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Review: ‘He Wanted the Moon: The Madness and Medical Genius of Dr. Perry Baird’ by Mimi Baird

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

Crown

250 pages, $25

By Karen Brady

NEWS BOOK REVIEWER

Mimi Baird’s remarkable new memoir, “He Wanted the Moon,” isn’t really hers. It is far more her father’s – a double memoir, so to speak, with the overlong yet explanatory subtitle, “The Madness and Medical Genius of Dr. Perry Baird, and His Daughter’s Quest to Know Him.”

Heartbreaking and astonishing from its first page, the book documents, in the once-prominent Dr. Baird’s own words, his descent from “normalcy” to a revolving state of manic depressive psychosis from which there was, in his lifetime, no return.

That his daughter Mimi even came to know this is the pot of gold here: “It was the spring of 1994 when I returned from work to find the package containing my father’s manuscript on my doorstep,” she writes. “I was fifty-six years old and I’d been waiting for some word of him for most of my life.”

She was 6, Mimi tells us, when her father “stopped coming home. My mother refused to say where he had gone, except to tell me he was ‘ill’ and ‘away.’ ” The year was 1944. Mimi’s mother filed for divorce “and quickly remarried, closing the chapter of her life that included my father. I was never taken to visit him growing up; his name was rarely mentioned in our house … I had seen him again only once, very briefly, before his death in 1959.”

Thirty-five years later, Mimi Baird, in making small talk with an elderly doctor who had come to speak at the hospital where she worked, mentioned that her father had been a physician – Dr. Perry Baird. “I knew your father,” the elderly doctor said. “We were at Harvard Medical School together.” More “coincidences” followed, another physician bringing Mimi – from Harvard’s Countway Library of Medicine – copies of letters her father had written to his mentor, the well-known physiologist Dr. Walter Bradford Cannon.

Emboldened, Mimi located her father’s brother Philip, who told her that his son had the manuscript of a book her father had been writing – and now that manuscript was sitting on her doorstep, 11 inches of onionskin, its pages out of order and filled with smudged-pencil notations that would not only slice open and fill the world of silence between father and daughter but could conceivably do so as well for the families and physicians of other individuals afflicted with what today is called bipolar disorder.

“He Wanted the Moon” is the condensed version of Dr. Baird’s extraordinary manuscript – and represents 20 years of Mimi Baird’s deciphering its contents and gathering materials wherever she could find them that related to her father, including letters he wrote and received, and excerpts from his medical records. Eve Claxton’s assistance, as co-writer, enhances the flow here, giving us a highly organized and readable picture of the once-widely-admired Dr. Baird.

But it is his own words that steal the show, that both beguile and sadden us and let us know we are in the presence of a brilliance that, despite extreme illness, insisted on being medically relevant. His manuscript, he tells us, was born “out of the cauldron of despair”:

“It is a long-continued account of every kind of suffering and disaster – February 20 to July 8, 1944. By going along slowly, depicting in detail the intricate succession of events, perhaps I can unravel and clarify the sequence of events and the relative importance of the various connecting links and contributing episodes…”

What follows is a spellbinding voyage into a daunting illness as it overtakes the respected Dr. Baird whose Harvard thesis in physiology had accorded him highest honors upon graduation from medical school, and whose ensuing dermatological practice is thriving.

He is 40 years old when his disorder, diagnosed a decade earlier but kept at bay, becomes unmanageable – as Dr. Baird, taking a walk in Boston’s Public Gardens, suddenly leaps “wildly over the broad flowerbeds,” takes a taxi home “possessed with demoniacal energy,” climbs over a 12-foot fence surrounding a deer park behind his property and wonders “if I could run as fast as a deer and if I could catch one.”

Continuing on in this state to the Ritz hotel and, later, to the local country club– where Dr. Baird encounters several concerned physicians of his acquaintance – he is finally apprehended, by three state troopers: “And so the wheel of fortune turns slowly round and round and stops here for a bit of success or happiness and again for other dictates of circumstance,” he recalls. “I am caught, caught, caught.”

What follows is both chilling and thrilling, a walk through “five prolonged suicidal depressions, four acute manic episodes and many hypo-manic phases … straight-jackets, wristlets, anklets, paraldehyde injections, hot and cold packs, continuous tub, close confinement to small spaces, and all the many inventions that man has created for the manic-psychosis…”

At times charming and cooperative – at others dangerous and destructive – Dr. Baird claims, in his manuscript, not only to remember it all but to find his more erratic behavior reasonable. In several places, like a dream sequence, he drifts from the rational to the irrational so cunningly we have to remind ourselves that our narrator cannot always be trusted.

Adding to the drama are not one but two escapes from treatment, and an emotionally charged two days when Mimi is 13 and the father she hasn’t seen for seven years (and will never see again) comes to visit – invited and charismatic the first day, uninvited and inebriated the next.

Noting, as a physician and at his most coherent, that he “could not actually see that which I imagined, ” Dr. Baird concludes that he “had many delusions but no hallucinations. I saw and heard only what was actually there.” He delineates the ways in which his illness, in the 1940s, was not only misunderstood, even by medical colleagues, but was treated in “barbaric” ways.

He becomes more and more convinced that there is a “biochemical cause” for his illness – and his subsequent research into this premise, Mimi later learns, is credited in the book, “Blaming the Brain: The Truth about Drugs and Mental Health,” by neuroscience scholar Dr. Elliot Valenstein.

Mimi finds that her father not only missed her deeply and had a ready sense of humor but that his was an illness “often closely allied with genius.”

When his medical license is withdrawn, he records “a turning point in the mad stream of time, waves curling and churning about a rock jutting from the shore,” then lists, in mournful progression: “exile, loss of profession, divorce, courts, escape, finances.”

We are profoundly moved – and also filled with admiration for a man who, despite it all, managed so valiantly to continue to matter, describing his story as one “predestined to take the course it has followed, a character on the stage of life, seemingly driven along by strange compulsions beyond his understanding.”

Life, he reminds us – all these years later – “moves along strange paths. We are only to such a limited degree the pilot of our soul, the captain of our ship.”

Karen Brady is a former Buffalo News columnist.