Book Review: He Wanted the Moon by Mimi Baird

Over the decades, the mental health memoir has become almost a genre in and of itself. That isn’t to knock them. After all, a 1908 memoir, A Mind That Found Itself, remains in print today. And more recent works about depression (William Styron’s Darkness Visible), bipolar disorder (Marya Hornbacher’s Madness: A Bipolar Life) or schizophrenia (Elyn Saks’s The Center Cannot Hold) are considered classics on their subjects. Most important, these firsthand accounts provide insight and education not only for those dealing with such conditions but also their families, friends and the general public.

Mimi Baird’s book, He Wanted the Moon: The Madness and Medical Genius of Dr. Perry Baird, and His Daughter’s Quest to Know Him, is somewhat unique in this class. As the title suggests, it is a dual memoir. Much of the book is squarely within the genre. It’s her father’s account of the five-month period in 1944 when manic depression took him from his almost six-year-old daughter, who would see him only once again before his death 15 years later. The balance is the story of her journey to discover her father when a manuscript he penciled on onionskin paper arrived on her doorstep some 30 years after his death. The former is striking, the latter affecting.

moonDr. Perry Baird was a graduate of Harvard Medical School who coauthored five published medical journal articles by the time he graduated. He had occasionally battled depression but during a postgraduate fellowship in Pittsburgh he was hospitalized for manic depression, today called bipolar disorder. Following his release, though, he managed to become a highly respected and successful dermatologist in Boston. Yet in a 10 year period he would be hospitalized three more times and he knew enough about his condition to check into a hotel when he felt a manic phase coming on. Everything collapsed in February 1944, though, when at age 40 his condition became unmanageable.

Baird was committed to a state hospital from February 20 to July 8, 1944. There, he began writing about his experience, an “account of every kind of suffering and disaster.” Despite his hopes of publishing the story, the manuscript, it ended up in a box of various items in a relative’s garage in Texas. After his daughter learned of the manuscript nearly 50 years later, she was sent the box. Combining portions of it, his medical records and her narration — all set in different typefaces — He Wanted the Moon details a story of institutionalization and suffering coming from “five prolonged suicidal depressions, four acute manic episodes and many hypo-manic phases.”

Because Baird was writing while hospitalized, the manuscript his daughter received was jumbled. Her ability to reconstruct allows his mania and altered thinking to come through. It also reflects the extent to which manic depression was ill-understood and the lack of effective treatments. To Baird, treatment consisted of “an utterly meaningless period of confinement in a hospital under barbaric conditions inherited from a culture of darkness and ignorance.” Especially viewed from today, his perspective is accurate. For the first several weeks, he was placed in a drug-induced coma for 11 days, tied to a bed in a straitjacket and bound to the bed, nude, wrapped tightly in sheets soaked in ice water for hours or days at a time. Perhaps also reflecting the time, he viewed the state hospital as being behind the times it did not use electroshock therapy.

While hospitalized, Baird not only had his medical license revoked, he was served with divorce papers. Fed up with institutionalization, he escaped from the hospital in July 1944, managing to actually make his way to Chicago and then Dallas. His mental health did not improve, though, and he would spend time in several mental hospitals, including a hospital for the criminally insane in Massachusetts. Eventually, he in underwent a lobotomy, then believed to be the best treatment for mental illness, in December 1949. After that, he could barely tie his shoes and continued to suffer mental and physical issues until his death in 1959.

Between 1944 and his death, Baird wasn’t mentioned or discussed by family or friends. Mimi was told simply that he was “away.” Even after her mother remarried, she was told her father was “ill.” One afternoon when she was 13, though, he came and visited her briefly. It was the last time she saw him. It wasn’t until 1969 that her mother said her father had “manic-depressive psychosis.” She would not discuss it, though.

Much of Mimi’s story reflects the impact of her father’s basically unexplained disappearance from her life and the shame and stigma that seemed to prevent acknowledging a family member is mentally ill. In 1991, though, she happened to meet someone who attended medical school at the same time as her father. That chance encounter sparked a quest to pierce the veil over her father’s life. She obtained copies of letters between her father and two mentors, learned of and got the manuscript, interviewed people who knew him and obtained his medical records. Her process of learning about her father and the effects of his mental illness inspired her to see that his story be told in his own words.

The immediacy of Dr. Baird’s writing makes it the real focal point of He Wanted the Moon. In fact, much of his daughter’s portion of the memoir tells parts of his story he didn’t or couldn’t. But in addition to the personal impact, Mimi Baird’s story reveals an immense irony. During his hospitalization in 1944, a medical journal published Dr. Baird’s research on whether there was a biochemical cause of manic depression. Just five years later, an article was published about lithium as a biochemical treatment for the condition. Today, lithium is among the most widely used and effective treatments for bipolar disorder.

[T]he modern psychopathic hospitals I have known are direct descendants of ancient jails like Bedlam, and I believe they do harm, not good.

Dr. Perry Baird, He Wanted the Moon

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