The university where I work used to be a psychiatric hospital. In my new novel, Dead Extra, I delved into the history of the hospital a bit. I spent a lot of time digging through the hospital archives at CSUCI, listening to oral histories, studying pictures, and reading memoirs from patients and employees. My favorite of these is They Call Them Camisoles. The memoir was published in 1940 and details the involuntary hold that the author, Wilma Wilson, endured in 1939. Wilson was committed for alcoholism. These alcoholism commitments in the ’30s and ’40s were often questionable. Wilson did drink too much. She admitted as much herself. Sometimes, her antics embarrassed her mother. This is what really landed her at Camarillo State Hospital: embarrassing her mother.
I know there were times in my life when my mom wished she could send me away for getting drunk and embarrassing her. I’m glad she never did.
For Wilson, the hospitalization was not about therapy. It was really about free labor. She went to the hospital, worked as an unpaid maid for the duration of her stay, had her stay extended at one point for dubious reasons, and wrote a book about it when she got out.
Both before and after her release, Wilson worked in movies. Actually, she mostly worked as a waitress, but she occasionally found herself in the background of B movies.
In 1943, an army private visited Wilson’s home wanting something that Wilson wasn’t willing to give him. He turned violent. She fled her house and screamed for help. The neighbors heard her, but didn’t come to her aid. According to the neighbor who was interviewed by the Los Angeles Times, this was because Wilson was drunk. The army private murdered her.
While doing some research on Chester Himes years ago, I came across his account of meeting with his editor, Marcel Duhamel. Duhamel asked Himes to write a crime novel. Himes said he didn’t know how. Duhamel told him, essentially, to start with a body and try to figure out what happened to it (I fictionalize this exchange in my short story “The Five-Cornered Square” in The Metaphysical Ukulele). When I read this, I knew I had to take Duhamel’s advice.
I started with the basics of Wilma Wilson’s murder. In honor of Wilson, I named the murder victim in my novel Wilma (her last name in the book is Greene). She’s also a Hollywood extra who mostly waits tables. She also does a stint at the Camarillo State Hospital and writes a book about it. The similarities pretty much end there.
I’m not giving away anything when I tell you that, in Dead Extra, the army private does not kill Wilma. There are no army private’s in the book. And I want to be clear that the character of Wilma Greene is not supposed to be Wilma Wilson. Wilma Greene is entirely fictional with the exception of the few things I point out in the previous paragraph. Still, she wouldn’t exist if Wilson hadn’t inspired her.