Friday, January 16, 2015

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

Crown, 2015
272 pp

arc -- my thanks to LibraryThing and to the publisher for my copy

Mimi Baird was just a little girl of six when her father, Dr. Perry Baird, a successful physician with a thriving practice,  was taken away by two state troopers while having lunch at a country club one day in 1944.  He wasn't under arrest, but rather the police were there to escort him to Westborough State Hospital in Westbourough Massachusetts.  Dr. Baird was no stranger to "mental institutions," having already "been held" at three others before Westborough, and he suffered what was then called "manic breaks," now recognized as serious bipolar disorder.  Using a combination of hospital/medical records, statements from Baird's friends, her own recollections and a treasure trove belonging to Dr. Baird, including his own manuscript that he wrote while hospitalized, Mimi Baird has put together a book about her father and his illness, relating how it affected her and her family especially since 1944 was the year he stopped coming home. Her father had always meant to publish someday, and now Ms. Baird has been able to fulfill his wishes some decades later. 

Since this book hasn't even been released yet, I won't be going into any great detail here about its contents, leaving that for interested readers to discover.  I will say that the very best parts of this book come from Dr. Baird's own writings while hospitalized at Westborough and later Baldpate, a private hospital in Georgetown, MA. In many ways, what he describes while in Westborough begs a comparison to the action in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (complete with his own Nurse Ratched) both in terms of "treatment" and in the idea that the most important priority of those in charge is to get the patients to conform. He writes about being bound in straitjackets (from which he constantly attempted to escape), wrapped in cold wet sheets, and other standard regimens for the mentally ill that were extant at the time.  Even more interesting though is how the reader can actually witness Dr. Baird's deterioration, not just in his worsening handwriting as described by his daughter, but in how his accounts of what's going on with him do not even come close to matching what his medical records say. As his conditioned worsens, he becomes delusional, and just how much so becomes quite clear while reading through his writings. But the book goes well beyond the medical aspects to reveal just how much stigma mental illness in the 1940s carried in normal society, and even in the personal sphere, where in this case, Dr. Baird's wife Gretta was told to "try to forget him", and in so doing, would never talk about her husband's condition, not even to her children. 

As much as I enjoyed reading Dr. Baird's personal account, considering that this book is in part a daughter's "quest to piece together the memoir and the man," her narration can sometimes come off as kind of cold and detached.  There's a particular line in here where Ms. Baird talks about her mother naming her "the ice queen," and sometimes that iciness comes through onto the page. While there are a few moments of pure admiration and love that come shining through, sometimes I think the tone is  much more matter-of-fact  than one would expect from the feelings of a daughter devoted to her recovering her father's life story. 

All in all, I enjoyed reading this book. I can't actually speak to being in Ms. Baird's shoes, but I appreciate the fact that it must have been extremely tough for her to have to relive what her father suffered. On the flip side, I'd say that having people who remembered him so positively and with such affection must have been a blessing to her.    I do have to comment about the fact that Ms. Baird is very open and honest about the editing of her father's work to make it more readable and concise. First of all, perhaps it might have been a more honest and gutwrenching account if even small portions could have been left unreadable, so that readers might have a better feel for Dr. Baird as his mental state eroded at times; second, I am always a little uncomfortable when I read that editors mess with primary documents like Dr. Baird's manuscript, since I'm of the opinion that these types of sources should  always stand on their own with no alteration whatsoever. 

Definitely recommended -- this book is already garnering some pretty high ratings and readers seem to be loving it. 

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