people that weren’t normal in your book,” she said. “If they’re abnormal ... talk to them.”

After DeLaval Miller and I each paid for our meals, she shook my hand and left with this:

“Thank you for taking the time to talk to us,” she said. “You made us all feel very comfortable. We appreciate it.”

@reb_barnes

rb605712@ohio.edu

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