When Mimi Baird was 6 years old, her father, prominent Boston dermatologist Perry Baird, didn’t come home. In that moment, Baird effectively disappeared forever from his daughter’s life, for her mother told her only that he was “away.” Baird saw her father once in the 15 years between his disappearance and his death in 1959.
Although her life fills with marriage, children and a career in healthcare, her yearning to know her father haunts her. In 1991, she tells one of the surgeons at the hospital where she works about her father, and he soon produces a cache of letters between her father and his mentors, copies of which the surgeon retrieved from the Harvard Medical School library. As she reads these letters, her father’s manic-depressive state—and his own quest to understand its causes (Baird was the earliest to suggest that biochemical imbalances might lie at the root of manic depression, though he never got to pursue his research)—unfolds before her, but her journey toward understanding him is just beginning.
Three years later, she receives in the mail the manuscript her father had been writing and which forms the core of this poignant memoir. At the center of He Wanted the Moon is her father’s book, in which he describes in detail his institutionalization in Westborough State Hospital in 1944, his attempts to understand his own condition, his often brutal treatment by doctors and staff, and his reflections on the state of psychiatry in mid-century America.
Through this moving memoir, Baird slowly brings her father back to life and reveals the sordid history of treating mental illness.