He Wanted the Moon – The Madness and Medical Genius of Dr. Perry Baird and His Daughter's Quest to Know Him– by Mimi Baird with Eve Claxton
In this unforgettable book, Mimi Baird finds her father through personal and professional writings, and later a few key interviews, and shares him with us. This book is part biography and part autobiography. It is an intimate look at a life of manic and depressive swings in a brilliant physician living in an age of arcane mental health practices.
This book is disturbing, heartbreaking, and educational. It is important. It is about a woman looking for a connection with her estranged father and finally finding it through his handwritten manuscript for a book about mental illness and treatment.
The first half of He Wanted the Moon is dedicated to the manuscript of Dr. Baird, himself (with some prudent editing by Mimi Baird and Eve Claxton as noted in the author's note at the beginning). It is a fascinating look at manic depressive psychosis (now called bipolar disease) through the eyes of the patient, who also happens to be a world-renown physician who was on the cusp of a medical breakthrough for his own disease. We learn a great deal from Dr. Baird's narrative – how he felt, what he was thinking, how he was treated by friends and family, and the common treatments for mental illness at the time.
In 1944, there were no pharmaceutical treatments available to treat manic depressive psychosis. And during the manic stages of the disease, barbaric treatments such as straight jackets, insulin-induced comas, among other means, were the norm for controlling the patients until they became more stable. Dr. Baird described one such barbaric treatment, the cold pack, in such vivid detail that I could feel my own anxiety level rise as I imagined being trapped in the pack. My calf muscles twitched in protest on behalf of Dr. Baird.
In the late 1940's, 55% of all hospital beds were occupied by psychiatric patients. With patients, families, and doctors desperate for hope, the lobotomy was introduced as the cure. Over the years, roughly 50,000 Americans had the brain surgery that in most cases left the patient brain damaged and unable to care for themselves. Dr. Baird had his emotions-severing lobotomy in 1949.
The other half of the book deals with Mimi Baird's decision to find out what happened to her father when she was just a young girl and her attempts to learn about the man who mysteriously vanished from her young life and essentially never came back.
Her mother, who divorced her father in 1944 and quickly remarried, was unwilling to discuss the matter of Mimi Baird's father with her so there was a decades-long void in her life. Years later, it was a serendipitous conversation with an aging physician who had known Dr. Baird that opened the door for Mimi Baird to begin peeking into his life in earnest.
Anyone interested in history, medical history, mental health history, or virtually any subject in the realm of social sciences, should definitely read this book. I would also recommend it to anyone with a friend or family member with mental illness. Whether we realize it or not, we probably all know someone with bipolar disorder (manic depressive psychosis).
At the risk of sounding cliche, I was going to say this book needs to be adapted for the screen. And then I remembered that I'd read there is a film in the making. I look forward to being that person who says, “the book was so much better than the movie.”
I wish to thank the author and publisher for the advance reader's copy of He Wanted the Moon.