Wednesday, March 25, 2015

He Wanted the Moon

Having worked in several fields of service that included people with various forms of mental illness (nursing homes, 13 years as an ordained parish minister, now with a mental health office), I find the opportunity to delve into the inner workings and thoughts of those with any disorder an opportunity to better understand not only that person, but others as well. That's why I was eager to read Mimi Baird's account of her father's bi-polar disorder and how he was treated in the 1940s through the end of his short life in 1959.

Dr. Perry Baird was a highly acclaimed and very accomplished doctor who graduated with top honors from Harvard Medical School in 1928. He eventually married and had two daughters. Mimi, his eldest recalls her father lovingly and longingly as she had distinct memories of her father before he simply "went away" one day and virtually disappeared from her life. Because that's all her mother told her for years, she lived with the expectation that one day he might return. Later in life she learned the truth: her father suffered from manic-depressive psychosis as it was then called, and had spent months and years in and out of mental institutions during which time her mother had filed for divorce and remarried in an attempt to provide stability for herself and her two daughters.

After her father's death, Baird received a briefcase containing hand-written papers on which her father had recorded his experiences during manic episodes and time spent in (and escaping from) asylums. It had been his goal to write a book chronicling his experiences in hopes that it might assist in unraveling the mystery of his disease, help the medical and psychiatric professionals to devise better therapies, and aid those who love, live or work with people suffering mental illness to understand and empathize with the stricken.

He Wanted the Moon provides Dr. Baird's manuscript for readers. It is a fascinating read! To see his perspective on his manic episodes gives a perspective that is both slightly exhilarating and terrifying at once. What is fascinating is that, where available, the author has juxtaposed her father's writing with treatment records from the institution and his caregivers. What he perceived as super-human feats of strength or agility was reported as episodes of destruction or aggression by others. (For instance, he was thrilled to be able to bend steel bars with his super strength, even trying to bend them with his bare teeth. The hospital reports that he tore apart and destroyed several bed frames.)

The second part of the book is Mimi Baird's recollections of the journey to know her father through the paperwork she received and the people she was able to interview who knew her father. It seems a privilege to be allowed to walk beside her on that journey!

If you are interested in mental illness, a historical look at how the mentally ill were treated, or can connect with a woman's journey to discover who her father was and the impact he had on her life and the world, pick up a copy of He Wanted the Moon: The Madness and Medical Genius of Dr. Perry Baird, and His Daughter's Quest to Know Him. You won't be disappointed!

From the Publisher . . .

A mid-century doctor's raw, unvarnished account of his own descent into madness, and his daughter's attempt to piece his life back together and make sense of her own.

Texas-born and Harvard-educated, Dr. Perry Baird was a rising medical star in the late 1920s and 1930s. Early in his career, ahead of his time, he grew fascinated with identifying the biochemical root of manic depression, just as he began to suffer from it himself. By the time the results of his groundbreaking experiments were published, Dr. Baird had been institutionalized multiple times, his medical license revoked, and his wife and daughters estranged. He later received a lobotomy and died from a consequent seizure, his research incomplete, his achievements unrecognized.

Mimi Baird grew up never fully knowing this story, as her family went silent about the father who had been absent for most of her childhood. Decades later, a string of extraordinary coincidences led to the recovery of a manuscript which Dr. Baird had worked on throughout his brutal institutionalization, confinement, and escape. This remarkable document, reflecting periods of both manic exhilaration and clear-headed health, presents a startling portrait of a man who was a uniquely astute observer of his own condition, struggling with a disease for which there was no cure, racing against time to unlock the key to treatment before his illness became impossible to manage.

Fifty years after being told her father would forever be “ill” and “away,” Mimi Baird set off on a quest to piece together the memoir and the man. In time her fingers became stained with the lead of the pencil he had used to write his manuscript, as she devoted herself to understanding who he was, why he disappeared, and what legacy she had inherited. The result of his extraordinary record and her journey to bring his name to light is He Wanted the Moon, an unforgettable testament to the reaches of the mind and the redeeming power of a determined heart.

About the Author . . .

Mimi Baird, a Bostonian, is a graduate of Colby Sawyer College. After working at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, she later moved to Woodstock, Vermont, where she worked as an office manager at the Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center. There she met a surgeon who had once known her father, a meeting that prompted her quest to finally understand her father’s life and legacy. Mimi has two children and four grandchildren. This is her first book.

Eve Claxton was born in London. She has been instrumental in creating six works of non-fiction as a co-writer or ghostwriter, and is the editor of The Book of Life, an anthology of memoir. She also works with StoryCorps, the National Oral History Project featured on NPR. Eve lives with her husband and three children in Brooklyn.

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