I don’t know if I gravitate towards television shows (see Twin Peaks), movies, and books that my dad enjoyed as an unconscious way of connecting with him after he died or if we’re just that much alike. Maybe there’s a gene he passed to me that makes me love detective stories, Elizabeth Taylor, and This is Spinal Tap! I wonder…
I do know that one of the authors we both enjoyed reading was Daniel Keyes. Most who know of him do because they read his most famous novel, Flowers for Algernon, in high school. It was required reading, but I missed it because my regular English class bored me and I skipped to advanced classes. I inadvertently skipped this book, too. I admit, I have still never read Flowers for Algernon.
My experience with Daniel Keyes began in my parents’ library. I can’t remember if I read Unveiling Claudia or The Minds of Billy Milligan first, but I do remember how I felt and the impact they had on me. I was probably too young to read them, but I was interested in true crime as a teen, so I inevitably found my way to Keyes. Both were true stories, haunting tales that made your gut clench and the sparks in your brain ignite.
Unveiling Claudia is a true crime story about Claudia Elaine Yasko, a beautiful waitress suffering from schizophrenia, who confesses to 3 of 10 murders thought to be committed by the same killer or killers (known as the “.22-caliber murders”) in Ohio from 1977-1978…then retracts her confession and insists on her innocence. But Claudia, who claims to be a psychic, knows details about the crime scenes beyond public knowledge…
The book is a journey to find out if she’s a murderer, a psychic, or if there’s another explanation.
I remember first reading it and being in awe of Claudia’s beauty, her long dark hair, and liquid eyes, looking out hauntingly from the photos inside the book. I still find her infinitely interesting, the former go-go dancer and waitress, attracted to bad boys who took advantage of her because of her mental illness. She gained even more notoriety during the trial by appearing in and gaining support from Playboy magazine. Unveiling Claudia is an intriguing look inside the mind of a fascinating woman, a terrifying time in central Ohio’s history, and an impossible true story that is wilder than fiction.
The Minds of Billy Milligan tells the story of William Stanley “Billy” Milligan, the first person in American history who was acquitted of a major crime by using Multiple Personality Disorder (now known as Dissociative Identity Disorder) as his defense. Billy’s alters (the correct term for what used to be called personalities) total 24, including women, children, and the two alters who Billy claimed committed the crime that he was accused of without his knowledge. While a few of Billy’s alters have co-consciousness, most cannot see what the others are doing when they are “in the spot” or in control of the body. Billy (and Keyes) describes it as “losing time,” one minute you’re doing something and the next you’re somewhere else with no memory of what happened in between.
While the book begins with Billy as the antagonist, you soon find out that he is also a victim and it’s the abuse he suffered as a child that caused him to develop the rare defense mechanism that is Dissociative Identity Disorder. DID is still looked at with skepticism today, but I think dissociation is a very easy thing to believe in, especially when abuse is involved. DID is rare and women make up the vast majority of those diagnosed with it. The catalyst for developing it is known to be abuse (often prolonged abuse) or in some cases a traumatic event that causes the self to dissociate as a means of coping, eventually forming identities to help the core self deal with the trauma. Often the alters have specific roles. In Billy’s case, he has Ragen, “the keeper of hate” a Yugoslavian communist with superhuman strength (due to the ability to control his adrenaline flow), tasked as the body’s protector in dangerous situations; Arthur the bespectacled Brit with the high IQ who serves as intellectual leader and decides who will hold the consciousness and “be out”; David,”the keeper of pain,” who comes out to absorb pain so that the others don’t feel it; Tommy the escape artist who knows how to pick locks and can get himself out of a straight jacket, etc.
Occasionally, it sounds too impossible to be true. On the other hand, because it’s impossible, it makes more sense if it were true. Billy had an alter who was an exceptional painter, one who played drums, one who picked locks, one who wrote poetry, one who had a genius level IQ, one who wrote fluent Arabic, one who spoke with a perfect Serbo-Croatian accent, etc. It’s hard to imagine one person with all of those abilities, but not so hard to imagine them split between 24 people. It also really makes you stop and think what the brain is capable of allowing us to do. One of Billy’s alters is a smoker while none of the others smoke. One needs glasses to see while the others have perfect vision. If all of this could be possible coming from the brain of a person classified as having a “disorder,” it truly makes you wonder what a person is really capable of and how much more of the brain we could be using. I credit The Minds of Billy Milligan with my fervent and persistent interest in Dissociate Identity Disorder and as to why I chose Psychology as my major in college. It remains one of my favorite books and the contents never cease to amaze and intrigue me.
For the last 20 years, they have been trying to adapt Keyes’ book about Milligan into a film called The Crowded Room, but lawsuits and other difficulties have prevented that. Still, on Wikipedia it says, “In February 2015, it was confirmed that Leonardo DiCaprio would star as Milligan,” which is funny because Leo was also tagged to star as Milligan about 20 years ago when I first heard the rumor of this film. To be honest, I sort of hope it never gets made. I have a hard time imagining any director who could do this story justice and no actor who could take on the many layers of this role (not even one of DiCaprio’s caliber).
Daniel Keyes was not only an author my dad (and I) enjoyed, he was his creative writing professor at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio (which is probably the reason my dad amassed so many books by Keyes). Judging from what Wikipedia says as the year he started teaching there (1966), my dad was probably one of his first batch of students. Billy Milligan and Claudia Yasko would make headlines in Ohio (the crimes both were accused of happened either in or near Columbus in 1977) less than 10 years after my dad graduated and moved away. Keyes remained teaching at Ohio University and also wrote. He penned both books in the 1980s.
Recently, I thought about contacting Daniel Keyes, just to say hello, that my dad used to be his student, and that we were a household of fans. The thought came too late. I read recently that he passed away on my birthday 5 years ago. I regret I didn’t think of reaching out sooner.