Wednesday, May 20, 2015

He Wanted the Moon by Mimi Baird, A Review

The double-memoir He Wanted the Moon: The Madness and Medical Genius of Dr. Perry Baird, and His Daughter's Quest to Know Him triumphs. The first half centers on the manuscript Dr. Baird composed while institutionalized in the 1940s for manic depression. The second half centers on his daughter's slow growing determination to uncover her father's history and to follow through with his desire to publish a book about his experience. After connecting with Dr. Baird via his most intimate thoughts and then learning that his life did not end well, the significance of the book's existence took on a weight which became tangible for me. Reading it comes with a sense of pride.

Reading it is has also been a highly entertaining, emotionally jarring and intellectually stimulating experience. On one hand, Mimi Baird and collaborating writer Eve Claxton transform Dr. Baird's journals, letters and hospital records into the cohesive telling of a dark and compelling adventure starring a dynamic, albeit mentally ill, protagonist. On the other, Mimi contrasts her father's story with the way its absence impacted her young life. In so doing, she creates a gentle but comprehensive portrait of the following aspects of humanity:

  • The way generational patterns repeat themselves within a family and can be broken by confronting uncomfortable truths with grace 
  • The consequences of society's historical approach to confronting mental illness with separation and silence
  • The impact which small coincidences and fleeting connections can have on healing the past and redirecting the future

Perhaps most importantly, Mimi Baird's book reveals that her father's research on manic depression prior to his institutionalization and eventual lobotomy was the first of its kind regarding its acknowledgment of the biochemical nature of the disease. Some years later, the work of another scientist John Cade produced similar results and led to the modern practice of administering a lithium pill as treatment for the condition which has been relabeled bipolar disorder.

I find it interesting that little other than Dr. Baird's early research separates the psychologically disruptive, physically invasive and largely ineffective and/or outright dangerous treatments of Dr. Baird's era from the contemporary administration of lithium. Since Dr. Baird's studies were published following his institutionalization, they received very little attention. However, Mimi Baird's book has given them a degree of new life, perhaps making it possible for his discoveries to lead to further innovation within the mental health field. In this sense, He Wanted the Moon is a work of medical journalism bearing some similarity to Susannah Cahalan's Brain on Fire in its potential for making an impact, not just on reader's hearts and minds but also on the treatment and de-stigmatization of disease. I recommend it highly.

Please note: I received this book from Blogging for Books to review.

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