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

By Mimi Baird with Eve Claxton

Reading group guide

Book club gathering on a beachWe invite you to use these questions and conversation starters as you discuss He Wanted the Moon with your reading group or book club.

  1. Dr. Baird’s manuscript opens in 1944 and yet his story, and the story of his manuscript, spans over a century (including his father’s breakdown in 1913 and the publication of He Wanted the Moon in 2015). Taking into consideration Dr. Baird’s descriptions of his experience being institutionalized, in what ways do you think the stigma of mental illness has and hasn’t changed over time?
  2. Consider the use of Dr. Baird’s manuscript interwoven with his daughter’s own pursuit of his story. How does this style affect the way you take in the story? How do you think the reading experience would differ if this were told exclusively in Mimi’s voice, or exclusively in her father’s voice?
  3. Early in the manuscript, Dr. Baird references Mimi Baird as a child. Later, Mimi reflects on seeing her own name in his story. If you were the author, how would you react to seeing yourself in print from an estranged parent’s point of view?
  4. Discuss Mimi’s mother, Gretta, and how she dealt with her grief. Do you feel compassion for her? Does your understanding of her change as you read about her from Dr. Baird’s point of view? From Mimi’s? Do you become more sympathetic toward her over the course of the book?
  5. Dr. Baird has moments of intense clarity and yet, in many ways, his illness makes him an unreliable narrator, which we see evidence of through medical reports. How do you think this propels his memoir forward? Did you find yourself calling into question his perspective? Did you trust what the doctors reported?
  6. Straightjackets are a common trope in depictions of individuals suffering from mental illness. On page thirty­one, Dr. Baird describes part of his ordeal in one: “I lay still for a while, trying to adjust myself to this new and most barbaric treatment. . . . Slowly and methodically I went from knot to knot, untying all kinds of knots, and soon I was almost free. Just as I was about to roll over and free myself entirely, three attendants entered and tied me down again, this time much more securely, leaving me little motion.” How does this first­person description affect your view of how individuals with mental illnesses were treated during the 1940s and 1950s? Do you think straightjackets, and the other extreme treatments Dr. Baird went through, were a necessary evil or perhaps a damaging measure?
  7. A painful revelation for Mimi is that Dr. Baird himself believed his illness had a biochemical cause—something that researchers didn’t take into account until much later in the century. Moreover, if he had been born just a few years later, he would have benefitted from lithium treatments and Mimi might not have lost her father at such a young age. At the same time, his medical background affords him close relationships with colleagues who possessed an intimate knowledge of his illness. How do you think his stature as a doctor helped and/or hindered him?