This was a hard book for me to read and an equally difficult one for me to review. There’s just nothing funny at all about the subject matter, so please excuse me if I refrain from my usual goofiness when it comes to this particular selection.
He Wanted the Moon is the tragedy of a brilliant mind ripped apart by mental illness. And it is the story of a daughter who spent a lifetime trying to understand her father and his illness, not to mention the long-reaching effects that illness had on his wife, his other daughter, his brothers, his mother, and his colleagues and friends. But more than that, it is a story that is all too familiar to far more people than you’d ever imagine – myself included.
He Wanted the Moon
Author: Mimi Baird
Genre: Biography, Memoir
Version: Amazon Kindle
“Texas-born and Harvard-educated, Dr. Perry Baird was a rising medical star in the late 1920s and 1930s. Early in his career, ahead of his time, he grew fascinated with identifying the biochemical root of manic depression, just as he began to suffer from it himself. By the time the results of his groundbreaking experiments were published, Dr. Baird had been institutionalized multiple times, his medical license revoked, and his wife and daughters estranged. He later received a lobotomy and died from a consequent seizure, his research incomplete, his achievements unrecognized.
“Mimi Baird grew up never fully knowing his story, as her family went silent about the father who had been absent for most of her childhood. Decades later, a string of extraordinary coincidences led to the recovery of a manuscript which Dr. Baird had worked on throughout his brutal institutionalization, confinement, and escape. This remarkable document, reflecting periods of both manic exhilaration and clear-headed health, presents a startling portrait of a man who was a uniquely astute observer of his own condition, struggling with a disease for which there was no cure, racing against time to unlock the key to treatment before his illness became impossible to manage.
“Fifty years after being told her father would forever be ‘ill’ and ‘away,’ Mimi Baird set off on a quest to piece together the memoir and the man. The result of his extraordinary record and her journey to bring his name to light is this book, an unforgettable testament to the reaches of the mind and the redeeming power of a determined heart.”
During the 1930s, ’40s, and 50s – the decades that make up most of the focus of this book – private lives were just that: private. Children were kept in the dark about adult matters, wives were often kept in the dark about their husbands’ business matters, and mental illness was explained away as being “overwrought,” “over-tired,” “emotional,” or “high-strung.” Those who were institutionalized were said to be on holiday or “having a rest” – or, as in the case of Mimi Baird – they simply went “away.”
Dr. Baird was clearly a brilliant man. And during the first years of his illness, as it gathered around him like a thick, inescapable fog, he did his best to understand its cause and how it might be overcome. And he almost succeeded – he came so close, so very, very close… and then his psychoses sank its claws deep into him and refused to ever be shaken off again. Eventually, after decades of suffering through the hallucinations and paranoia, the violent outbursts coupled with periods of apologetic calm, Dr. Baird was given the mental-health kiss of death: a lobotomy.
I’m not sure what the author’s purpose was in releasing her father’s memoirs and the corresponding hospital notes. At times, she seems to want to vindicate her father, to clear his sullied reputation and bring to light his achievements. At other times, she seems to want nothing more than to convince her audience that her father was a good man, a loyal husband, and a loving father – until his illness changed all of that. And sometimes she leaves the impression that she’s still a little girl who just wants her daddy back, if nothing else so she can tell him that she finally sees his struggle for what it was and, despite it all, she loves him anyway. Perhaps her purpose was all of the above. They are all noble and admirable goals, goals with which anyone with a heart can empathize.
Whatever her motives, I’m glad she compiled her father’s writings. I’m glad she put them in order and published them. I just wish she’d done it years ago, when it might have done me a bit more good.
When I was a teenager and chafing under the protection of my own mother, my aunt – my mother’s much younger sister – was known to me as Cool Aunt L. I was young, and I didn’t think to question why a woman who was almost thirty would be able to relate so well with a headstrong, hormonal, rebellious teenager. Whenever I saw her (which was sparingly since my family traveled a lot, and even when we eventually settled most visits occurred solely around the holidays and birthdays), Cool Aunt L was always smiling and gregarious, giddy and giggling. She was fashionable and spontaneous. She was fun and a little bit dangerous. By the time I was twenty, I had the opportunity to finally call her my roommate, and I remember being so excited about it! I had dreams of us shopping for clothes and going to Canada on the weekends, seeing bands play and hitting up every martini bar we could find for my twenty-first birthday.
By the time I actually turned twenty-one, cracks were beginning to show. She was thirty-six, and her friends and boyfriends were all my age, which by this point was finally beginning to seem odd to me – especially considering that I wouldn’t have even been friends with the type of people she was hanging around. She brought different guys over to our home, which made me nervous since I have to really trust someone to even let them know where I live let alone let them in my home. She caused a huge rift with our neighbor by having sex with said neighbor’s live-in boyfriend on the front steps of their house; when I told her she was lucky that nobody called the police, her response was to laugh and say it was the neighbor’s fault for not hanging onto her man better. She had a tendency to go “sun-bathing,” which involved her putting on a bikini and walking out the front door (rather than going out the back, where we had a small yard and a privacy fence and, most importantly, no neighbors), where she’d take her top off and sit in a chair in full view of the nearby apartments. She painted huge canvases covered in brightly-colored, enormous penises and hung them on the walls upstairs and in the stairwell. We worked for the same employer, and she’d often call out sick because she’d been out at a bar or club all night, leaving me to explain what sort of illness it was she was supposed to have.
Then, after about five months of this escalating weirdness and reversal of roles, she showed up at our job on a day she’d called out sick. I smoked cigarettes at the time and she knew when my breaks were as well as where the smoking area was in the garage, and she pulled up, marched right up to me without even cutting off her car, shoved her fist under my chin, and yelled, “I will fucking kill you! Do you get me? I’ll fucking end you, little girl!” She then proceeded to scream at me in front of three of our co-workers about a personal issue of which I was entirely ignorant before throwing her hand in my face, getting back in her car, and driving away. When I got home, her bedroom door was closed, and I could hear a man’s voice and her laughter. By the next morning, everything was just peachy again.
A week or so later, however, I came home after work – by this point it was pretty clear she wasn’t going to be going back to work, since her newest boyfriend had money – and as soon as I opened the door I heard a frantic THWACK, THWACK, THWACK of metal striking hard against wood. I rounded the corner to find her standing in the kitchen, wildly staring at the cutting board; she’d emptied the crisper and was methodically chopping all of our fruits and vegetables to pieces. Not with any sort of rhyme or reason – onions with their skins on, oranges with their peels, an entire head of cabbage, carrots with their leaves still on… all of it went under the knife until it was chopped to itty-bitty bits. I grabbed a phone, ran upstairs, and locked myself in the bathroom where I called my mother and asked her what the hell was wrong with her sister. “She’s going crazy!” I remember hissing into the phone. “I really think she’s going crazy!”
And that was when I found out all the things I hadn’t known before we’d come to our little living arrangement. I hadn’t known that she’d suffered from bipolar disorder for years. I hadn’t known that the boyfriend she’d had when she’d first moved had been a nurse she’d met after checking herself into a mental hospital in Florida. I hadn’t known that she’d threatened numerous times over the course of her life to kill herself. Or that one of her ex-husbands had once had to handcuff her to get her under control. Or various other questionable things that may have given me pause before jumping at the notion of being roomies with Cool Aunt L.
A few days later, I came home to find all of her stuff gone. She came in about an hour later with her newest boyfriend – the one with the money who was three years older than I was at the time – and threw her set of house keys at my face. “I’m moving in with my boyfriend,” she announced. “So. Fuck you.” Then she whispered something to him, they laughed, and she slammed the door on her way out.
We didn’t speak to one another again, and I didn’t see her for almost a decade. By the time my husband met her – the one and only time he did, and the first and last time I ever saw her – she’d been on disability for years and was living with her parents. I’m sure she was on medication, but I’m not sure how her illness was progressing or if it was under control. I do know she appeared from her bedroom at five in the evening, groggy from having slept all day, walked straight up to my husband on the couch, plopped down right next to him, leaned into his face, and said: “I’m a vampire.” Then she let out a strange, drunken sort of laugh, stood, and went back into her room to go back to sleep.
I never saw her again. A few years passed, and I heard she’d had to go through treatment for a brain tumor. A few more years passed. Then, just a few months ago, I received a text message at work from my mother that said simply, “Aunt L is dead.” After a brief discussion, I learned that she had been found in her bedroom by her mother after having overdosed on sleeping pills, presumably on purpose. She was 52.
And even then, I told myself, “Well, she was always a little crazy – everyone said so. And she’d been threatening to do it for so long that it was clear she never really wanted to be here…”
Mimi Baird has done what years of actually being in the middle of it all couldn’t: she gave me a fresh perspective on my aunt’s condition, on her situation, on what she was actually going through in a way that my aunt could never articulate because even she couldn’t see it for what it was. Suddenly, my aunt’s behavior all had a cause, it all made sense. It couldn’t be waved away with words like “crazy” and “high-strung” and “irrational.” Her paranoia had a cause. Her promiscuity and fascination with sex and sexuality had a cause. Her feelings of victimization had a cause. Her sudden bursts of violence and fury had a cause. Her abrupt giddy, excitable, girlish moments had a cause. Her insomnia coupled with long bouts of constant sleeping had a cause.
We aren’t all that different from the generations before us when it comes to mental illness. We don’t talk about it. We joke and toss around words like “crazy” to explain it away and sweep it under the rug. We remain silent as they pop in and out of mental facilities. Our streets are full of untreated schizophrenics, manic-depressives, and victims of PTSD, and we simply avert our eyes and cross to the opposite sidewalk.
Mimi Baird may have been looking for her father in the pages of his manuscripts. But between his notations, the doctor’s notes, and her memories of the past, I found the missing pieces of the great puzzle that was my late aunt. I know there’s nothing I could have done to save my aunt – just as Ms. Baird could have done nothing to save her father – but being able to see through the eyes of someone who was going through it, an intelligent and clinical person who could feel it coming on and struggled to control it while gradually realizing he was fighting a losing battle, does help mend the bridges of understanding and empathy that may have been ripped apart by this vicious mental illness.
If anyone you know has ever lived with bipolar disorder, I strongly urge you to read this book. It’s tough to get through, especially if someone close to you has suffered or is suffering from this disorder, but, while it can’t tell you all the particulars of their mental states at any given time, it will at least give you some idea of what things look like from the other side.