Tuesday, February 17, 2015

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

Title:  He Wanted the Moon: The Madness and Medical Genius of Dr. Perry Baird, and His Daughter's Quest to Know Him
Author:  Mimi Baird, Eve Claxton
Publication Information:  Crown. 2015. 272 pages.
ISBN:  0804137471 / 978-0804137478

Book Source:  I received this book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "It was the spring of 1994 when I returned from work to find the package containing my father's manuscript on my door-step."

Favorite Quote:  "I pray to God that in the future I shall be able to remember that once one has crossed the line from the normal walks of life into a psychopathic hospital, one is separated from friends and relatives by walls thicker than stone; walls of prejudice and superstition. It may be hoped that psychopathic hospitals will someday become a refuge for the mentally ill ... But the modern psychopathic hospitals I have known are direct descendants of ancient jails like Bedlam ... The brutalities that one encounters ... must be the by-product of the fear and superstition with which mentally ill patients are regarded. For the present, the best one can hope to do is to stay out of these places, pity those confined there, and to do what one can to accelerate the slow process of mental hospital reorganization."

Do a search on the name "Perry Baird." Remove all the references to this book. Remove all the references to this author. Remove all the social media references to similar names. Remove all these elements, and you are left with a footnote in history - footnote number 109 in the book Blaming the Brain:  The Truth About Drugs and Mental Health written by Elliot Valenstien and published in 2002. The footnote references the article "Biochemical Component of the Manic-Depressive Psychosis" from the April 1994 issue of The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease. This footnote acknowledges Dr. Baird's 1994 article and gives credit that he was one of the first, if not the first, person to research a biochemical cause for mania.

That is Perry Baird's legacy - reduced to a footnote. This memoir is his daughter's attempt to know her father and to bring greater acknowledgement to his legacy. Mimi Baird was six years old when her father "went away." She saw him only once or twice after that time. He died about fifteen years later in 1959 at about age 55. It was not until 1994 that Mimi Baird received some of her father's papers that had survived; in his own words, she learned of his battle with manic depression.

Manic depression, now called bipolar disorder, is characterized by mood episodes going between mania and depression. Mania includes inappropriate social behavior, exaggerated emotions, and marked increases in energy. Depression symptoms can include persistent sadness, fatigue, chronic physical symptoms, and thoughts of suicide.  According to the National Institute of Health, "Symptoms of bipolar disorder are severe ... But bipolar disorder can be treated, and people with this illness can lead full and productive lives." Unfortunately, fifty years ago, this understanding did not exist. Dr. Baird was repeatedly institutionalized because of his illness and gradually stripped of anything resembling a "full and productive" life.

This book is in part excerpts from Dr. Baird's journal. The journals covers a period of time starting in 1944. It describes his state of mind and abilities as he saw them. He also describes the treatment he received at mental institutions - treatments such as deprivation, starvation, straight jackets, confinement in ice-soaked sheets. It describes the heartbreak of losing his medical license. The journal describes also the social stigma of mental illness. His wife divorced him, and he lost contact with his daughters. He rarely had visitors while institutionalized. People who had been his friends and colleagues before turned away. The realities are all the more harsh heard through his own voice. The changes in his voice throughout the journal shows the phases of his disease.

The book includes corresponding excerpts from Dr. Baird's medical records; these records create a completely different picture than the one he depicts. The interjection of these brief notes serves to highlight the tragedy of Dr. Baird's condition and the reality of his disease for his family and friends.

The second part of the book is Mimi Baird's journey of discovery. She recounts how she manages to reconnect with her father's family and how his journal found its way to her. She remembered her father from her childhood and questions her mother's decision in excising him out of their lives. Did her mother choose the expedient path or do what was necessary to protect her young children?

Mimi Baird's story has a somewhat detached tone; that is not surprising in that while she is looking for her father, her research is also about a man she barely knew and who was barely part of her life. This becomes yet another heartbreaking reality of his disease. In Dr. Baird's own words, "The accumulated superstitions of our civilization in regard to insanity are very much still with us all and they can breed a devastating effect on friendships, love and all relationships influenced by mental illness."

A heartbreaking story of bipolar disorder and its potentially devastating effect on a patient and a family. Thanks to his daughter, perhaps a better understanding of mentally ill patient will be Dr. Perry Baird's lasting legacy. The understanding comes more than 50 years too late for him, but hopefully it can benefit others.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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