Mimi Baird was just shy of 6 when her father essentially disappeared from her life without explanation. By the time Baird was 8, her mother had remarried, and the family lived comfortably in suburban Boston. Some 50 years later, Baird began to seek answers to the questions that her mother had shaken off for years: Who was my father, and where did he go?
In her extraordinary memoir, “He Wanted the Moon” (Crown, $25), Baird chronicles her discoveries. It’s a riveting story whose value transcends the author’s personal quest.
Her father, Perry Baird, a Harvard-educated dermatologist, was manic-depressive. In 1944, while having lunch at his country club, he was apprehended by the police and put in a state mental hospital. There he suffered a litany of indignities — straitjackets and sedative injections were the least of them. Amazingly, he recorded much of his experience at this hospital and others in a handwritten manuscript, aptly titled “Echoes from a Dungeon Cell,” that his daughter later recovered from a relative in Texas.
An abridged and edited version of that document is the centerpiece of this memoir. It is a remarkably eloquent account of mental illness, reminiscent of Kay Redfield Jamison’s “An Unquiet Mind” and Susanna Kaysen’s “Girl, Interrupted.” Perry Baird emerges as thoughtful and at times eerily aware of his condition as well as his inability to elude either its symptoms or the primitive treatments for them. “These days of my constant restraint were the darkest of my life,” he wrote. “These spells of delirium were brought on by the harsh treatments employed. I am sure of it.”
The elder Baird’s narrative is cinematic, featuring Ratched-like nurses and an escape scene straight out of “The Fugitive.” The ultimate heartbreak comes in knowing that there was no true escape for him: He died in 1959 after having a seizure following a lobotomy. He never really knew his daughter — or her achievement in telling this story.
Lynsey Addario bought her first professional cameras with money her father had put aside for her wedding. “I wasn’t sure I would love anything other than photography,” she writes in “It’s What I Do” (Penguin Press, $29.95), and, she told her father, if her investment paid off, she could pay for her own wedding. Addario did eventually wed, but by then the deal with her dad was beside the point. She had become a successful photojournalist known for her images of strife around the world. She was part of a team that won a 2009 Pulitzer for International Reporting.
But her success came at a price: She was twice kidnapped (once, in Libya, along with the late Anthony Shadid, formerly of The Washington Post), was sexually assaulted and mourned the loss of colleagues in the field. Nonetheless, she writes in her unflinching memoir, she remains buoyed by the “idealistic belief that a photograph might affect people’s souls.” Addario is a more skilled photographer than she is a writer, but her book, woven through with images from her travels, offers insight into international events and the challenges faced by the journalists who capture them.
A cruise with your elderly grandparents is probably not the most appealing prospect for a typical 20-something. But cartoonist Lucy Knisley turns this potentially joy-sapping experience into the funny and heartfelt graphic memoir “Displacement” (Fantagraphics; paperback, $19.99). “Will this be a bonding trip with my grands?” she writes early in the book. “A frustrationfest? Comedy gold?” The answer is all of the above.
Knisley, whose previous books include a travelogue of her adventures in Europe (“An Age of License”), has been compared to Lena Dunham (and not just by her publisher), but here the more apt parallel is Roz Chast, whose book “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?” covers similar territory. Still, Knisley is less world-weary New Yorker than millennial ingenue. (In preparation for the trip, she reads David Foster Wallace’s comic essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.”) There’s a sunniness to her sarcasm, even as she faces the reality of her grandparents’ declining health.
Krug is a contributing editor of Book World. Her monthly roundup of memoirs is a new feature.