02 Jul 2015 No Comments
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.
Published: February 2015
My Review: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
This is a fascinating, terrifying, insightful story of one man’s descent into madness, as well as an inside view of early psychiatry and our barbaric treatment of the mentally ill. Dr. Perry Baird was, no doubt, a brilliant man. He understood that he was sick, and he desperately wanted to find a treatment. Had his mind not deteriorated so quickly, he very well might have found a way to help himself and countless others like him.
Why so much happiness in the manic state? Perhaps an ability to dwell upon only the pleasing phases of one’s past experiences and current problems, combined with an ability to shut out disturbing considerations; the process of thought seems not only clear and logical but powerful and penetrating, features made possible by focusing all attention upon the major facts, leaving out distracting details.
It’s hard to believe that a mere seventy years ago, during Dr. Baird’s lifetime, mentally ill people were treated as less than human. They were locked away, experimented on, abused under the guise of “treatment”, and had absolutely no rights. The journal-like writing Dr. Baird left behind, which his daughter shares with us in this book, shows us all of this. His mental illness does not diminish the reality of his situation. This comes across clearly in his writing. Yet his illness became his defining factor, and even his closest friends gave no credence to his desperate pleas.
I was chiefly occupied with one intolerable fact: I was back at Westborough for probably a long stay. It would be many days before any word would reach me from the outside. I was in for the usual stupid psychiatric procedures – to go through once again what I had faced so many times before: an utterly meaningless period of confinement in a hospital under barbaric conditions inherited from a culture of darkness and ignorance.
While some readers might find his wife’s behavior cold, I didn’t feel that way at all. To understand her, we need to put it all in perspective. This occurred at a time when mental illness was a stigma to be feared. People did not talk about such things. These were family secrets, filled with shame. She loved her husband, yet she had no way to help him. She was the mother of two young daughters, adrift, with a husband who could no longer provide, who couldn’t be trusted to be with the children. She did what she needed to, what the era and her upbringing taught her to do, in order to survive.
My father was afflicted with a severe mental illness during a period before any effective treatment existed, many years before the advent of modern psychiatric medications. Like hundreds of thousands of mentally ill patients at that time, he was a victim of both his disease and the stigma surrounding it. He was shut away, institutionalized, his family advised to try to forget him, an edict my mother did her best to follow.
Dr. Baird’s writing also gives us tremendous insight into the thoughts of a manic-depressive (bipolar) person. We are with him as his mind unravels. The treatments given to him, under protest, worsen his illness and, quite possibly, bring on the resulting psychosis.
Then began the agonizing experience of being wrapped tightly in cold sheets soaked in ice water that were folded according to various patterns and laid across the bed over a rubber mattress. The initial impact of these ice-cold sheets on the spine is pure pain. Every additional contact with cold sheets as they are wrapped around the body brings chills and continued discomfort. First the arms are bound tightly to one’s sides and then sheets are stretched in several layers across the shoulders, body, and legs, creating a trap that permits very little motion.
The author also shares her own story, from the young girl who loves her daddy, to the adult woman who needs answers. Her mother’s silence as to her father’s “disappearance” is heartbreaking, and likely all too familiar to many families of that era.
Oh, dear God, I say to anyone who cares to listen: Westborough State Hospital and other places like it have nothing to offer; nothing but a jail-like incarceration, brutality and ugliness.
While, thankfully, much has changed in our treatment of mental illness, we are not as advanced as we’d like to think. We still lock away the mentally ill, now in prisons with untrained staff, instead of within barbaric asylums. This book is an important reminder that, while many mentally ill people experience a different reality, it is no less real to them.
Thanks for reading.