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A Daughter’s Discovery: Memoirist Draws From Her Father’s Diary of Mental Illness



Friday, January 30, 2015
Mimi Baird was 6 when her father went away.

She didn’t know where he’d gone, or why. Questions to her mother went unanswered; a wall went up where her father was concerned. He no longer lived with them, and she was told he was ill. She saw him just once after that, briefly. And then he was gone again, with no word from him and no encouragement from her mother to contact him.

Baird lived with her mother, Gretta Baird, and younger sister Catherine in Chestnut Hill, an affluent Boston suburb. She got through childhood, but felt her father’s absence keenly. Her mother’s utter silence, the WASP equivalent of Sicilian omerta , was perhaps as much of an impediment to a happy family life as not having her father there. Her mother divored and remarried, but Baird didn’t get along with her stepfather.

“I just used to grin and bear it. I went along, I wasn’t angry, I didn’t do things that were wrong,” Baird said. “It was good for survival, but not good for trying to figure things out.”

In 1991, Baird, who lives in Woodstock, set out to learn what had happened to her father during those years he’d disappeared from her life. A chance encounter in the fall of 1991 with a doctor who’d known her father when they were both students at Harvard Medical School triggered her determination to find out all she could about a man she barely knew.

“I said, ‘Oh God, I’ve got to understand my father, so I can understand me,’ ” Baird said.

He Wanted the Moon , co-written by Baird with Eve Claxton, and published by Crown, is the book that came out of more than 20 years of research, not only into her father but also into the treatment for, and understanding of, the bi-polar disorder her father lived with for much of his life.

What sets He Wanted the Moon apart from other memoirs of difficult childhoods is that Baird discovered that her father had kept a handwritten journal, which he titled Echoes from a Dungeon Cell , that tracked the disorder and its treatment.

He both experienced and described the disorder at the same time, and was in the vanguard of doctors who believed that the disorder resulted from a chemical imbalance in the brain. The memoir reprints both his journals and the case studies of some of the doctors who treated him, as well as Mimi Baird’s own account of growing up.

The journal is significant to her personally, of course, but it also has educational value because it shows the thought processes of a person experiencing both the highs and lows of bi-polar disorder who is not being treated with the medication patients now receive.

“Here was a man who was writing so distinctly about a disease we still don’t understand. It’s pure, pure manic writing,” Baird said.

In May 1959, Baird, then 21, who’d graduated from Colby-Sawyer College and was living in Boston with friends, got a phone call from her mother. She told Baird that her father was dead and that she and Catherine would have to go to his funeral in Dallas, where he’d grown up and where his family still lived.

It emerged that Baird’s father, a doctor, had drowned in the bathtub at age 56 after having a seizure, the result of a lobotomy he’d had in 1949 to “cure” what was then called manic depression (now called bi-polar disorder). He’d been living alone in Detroit, where a former colleague had done him a favor by giving him work in a hospital emergency room.

A Texan, Perry Baird had graduated from the University of Texas as a Phi Beta Kappa and been accepted to Harvard Medical School in 1924. He was taken under the wing of two eminent doctors there and a brilliant future was predicted; he graduated Magna Cum Laude. But the bi-polar disorder had already begun to affect Baird’s studies and behavior. His mentors suggested that rather than try for a career as a physiologist he become a dermatologist, which he did. He had a successful practice in Boston. He met and fell in love with Gretta Gibbons. By all reports, from friends and colleagues, he had the charm and charisma of a film star. “When he was manic he probably overdid it a little,” Baird said. “He wouldn’t buy one horse, but three. He bought two DeSotos and two furs for my mother ... He was accepted in Boston society which was, let me tell you, a hard nut to crack.”

But he also exhibited a frightening volatility that could turn violent. Baird recalls shattered windows, and broken objects.

“I used to see ketchup all around the place,” she said. “But ketchup wasn’t ketchup.”

Mimi Baird also learned that her mother’s father had been diagnosed with manic depression, that he’d been taken away when her mother was 10, and had spent the rest of his life locked up in an institution.

In retrospect, Baird said, although she resented her mother for her lack of candor and cold reserve on the subject, she now understands that her mother had suffered, too, from her husband’s mood swings. And she must have been terrified what her children’s genetic inheritance, on both the maternal and paternal sides, might mean for them, Baird said.

Given the family history, “it’s amazing I’m sitting here talking to you sensibly,” Baird said. “I didn’t worry growing up because I didn’t know. I didn’t appreciate how lucky I am to be relatively normal.”

Baird, now 76, lives in a petal pink house in Woodstock. She moved to Vermont in 1979 because she and her sister had spent summers in the state with their mother and stepfather in the early 1950s. Until her retirement in 1997, Baird worked at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center as an office manager in the department of plastic su rgery. She has a grown son and daughter and is no longer married.

The day before the interview, she’d just gotten the first hard copies of the book. Showing it to a visitor she stroked the book jacket, with a photo of her father in the background, as if it were a familiar friend. It reminded her of the day in 1994 she came home to find a box sitting at the door step. Inside was her father’s journal, which had been kept for years by his nephew in Texas. It was as if she’d been handed the key to the safe deposit box that contained her past.

The journal recounts his involuntary hospitalization in Westborough State Hospital in Massachusetts, which is where he’d been taken when Mimi Baird was 6. It is tough reading. He could be violent and unpredictable, but the treatment meted out to him and other patients was harsh, although at the time it was deemed to be on the cutting edge of treatment for mental disorders.

“They thought they were doing the right thing but they were only exacerbating the problem,” Baird said.

There were increasingly restrictive straitjackets; forced feedings, or no food; filthy conditions. The more Perry Baird escaped his straitjackets, the more the staff devised methods of imprisonment designed to break him. Baird hatched escape plans, got away and was brought back to face even more punitive treatment.

Over time , Mimi Baird learned how to distinguish between the periods when her father was relatively stable, and those when he was on the verge of, or in, a manic episode.

“He wrote everything as if he was right, as if he was being totally truthful. It was painful.” Baird said. “I had to read it over and over again.”

As she learned more about bi-polar disorder, she was able to discern that some passages were written when her father was hallucinating. There was another clue: his handwriting, which went from orderly to a nearly illegible scrawl. And because she had his medical records, she could track his treatments alongside his journal.

“I started this process and thank goodness I did, because people (she had interviewed) died shortly thereafter, and HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) came along,” Baird said.

What she sees now that the book is published is a “tragic story about a person who had such potential.”

Once her father had the lobotomy, he was never the same. While the lobotomy decreased the manic episodes, it also made him a man without affect. “You’re a shell of the person. Your soul, your character, your spirit: lobotomies erase all that,” Baird said.

Perry Baird’s journal ends with his return to Westborough, the institution he spent more time in than any other. “So much happened so quickly, so much to remember forever, so much to haunt the corridors of memory. Life moves along strange paths. We are only to such a limited degree the pilot of our soul, the captain of our ship,” he wrote.

Mimi Baird will read from He Wanted the Moon at 6:30 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 20, at the Norman Williams Public Library in Woodstock; the event is co-sponsored by the Yankee Bookshop. She also will read at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 25, at the Norwich Bookstore. Reservations are suggested for the Norwich Bookstore. Call 802-649-1114.



Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.