The Madness and Medical Genius of Dr. Perry Baird and His Daughter's Quest to Know Him

By Mimi Baird with Eve Claxton

Q&A with the author

Photograph of Mimi Baird in her Vermont homeIn an interview with co-writer Eve Claxton, Mimi Baird reflects on how she came to write He Wanted the Moon and the book’s journey since its publication.

The writing of He Wanted the Moon took about twenty years, with many stops and starts along the way. At first, I wrote notes scribbled on odd scraps of paper: bank deposit slips, yellow lined legal paper, newspaper, magazines, and the back of business cards. I quickly realized that—in order to avoid losing these insights—I needed to enter them, chronologically, into my computer.

I kept up my research into my father’s life, following every lead that came my way; watching in fascination as a story began to emerge. At a certain point, I began consolidating the scraps of information into chapters, constantly naming and renaming each one, before finally rewriting the episodes to create a more dramatic approach. I wrote about three versions, the last of which got me through my literary agent’s door.

One of the hardest aspects was maintaining the necessary emotional distance in order to complete the task. Since childhood, I had always felt that something was amiss in those early years of my life, but I had no idea precisely what that absence was. I was fifty-­three years old when a colleague at the hospital where I worked, Dr. Radford Tanzer, told me he had once known my father at Harvard Medical School. This chance conversation prompted me to begin my quest to know my father. Since I knew so little about Perry Baird, any information that came my way was of magnified importance. I knew that I had to remain calm, and that I couldn’t spend too much time analyzing and reacting to the material. I didn’t want my long­held and little­understood emotions to trip me up, so I simply had to move forward with the momentum that the research and writing process required. I came to understand that this approach was going to be the only way I could get my father’s story told. And I wasn’t getting any younger, so time was of the essence!

My father’s own determination was my inspiration. I often thought about those months he spent at Westborough State Hospital, where he endured such atrocious treatments at the hands of his doctors, and yet throughout it all, he continued to write. After reading and rereading the multiple pages of my father’s manuscript, it became clear that he wished to have his work published. He wanted to educate members of the public about mental health, in the hope they would become more tolerant of family and friends who were suffering in similar ways. I became determined to fulfill that wish. My father and I became partners. This gave me enormous strength, and has fueled my will to continue.

After I received the stack of onionskin pages from my cousin in Austin, Texas, I had copies made for myself and my two children. At first, I worked from the original onionskin pages, but as the lead pencil began to come away on my fingertips, I realized just how delicate and valuable these pages were. My father’s manuscript had already survived being sent from hospital to hospital during the period of his illness, as well as many decades in a briefcase in my cousin’s garage. If I should inadvertently damage the pages it would be a tragedy. From that moment on, I worked only from my copy. Since that time, the original manuscript has been kept in a large safe deposit box in a bank not far from my home in Vermont. Most of the pages are encased in acid free folders. Before He Wanted the Moon was published, there were several times when I had to identify quotes from the manuscript that could be used in the book’s final design. The onionskin pages of the original kept in the bank vault are still slightly out of order, so I had to review the entire stack—a process I found very unsettling. One can only read this material so many times.

Arrangements are currently underway to give my father’s manuscript to the Harvard Medical Library in the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine, Center for the History of Medicine.

Frankly, I am still absorbing the magnitude of it all! It is almost too much to process. There were so many junctures when the manuscript could have been mutilated, lost, or completely forgotten. Instead, a magical confluence of events enabled the emergence of my father’s work after years of obscurity. I will always be grateful to each person who helped make this possible.

They are one hundred percent supportive. For my children and grandchildren, it is a huge relief for them to be able to finally come to grips with our family’s secrets. The book has helped all of us to more fully comprehend our heritage and our family’s proclivity for mental illness. When He Wanted the Moon was first published in New York in February 2015, my children and grandchildren, as well as nieces and nephews, gathered in New York to celebrate. Randy and Karen Baird, my cousins from Texas who had given me my father’s manuscript, were also in attendance. The majority of my family had never met my Baird cousins, so it was a very special reunion. For years, there had been silence and separation between my family and our Texas relatives. In New York that day, our family felt whole again. My relatives’ enthusiasm for this book continues to inspire me.

The critical component is passion. It was my passion for uncovering information about my father that helped me to overcome any barriers I met along the way. I began my search with family documents such as baby books and letters, and these primary resources proved invaluable. Although the Internet is a useful tool, traditional libraries can also help in the discovery process. I was fortunate that I applied for my father’s medical records before the patient privacy laws (HIPPA) were enacted, which would have made it much more difficult to obtain these crucial documents. I was also very lucky to be able to interview friends and family members about his life, and I’d advise anyone embarking on a similar project to do the same—as soon as possible—particularly when the interview subjects are elderly. If you record these conversations, then you won’t have to worry about taking notes and you’ll be able to concentrate more fully on the information coming your way. I also found it helpful to keep my findings organized, dated, and in a safe place. A chronology and timeline helped give me a focused overview. It takes time and patience to complete a family history, but with each discovery comes a feeling of accomplishment and the motivation to continue.

My intention in publishing this book has always been to restore my father’s reputation and his place in the medical history. Even though He Wanted the Moon has only been available for a short period of time, the reception from the medical community has been incredibly positive. Recently, I was invited to speak about my father and his work at psychiatric grand rounds at a prominent medical school. In the coming months I will give a talk to a group of freshmen medical students. A nationally renowned psychiatrist read He Wanted the Moon and desires to get my father’s scientific paper republished. After reading the book he wrote to me that, “Your father was a true pioneer who recognized the importance of hypothalamic ­pituitary­ adreno­cortisol­ system­ dysregulation in affective disorders. Had he been permitted to pursue his initial studies, his work would have surely accelerated our understanding of the pathophysiology of affective disorders.

Since I am not a professional, these comments come purely from my own experience. I believe awareness and education are the primary tools for understanding and coping with mental illness. Mental illness is a disease, so when family members can be honest and upfront about an individual’s sickness, this helps enormously. Conversely, if the illness is kept secret, this only exacerbates the individual’s condition and inhibits his or her ability to be treated. As a family member, it is important to seek the guidance of your physician, read as much as you can, and contact a nationally known mental health institution for up to date resources. People with mental issues are not necessarily receptive to receiving assistance, so a strong family presence and support may be an essential element of recovery.

When I walk by my local bookstore and see the book displayed, I am still in awe that a major publishing company believed in my father’s story. They say that it takes just one editor to champion your work, and it is true. I have such an editor. My father lived out his days hoping his hardships would result in something of worth. His wishes came to fruition with He Wanted the Moon. This is a lifetime achievement for both my father and his daughter.

For so many years, I lived under a cloud of secrets. It is a huge relief to be able to continue the rest of my existence with such a clear understanding of my beginnings. There is a freedom that comes with knowledge and this helps mend the fractures of the past. I hope that my experience can inspire others to investigate their past in order to obtain some peace in the years they have ahead.