A Washington Post Best Book of 2015
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. Read more...
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A Washington Post Best Book of 2015
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."
- ISBN-13: 9780804137478
- ISBN-10: 0804137471
- Publisher: Crown Pub
- Publish Date: February 2015
- Page Count: 250
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2014-10-27
- Reviewer: Staff
Thanks to a chance meeting 20 years ago with one of her father’s former colleagues, Baird, daughter of Perry Baird—a Harvard-educated mid-20th-century physician of some renown who was locked away and never spoken of as he succumbed to the ravages of mental illness—gets the keys to unlocking the mystery of what happened to her father. Perry Baird was diagnosed with manic depression in the 1930s at a time when doctors had little comprehension of the disease and employed shockingly barbaric and useless “cures” such as straitjackets, isolation, and lobotomies on institutionalized patients. Perry Baird was a pioneer in attempting to understand the workings of manic depression, conducting lab experiments to find the biochemical cause as the illness steadily took hold of him. His daughter, who saw him only once after he’d been sent to a mental hospital when she was still a young child—aided by the unearthed manuscript her father had written while committed that she pieces together and includes—seeks to unravel the heartbreaking circumstances of what befell her father for all those decades when her family refused to talk about him. She is the one who rediscovers her father’s experiments and gets him the long overdue credit from the scientific community he deserved. In bringing her father’s harrowing, tragic, and moving story to life, Mimi Baird celebrates him and gives voice to the terrible suffering the mentally ill once endured, and still do today, and challenges the prejudices and misperceptions the public continues to have about the disease. (Feb.)
Echoes of a father's life
When Mimi Baird was 6 years old, her father, prominent Boston dermatologist Perry Baird, didn’t come home. In that moment, Baird effectively disappeared forever from his daughter’s life, for her mother told her only that he was “away.” Baird saw her father once in the 15 years between his disappearance and his death in 1959.
Although her life fills with marriage, children and a career in healthcare, her yearning to know her father haunts her. In 1991, she tells one of the surgeons at the hospital where she works about her father, and he soon produces a cache of letters between her father and his mentors, copies of which the surgeon retrieved from the Harvard Medical School library. As she reads these letters, her father’s manic-depressive state—and his own quest to understand its causes (Baird was the earliest to suggest that biochemical imbalances might lie at the root of manic depression, though he never got to pursue his research)—unfolds before her, but her journey toward understanding him is just beginning.
Three years later, she receives in the mail the manuscript her father had been writing and which forms the core of this poignant memoir. At the center of He Wanted the Moon is her father’s book, in which he describes in detail his institutionalization in Westborough State Hospital in 1944, his attempts to understand his own condition, his often brutal treatment by doctors and staff, and his reflections on the state of psychiatry in mid-century America.
Through this moving memoir, Baird slowly brings her father back to life and reveals the sordid history of treating mental illness.