Dr. Perry Baird, a rising medical star in the late 1920s and 1930s, presciently began to study 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 family 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 her father’s story. Decades later, a string of surprising coincidences led to the recovery of a manuscript that 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 “away,” Mimi Baird embarked on a crusade to piece together the memoir and the man, to understand the legacy she had inherited…
(Synopsis from Broadway Book paperback edition; image from goodreads.com)
As soon as my copy of He Wanted the Moon by Mimi Baird arrived in the mail, I immediately wanted to start reading the May book for the Pi Beta Phi book club, Pi Phi Pages. However, I have a rule about my book club books and that is to finish the previous month’s book before I start the next one, so I knew I had to finish reading Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand before I could start He Wanted the Moon. (You can read my review of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand here.)
I was very intrigued with the topic and the approach that Mimi Baird took with the topic of manic depression with her book, He Wanted the Moon. Baird did a brilliant job of using her father’s manuscript and the information she learned over the years to put together this story of her father’s life and the illness he faced. As she talks about in her book, there were many roads that led her to discovering her father’s manuscript, and when she finally did, the pages were no longer in an order that made sense. Faced with the difficult task of realizing what had happened to her father, Mimi was able to finally understand why her father was always “away” when she was little.
Mimi, together with her father’s writing, is able to create a picture of what life was like for those who suffered from manic depression while also showing how having a family member who suffered also created suffering for the rest of the family as well. The structure of He Wanted the Moon helps to create the timeline of events for both Mimi and her father. This allows the reader to become immersed in the story of Dr. Baird and to understand his views of his treatment. Mimi does supply some additional information at the beginning of some of the chapters to clarify her father’s movements between hospitals and sometimes notes from his medical records that correspond with the timing of Dr. Baird’s writings.
What I found absolutely fascinating in He Wanted the Moon was the perception Dr. Baird had of his own behaviors. Dr. Baird would write that he was aware of when his behavior would start to become manic, and the steps that he would take to try and shield his family from his actions. He Wanted the Moon gives the reader excellent insight into the mind of someone who suffers from (as we used to call it) manic depression. Just as important though, He Wanted the Moon shows how the treatments for manic depression can cause adverse effects. Dr. Baird describes how when he was restrained, he only wanted to escape from the restraints in a type of game. He viewed his treatment as a test – that when the restraints would get tightened, he would prove that he was smarter and stronger by escaping. He also described the mental effects of the cold wraps (something I had never heard of before).
There is so much to be learned through reading He Wanted the Moon and I commend Mimi Baird for her excellent work. I can’t even begin to imagine the difficult task she faced when she began to explore her father’s past and his treatment. I’m sure it was a difficult thing to learn the truth about her father, even as an adult. But she also had the opportunity to learn who he was at his true core and how much he cared for and loved his family.
Mimi Baird makes an excellent point in her writing when she says that at the time, mental illness was something that simply was not discussed. Family members were put in institutions and hidden away – not talked about. In some ways we have not moved past this point when it comes to mental illness. Do we still hide away our relatives? No, but we also do not discuss the topic either. This is something that needs to change and Ms. Baird also included resources for those struggling with mental illness or knows of someone who is to get the help that is needed. This is a step in the right direction, but as we all know, more needs to be done. Many people must live with a type of mental illness every day, and the consequences of when they choose to no longer live with them effects everyone in their lives. (Read my post “How Can I Teach Like This?” to see how my life has changed this year because of it.)