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How Akiva Goldsman Grounded ‘The Crowded Room’ In His Own Experience As A Survivor Of Childhood Sexual Abuse

EXCLUSIVE: Akiva Goldsman won an Oscar for A Beautiful Mind, his screenplay detoured from Sylvia Nasar’s biography to the story of her genius mathematician husband John Nash. Depicted deciphering Soviet-planted hidden media messages for the Defense Department, the duty turned out to be a symptom of schizophrenia. That was a mild foray into the human mind compared to The Crowded Room, the 10-part Apple TV+ series Goldsman created and was showrunner on. Tom Holland stars as a young man whose erratic behavior was the result of a false reality triggered by a mind that fractured into multiple alter egos. Inspired by the Daniel Keyes book The Minds of Billy Milligan, Goldsman changed facts to create a fictionalized story that would be hard to believe had it not happened. What Goldsman hasn’t discussed until now is how much of the narrative was informed by his own memories of being molested as a child by a family friend, through his formative childhood and teenage years. There is truth among fiction that has sparked strong reactions from fellow trauma sufferers. Buckle up.

DEADLINE: One of the most inventive things about A Beautiful Mind was watching Russell Crowe’s John Nash stare at messages and visually isolate codes that made you think, this guy is a genius. And then you find out what you are watching is the manifestation of a troubled mind. Easier to hold back that reveal in a movie than in the eight episodes of The Crowded Room. What was the trick in deciding how much information to dish, and when?

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AKIVA GOLDSMAN: It was always a moving target, always dynamic through the writing. At one point, episode five, which is the abuse episode … I actually wrote it as first to be the pilot. After shooting it, it was just too painful to start with. So the crime came first and the abuse moved. But I never really thought the show was that mysterious. I figured that some would get it after the first scene and others after episode two, and the rest by four. I never do this, but I’ve been engaged with it on the internet, as people watched it.

DEADLINE: Why put yourself through that?

GOLDSMAN: I don’t, I don’t talk back, but there’s a Crowded Room Twitter which is very alive. And I watched people track through it, only hoping they would not say out of the gate, it’s a show about multiple personality disorder or disassociate identity disorder. Just let them come to it. For me it was never really a mystery, that he was in a world that was his own. The story was really to watch him come to terms with that. So he catches onto it much later than any of us. No matter how quick you are as an audience member, or how slow, Danny’s still behind you. It takes him a really long time to find out that the world he lives in is perceptually unique, and by all other reckonings not real. I run screaming from the internet typically, but this time has been extraordinarily gratifying. My experience on the internet is not, unilaterally. I will remind you, I wrote Batman and Robin, so you can imagine what that cascade is like.

DEADLINE: People did not approve of the nipple costume Batman wore?

GOLDSMAN: They did not apparently approve of the nipple costume, to this day. Yet, when it comes to this show, it has stirred up a lot of really profound emotional reactions in the mental health community and in trauma sufferers. It has created real conversation about sexuality and obviously real conversation in the disassociate identity disorder community, in a way that I’ve actually never had the good fortune of being part of. Maybe if A Beautiful Mind were around when there was Twitter, I’d have seen it them. But it has been overwhelming in that way. The whole object here has been to reach people and it seemingly has done that.

DEADLINE: You asked a lot from the audience, slowly peeling back the layers of tragedy that shattered the mind of this kid, over 10 episodes. What reactions most surprised you?

GOLDSMAN: I knew the show would be polarizing. I never knew it would be quite this polarizing. But I wrote it with the hope it would ignite painful conversation, but important conversation, about dissociative identity disorder — which was then called multiple personality disorder –and its prevalent cause. And that cause is, the sexual abuse of children. This is something we don’t like to think about, and so therefore we don’t. It can be unfathomable, but to really look at it head-on is pretty vital. What happens when one is abused early and sexually as a child? And typically in these cases of disassociated identity disorder by a parent or by an authority figure. There’s a kind of paradox that happens in the mind of the infant or the child; we are biologically programmed to cling to those who will take care of us. We need mommy, to live. Without mommy, we get left behind, left unprotected by the proverbial campfire and somebody stoves our head in with a log. We’re little, we can’t take care of ourselves. So, we hang on to mommy. What happens if mommy or the daddy who protects us, is at the same time hurting us? We have to love them to survive. We have to attach to them to survive, but they’re hurting us in the most unimaginable ways. And so the psyche fractures. We run away, and someone else comes in [in our mind] to be there and only witness bad mommy or bad daddy. And when that person exits, then the other part of us comes back. We all have ways of coping. But this is spectacularly horrific, and both words are true. It is horrific, but it is spectacular. This coping strategy, this miracle that is the human mind … it’s not something we like to talk about. So we keep it secret, culturally. Sometimes we keep it secret from ourselves.

DEADLINE: You clearly know a lot about this…

GOLDSMAN: I was sexually abused from the time I was 8 years old until my early 20s by someone who was very close to my family.

DEADLINE: Who was this?

GOLDSMAN: He was someone that I trusted, that my parents trusted, and that I knew from the time I was a toddler. It’s not something that I hide, but it’s not something I typically talk about. But I wanted to talk about it in this show. I wanted to reach out to folks like me, trauma survivors, sexual abuse survivors. I’m now of a certain age now and I’m a dad. You start to realize that these secrets can’t be secret. We have to talk about the hard things. We have to tell stories that touch on the hard things. So this show is confronting and triggering and profoundly uncool in its emotionality. That’s on purpose. It is made for people who understand, and are able to sit with the kind of things people can do to children, and to explore how we can survive this, and still have hope.

DEADLINE: Some talented people tried to adapt the book The Minds of Billy Milligan before. James Cameron, Joel Schumacher, and Leonardo DiCaprio, Colin Farrell, and John Cusack. How integral was your personal trauma in finding a way through after other attempts hit the wall?

GOLDSMAN: They were always trying to build features, and this is hard material to do in two hours. I also think that they were leaning into the multiple personality disorder component. Dissociative identity disorder, multiple personality disorder lives in the center of our show, because that is what Danny [Tom Holland] is suffering from. But there are sort of faces of a prism when it comes to trauma. Like, nobody in the show is doing particularly well. Stan [the defense lawyer played by Christopher Abbott] is a drug addict. Rya [the psychologist played by Amanda Seyfried] seems to be drinking way too much. Candy [Danny’s mother, played by Emmy Rossum] is locked into a terrible cycle of abuse. You know, everybody is suffering from some kind of traumatic exposure. I think that’s so true today, there’s so much trauma and we don’t take the care we need to in discussing it. Having these extraordinary actors all kind of playing a different face of trauma allowed the show be about more than just the central character.

Amanda Seyfried and Tom Holland in ‘The Crowded Room’
Amanda Seyfried and Tom Holland in ‘The Crowded Room’

DEADLINE: It all hinges on Tom Holland being able to channel these personalities he hatched to not have to face the unspeakable horror he endured…

GOLDSMAN: Empathy is required for you to get in there with the lead character. That’s what Tom is so spectacular at doing. You get up close to him, and once you’re up close to him, if he gets you to attach to him, which he does, then whatever he’s going through, it’s hard to look away, even if it’s the hardest thing people ever go through. Because to remember, as a man, that you were sexually abused as a child, and discover that the world that you built to not remember that … to not know that is so profoundly fragile. That realization is a really hard thing to watch, but Tom allows you to, because you watch it right up next to him.

DEADLINE: I hope that Tom did not have to tap into personal experience for this, but he has spoken of how much the experience took out of him. How much of your own traumatic experience did you share with him?

GOLDSMAN: I was very open with him about my history, coming into this project. I was really open with most of the folks who made it, and there was a lot of exchange of information, of stories. You might be stunned, but it is shockingly predictable how many of us have been touched by some kind of trauma or sexual abuse, either our own or from those we know, or from parents who were traumatized. I always say the work I do on Star Trek is self-selecting. People who do Star Trek really like Star Trek. People who come to make a 10-hour drama about disassociate identity disorder, trauma and sexual abuse … almost everybody has something. Tom actually was un-occluded by a heavy burden of personal history. But he’s kind of a sponge.

He’s an empath in that way. He had the heaviest burden because he had to take it all in, embody this kind of pain, this kind of fracturing, and then live it and live it on a television schedule. We shot for 130 days. That’s just about a Marvel movie. But in the course of a Marvel movie, you’re getting two hours of finished film, while we got 10 hours. So imagine how many pages we’re shooting every day, and really, all we’re doing are scenes about feelings and loss and pain, day in, day out. It was grueling. It was a grueling show to make emotionally for everyone.

DEADLINE: You go as far here as you want to. You tell me you were molested from like 8 until your 20s. I know you pretty well and I never would’ve imagined this. I imagined children most susceptible to predators would be in single-parent or broken homes, because predators prey on the most vulnerable to getting them alone. How does this happen to you for such a prolonged period? Did this guy get his just desserts?

GOLDSMAN: This guy did get his justice desserts, and he is dead some decades now. It was somebody who was in a position of power. It was the ’70s, there were less guardrails on the world. Kids were much less regulated for good or ill, in this case, ill. That’s part of the show too. And this was a person who was well known to my family. Mine was not an unstable home, but it wasn’t a necessarily stable home. There was a lot going on in my childhood. And this person was an island of respite, according to my family system.

In a weird way, the system colluded, which often happens, in the abuse. And no one knew. That’s again why I say it’s important we talk about these things. Because so many of us who experience any kind of abuse are trained to keep it secret. The contours of how this works … you can see that shame is all throughout the show. It is written from the point of view, by somebody who has lived with that kind of shame. But, you know, I got older. I confronted the person, I reported the person. I began, and I’m still on a journey of healing, which is what you do with life, right? We suffer, and from that suffering, we try to transform ourselves and the meaning of our suffering. We try to make meaning out of the pain. And you’re kind to say that you wouldn’t expect it to be me, but I have many of the things trauma survivors have. I can get flooded pretty easily. I can get anxious. I … thank god for Lexapro. I think I’ve never not been in therapy. So, I was spared disassociate identity disorder. I have lived a … and this is a horrible sentence … a relatively typical life of somebody who was abused. Which was a child shattered, and then a life of trying to rebuild and trying to transform that pain into connections, relationships. And on a good day, art.

DEADLINE: As a father, I always hoped that if anyone even made them uncomfortable, they would tell me and I would deal with it. But I understand the shame. Can you describe and make us understand from personal experience why that would not happen, aside from you not wanting to see your father going to jail for throwing somebody out a window?

GOLDSMAN: [Laughs] Yeah. No. I mean, look, I think that’s really what the show is for, and the reason it reveals itself slowly. That speech Danny has in episode 10, which Tom has cited again and again as the hardest piece of acting that he had to take on for the course of the show. About shame, the shame of Adam [his twin brother], and his feelings of culpability in his own abuse.

The reason that comes in episode 10 is, if I just said it to you today in an interview, it would be too glib and facile. You have to live with Danny and the experience of carrying that suffering through a life, and then hear him say it, to understand. And I think people do. I think when they hear him talk about how Adam saw the world, I think they may just see how children who are abused see the world. And I do think that today people are more likely to talk about it than they were in my childhood. The reason to put these things into the world is so people become more conversant with this, that we don’t keep this as something we never talk about. I mean, we have to be gentle, and that is why we have the warning cards at the end of each episode, to remind people they can ask for help.

Abuse is something we have to talk about, and we have to talk about it in a populist way. There is nothing cool or slick or edgy or trendy about it. It’s just one of the truths of being alive on the planet, what we sometimes do to our children, as human beings. It’s incomprehensible, and yet it has to be addressed. And so, you know, I think we all who have suffered it, should try to address it in whatever ways we can.

DEADLINE: Lending first-hand perspective to this story of how Danny’s mind shatters to deal with these repeated horrific experiences inflicted by his stepfather, I can understand how you cracked the code on this story where others were unable to … you had pure fucking pain to pour into this.

GOLDSMAN: Yeah. Well, I can’t speak to that. I would’ve loved to have seen any of their versions, quite frankly. I’m sure that might have solved other problems out there that need solving, or at least addressed them. It has been awhile since people tried to take it on. I think that is because when the book came out, post simple multiple personality disorder was still kind of novel. Now time goes on, and it becomes mythologized.

It turned it into genre, as does almost everything at a certain point. Ours wasn’t necessarily promising something new or revelatory. You’ll notice that it no longer even says, based on The Minds of Billy Milligan. It says inspired by. That book was by Daniel Keyes, who wrote Flowers for Algernon, the great short story that became Charlie, the movie that won an Academy Award for Cliff Robertson. Billy Milligan’s life was less complicated when Daniel Keyes wrote and published the book. The book seems to have a happy ending. Right. OK. Well, Billy’s life continues, and it became much more complicated, and it’s hard to actually be clear that there’s a happy ending. And also the crimes are harder to get your head around.

DEADLINE: He was charged with rape.

GOLDSMAN: So the thing that I think I was afforded the opportunity to do, because it was no longer a hot book, was to deviate from it. I got to make up a story inside the construct, and this is what I like to do, Mike. I like to smuggle my own experience into other stories. It’s a sort of collaboration on the page. With A Beautiful Mind it was Sylvia Nasar’s wonderful biography. And John didn’t actively participate in interviews, so it didn’t really have any of his interior [perspective]. So I took my childhood growing up … my parents founded a group home for emotionally disturbed children, when I was little and squished my own personal experience in there.

Here, I moved the story. Billy and I are contemporaneous, but I moved the story to New York, not Iowa where Billy lived. I created scenes out of my childhood. Not the horrors of my childhood, just my childhood, in Brooklyn Heights, my school St. Ann’s. That again was me trying to take my own life and merge it with this source material in order to tell a particular story, and importantly, create a story that is hopeful. You don’t put an audience through this if you’re not going to give them the promise of peace in the end.

DEADLINE: What happened in your own life that finally gave you the courage to say, Hey, wait a minute, this happened to me and this was wrong. Your protagonist here goes through the seven layers of hell to get to a point of understanding. What sparked you to be able to say, Hey, this happened, and this guy did it?

GOLDSMAN: Well, first, I never forgot. I always knew. I just never talked about it. I told myself it was OK. I think that one thing that all trauma survivors will tell you is, we have symptoms. You can only ignore your own symptoms for so long, unless you’re just stubborn and unwilling to grow. When you are traumatized in this way, the little kid in you is stuck in crisis forever, because you haven’t worked it out. I’ve said it before and I say it in the show: trauma’s like time travel. There’s a piece of you that always lives in that moment of trauma. So it’s frozen there, and it’s very easy that to go hurtling back to that. That’s the terrible thing about trauma. You see this a lot in PTSD, and it spreads over time. It starts to inform more and more of your life. And that’s why I was saying that the older you get, if you are curious about yourself, you’re gonna notice that you’re suffering. And if you notice that you’re suffering, then you realize, you’re only here once. You should probably go get some help.

DEADLINE: You were about 22 when this stopped. That would have been around the end of being a college undergrad. Did you ask for help then, or wait until you were more intellectually rounded, or maybe became a father yourself, when you found the courage to finally speak up?

GOLDSMAN: When I started to question, that was the beginning of the road to healing. If the show had one single purpose, it was generate empathy so people understand it’s OK to ask for help. It’s more than OK to ask for help. It is your right to ask for help. And that is what gets taken away when children are abused. It can be seriously impacted when people suffer trauma. All pain seems to be turned inward. We like to blame ourselves. It seems to be a very human quality. Things went wrong. It must be me. And so we don’t ask for help. And we must, we must. It’s the only way to heal.

DEADLINE: I’ll change gears here. The biggest joys and challenges of slowly peeling your characters and plot over 10 episodes?

GOLDSMAN: I was vaguely naive about exactly what 10 straight serialized hours would be. It was definitely harder than I thought. I’m a great believer in collaborative art. I know it’s oxymoronic, but I do. I had the structure, the idea that some of it would be with the audience not knowing that his cohorts weren’t actual other humans, and then it would switch, and we would shift point of view at one point, and then it would be a political thriller, with a bit of a Twilight Zone episode in there. We put together a small writers room, predominantly women, and met by Zoom. We broke the episodes and started writing. It was really intricate, trying to slide the puzzle pieces around. And then Tom came on and he really became a producer on this, and so committed to the story. Really good taste, sophisticated when it comes to story and emotional beats. He’s a really good judge of his own performance. Like Russell Crowe was in A Beautiful Mind, he’ll try all sorts of different things.

Things changed, helped by writers like Greg Lessens. The attempted suicide wasn’t in the original draft. We had from the beginning a very renowned panel of psychiatrists who were our advisory board, vetting everything. Based on what’s known today, because multiple personality disorder is no longer a diagnosis. So, for example, today the treatment that Billy gets, which is fusion, is not universally indicated at all. There are many folks who feel that a stable system of alters is a perfectly viable way of going forward in life. But in those days, fusion was the answer.

DEADLINE: You mean, separating and confronting each of the personalities in his head, played by the actors Sasha Lane, Lyor Raz, Levon Hawke, Sam Vartholomeus and Jason Isaacs …

GOLDSMAN: Yes. We had a lot of shrinks working to keep us honest and one said, you know, there’s almost no version of this with this kind of severity where there isn’t suicidal ideation. Out of that came the suicide attempt.

DEADLINE: It’s a lot to unpack. Was there a eureka moment where you figured out how to introduce characters that turned out to be in his head?

GOLDSMAN: I think it was not showing him as someone with a diagnosis, at the beginning. That felt like the right way in. So we could make the alters other people. That felt like the way in.

DEADLINE: You poured a lot of yourself into this, maybe still looking for answers. What was the most cathartic thing for you?

GOLDSMAN: I felt overwhelmed, the way people responded to the show. Some saw themselves in it, and felt it was honest and truthful and important to them to see their story or stories reflected back. So they could look on a screen and see their secrets, the things that they never wanted to say, being said. And that it was OK, and a profound way of being seen. We forget that what happens on screen is a way of the audience seeing themselves reflected back and made whole, made legitimate. The more we are willing to say the uncomfortable thing, the more the people who desperately need to say the uncomfortable things see themselves and feel courage .. .that has been really moving and I’m profoundly grateful for that. And I learned some things too. I learned that it’s OK to tell a hard story if you tell it honestly, because there are people out there whose stories are just as hard and it’s meaningful to them.

DEADLINE: When you have experienced PTSD, and explored it like this, did it give you a sense of power because you controlled the narrative and took something horrible and turned it into something useful to others?

GOLDSMAN: Well, it’s a great question, Mike. Because there’s no way to not bring something of yourself to the thing we’re writing or directing or producing or sculpting or painting. I think the key is the second point you made, which is, this is what we get to do with it. We get to try to transform it into something that creates connection, empathy, understanding between people. And if we do that, then we’ve taken power and made it useful. And that may be what passes for grace.

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