“They Call Them Camisoles”: The Short Life and Tragic Death of Wilma Wilson

They Call them Camisoles (Lymanhouse, 1940)

They Call Them Camisoles is a tantalizing document– Wilma Wilson’s first-person account of her 1939 commitment for alcoholism to the Camarillo State Hospital in California. Published in 1940, the book had recently been out of print.  I learned of it myself a few years ago, and discovered only yesterday that it has been republished in a volume compiled by Kirsten Anderberg, which includes material on Wilson’s death and many photographs of Camarillo State Hospital as it looks today.  The title refers to restraints that some patients had to wear, and much of the narrative recounts Wilson’s observations of the mentally ill patients around her.  Not surprisingly, the book has been understood—both at the time of its publication and now—primarily as an expose of the conditions and practices inside mental institutions.  There is no question that it is an important source of evidence in that regard.  But I am also interested in exploring what it can tell us about gender and alcoholism during the 1930s and 1940s.

Given the stigma and secrecy that often surrounds women’s drinking, I am fascinated by instances when women choose to divulge their excessive drinking.  I’m tracing what I call a genealogy of disclosure, from Marty Mann, who revealed her alcoholism during the 1940s when she founded what is now the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence; through Betty Ford in the 1970s; to today’s climate of reality television and celebrity tell-all memoirs.  In some of these cases, the women were already famous for other reasons, making the acknowledgment of a drinking problem all the more shocking.  In others, the disclosure itself creates a kind of renown.It is unclear to me how well known Wilson was prior to the publication of her book.  A short 1927 item in the Los Angeles Times identifies her as a “classic dancer” who was arrested and jailed for driving while intoxicated. (1) A brief review of her book in the same publication neither alludes to her celebrity nor explains who she is, focusing instead on the hospital conditions she describes in the book.  (2) In the text, Wilson herself explains that she uses her married name despite having been divorced, since her maiden name would be recognized, at least in southern California, due to her “motion picture work and later ebullient escapades” (106).

Like other alcoholic memoirs, They Call Them Camisoles is intended to educate the reader as well as recount a life story.  Wilson includes occasional short commentaries on the conditions she observes, and on the lack of actual treatment inside the hospital.  Unlike many recovery narratives, however, Wilson’s account does not follow an elongated trajectory of before, during, and after.  Rather, a few pages at the beginning recount drinking episodes as hijinks; then she explains that she developed into a “spree” or periodic drinker; and the bulk of the book centers on her time in the hospital.  The story ends as she is about to be released, so she is not securely positioned in the “after” of recovery.  The reader does not know what will happen to her upon discharge.  Although she does not attempt to deny her drinking problem, her lucid and sophisticated authorial voice can serve as proof that she did not belong in the hospital.  For all these reasons of structure and style, I find this a very unsettling text.

Wilson’s account illuminates how alcoholics could be caught in a cross-current of medical and penal jurisdictions in the middle of the twentieth century, and how female alcoholics were especially powerless.  One of the most shocking elements of this story for modern readers is the fact that Wilson’s motherhad her committed after a severe binge that lasted a week and culminated with Wilson taking a large dose of sleeping pills as well.  Wilson recounts the various legal processes she went through as a result of her mother’s action, finally landing in Camarillo State Hospital.

Near Oxnard, California, ca. 1940s

While she describes some of her encounters with psychiatrists humorously, the overarching regulatory structure that has put her in the hospital is no laughing matter.  Her experiences also illustrate the complex relationship between conceptions of alcoholism, on the one hand, and mental illness, on the other.  Wilson insists throughout that being confined with mentally ill patients can make her and other alcoholics doubt their own sanity.  Yet alcoholism carried even more stigma in some ways, and fewer legal rights.

When Wilson petitioned for a jury trial to contest her commitment (129), she was told that only insane patients are entitled to that procedural step. Seeking to hire a patient to care for his young daughter, a staff physician “recoiled in horror” when told the patient he wanted had been admitted for alcoholism (237).  Male patients received more privileges in the hospital, including smoking in more settings than women could and more access to outdoor spaces.  Upon release, Wilson was effectively on parole, forbidden to work anywhere where liquor was served, though she had earned her living as a waitress, and even to enter any home that contained alcohol (254-55).   Further, her fiancé informed her that he would leave her if she drank again.

A Colonnaded Walkway Offers Fresh Air

Sadly, Wilson gained more notoriety upon her death.  In 1943, only a few years after the book was published, Wilson was found in her apartment, apparently murdered by a soldier.  Newspaper accounts of the trial indicate she was drinking again.  In fact, one neighbor reported that Wilson had stood outside asking for help in the middle of the night, but “because she appeared to be intoxicated, nobody went to her aid.” (3) She went back into her home, and she was later discovered with a fractured skull.  The soldier was found guilty in a military trial, but the precise circumstances that led to her death remain a mystery.

NOTES

1.”Dancer Jailed on Intoxicated Driving Charge.” Los Angeles Times,  26 September 1927.

2. “Woman Who Overindulged Tells Inside Story of ‘Cure.’ ” Los Angeles Times, 16 February 1941.

3. “Soldier Held in Beach Death.” Los Angeles Times, 6 June 1943.

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4 thoughts on ““They Call Them Camisoles”: The Short Life and Tragic Death of Wilma Wilson

  1. Thanks for this, MIchelle! It reminded of Willie Seabrook’s account of his mental hospital experience for alcoholism, Asylum, published in 1935. Maybe an analysis of Wilma Wilson’s experience in terms of gender would be enriched by a comparative assessment of Seabrook’s book. Marty Mann made reference to reading Seabrook’s book in her personal story chapter in “The Big Book,” “Women Suffer Too.” I wonder if she ever encountered Wilson’s Camisoles.

    • That is a great idea Ron, thanks. And a good question about Marty Mann. Mann’s reference to Seabrook is more proof, if more were needed, that she did not need to foreground her gender to identify herself as an alcoholic.

  2. “because she appeared to be intoxicated, nobody went to her aid.”

    I can’t help but think of Kitty Genovese and the “bystander effect” when I read this story. As horrifying as it is to think that people would do nothing on the assumption that someone else will, it’s even more tragic to think that people decided not to help this woman *because she was drunk*

    I was also taken with the title of the book — does anyone explain why these restraint devices were called “camisoles”? Does Wilson explain why she used that for the title?

    Thank you for, as usual, a thoughtful piece.

  3. Yes, I too found that response — no one helped because she was drunk — really upsetting, and also fascinating that the witness articulated it so directly. As for why they were called camisoles, I was struck by that too, and how gendered that term is. I don’t recall anything offhand from the book in terms of explanation but your comment is a good prompt for me to go back more closely through the text and probe that term more deeply whether Wilson explains it or not. Thanks!

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