A Family Madness

He Wanted the Moon: The Madness and Medical Genius of Dr. Perry Baird and His Daughter’s Quest to Know Him, by Mimi Baird and Eve Claxton, (Crown), 272 pages, release date 17 February, 2015

Mimi Baird and Eve Claxton’s He Wanted the Moon is a fascinating and humane examination of the treatment of mental illness and its impact on one family beginning in the 1940s. This is the story of Mimi Baird’s father, his bipolar disorder, and her relationship with him. When I say humane, I don’t mean that the treatment given the patient was humane. Rather, the authors’ approach is humane: deeply respectful of Dr. Perry Baird’s gifts, intelligence, and inner strength.

The treatment Dr. Baird receives is often less than humane—straight-jacketing, immobilization with ice packs, insulin induced comas. The events in He Wanted the Moon take place well before bipolar disorder was seen as having a chemical origin. The goal of treatment was less to enable patients to return to full functioning in the “real” world, and more to pacify patients so that they could continue to be institutionalized. Interestingly enough, Dr. Baird suspected the chemical origins of the disorder he suffered from and, when he was stable, conducted research in this area.

Most of the first half of He Wanted the Moon is a memoir written by Dr. Baird chronicling one round of his institutionalizations and his escape from the worst of these institutions. This means that Dr. Baird has his own voice in the discussion of his life—and his voice is largely rational, occasionally becoming less so during his manic phases.

In the first half of the book, Mimi Baird provides some contextual information for Dr. Baird’s text. In the second half of the book,  she recounts her efforts to learn more about her father—efforts that culminated in the publication of this book.

He Wanted the Moon is valuable for several reasons: for the insight it gives into the recent history of mental health care, for the introduction to the very interesting Dr. Baird, and for its honest consideration of the impact mental illness can have within a family and across generations. We can read He Wanted the Moon as history, removed from our immediate experiences—but the struggle of a family to cope with the illness of one of its members is every bit as relevant today as it was during Dr. Baird’s lifetime. Some of the shame associated with mental illness has decreased, but those facing it—and their families—still encounter significant stigma and obstacles.

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