Review of The Crowded Room TV series with a Brief History of Multiple Personality Disorder and Ego State Therapy
By Gerry Crete, Ph.D.
Warning: This program contains violence, sexual content, drug use, language, and disturbing emotional content. It is rated as TV-MA (for “mature” audiences). This program is not for children.
Spoiler Warning: This review contains major spoilers.
Background of the series
The Crowded Room is a 10-episode series released on June 23, 2023 and streams on Apple TV (check out the trailer here). The series was developed by Akiva Goldsman who wrote the screenplay for the movie A Beautiful Mind. The main character Danny Sullivan is played by Spider-Man actor Tom Holland who was also an Executive Producer of the series. The Crowded Room takes place in the 1970’s and was inspired by the real-life story of Billy Mulligan who was the first person in history who was acquitted of serious crimes by pleading not guilty by reason of insanity due to having Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD; now called DID or Dissociative Identity Disorder). Daniel Keyes’ non-fiction book The Minds of Billy Milligan tells the story of Billy’s experiences including the abuse he suffered at the hands of his stepfather and his struggle with MPD.
As some of you may know, I’m trained in Ego State Therapy (EST) and I was recently in conversation with EST consultant and co-founder of Ego State Therapy International, Wendy Lemke. She told me about this program and that I should watch it. I took her up on that and watched the entire 10-part series in about two weeks. I was not expecting to be affected on so many levels by this riveting program. I knew that this would be a program about MPD so I was not surprised at the big “reveal” that many of the main character’s friends, are in fact his “alters” (a term infrequently used now, but which refers to “parts” or “subpersonalities” or “ego states”). Seventeen-year-old Danny suffers from MPD and he leaves his mother and stepfather to live in an abandoned house. One of his parts is an Israeli tough guy Yitzak who protects him from dangers. Yitzak presents as no-nonsense and fierce in the face of bullies or anyone who would do Danny harm. There is also a sub-system within Danny that involves a friend group that includes Ariana, Jonny, and Mike. They reflect Danny’s ability to be social, fun-loving, carefree, fraternal, and sometimes reckless. Ariana is also confident and sexually active. And yet another part is Jack, a calculating British businessman.
“Do I have multiple personality disorder?”
As a therapist who practices parts work with clients, I often get the question, “Do I have multiple personality disorder?” I usually reply, “Almost certainly not. Multiple Personality Disorder is a very rare disorder.” Everyone has parts so we all have multiple personalities. When someone has MPD, however, it means that there is significant dissociation present, so much so that there is an amnesia wall between the person’s inmost self and their parts or between various parts. Parts may “take the executive” or “blend with the self” to such an extent that the person has no memory of their own actions for lengthy periods of time. Other symptoms may include hearing voices, intrusive thoughts, impulse control issues, depersonalization, derealization, and emotional and behavioral dysregulation.
Changing views of trauma’s effects on personality
The consensus among experts in dissociation used to be that MPD was caused by severe childhood trauma such as sexual abuse. Experts used to believe that at the time of the trauma the person’s personality was fragmented into many parts as a defensive mechanism. The treatment used to involve a kind of fusion therapy which attempted to reintegrate all the fragmented parts back into a single indivisible mind – just one personality.
We now understand MPD differently. The Internal Family Systems (IFS) model asserts that we have all our parts from birth. When trauma occurs, parts may take on extreme roles and carry burdens which may include negative beliefs, overwhelming emotions, and painful memories. These wounded and burdened parts are called exiles in the IFS model.
Interestingly, when Richard Schwartz developed IFS in the 1980’s, he was working from a family systems model rather than a trauma/dissociation model. He initially discovered parts when working with women struggling with eating disorders. He applied systems theory to the internal world of his clients and discovered the “Self” and multiple well-intentioned but often troubled parts.
In the 1960’s and 1970’s John and Helen Watkins developed Ego State Therapy (EST). They worked primarily with highly dissociative clients and applied principles of psychosynthesis, psychoanalysis and clinical hypnosis to develop EST, a robust parts work therapy. Unlike Schwartz, the Watkins’ worked initially with people with severe dissociation such as MPD. John Watkins famously used Ego State Therapy with the 1970’s California serial killer known as the Hillside Strangler to elicit a confession.
Back to the backstory…
Billy Milligan was on trial in the late 1970’s for committing multiple robberies and rapes in Ohio. He was originally diagnosed with schizophrenia by Dr. Willis Driscoll, but then diagnosed with MPD by Dr. Dorothy Turner. His case was highly publicized as the defense claimed that Billy did not commit the crimes; they were committed by two of his personalities. Instead of prison, Billy was sent to a psychiatric hospital. He was released in 1988 and died of cancer in 2014.
The TV series, The Crowded Room, makes several creative changes to the actual history. The main character is named Danny Sullivan, not Billy, he lives in New York, not Ohio, and Danny’s alters (parts) have unique presentations. Instead of rape or robbery, Danny’s crime is shooting at a man in the very public space of Rockefeller Center. In Danny’s mind it was Ariana who shot the gun. We find out later that the man he was shooting at was in fact the stepfather who sexually abused him as a child.
The progression of The Crowded Room
The first five or so episodes are from Danny’s perspective. We see the world as he sees it. He has memories of a twin brother Adam who died when they were young. We see the various parts as separate characters interacting with him and with other people in his life. We follow his teenage life which includes managing awkward social situations and dealing with his difficult stepfather. We watch as he leaves his mother and stepfather and moves into a nearby house managed by Yitzak, an Israeli landlord, and a female friend, Ariana. We watch as Danny escapes capture after the shooting and travels to England to find his biological father. Instead, he meets with his father’s former colleague British businessman Jack. Jack convinces Danny to confront people that owed his father money. This project does not go well, and Danny makes his way back to the United States and is captured by the authorities.
We also follow the experiences of psychologist Rya Goodwin, played by Amanda Seyfried (of Mean Girls fame) who gradually figures out that Danny has MPD. She learns about his past trauma, empathizes with him, and neglects her own work at the university by working with and advocating for Danny. She collaborates with legal aid attorney Stan to prepare for Danny’s defense. As Rya learns about Danny’s childhood trauma, we see her empathize with and re-connect with her own young son. This is where the story takes a turn and gets very heavy.
By the fifth episode, it becomes clear that many characters in the program are Danny’s alters or parts. We start to see how the parts protect him (sometimes in maladaptive ways) and how they often communicate with each other and work together keeping Danny out of the loop. The Jack part wants to keep the trauma out of the trial to protect him but this would surely sabotage Danny’s defense. All the parts are protecting Danny from the truth about his twin brother Adam.
The big reveal
Major Spoiler Alert! If you intend to watch this, you may want to stop reading now and come back afterward.
We learn (here is the big spoiler) that Adam is the part of Danny that carries the memory of the sexual abuse by the stepfather. This memory is repressed which results in Danny believing that his twin brother died when they were young.
In a remarkable and powerful moment during the trial itself, we see Danny retrieve Adam, the exiled part, who is underwater (a fitting way to portray a repressed part lost in the unconscious mind). At this point in the program, tears are pouring down my face as it was so impactful. Danny rescues Adam who can reveal the truth about his abuse on the stand. The jury subsequently finds him not guilty.
The program follows Danny’s recovery, his meeting with his mother who failed to protect him, and how he processes his abuse through art. I was speechless through the last few episodes. It was disturbing to be sure, but moving and ultimately hopeful. I am still reeling a bit from this experience. It is no surprise to me that actor Tom Holland who played Danny decided to take a year off acting after this role because he was so affected by the experience.
I have never seen a more vivid depiction of parts of the self-system in action. This is far more realistic than earlier film versions depicting MPD such as Sally Field’s Sybil or Joanne Woodward’s The Three Faces of Eve. More recent Disney movies such as The Kid or Inside Out capture the idea of multiplicity in often humorous but insightful ways. The Crowded Room, however, speaks powerfully to the intersection of childhood trauma, multiplicity, and severe mental illness.
A sample of Ego State Therapy references
Watkins, J. G. (1976). Ego States and the Problem of Responsibility: A Psychological Analysis of the Patty Hearst case, Journal of Psychiatry and Law, 471-489.
Watkins, H.H. (1978). Ego state therapy. In: J.G. Watkins (ed.): The therapeutic self. New York (Human Sciences), pp. 360-398.
Watkins, H.H. & Watkins, J.G. (1985). Ego-states and multiple personalities. Presented at the 11th International Congress on Hypnosis and Psychosomatic Medicine. Toronto, Canada.
Watkins, H.H. (1984). Ego-State therapy. In R.J. Corsini (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Psychology, (pp. 420-421). New York: Wiley.
Watkins, J. & Watkins, H. (1997). Ego States Theory and Therapy. New York: W.W. Norton and Company.
Thank you, Dr. Gerry, for this review and for connecting this series to the broader mental health field.
Be With the Word for the 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Join Dr. Gerry and me, Dr. Peter, for our 43-minute episode titled Overcoming Fear and Getting Unstuck where we do a role-play this week to illustrate how you may be able to overcome fear and avoid “burying a God-given talent.” Learn about getting to what is behind the fear plus techniques to help you affirm yourself and perhaps get unstuck in some aspect of your life. The readings for the Mass are here.
The Interior Integration for Catholics podcast
Thank you to our live audience at the recording of IIC episode 126, Borderline “Personalities”: Your Questions Answered by Dr. Greg Bottaro; we had about 40 attend live, and Dr. Greg was such a great guest. That episode will release on all the major podcast platforms and on our IIC landing page on Monday morning, November 20, 2023.
Register here to join Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist Dr. Gerry Crete and Dr. Peter on Zoom on Wednesday evening, December 13, 2023 from 7:30 to 9:00 PM Eastern time for IIC episode 128 titled “Relating well with family members with ‘borderline’ dynamics.” Dr. Gerry and I will have a 15 to 20-minute conversation followed by a Q&A.
The Resilient Catholic Community
Registration for the St. Francis Xavier cohort (sign up on the RCC landing page) is now open!
The RCC is focused on helping you achieve three overarching goals:
- Tolerating being loved by God, your neighbor, and yourself – and that means all of you, all your parts
- Embracing your true identity as a beloved little daughter or son of God your Father and Mary your Mother, your primary parents
- Overcoming natural-realm obstacles to loving God, your neighbor, and your self (in all your parts) to carry out the two Great Commandments – through better human formation
More than 200 Catholic pilgrims like you are already on the journey. Consider joining us! Much more information is on our RCC landing page.
The non-refundable application fee is for the RCC $299. The 44 weekly sessions happen over 12 months, with a $99 per month subscription fee. The total cost is $1487 for the whole experience. If you need financial assistance, let our office manager know – Patty Ellenberger at firstname.lastname@example.org or 317.207.1226. We never turn away applicants who are a good fit for the RCC because of financial issues.
Also know that you are welcome to call me on my cell – 317.567.9594 – with any questions you may have about joining the RCC.
St. John the Baptist, pray for us.
Why is St. John the Baptist the patron of Souls and Hearts? Because he prepared the way for the Lord. And preparing the way for the Lord is our mission at Souls and Hearts.
Souls and Hears is not primarily focused on your spiritual life and your spiritual formation – we leave that to so many other qualified people. Instead, we focus on your natural life, your human formation. So many spiritual problems are really spiritual consequences of human formation deficits.
As St. John Paul II noted, all formation is based on human formation, including spiritual, pastoral and intellectual formation (see PDV, 43,44). Why? Because as St. Thomas Aquinas said, “Grace perfects nature; it does not destroy it.” And grace needs our nature, our human nature, to perfect.
In Souls and Hearts, especially in our communities, the Resilient Catholics Community and the Interior Therapist Community, we remedy those human formation deficits to free you to be able to love much better, with much greater peace and joy in your life.
Pray for me and Souls and Hearts
Prayer. The fuel for all the good we do at Souls and Hearts. We are always in need of prayers. Please pray for us – in your personal intentions, offering up Rosaries and Divine Mercy Chaplets and litanies, and all kinds of prayers for Souls and Hearts. And Masses, too, don’t forget that option. I firmly believe that when the end of the world comes, we will see exactly how prayer was the most important contributor from our members to the success of Souls and Hearts’ mission. As St. Thomas Aquinas said: We set forth our petitions before God, not in order to make known to Him our needs and desires, but rather so that we ourselves may realize that in these things it is necessary to turn to God for help.
Please pray for us, for the help that Souls and Hearts’ needs. I am praying for you all.
Warm regards in Christ and His Mother,