By the time things got seriously mortifying for Perry Baird at The Country Club in Brookline, loads of friends, neighbors, and colleagues were on hand to watch.
A Harvard-educated dermatologist with an acute intelligence, a big personality, and a history of bipolar disorder, Baird had already done what he usually did when he felt a manic episode coming on: leave the clapboard house in Chestnut Hill that he shared with his pretty wife and their two little girls and check in at the Ritz-Carlton.
But on that Sunday in February 1944, a hotel room could hardly contain him. Baird’s mind was racing, his energy overflowing, his behavior quite obviously unhinged. He took a cab to the club, in search of his family, and mingled there with his discomfited fellow members.
When state troopers descended and removed him, handcuffed, into a patrol car bound for Westborough State Hospital, the president of the Massachusetts Medical Society was among those looking on, witnessing his painful humiliation. It was the beginning of Baird’s permanent exile from a passably normal life.
“I am caught, caught, caught,” he wrote later, reliving the moment in a riveting, closely observed manuscript that he hoped would become a book. He wanted badly to shed light on manic-depressive illness, as the disorder was then known, and on what he argued were “barbaric conditions” for patients, “inherited from a culture of darkness and ignorance.”
Ahead of his time, he believed, and did research intended to prove, that the sickness had a biochemical cause.
The doctor never did finish that book, but his splendidly written chronicle of several manic, havoc-strewn months in 1944 now forms the bulk of his daughter Mimi Baird’s book, “He Wanted the Moon,” a sort of double memoir and family detective story that ought to be credited to both of them, with his name first.
Perry Baird largely vanished from his daughter’s life when she was not quite 6. After her mother, Gretta, remarried, mention of him became taboo. When he died at 55 in 1959, Mimi Baird was only 21. Her desire to know her father — and to break the silence about mental illness that pervaded her childhood and shaped her life in harmful ways — is the reason this book exists.
But Perry Baird’s lonely, angry, grief-stricken, and occasionally grandiose account of his illness and its shattering costs is the reason we can’t put it down. His sharply detailed recollections are sometimes sane and sometimes not, but his writing is lucid even when his thinking isn’t. His manuscript is a plea to understand his experience and, by extension, others’.
He is, of course, an unreliable narrator; delusions frequently cloud his perceptions, and at times he lies, though not well. Yet his story is rightly the dominant thread in “He Wanted the Moon.” The book, which Mimi Baird put together with writer-editor Eve Claxton, provides necessary counterperspectives, crucially the excerpts from his medical records that are interspersed with his recollections.
Following Perry Baird’s account of strange activities painted as harmless mischief, we read this from his file: “The patient . . . completely destroyed several iron hospital beds, broke the panels from the door of his room, broke the sashes from the window, dismantled the window casing and with a window weight in each hand was very threatening toward the employees but did not strike them.”
When, still hospitalized, he loses his medical license, there is a rather heartbreaking note: “Patient had little to say. He did, after reading the notice, want to know if it was temporary or permanent and he immediately wrote a letter to his lawyer.”
Perry Baird describes the events of those months in 1944 as “a vortex of disasters,” and the medical records bear him out. So do Mimi Baird’s own memories and the other research she did, decades later, into her family’s past. Her father, who longed for “a happy and useful life,” never escaped that vortex. But with this book, he can finally speak to us from inside it.
Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at email@example.com.