Mimi Baird’s Father and the Mid-century Stigma of Mental Illness

Dr. Perry Baird
Dr. Perry Baird © Mimi Baird

"Oh save me, God, from despair and hopelessness, save me for a happy and useful life, spare me from uselessness and boredom, give me a job, a home, my children," wrote Dr. Perry Baird in the mid-forties. Suffering from bipolar disorder, a disease dramatized most recently in Showtime’s "Homeland" series, Dr. Baird appeared disruptive and terrifying to people like his wife, friends, and doctors, who would most likely not have thought much about what was happening to him or why. In Mimi Baird’s biography of her father, He Wanted the Moon, she leads us into an intimate space, the view from the mind of the sufferer himself. Dr. Baird was an accomplished doctor, whose theories and lab work led him to the first understandings of the disease as a biochemical condition -- a view that cut against the grain of contemporary mental health treatments, which dealt with such "misbehavior" with straitjackets, beatings, isolation, and lobotomies.

Before he died in 1959 from the after-effects of a lobotomy, and having been barred from seeing his two daughters for years, Dr. Baird left behind a manuscript detailing five shattering months in his life: his forced stay in a Boston-area hospital in 1944. At the age of six, Mimi Baird, his eldest, is to see her father only one more time, with little understanding of his disappearance save for her mother’s scant explanation in the form of a disease name -- "manic-depressive psychosis." She mourns the loss for years until one day, now in her fifties, she inadvertently discovers her father's manuscript: Among the astounding firsthand account of his treatment, she finds mention of his medical research and her own name in his recording of their last meeting: "Mimi said 'I want to stay with Daddy.'"

Slowly she puts it all together, forming her own book from great swatches of her father's. The resulting joint memoir reads like a gothic horror story: In the grips of a manic phase, Dr. Perry Baird is arrested at his country club and forcibly carried from the building by state troopers as his associates and friends look on: "I am caught, caught, caught," he writes of the moment. He is driven, handcuffed, to the Westborough State Hospital, where his life is to be systematically stripped from him. He is ordered to remove his clothing, then locked in a room for uncounted hours. When the hospital staff returns, their medical treatment is equivalent to torture:

"Then began the agonizing experience of being wrapped tightly in cold sheets soaked in ice water. The initial impact of these ice-cold sheets is pure pain. First the arms are bound tightly to one’s sides and then sheets are stretched in several layers across the shoulders, body, and legs, creating a trap that permits very little motion. It’s a rough business and the sense of complete immobility is uncomfortable bordering on terrifying. Any normal individual would suffer from the feeling of being held so tightly, The manic patient -- with his constant impulse toward overactivity of mind and body -- suffers many times more than the normal individual might."

During his month’s long institutionalization, he has transcendent moments:

"During the hours of my flights from reality, I passed through phases quite foreign to anything I have ever experienced before. As I lay there bound down, I lost all sense of time and season and imagined that scores of hundreds of years were passing by. [...] My dreams and thoughts focused on the origin of man, the nature of his soul, and the nature of eternal life. I visualized the migration of a tiger-like creature that flew on silver wings. [...] I could see the saber-toothed tigers as they took to upright positions. [...] I dreamed about the soul and discovered it was a magnetic field. My thoughts dwelled upon world affairs: the war and peace and how to deal with Russia and Japan and Germany,"

...along with less useful and more terrifying ones:

"My imagination took on the speed of light. I thought that the entire Westborough region had in some way become detached from the Earth and was catapulting through space like a rocket ship. I knew that the Earth was hundreds or millions of miles away. I felt sure that several hundred years had passed and that if I ever got back to Earth all the people I had known would be dead and gone. It occurred to me that thought-waves were the only influence I could exert to get the ship back to Earth. I sang and whistled and talked, trying to find the combination. To test reality, I made my bed jump up and down, and I made it move around and around the room,"

...and exceptional physical prowess:

"One of my special tricks was climbing the steel posts on the porch. I could jump from the floor, grasp the steel post with one hand and knee, and climb like a monkey, quickly touching the ceiling and sliding quickly back down. I could do this easily when manic but with great difficulty while normal."

Weeks and months roll on as he is held in the hospital. He is served divorce papers by his secretary and the sheriff. His medical license is revoked, and he is denied permission to attend an appeal hearing. When he does get out, it is entirely by his own devices, an escape likely aided by a manic episode and at last successful: On foot, by rail, in car rides with friends, bruised and disheveled, he reaches his parents’ home in Dallas, an exile from his previous life as husband, father, and successful doctor. A bittersweet note: In the spring of 1944, during his confinement, his paper, "Biochemical Component of the Manic-Depressive Psychosis" is published in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Diseases -- years before Dr. John Cade would propose a physiological basis for bipolar disorder along with lithium as an effective treatment.

Dr. Baird’s own title of his manuscript was Echoes from a Dungeon Cell, his condemnation of the medical community’s gross misunderstanding of those they treated and the damage subsequently done ringing throughout its pages: "The accumulated superstitions of our civilization in regard to insanity are very much still with us all and they can breed a devastating effect upon friendships. The mentally ill patient is often treated like a criminal. Also he pays a similar price when he returns to society." That his incisive reporting on those five months also granted Mimi recuperation of her own identity is perhaps an answer to the cool-headed plea he makes once his ordeal had ended: "Give me judgment, coolness, patience, wisdom, courage. Out of this pain, this agony, this despair, will come some added knowledge of life, of the world, of myself."