On March 7, 1953, Donald Watkins, a WWII veteran and China Marine, shot and killed his wife and mother-in-law. Judged criminally insane, Watkins served his sentence for this crime at Fairview State Hospital in Pennsylvania, one of the most abusive institutions for the mentally ill in American history. Eventually released thanks to the efforts of two young law students, Donald rejoined society—he even married again. It’s probably hard to imagine the woman who would marry a convicted murderer; it may be even more difficult to imagine your seventy-two-year-old mother doing so. And yet, that is exactly the story Diane Cameron tells in Never Leave Your Dead: A True Story of War Trauma, Murder, and Madness.
It is not a sensationalized book, but it is a patchwork book — part memoir, part biography, part history. And since Watkins has been deceased for twenty years, Cameron’s sources are secondhand. But Never Leave Your Dead traverses a number of topics, from the conditions at Fairview and St. Elizabeth’s to Cameron’s own experiences with Watkins to Thomas Szasz’s controversial theories. At times, it is intensely personal for Cameron, who writes fearlessly about herself and her family. At others, it is a tender and understanding examination of the psychological effects of war. For instance, Cameron uses simple narration to describe the day Watkins committed murder. She captures the haze of his disassociation, his pain, and his weariness. She writes not to erase his crime, but to better understand it. It is just one piece of the story she puts together, which is, as she notes, unavoidably out of order.
The chapters of Never Leave Your Dead are fairly short, lending themselves to the necessary switches in topic. In Chapter Four, “For God and Country,” Cameron introduces the China Marines, a group of men who served in Shanghai to protect the International Settlement there. This mission was an unsettling blend of licentiousness and horror. Shanghai was, as Cameron notes, “Paris on steroids, and the Marines were young and green.” With ready access to nightclubs, women, and shows, the China Marines were originally the envy of the military services. In the 1930s, however, with the Japanese invasion of China, the assignment became a horrific act of witness, as they observed the rape, torture, murder, and mutilation of thousands of Chinese citizens. Because of political conditions, the China Marines were unable to intervene or protect those outside the Settlement, producing intense feelings of survivor’s guilt and powerlessness.
While in the service and already showing signs of PTSD, Watkins attacked a friend and bunkmate, leading to his early discharge and commitment to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, DC. Once committed, he was subjected to the mental illness treatments of his day, including electroconvulsive therapy. When he was released to rejoin society, he did not have any coping mechanisms to survive in post-WWII America. Meeting him many years later, Cameron describes a polite, quiet man with distinct tics and eccentricities, including the need to watch a particular television show at a particular time and a terror of driving on highways. These compulsions interfered with his personal life and his new family, and ultimately lead to tragic consequences.
These are just pieces of Cameron’s rich narrative, which intertwines her own struggles with those Watkins faced. Her research and pursuit of the truth about Watkins forms the skeleton of the text. As noted, she does not artificially assemble an orderly presentation of events. Instead, the reader experiences the organic unfolding of Watkins’ life as Cameron learns it. She details her experiences meeting the surviving China Marines, a colorful cast of characters if ever there was one. She introduces the two young law students, now middle-aged men, who arranged for Donald’s release from Fairview in the 1970s. And she engages the theories of Thomas Szasz, whom she meets on multiple occasions and whose theories of mental illness inform her own understanding of Watkins. But most importantly, she tells an untold story.
Full of the pain of war and horror of our history with mental illness, Never Leave Your Dead is by no means an easy read. And yet Cameron’s approach fully embraces the sentiment of the title, a central ethos of the Marine Corps. She could have easily left Watkins’ story untold, justified by the murder of two innocent women and her own complicated relationship to him. Instead, she asks us to consider Watkins’ life and the implications of his experiences in the military and afterward. She encourages us to meditate on the effects of war and how we care for — or more often don’t — those who come home after witnessing real horrors. And, using her own struggles, she draws meaningful connections between the pain of trauma and the pain of veterans’ trauma, not creating an unreachable other, but instead unifying them and us in our common humanity.
Never Leave Your Dead: A True Story of War Trauma, Murder, and Madness
Central Recovery Press, June 2016
Paperback, 176 pages