He Wanted the Moon: The Madness and Medical Genius of Dr. Perry Baird, and His Daughter's Quest to Know Him - Mimi Baird

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. 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.

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He Wanted The Moon combines journal snippets of Dr. Perry Baird (a dermatologist in the 1920s-30s who suffered from manic depression), written during his numerous stays at various sanitariums, notes from his attending physicians at these sanitariums (pulled from his medical records), and personal reflections of Baird's eldest daughter, Mimi. Mimi's portions offer insights as to what was going on with herself and the rest of the family during Perry's hospitalizations, and what she later discovered about her father's unfinished research into a cure for his madness. It was during these institutionalizations that Perry faced the possible revocation of his medical license. During one stay, Perry's journal even describes him breaking out of the sanitarium one night, walking for hours on end until he comes to a dairy farm he decides to visit, his adventure continuing onto the the cities of Dallas and Chicago before state troopers are able to catch up with him.

 

Mimi also brings up the fact that her mother divorced her father, rarely spoke of him afterwards and never took Mimi or her sister to any visits with Perry. This sounds heartless at first, but Perry's journal explains how that decision actually came about and how it was apparently more of a mutual decision than how it might appear to outsiders. I found the scenes described between Perry and Gretta (Mimi's mother) having the divorce talks touching, but of course also sad.

 

This book largely came about due to Mimi being mailed her father's journal years after his death. While I didn't necessarily find Perry's entries riveting, they were interesting in how they showed the two sides of Perry fighting simultaneously -- the patient scared and confused and the doctor trying to make sense of it all using his scientific training. I found this to be a really unique perspective (that is, a memoir of madness from a medical professional) that isn't often seen. I think it also gives an important inside look into some of the ridiculous and at times even barbaric methods some mental institutions used to treat or "control" patients. Along the lines of doctors, I also noticed that while reading the notes of the attending physicians, periodically there is mention of Perry's violent spells... something Perry doesn't mention much in his own journal entries.

 

What IS noticeable (at least to me) is the occasional rearing up of egomania. One of the big reasons I was interested in this book was my own experiences with a father who also suffered from manic depression. I wanted to see how the experiences matched up and I can say I saw a number of commonalities in this book and my own memories. The shades of egomania being one big one, that and the descriptions of Perry's bouts of paranoia. These elements, as well as others, brought back a number of memories for me. I found the last section of the book especially compelling, where Mimi goes into even greater detail about what those years without her father (for the most part, anyway) were like -- not only for herself but also what she noticed about her mother and her sister. Mimi also ponders on how her childhood may have later affected certain aspects of her adulthood.

 

While not a gripping read for me, there were interesting things I took away from it and would recommend to anyone looking to expanded their knowledge or library regarding mental illness.

 

FTC Disclaimer: BloggingForBooks.com and Crown Publishers kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own.