“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.

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